Anti-Science of the 1960's and 1970's

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The 1960's and 1970's saw a wave of anti-science, as expressed by such writers as Charles Reich, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and Theodore Roszak, to name a few.These writers persistently attacked nine major themes:

  1. Science and technology are out of control
  2. Science and technology force workers into degrading and monotonous jobs
  3. Technology forces peopleto consume unnecessary goods and services
  4. Science and technology place decision-making in the hands of a technocratic elite
  5. Science andtechnology cut man off from the natural world
  6. Science and technology make man superficial
  7. Technology creates worse problems than it solves
  8. Science and technology restrict freedom
  9. The scientific world-view robs the worldof mystery and beauty

1. Science and Technology are Out of Control. 

One of the major exponents of thistheme is Jacques Ellul's book The Technological Society. Ellulclaims that the means of technology have become ends in themselves. We must note before going on that the anti-sciencemovement takes in both science and technology. Ellul considersthe scientific method, and rational thought in general, tobe "technique". Ellul defines the technical milieu or environment as "autonomous with respect tovalues, ideas, and theState"; in other words, beyond moral, intellectual or politicalcontrol.

The obvious counter-argument is that technology is undercontrol by people. We may think the wrong people are in control or that they use their control wrongly, but technologyby itself is inert. Ellul agrees this is an obvious argumentbut answers it by saying, "Unfortunately this manner of viewingmatters is purely theoretical and superficial. We must remember the autonomous character of Technique". We will search along time before finding a clearer example of a circular argument! Ellul defines technology as "autonomous" and countersarguments that it can't be so by saying it must be so becausethat's what the definition says!

One need only talk to someone in a field such as nuclearpower to realize how impotent technologists often feel overthe controls imposed on them by society. Technology is anything but autonomous. We control, or at least attempt to limitaccess, to explosives, automatic weapons, many drugs, hazardous chemicals and microorganisms, radioactive materials, andmany computer data banks; indeed, many technologists feel thatthe technology of controlling technology is out of control.Arguing that technology is autonomous and impersonal also has the effect of dehumanizing the people who work with it.If technology is beyond human control, it follows that thepeople who deal with it are not really people.

The autonomy argument is more than an expression of frustration over the problems of technology; it has its rootsdeep in modern mysticism. Theodore Roszak, writing about therole of icons and idols in ancient cultures, says: 

What this adamant Judaeo-Christian rejection of paganworship failed to grasp (and we must assume it was forlack of the ability to experience the fact) was precisely the capacity of an icon or natural object to be transmuted into something more than itself. ... The functionof any so-called idol, authentically perceived, is togive local embodiment to the universal presence andpower of the divine. ... To know this is to understandhow any portion of nature, even the most unaccountablethings or even nature as a whole, can quite suddenlyassume the radiance of a magical object.

If things can be "enchanted" or a "local embodiment of thedivine", small wonder that some anti-scientific philosophersendow technology with a life of its own. Notice, too, the useof the term "authentic", which basically means that Roszak's view is correct bydefinition andall others wrong, and the implication that the inability to see objectsas magical denotes a defect in the beholder rather than thebelief.

2. Science and Technology Force Workers Into Degrading and Monotonous Jobs.

The first response is that people, not technology, forceworkers into degrading jobs, One company may be unsafe, monotonous and unhappy, while another company, using the sametechnology, may be safe, interesting, and a congenial placeto work.

What would intrinsically monotonous work like washingcars or picking crops be like in a utopian society? CharlesReich offers the following observations in The Greening ofAmerica:

Can only the creative artist find happiness in his work?Or can "ordinary" jobs take on new qualities? Consciousness can regard any job as a potential opportunity forself-expression, for play, for creativity ... 

It is nottrue that all work must be "creative" to be satisfying.People who do intellectual work know how good it feelsto wash a car, clean the house, paint a boat, or chopwood.

It is certainly true that less regimentation in the workplacecan be beneficial, but if, as Reich indicates, the attitude of the individual is the major factor in determining whetherwork is seen as satisfying or unsatisfying, why place so muchof the blame on technology? Indeed, on Reich's reasoning, how can any job be monotonous or degradingin and of itself? I wonder how much of the modernspirit of alienation is nothing more than the result ofpeople hearing endlessly that they are alienated.

3. Technology forces peopleto consume unnecessary goods and services 

A typical exampleis the remark by L. S. Stavrianos in The Promise of the ComingDark Age that dubbed American TV shows "are seen all overthe world, carrying added local advertisements and makingAmerica's consumption culture a global model." We see againthe notion of technology as an animate force, and the denialof the element of individual choice. No one, American orotherwise, has to buy everything that is advertised. The advertising aimed at children is particularly obnoxious, butmany people can and do set limits on their children's consumption of TV and material goods. And why is it that ads forflashy consumer goods work but ads for educational televisionor cultural events do not produce sharp increases in consumption of thosecommodities?

The "unnecessary consumption" criticism is a variant ofthe "false consciousness" argument so prevalent in the social sciences: anytendency for the masses to do anything embarrassing is written off as the resultof a "false consciousness."  Stavrianos elsewhereclaims that Third World consumers are "brainwashed" intodesiring white bread and soft drinks rather than more nutritious food, and asserts, "the uneducated citizens ofunderdeveloped countries need instruction more than entertainment."It so happens I agree, but I would go on, as most anti-sciencewriters do not, and ask why consumerism seems to have so muchappeal. If television caters to a lowest common denominator,the very least we can do is admit that it is a common denominator and attempt to learn some lessons from it. 

First of all,American culture probably satisfies some positive needs forcomfort, personal autonomy and social mobility that many othercultures do not. Second, the widespread appeal of televisionshows like "I Love Lucy" or "Survivor" compared to "Nova"or "Masterpiece Theater" suggests that there are some deephuman desires to be passively entertained rather than thinkindependently, for instant gratification, for status, forsimple and often violent solutions to problems, and perhaps for aggression. Technology creates opportunities for peopleto make embarrassing choices that raise painful questions about human nature. It is much easier to blame technologyfor making the choices available rather than face the questions that the choices raise.

4. Science and technology place decision-making in the hands of a technocratic elite.

 Lorna Salman wrotein a letter to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

All scientists having a personal stake in the developmentof commercial nuclear power should disqualify themselvesfrom the nuclear power discussion and leave the field tocitizens who are perfectly capable of determining whatendangers them and their freedom... Reactor safety has been used, for the most part, asa red herring to preemptpublic debate

The alternative to having decisions made by the informed isobvious: decisions will be made by the uninformed. Or there isa third alternative: we can educate the general public to ahigh enough level of technological literacy that citizens willbe able to participate in informed decision-making.There is a powerful elitism in the anti-science movement,which is rarely as clearly expressed as in Theodore Roszak's Where the Wasteland Ends. He starts by quoting Francis Baconand Rene Descartes on the scientific method. Descartes wrote:

... anyone who has learned this whole method perfectly,however humble his abilities may be, will neverthelessperceive that none of these ways is less open to him thanto anyone else, and there is nothing further of which heis ignorant because of any failure of ability or method.

There is great truth in these remarks; scientific success doesnot depend on raw intelligence. One might at first thinkRoszak would acclaim these ideas as a powerful affirmation ofthe potential of the individual. But Rossak describes thesesentiments instead as "surely the highest and most unwarrantedtribute that genius has ever paid to mediocrity". He describesmethodology as "the preoccupation of mediocrity, the dullard'sgreat hope of equaling the achievements of the gifted". He warnsof "a subversive belief in human equality founded upon the prospect of knowledge available to all on anon-privileged,non-classified basis"

Not methodology, but doing away with methodology, is thedullard's great hope. Even people who have made brilliantlycreative innovations have acknowledged the essential role thatroutine plodding played; Edison's remark that genius was oneper cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration isa famous example.

The baffling riddle is why Roszak speaks so forcefullyagainst Descartes' ideal of equality. I believe there are threereasons. 

Nowhere does anti-scientific elitism show up more plainlythan in the matter of food. Any six-year-old will tell you thata hamburger in a fast-food restaurant tastes better than onecooked at home, Many adults look down on fast-food outlets asnecessary evils at best and barbaric at worst. Since the foodis the same, what determines the attitude must be psychologyrather than the food; to a six-year-old, a trip to the localhamburger joint is a treat; for an adult, it may be a loss ofstatus (yes, there are also probably some physiological changes in our sense of taste as we age as well). It is fashionable in some circles to equate "store-bought white bread" with plastic, but in peasant societies inEurope, white bread is a status symbol. I have eaten some delicious whole-grain breads. I have also eaten some that hadall the charisma of particle-board. Saying that white breadis always inferior to whole-grain bread is simply preposterous.There is an enormous element of snob appeal in the "natural"food movement.

5. Science and Technology Cut Man off From the Natural World

This accusation is true. Someone from New York or Chicago has a long trek to reach open country, and at night they can hardly see the stars. During the 1950's, when technological optimism was high, there were many people living who could remember life before radio, airplanes and automobiles. Almost all these people are now dead. It is over 100 years since the first automobiles and the first airplane, 60 years sinceradar, the V-2, and the Manhattan Project. Middle-aged Americans can hardly recall a time when there were no jet airliners,ICBM's, or television, and there are no longer any people towhom we can look for insight into what life in a pre-technological age was like.

The natural world includes not only green grass, brightflowers, and blue sky, but also fleas, lice, cholera, malaria,diphtheria, yellow fever, typhoid and smallpox. A century agothe diseases on this list were frequent killers in major U.S.cities. The natural world also includes starvation when thecrops fail and 20 per cent infant mortality during the firstyear of life. There are plenty of places in the world wherepeople still live pretty much in harmony with all the elementsof the natural world. We call them underdeveloped countries.

6. Science and technology make man superficial 

The sixth accusation against science and technology isthat they make man superficial by providing diversions thatprevent people from knowing their true selves. Certainly suchamusements as television and video games provide ample outletsfor shallow escapes. It is also true that a good deal of thepopular disillusionment with science was fueled by the discovery that material benefits did not automatically bringhappiness. But what evidence is there, apart from a sort of nostalgic fantasy, that people live more genuine lives in the absenceof technology?

One of the dominant themes in the protests of the 1960'swas nihilism; the idea that anything at all would be betterthan the existing system and that we would be better off todemolish the system and start over. Although many writersstated that the nihilism of the 1960's died out, in many waysit did not; it merged into the anti-science movement of the1970's. Consider this quote by Amory Lovins: 

"If you ask me,it would be little short of disastrous for us to discover asource of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what wewould do with it". 

This remarkable statement suggests thatbehind the legitimate criticisms of the excesses of scienceand technology there is a deeper malaise; that the criticismsare a rationalization for some other motives. Considering howoften anti-science writers eulogize primitive tribal societiesor the medieval lifestyle, it is entirely possible that theprincipal attraction of these lifestyles is simply that theyprovide little leisure. In many cases, the anti-scientist maybe looking for some sense of purpose in his own life, andattempt to find it in an idealized pre-technological societythat spends most of its efforts on subsistence.

The Lovins quote also raises another disquieting possibility: that"green" activists cannot be trusted to admit honestly that atechnology is safe even if it actually is, that their protests may be aimed atsuppression for its own sake rather than any real concern about public safety.

The final comment on this point was made best by Alan Bloom in Closing of the American Mind.

Almost no one wants to face the possibility that 'bourgeois vulgarity' might really be the nature of the people, always and everywhere (p.249)

7. Technology creates worse problems than it solves

Jacques Ellul arguesthat we cannot even say there has been real progress since theMiddle Ages:

It is important to consider, for labor, not only timebut intensity ... there is no common denominator betweenthe seven-hour day' of 1950 and the fifteen-hour day ofthe medieval artisan. We know that the peasant interruptshis workday with innumerable pauses. He chooses his owntempo and rhythm. He converses and cracks jokes with everypasser-by.

To begin with, there is a common denominator between the modernworker and the medieval artisan. Both have 24 hours in eachday, and the medieval artisan, if we are to believe Ellul, hadalmost no time for anything but working and sleeping. Notice,too, that Ellul starts by discussing the medieval artisan andshifts subtly to the peasant. When we fantasize about medievallife, we tend to picture ourselves as nobles or knights, but in actuality, if we could change places at random with someperson in medieval times, we would certainly end up as peasants. If you want tosee how idyllic peasant life is, just visit places where peasants still make upmuch of the population, say the poorer parts of Latin America.

We can compare the quality of middle-class American life withmedieval peasant life by noting what peasants do in today'sworld: they gravitate to the cities just as they did in theMiddle Ages. The worst slum in South Chicago will have ratsand no heat, as all medieval dwellings did, and running water,electricity and a toilet, features no medieval palace had. If we feel moral indignation over conditions in slums, how canwe possibly consider Ellul an intellectually responsiblecritic when he questions whether there has been real improvement since the Middle Ages?

Ellul's remarks are by no means the only examples offactually absurd statements creeping into accounts of technological problems. In a 1970 news report, NBC reporter EdwinNewman stated that by the end of the decade "our rivers mayhave reached the boiling point; three decades more and theymay evaporate." Now it so happens that those remarks are easyto cheek using readily available information. It turns outthat if all the earth's energy output for a year was used fornothing else but heating Lake Erie, the shallowest of the GreatLakes, it would raise the temperature of the lake 74 degrees F.,assuming that no heat was lost in the meantime, In realitythe lake would shed excess heat by evaporation -- evaporatinga mere 60 inches of water would suffice.

The absurdity of the report is bad enough, but comingfrom someone who set himself up as the standard for precision of language andlogic as Newman did, the report was doubly inexcusable. The"boiling" theme was carried to its inevitable extreme inGeorge Bamber's 1971 novel The Sea is Boiling Hot. In reality,the total world energy output is enough to heat the sea 0.0003 F. in a year, and the sea can shed that amount of heatby the evaporation of a fiftieth of an inch of water. Theseas actually lose hundreds of times as much water throughevaporation each year already.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the anti-sciencemovement is its Catch-22 technique. Critics assail technologyfor its shortcomings, then condemn any possible means ofalleviating the problems. We often hear that certain types oftechnology, like computers or nuclear reactors, are overlyprone to terrorist attack. One might think that such a problemmight provoke serious questions about the moral legitimacy ofterrorist movements and the ideologies that give rise to them,but anti-scientists prefer to fix the blame on technology forbeing there. The obvious remedy, better security for sensitivefacilities, is condemned by critics as a threat. Ralph Naderclaimed that nuclear power plants "are so vulnerable to sabotage or theft that a garrison state has to be built up to tryand safeguard them ... Some observers believe there will be amillion people with direct and backup assignments to guard thenuclear industry by the year 2000." The image of a millionjackbooted storm troopers comes to mind at first, but what constitutes a "backup" assignment? Employees being asked toreport suspicious happenings? Local police and National Guardunits being available in emergencies? We could much morecogently argue that liquor stores create the need for a garrison state to protect them.

8. Science and technology restrict freedom. 

It has often been remarked thatmost of the technology predicted in Orwell's 1984 is actuallyavailable. Less often noted is the fact that most of it wasin existence in 1948 when Orwell wrote his book. What exactlyanti-scientists mean by "freedom" is a little unclear at times.

For example, Jacques Ellul agrees that "Technique frees mankind from a whole collection of ancient constraints",including the limitations of time and space, the risk of famine andphysical discomfort, and many social constraints. Then Ellulasks, "But is this what it means really to be free?" At thispoint the reader tingles with anticipation, expecting some deepstatement on the true nature of freedom. And Ellul never tellsus. None of the anti-scientists ever do; the overwhelming impression their writings leave is of restlessness and unfocuseddissatisfaction which they blame on technology.

In many ways, the "loss of freedom" so often bemoaned bythe anti-science writers does not really involve freedom atall. Technology does not so much make certain lifestylesforbidden as absurd. Anybody who seriously believes that lifein a pre-technological society is more fulfilling than lifein our own can move to an underdeveloped nation and adopt thatlifestyle. To achieve the fully authentic experience, buy a one-way ticket,take no money, and become a citizen of that country. Very few critics of technology do so. 

More realistically, people can and do return to rustic lifestyles andshun modem technology; groups as varied as the Amish and the counterculture of the 1960's chose this route. Any such choice,however, must be a personal decision to renounce some aspectof technology in favor of the virtues of a simpler life. Theone freedom technology does destroy is the freedom not tohave to make choices.

9. The scientific world-view robs the worldof mystery and beauty

The final, and most serious criticism of science andtechnology is that the scientific world-view robs the worldof mystery and beauty, explains away phenomena, and trivializeswhat it touches. There are scientists who think an equationis the same thing as the object it describes, just as thereare artists who think paintings are only collections of linesand shapes. But there are also scientists like Henri Poincare,who said:

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful;he studies it because he delights in it, and he delightsin it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature werenot worth knowing, life would not be worth living.

Technology can and does produce real destruction of beauty;forests are cut, rivers polluted, wilderness areas clogged withtourists. But many technological features that are now considered eyesores were considered beautiful only a few yearsago; one need only look at a few magazines from the 1940's and 1950's to see that dams were not always symbols of technologicalexcess or superhighways signs of the countryside being buriedin concrete. Leading photographers of the day photographed then-moderntechnology like dams as works of art. Few tourists who visit the Alps are aware that inthe Middle Ages mountains were often considered ugly deviationsfrom the ideal; medieval man might well have viewed stripmining as beautification. Many people are not aware that openand sunny Greece was once densely forested. Clearly beauty isin the eye of the beholder. Clearly too, many criticisms oftechnology are grounded in historical ignorance.

Muchof the hostility toward the scientific world-view that emanates from the"reason destroys beauty" school is based on a belief that explaining aphenomenon somehow diminishes its beauty or significance. To some people,knowing that a rainbow is produced by the refraction and dispersion of sunlightwithin raindrops destroys the mystery and beauty of the rainbow. To me, thisattitude is simply incomprehensible. Explained or not, therainbow still exists and is as colorful as ever, and the simple explanation ofthe rainbow is only the beginning of some of the mysteries involved. But themysteries are not easily accessible;they take a substantial knowledge of physics to appreciate. The scientist sees the beauty of the rainbow just as much as the poet, but the scientist sees more. The attitude thatall people must remain ignorant of what lies behind beautiful phenomena so thatsome may continue to enjoy mystery is very much like the attitude of a touristwho goes to a poor country and complains that it is not as "quaint" asit used to be because the inhabitants have a few conveniences.

Otherswho attack science for destroying beauty and mystery do so out of a misplacednotion of what science is capable of proving. A good deal of the antipathybetween science and religion is the result of scientists, like Francis Crick andJacques Monod, misusing science as a prop for their own personalphilosophies. To the extent that scientists misuse science this way, or remainsilent while others misuse it, science deserves the blame for this form ofanti-science.

Sometimes,though, the accusation that science has destroyed mystery and beauty and robbedlife of meaning is not merely unjustified, but a scapegoatfor the consequences of the speaker's own sterile ideology. One of the mostcelebrated attacks on the scientific world-view is that of Bertrand Russell, whowrote:

Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief ... That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his hopes and fears, his loves and affections, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms, that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave ...

Themost obvious flaw in the statement is the implication that science has somehowundermined the concept of an afterlife, or of prolonging an individual's lifebeyond the grave, concepts that are simply inaccessible to science. Russell'sremarks also imply strongly that science has destroyed any possibility ofconscious design in nature. What makes this attackon science so remarkable is that Russell was one of the most prominent agnosticsof modern times. Russell was obviously blaming science for the barrenness of hisown personal philosophy. It is hardly fair, having chosen a philosophy thatdenies any certainty of an afterlife or deliberate design in nature, to blamescience for the results!

Incidentally,one reviewer reacted to the above paragraph by simply going ballistic andarguing that Bertrand Russell would never commit such an elementary fallacybecause Great Philosophers like Bertrand Russell just don't do things like that.Actually, I am profoundly unimpressed by Russell, whom I regard as the singlemost overrated figure of the 20th century, precisely because of superficiallogic like that above. The reviewer's response shows pretty clearly thatarguments from authority are not just limited to religion.

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Created 11 March, 2002, Last Update 24 May, 2020

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