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

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

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 and technology 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 world of mystery and beauty

1. Science and Technology are Out of Control 

One of the major exponents of this theme is Jacques Ellul's book The Technological Society. Ellul claims that the means of technology have become ends in themselves. We must note before going on that the anti-science movement takes in both science and technology. Ellul considers the scientific method, and rational thought in general, to be "technique". Ellul defines the technical milieu or environment as "autonomous with respect to values, ideas, and the State"; in other words, beyond moral, intellectual or political control.

The obvious counter-argument is that technology is under control by people. We may think the wrong people are in control or that they use their control wrongly, but technology by itself is inert. Ellul agrees this is an obvious argument but answers it by saying, "Unfortunately this manner of viewing matters 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 counters arguments that it can't be so by saying it must be so because that's what the definition says!

One need only talk to someone in a field such as nuclear power to realize how impotent technologists often feel over the controls imposed on them by society. Technology is anything but autonomous. We control, or at least attempt to limit access, to explosives, automatic weapons, many drugs, hazardous chemicals and microorganisms, radioactive materials, and many computer data banks; indeed, many technologists feel that the 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 the people 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 roots deep in modern mysticism. Theodore Roszak, writing about the role of icons and idols in ancient cultures, says: 

What this adamant Judaeo-Christian rejection of pagan worship failed to grasp (and we must assume it was for lack 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 function of any so-called idol, authentically perceived, is to give local embodiment to the universal presence and power of the divine. ... To know this is to understand how any portion of nature, even the most unaccountable things or even nature as a whole, can quite suddenly assume the radiance of a magical object.

If things can be "enchanted" or a "local embodiment of the divine", small wonder that some anti-scientific philosophers endow technology with a life of its own. Notice, too, the use of the term "authentic", which basically means that Roszak's view is correct by definition and all others wrong, and the implication that the inability to see objects as magical denotes a defect in the beholder rather than the belief.

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

The first response is that people, not technology, force workers into degrading jobs, One company may be unsafe, monotonous and unhappy, while another company, using the same technology, may be safe, interesting, and a congenial place to work.

What would intrinsically monotonous work like washing cars or picking crops be like in a utopian society? Charles Reich offers the following observations in The Greening of America:

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 for self-expression, for play, for creativity ... 

It is not true that all work must be "creative" to be satisfying. People who do intellectual work know how good it feels to wash a car, clean the house, paint a boat, or chop wood.

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

3. Technology forces people to consume unnecessary goods and services 

A typical example is the remark by L. S. Stavrianos in The Promise of the Coming Dark Age that dubbed American TV shows "are seen all overthe world, carrying added local advertisements and making America's consumption culture a global model." We see again the notion of technology as an animate force, and the denial of the element of individual choice. No one, American or otherwise, has to buy everything that is advertised. The advertising aimed at children is particularly obnoxious, but many people can and do set limits on their children's consumption of TV and material goods. And why is it that ads for flashy consumer goods work but ads for educational television or cultural events do not produce sharp increases in consumption of those commodities?

The "unnecessary consumption" criticism is a variant of the "false consciousness" argument so prevalent in the social sciences: any tendency for the masses to do anything embarrassing is written off as the result of a "false consciousness."  Stavrianos elsewhere claims that Third World consumers are "brainwashed" into desiring white bread and soft drinks rather than more nutritious food, and asserts, "the uneducated citizens of underdeveloped countries need instruction more than entertainment." It so happens I agree, but I would go on, as most anti-science writers do not, and ask why consumerism seems to have so much appeal. 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 for comfort, personal autonomy and social mobility that many other cultures do not. Second, the widespread appeal of television shows like "I Love Lucy" or "Survivor" compared to "Nova" or "Masterpiece Theater" suggests that there are some deep human desires to be passively entertained rather than think independently, for instant gratification, for status, for simple and often violent solutions to problems, and perhaps for aggression. Technology creates opportunities for people to make embarrassing choices that raise painful questions about human nature. It is much easier to blame technology for 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 wrote in a letter to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

All scientists having a personal stake in the development of commercial nuclear power should disqualify themselves from the nuclear power discussion and leave the field tocitizens who are perfectly capable of determining what endangers them and their freedom... Reactor safety has been used, for the most part, as a red herring to preempt public debate

The alternative to having decisions made by the informed is obvious: decisions will be made by the uninformed. Or there is a third alternative: we can educate the general public to a high enough level of technological literacy that citizens will be 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 Bacon and Rene Descartes on the scientific method. Descartes wrote:

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

There is great truth in these remarks; scientific success does not depend on raw intelligence. One might at first think Roszak would acclaim these ideas as a powerful affirmation of the potential of the individual. But Roszak describes these sentiments instead as "surely the highest and most unwarranted tribute that genius has ever paid to mediocrity". He describes methodology as "the preoccupation of mediocrity, the dullard's great hope of equaling the achievements of the gifted". He warns of "a subversive belief in human equality founded upon the prospect of knowledge available to all on a non-privileged, non-classified basis"

Not methodology, but doing away with methodology, is the dullard's great hope. Even people who have made brilliantly creative innovations have acknowledged the essential role that routine plodding played; Edison's remark that genius was one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration is a famous example.

The baffling riddle is why Roszak speaks so forcefully against Descartes' ideal of equality. I believe there are three reasons. 

Nowhere does anti-scientific elitism show up more plainly than in the matter of food. Any six-year-old will tell you that a hamburger in a fast-food restaurant tastes better than one cooked at home, Many adults look down on fast-food outlets as necessary evils at best and barbaric at worst. Since the food is the same, what determines the attitude must be psychology rather than the food; to a six-year-old, a trip to the local hamburger joint is a treat; for an adult, it may be a loss of status (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 in Europe, white bread is a status symbol. I have eaten some delicious whole-grain breads. I have also eaten some that had all the charisma of particle-board. Saying that white bread is 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 since radar, 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 to whom we can look for insight into what life in a pre-technological age was like.

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

6. Science and technology make man superficial 

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

One of the dominant themes in the protests of the 1960's was nihilism; the idea that anything at all would be better than the existing system and that we would be better off to demolish the system and start over. Although many writers stated that the nihilism of the 1960's died out, in many ways it 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 we would do with it". 

This remarkable statement suggests that behind the legitimate criticisms of the excesses of science and technology there is a deeper malaise; that the criticisms are a rationalization for some other motives. Considering how often anti-science writers eulogize primitive tribal societies or the medieval lifestyle, it is entirely possible that the principal attraction of these lifestyles is simply that they provide little leisure. In many cases, the anti-scientist may be looking for some sense of purpose in his own life, and attempt to find it in an idealized pre-technological society that 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 a technology is safe even if it actually is, that their protests may be aimed at suppression 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 argues that we cannot even say there has been real progress since the Middle Ages:

It is important to consider, for labor, not only time but intensity ... there is no common denominator between the seven-hour day' of 1950 and the fifteen-hour day of the medieval artisan. We know that the peasant interrupts his workday with innumerable pauses. He chooses his own tempo and rhythm. He converses and cracks jokes with every passer-by.

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

We can compare the quality of middle-class American life with medieval peasant life by noting what peasants do in today's world: they gravitate to the cities just as they did in the Middle Ages. The worst slum in South Chicago will have rats and 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 can we possibly consider Ellul an intellectually responsible critic when he questions whether there has been real improvement since the Middle Ages?

Ellul's remarks are by no means the only examples of factually absurd statements creeping into accounts of technological problems. In a 1970 news report, NBC reporter Edwin Newman stated that by the end of the decade "our rivers may have reached the boiling point; three decades more and they may evaporate." Now it so happens that those remarks are easy to cheek using readily available information. It turns out that if all the earth's energy output for a year was used for nothing else but heating Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, it would raise the temperature of the lake 74 degrees F., assuming that no heat was lost in the meantime, In reality the lake would shed excess heat by evaporation -- evaporating a mere 60 inches of water would suffice.

The absurdity of the report is bad enough, but coming from someone who set himself up as the standard for precision of language and logic as Newman did, the report was doubly inexcusable. The "boiling" theme was carried to its inevitable extreme in George 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 heat by the evaporation of a fiftieth of an inch of water. The seas actually lose hundreds of times as much water through evaporation each year already.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the anti-science movement is its Catch-22 technique. Critics assail technology for its shortcomings, then condemn any possible means of alleviating the problems. We often hear that certain types of technology, like computers or nuclear reactors, are overly prone to terrorist attack. One might think that such a problem might provoke serious questions about the moral legitimacy of terrorist movements and the ideologies that give rise to them, but anti-scientists prefer to fix the blame on technology for being there. The obvious remedy, better security for sensitive facilities, is condemned by critics as a threat. Ralph Nader claimed that nuclear power plants "are so vulnerable to sabotage or theft that a garrison state has to be built up to try and safeguard them ... Some observers believe there will be a million people with direct and backup assignments to guard the nuclear industry by the year 2000." The image of a million jackbooted storm troopers comes to mind at first, but what constitutes a "backup" assignment? Employees being asked to report suspicious happenings? Local police and National Guard units being available in emergencies? We could much more cogently 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 that most of the technology predicted in Orwell's 1984 is actually available. Less often noted is the fact that most of it was in existence in 1948 when Orwell wrote his book. What exactly anti-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 and physical discomfort, and many social constraints. Then Ellul asks, "But is this what it means really to be free?" At this point the reader tingles with anticipation, expecting some deep statement on the true nature of freedom. And Ellul never tells us. None of the anti-scientists ever do; the overwhelming impression their writings leave is of restlessness and unfocused dissatisfaction which they blame on technology.

In many ways, the "loss of freedom" so often bemoaned by the anti-science writers does not really involve freedom at all. Technology does not so much make certain lifestyles forbidden as absurd. Anybody who seriously believes that life in a pre-technological society is more fulfilling than life in our own can move to an underdeveloped nation and adopt that lifestyle. 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 and shun 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 aspect of technology in favor of the virtues of a simpler life. The one freedom technology does destroy is the freedom not to have to make choices.

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

The final, and most serious criticism of science and technology is that the scientific world-view robs the world of mystery and beauty, explains away phenomena, and trivializes what it touches. There are scientists who think an equation is the same thing as the object it describes, just as there are artists who think paintings are only collections of lines and 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 delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not 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 with tourists. But many technological features that are now considered eyesores were considered beautiful only a few years ago; one need only look at a few magazines from the 1940's and 1950's to see that dams were not always symbols of technological excess or superhighways signs of the countryside being buried in concrete. Leading photographers of the day photographed then-modern technology like dams as works of art. Few tourists who visit the Alps are aware that in the Middle Ages mountains were often considered ugly deviations from the ideal; medieval man might well have viewed strip mining as beautification. Many people are not aware that open and sunny Greece was once densely forested. Clearly beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Clearly too, many criticisms of technology are grounded in historical ignorance.

Much of the hostility toward the scientific world-view that emanates from the "reason destroys beauty" school is based on a belief that explaining a phenomenon somehow diminishes its beauty or significance. To some people, knowing that a rainbow is produced by the refraction and dispersion of sunlight within raindrops destroys the mystery and beauty of the rainbow. To me, this attitude is simply incomprehensible. Explained or not, the rainbow still exists and is as colorful as ever, and the simple explanation of the rainbow is only the beginning of some of the mysteries involved. But the mysteries 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 that all people must remain ignorant of what lies behind beautiful phenomena so that some may continue to enjoy mystery is very much like the attitude of a tourist who goes to a poor country and complains that it is not as "quaint" as it used to be because the inhabitants have a few conveniences.

Others who attack science for destroying beauty and mystery do so out of a misplaced notion of what science is capable of proving. A good deal of the antipathy between science and religion is the result of scientists, like Francis Crick and Jacques Monod, misusing science as a prop for their own personal philosophies. To the extent that scientists misuse science this way, or remain silent while others misuse it, science deserves the blame for this form of anti-science.

Sometimes, though, the accusation that science has destroyed mystery and beauty and robbed life of meaning is not merely unjustified, but a scapegoat for the consequences of the speaker's own sterile ideology. One of the most celebrated attacks on the scientific world-view is that of Bertrand Russell, who wrote:

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 ...

The most obvious flaw in the statement is the implication that science has somehow undermined the concept of an afterlife, or of prolonging an individual's life beyond the grave, concepts that are simply inaccessible to science. Russell's remarks also imply strongly that science has destroyed any possibility of conscious design in nature. What makes this attack on science so remarkable is that Russell was one of the most prominent agnostics of modern times. Russell was obviously blaming science for the barrenness of his own personal philosophy. It is hardly fair, having chosen a philosophy that denies any certainty of an afterlife or deliberate design in nature, to blame science for the results!

Incidentally, one reviewer reacted to the above paragraph by simply going ballistic and arguing that Bertrand Russell would never commit such an elementary fallacy because Great Philosophers like Bertrand Russell just don't do things like that. Actually, I am profoundly unimpressed by Russell, whom I regard as the single most overrated figure of the 20th century, precisely because of superficial logic like that above. The reviewer's response shows pretty clearly that arguments 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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