Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Nobel Soapbox

Published in American Legion Magazine on August 1, 2002


Most American scientists, like the American people, support a strong national defense, especially since September 11. Why, then, are so many eminent physical scientists so wrong when they speak out on issues of war, peace, and terrorism?  Why do Nobel Laureate scientists, in particular,  feel compelled to pontificate on foreign policy?

Last December, three months after the terrorist assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, many of the world’s Nobel laureates met in Ottawa to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Nobel prize. Professor John Polanyi, a chemist at the University of Toronto, seized the occasion to promote a sweeping proclamation on “The Next Hundred Years.” His statement was signed by the majority of the world’s living Nobel laureates, mainly physical scientists. It accused President George W. Bush and other Western leaders of the industrialized world of causing war and terrorism. It then offered specific ways to abolish both plagues from the face of the earth.

Mercifully, the breathtaking appeal was largely ignored by the major media which had been chastened by the surge of patriotism following September 11 attack and Bush’s forthright and courageous response. Professor Polanyi said the proclamation was neither liberal nor conservative, but rational. Rational or not, it was the Nobel laureates’ most recent foray in the ongoing cultural conflict over how to manage the world.

Shortly before his death in 1896, the Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, Alfred B. Nobel, established a bequest of $9,000,00O to atone for his sin of making war more lethal. The Nobel Prize Committee, drawing on this fund, each year makes cash awards to a select few who have made the greatest contribution to humankind in physics, chemistry, medicine-physiology, literature, and peace.

Shortly after the first awards in 1901, some of its recipients have felt compelled to speak out on global issues that have little to do with their areas of expertise. This has been dramatically true of physicists and chemists, many of whom. like Nobel himself, have felt a special responsibility, if not a sense of guilt, for their role in unleashing the atom.

Does Western Greed Cause Terrorism?

So it was in Ottawa last December. With breast-beating fervor, the 108 signers declared that “the most profound danger to world peace” is caused by “the legitimate demands of the world’s dispossessed” who suffer because of the greed, injustice, and powerful weapons of the West. “Global warming” produced by “the wealthy few,” added the statement, harms mostly the poor peoples of the Third World.

And more. Our only hope, declared the laureates, lies in cooperative international action to “counter both global warming and a weaponized world.” Specifically, the statement  insisted that the United States support the Convention on Climate Change, the ABM Treaty, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In short, the West “must learn to think in a new way,” a sentiment echoing Jonathan Schell’s utopian The Fate of the Earth (1982): “The task facing the species is to shape a world politics that does not rely on violence….to reinvent politics: to reinvent the world.”

Stripped of confusion and ambiguity, the laureates at Ottawa accused the United States and our Western allies of being largely responsible for world terrorism.

The great majority of the signers were chemists or physicists who have no special expertise in world affairs. The few others who signed include peace laureates Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dailai Lama.

The Ottawa proclamation was an elaboration of a July 6, 200O, letter to President William Jefferson Clinton from some 50 laureates, again mainly from the physical sciences. Speaking for themselves and “other independent scientists,” the signers urged the president not to “deploy an anti-ballistic missile system,” because it would be “premature, wasteful, and dangerous.” These hard scientists presented soft opinions, but no hard facts, to buttress their advice.

Linus Pauling Opposed U.S. Nuclear Arms

The late professor, Linus Pauling, was awarded two Nobel laureates, one in chemistry and the other in peace, the only man so honored. He exploited his double eminence to the hilt. America’s atom bombing of Hiroshima transformed Pauling into a nuclear pacifist. A participant in Albert Einstein’s Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and other “peace” organizations, he was sharply critical of many U.S. foreign and defense policies. He urged Truman not to build the H-bomb. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was accused of being pro-Soviet and briefly denied a U.S. passport.

On January 15, 1958, in a dramatic gesture Pauling presented a petition signed by 9,235 scientists from many countries to the United Nations protesting further nuclear testing. He also urged the UN to create a World Peace Research Organization to abolish war, a gesture reminiscent of the utopian 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war.

Like other politically active scientists, Pauling claimed that he spoke as a man of science. In 1963, he wrote: “My ethical principles” convinced me that “war must be abolished: but my conclusion that war must be abolished if the human race it to survive is based not on ethical principles, but on my thorough and careful analysis…of the facts.” A dubious claim indeed.

Oppenheimer Lectures Harry Truman

Nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was not a Nobel laureate, but in many respects he foreshadowed their post-Hiroshima political activism. His sense of guilt over helping to develop the nuclear arms, combined with a romantic attachment to communism, underlay his ambiguity about the atom bomb and his later opposition to the American H-bomb, and may have played a role in his passing atomic secrets to Soviet agents, as did Enrico Fermi, another physicist at Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer and other members of the Federation of American Nuclear Scientists, with their confused political and moral musings, could be called nuclear pacifists or nuclear apocalyptics. The doomsday clock on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists indicated how far the editors thought the world was from Armageddon. When the American H-bomb was detonated the hands were moved from five to three minutes before midnight, suggesting that political events could be calibrated like the movement of atoms.

Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist, who with Albert Einstein had supported development of the atom bomb, later urged President Harry Truman on “purely moral grounds” not to use it against Japan. Szilard also raised policy questions, but he was less confused than Oppenheimer, who before Hiroshima had said to Szilard, “The atomic bomb is shit…a weapon which has no military significance. It will make a big bang…but is not a weapon that is useful in war.” (Truman, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 397)

In contrast to these and other apocalyptic voices, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and most of Truman’s other advisors urged the president to use the bomb as soon as it was ready. In his handwritten dairy on July 25, 1945, Truman said simply, “The most terrible bomb” in history…can be made useful,” adding, “It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb.”

Edward Teller’s Realism

These politically concerned scientists stood in sharp contrast to another eminent physicist, Edward Teller. He, too, knew the awesome power of nuclear weapons, but he came to a radically different conclusion because he had a realistic understanding of human nature and history. Like Reinhold Niebuhr and the central Judeo-Christian moral tradition itself, he recognized that history is characterized by an incessant struggle of power and purpose. Conflict is the norm. War cannot be abolished, but evil can, and must be, be countered by an effective and just use of force. “The desire to transcend the human condition,” said historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, “is an invitation to tyranny.”

Teller, like Truman, understood that nuclear weapons, indeed all weapons, are morally neutral. Their impact depends upon those who possess or use them and for what ends. They also understood the crucial distinction between just and unjust war. Railing out against war indiscriminately obliterates the distinction between aggression and defense, indeed, between tyranny and freedom. The American people understand this, but pacifists of all stripes do not. When President Bush authorized the bombing of terrorist military targets in Afghanistan, he was waging a just warDangers of “Scientism” and Utopianism

The signers of the Ottawa statement last December also betray two intertwined flaws of the physical scientists who presume to instruct us in world affairs.

1. Scientism: This is the confident claim that all problems can be solved if only they are approached scientifically and subjected to the “scientific method.” Scientism is one form of nineteenth-century rationalism, the quaint belief that all the world’s ills can be abolished by the application of logic, reason, and hard facts. One would have thought that this fallacy rooted in the liberal Enlightenment would have been thoroughly discredited by  the brutal legacy of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, a small band of politically active scientists continue to pontificate in complex areas where hard facts, while essential, are only a part of the problem. Politics is an arena where the ambiguities of human nature and vicissitudes of history combine with the demands of ethics. It is an arena where theologians and historians are more reliable guides to responsible foreign policy, unless, alas they too are seduced by the alleged certainties of science.

Physical scientists have about as much expertise in world politics as baseball players who endorse Wheaties have in nutrition.

2. Utopianism: Many politically active scientists are  beguiled by utopian ideologies that promise a brave new world. They are particularly susceptible to the messianic claims of “scientific Marxism,” which promises a new man and a warless world. While only a few scientists have been fully convinced by Soviet pretentious, many have been influenced by the ideology of economic determinism and the class struggle. The Ottawa statement, for example, asserts that First World wealth has caused Third World poverty, which, in turn, is the breeding ground of terrorism. We would be spared the nonsense of Nobel laureates, if they consulted their apocalyptic notions less and read the newspapers more.

Our presidents, notably Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, have had the good sense to turn a deaf ear to the strident call for perfection in an imperfect world. Unlike many professional intellectuals, especially those who number themselves among the elite, Truman and Reagan were blessed with a common touch, a sense of history, and a chastened idealism.

Was it Bill Buckley who said, I would rather be governed by a hundred people chosen at random from the Boston phone book than by a hundred Harvard
faculty members?

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