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Wang on the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Pt. 1 August 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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Though a visible and important office in American policy history, and though, historically, it has been much discussed, PSAC has garnered surprisingly little analysis by historians.  Thus Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (Rutgers UP, 2008) automatically constitutes a valuable contribution to the historiography.

PSAC’s predecessor body, the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization, was established in 1951 during the Korean War.  Although comprised of highly respected members of the scientific community, that committee was a marginal body, and it was replaced by PSAC following the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite and reconsideration of American government’s management of its scientific and technological resources.  PSAC’s chair served as the science adviser to the President until 1973 when Richard Nixon dissolved PSAC.  In 1976 Gerald Ford established a new organization, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Though its exact structure and function have varied from administration to administration, that body still exists, and its director (currently John Holdren) serves as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.  Wang’s book covers this whole history, with the OSTP period as an epilogue.

In my own experience, the further one gets from World War II, the more convoluted and confusing the terrain becomes, the less helpful the historiography becomes, the more difficult it becomes to write good, coherent history.  Wang’s book flips this on its head.  The book begins with a discussion of a mysteriously defined entity Wang refers to as “American public science”, cobbled together from the prevailing mythology of American science.  The book then picks up steam when it begins to discuss the specifics of PSAC’s debates over, and involvement in, individual issues such as the foundation of NASA in 1958, the regulation of pesticides in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and the struggle over whether America should pursue anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology — the issue that was largely responsible for PSAC earning Nixon’s enmity.

This book is good and useful.  Let that be clear.  As ever, though, this blog is dedicated to the development of a pointed and useful critical language, and so I want to concentrate on some systematic issues that I think really hold In Sputnik’s Shadow back from being as illuminating and great as it might have been.  In general, I believe Wang’s analysis of the history of PSAC falls prey to the persistent historiographical difficulties presented by what I am calling the “20th-century problem”.

The 20th-century problem relates to the historiographical difficulties involving the unusual scale and complexity of science, technology, and their management in the 20th century.  Although scale and complexity also afflict efforts to come to grips with the history of prior centuries, the scale shift in the 20th should make it into a defining historiographical challenge. Currently, though, historians have not really begun to acknowledge it as a serious problem, preferring to maintain a historiography of largely self-contained case narratives.

Insofar as the existing historiography is united at all, it is united around a handful of thematic issues.  Most notably, these issues include the managerial problems presented by “big science”, and the heightened political and policy significance of science and technology, which, for clear reasons, is the key issue in Wang’s book.  Beyond these issues and what can be gleaned from individual cases, historians have forfeited the responsibility to chart history, and have been timid in establishing and debating new narratives.  As a consequence, we have difficulty discussing history coherently in all but either its microscopic specifics, or, alternatively, in the most hand-waving and unilluminating language.

One specific difficulty here is that PSAC provides Wang with a fixed vantage point, which inhibits his ability to provide the background knowledge really necessary to understand the importance of, and strategies taken on, the various issues PSAC addressed.  As we saw with Allan Needell’s book on Lloyd Berkner, even a very lofty fixed vantage point — be it an influential individual or a high government office — tends to see history passing by it without really knowing where it’s coming from. This means that even though readers are hanging around the actors, they do not know what the actors know, and thus do not really have a good specific idea of why they make the choices, and say the things that they do.

There is, as yet, no adequate methodological solution to the problem of combining a detailed study of a particularly large subject with the extensive background needed to understand the subject.  But without grappling with the problem, histories will perhaps inevitably fall victim to the limitations of the “view from the archive folder”.

PSAC was quite possibly the most important science-and-technology committee of its time.  Nevertheless, it occupied a government structure populated by an immense network of committees, some specifically scientific, some not.  Discussions and actions taken in any one place inevitably can only be reactions to discussions and actions taken in other places.  Thus, for discussions and actions to make sense, one must move beyond the fixed vantage point.  Without that background, debates tend to center around “MacGuffins”, where it doesn’t really make much difference to the narrative whether a rocket or a nuclear reactor is the subject of debate, just so long as people are fighting over it and using revealing polemics.

It is then these polemics that establish the contours of the narrative, lending it thematic unity.

Wang’s history finds its thematic unity in some awfully familiar territory.  There is much boundary patrolling: between “science” and “politics”, and between “science” and “technology”.  Fortunately, “such a clear-cut distinction between science and technology has come under question in recent scholarship in science and technology studies; close examination often reveals a deep intermixing at the boundary.”  This remarkable theoretical innovation allows us to see that “the interesting question here is not whether the science-technology distinction existed in reality, but how scientists perceived such a difference and made political use of it” (17).

This, of course, tacitly presumes that the delineation of rhetorical boundaries was central to PSAC’s ability to influence events.  Judging by the centrality of the analysis of rhetoric to Wang’s analysis — many of his quotations relate to some comment made here or there about “science” or “technology” or “experts” or “politics” — I take it that he deems such rhetoric was elemental to PSAC’s power.  For my part, I am inclined to doubt it.

Wang also relies excessively on a distinction that he has no problem drawing between technological enthusiasm and skepticism.  In his narrative, historical actors’ positions are explicable mainly in terms of their predilection for enthusiasm or skepticism.  The moral resonances of these predilections are easy to discern: enthusiasm=bad, skepticism=good.

Once the good and bad positions on some question have been identified (nuclear weapons development=bad, environmental regulation=good, man-in-space=technically bad, but maybe not all bad since it was more-or-less acknowledged to be a political stunt), the bad position is characterized as having been thought of as a naive technological “fix” to some political problem, and adherents to that position can be safely characterized as enthusiasts for the fix and their views need not be further considered.  The crux of the book is that PSAC, while certainly “not monolithic”, still tended to represent a generic force of skepticism that counterbalanced widespread enthusiasm within the US government, particularly its military.

Definitively, the point of this critique is not, in some sense, to “rescue” positions like nuclear militarism, and resistance to environmental regulation from being tarred with the brush of enthusiasm.  By and large, I believe I share Wang’s perspectives on these issues.  The point is that the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric is probably not the most illuminating way for historians to analyze the history. I believe it runs into some of the same problems Bill Newman was talking about in describing a science-vs.-philosophy analysis of early modern chymistry as a “toggle-switch” model of history, essentially rendering historical events and statements of interest, and thus explicable, mainly insofar as they can be interpreted in the terms of the central historiographical model being used.

A detailed discussion of problems surrounding the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric will follow in Pt. 2.



1. David Bruggeman - August 8, 2010

A side note, and a hobbled one at that, as I’ve yet to read Wang’s book.

The closer current analogue to PSAC is PCAST – the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, co-chaired by Holdren in his capacity as director of OSTP and the President’s science adviser. Various other councils (some with different names), preceded PCAST going back to the Nixon decisions to end both PSAC and the Office of Science and Technology, the forebear of OSTP.

I don’t know that this necessarily detracts from either Wang’s work or this post, but I think it needs to be mentioned.

2. Will Thomas - August 8, 2010

No, I don’t think it detracts from the book. Although Wang concentrates on OSTP and the advisers to the President in his epilogue, he does mention PCAST as well. I should have mentioned it in this post. Thanks for doing so.

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