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Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been.  Part 2 explains how it does so.

As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good.  Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world.  The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so?  Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse?  A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?

No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy.  Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil.  Skepticism can prevent that evil.  Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail.  This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell).  Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument.  Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.

What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an  important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness.  Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.

In Sputnik’s Shadow offers a substantial revision of a familiar picture of Cold War science as entirely dominated by its enthusiasm.  Toward the end of the book Wang notes how, during the rise of the New Left, PSAC, and even science generally, became implicated in a perceived militaristic techno-enthusiasm of the American state.  He refutes this picture.  I remember during the Q&A for the panel I was on at last year’s HSS, he also mentioned (I think in a discussion of Yaron Ezrahi, which had to do with Clark Miller’s paper) how he disagreed with the idea that the postwar era was marked by a more-or-less unquestioned faith in science and technology.  I agreed, and agree, with that position, but I didn’t know how much his book hewed to the basic historiographical rubric.

Wang’s analysis, like Ezrahi’s, crucially depends on distinguishing a historical socio-politico-epistemic model of polity that prevailed at mid-century, but that did not, in the long run, prevail.  He makes this idea clear in his summary of the thinking underlying Eisenhower’s initial support for the space program (p. 88, my emphasis):

The decision was an unusual one in that it allowed a group of technically private citizens to shape one of the most important public policies of the day.  That Eisenhower took such a step and had it accepted by the American public and polity was testimony to the effectiveness, in this period of American history, of what political scientist Yaron Ezrahi has called the “depoliticization of executive action” through the “utilization of science and technology.”  Symbols of openness and rationality, science and technology functioned as political and ideological resources, allowing the president to present his actions as “impersonal, nonarbitrary, and publicly accountable measures to enhance the public good.”

The key revision in Wang’s account is to portray PSAC as perhaps the key source of “skepticism” in American government.  He takes its efficacy to have been predicated on its ability to maintain a politically stable position.  In broad strokes, this is surely correct.  For instance, as he illustrates, PSAC’s efficacy as a force for informing test ban and arms control policy was clearly predicated on the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations’ interest in curbing the disturbing pace of Cold War militarization; Nixon’s insistence on pursuing ABM technology doomed PSAC.  Similarly, though PSAC members strenuously objected, they were ineffective in arguing against the Apollo moon landing program given Kennedy’s political interest in it.

However, where I part ways with Wang’s analysis is in presuming that PSAC’s efficacy was linked to its ability to maintain credulity in its capacity as a scientific panel to offer objective, and thus authoritative, advice.  As a good illustration, Wang quotes Kennedy: “For those of us who are not experts and yet must be called on to make decisions […] we must turn, in the last resort, to objective, disinterested scientists who bring a strong sense of public responsibility and public obligation.”

For Wang, the statement “reflected Kennedy’s optimism that scientists could help solve major problems in American public policy” (188).  But I find there to be an uncomfortable tension in the interpretation.  For me, the statement is a rather unremarkable appeal to the ideal of selfless public service, be it for lawyers, military officers, scientist advisers, or even senators.  It is certainly optimistic in its own Kennedy-esque way (“ask not what your country can do for you…”), but, again for me, there is nothing special in its application to scientists.  Of course scientists can “help solve major policy problems” (my emphasis).  Why, then, is it a sign of Kennedy’s “optimism” that he thought so?

The answer, of course, is that the science-technology and science-politics distinctions upon which PSAC supposedly relied as a platform to enforce its “skepticism” were themselves based on an “enthusiasm”, “faith”, or “optimism” in “science” as opposed to the enthusiasm of politics or technology.

Wang traces the detachment of science from technology to our old friend, the linear model, or, in Wang’s terminology, the “assembly-line model”, which he traces to the rhetoric of “pure science” in the interwar period.  Notably, on p. 17, we learn that “as a result of the scientists’ campaign [for pure science as a prerequisite to technological development], the belief in scientific superiority in [the interwar] period became so ingrained in American society and culture that engineers began to define technology as applied science.  The 1933 World’s Fair (‘Century of Progress’) in Chicago captured this faith in pure science with its motto: ‘Science Finds, Industry Applies, and Man Conforms’.”  As is common in discussions of an alleged historical linear model, scientists’ own enthusiasms become most apparent in instances where their self-interest is most directly at issue.  The influence of their rhetoric is either presumed (science caught on big, after all), or supported with extremely scanty evidence.

However, Wang gives the credulity of the science-technology distinction, as rooted in the linear model, its own periodization, leading to a new distinction based on science as embodying the true rationality of skepticism.  On p. 57, Wang quotes Lee DuBridge juxtaposing his hopes that a new organization of defense R&D will help curb wasteful R&D spending with his desire to see funding for research increased, and explains the juxtaposition thus (my emphasis):

Like keeping in touch with scientists, this justification of basic research as a way to prevent technological blind alleys or as an antidote to technological excess marked another important revision to Bush’s assembly-line model….  [T]he Dubridge appeal formed an important part of scientists’ technological skepticism, and represented a move in public science by linking policy for science with science in policy.  What motivated DuBridge to justify basic research as a possible cure for developmental problems was not just that he knew the latter to be of paramount concern to the Eisenhower administration.  It also derived from the fact that Bush’s assembly-line model of science producing practical technologies was not as forceful in 1953 as it had been in 1945.

Ultimately, though, science-politics distinction, and science-technology distinctions could not be maintained, which ultimately leads to the rupture of the basic socio-politico-epistemic model that ultimately made PSAC’s skepticism possible.  The idea relies on a paradigmatic tension between a technocratic basis for polity and a popular basis for polity, leading to epochal paradigm shifts.

This tension comes out nicely in Wang’s discussion of pesticide regulation.  Wang reads a PSAC appeal that “all data used as a basis for granting registration and establishing tolerances should be published, thus allowing the hypotheses and the validity and reliability of the data to be subjected to critical review by the public and the scientific community” as a radical shift in ideas about governance: “Significantly, what PSAC endorsed here was a profound shift in the authority of American public policy from government technocrats to a scientifically informed public, and with it a new model of policymaking based on contested rationality” (211).  I believe reading such a shift in a call for additional openness is a rather extreme interpretation.  However, for Wang, it is what makes his narrative make sense — the loss of technocratic reason as a basis of polity is what ultimately undermined the ability of PSAC to function as a voice of skepticism against enthusiasm at the highest level.  Popular polity elected Nixon, and Nixon killed PSAC.

What I am claiming here is that if my critique of theodicy via a narrative stretching from the reaction to the Enlightenment to the 20th century is elaborate, Wang is partaking in a critical narrative that depends on a mythology every bit as elaborate.  The difference is that my narrative only has to explain the persistence of certain argumentative strategies.  The Wang narrative (which is really the STS narrative) has to explain the historical record itself.

Where the STS narrative falls apart is that it is essentially based on a credulity in the validity of certain aspects of historical rhetoric that are part-and-parcel of the same history under examination.  In other words, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric was itself a political tool — perhaps the most effective one available at that time.  For example, James Conant’s observations are used to establish a key periodization: a supposed World War II-era switch from military recalcitrance toward technology to an unquestioning enthusiasm.  Wang quotes him referring to the military attitude toward nuclear weapons in 1951 (p. 27):

It seems to me something like the old religious phenomenon of conversion.  As I see it now, the military, if anything, have become vastly too much impressed with the abilities of research and development.  They are no longer the conservatives.  I don’t know what I should say — at times they seem to be fanatics in their belief of what scientists and technologists can do.

Even more forcefully, on p. 104, Herbert York, the former director of the Livermore weapons lab, is quoted recounting how he “had gone to Washington a technological optimist, full of confidence in technological fix.  I came away three and a half years later gravely concerned about the all too common practice of seeking and using technological palliatives to cover over serious persistent underlying political and social problems.”  However sincere York’s account of the evolution of his own mental state, I would nevertheless urge that we question the terms he used to describe it.   After all, there is no faster way to discredit an opponent’s position than to portray it as the product of an obviously deficient, googly-eyed version of rationality.  And there is no one more credible in using this strategy than the convert who has seen the light.  (I’ll leave the comparison to Conant’s statement above for homework.)

The central difficulty here is not that the analytical rubric of skepticism-enthusiasm is wholly inappropriate — it is effective because it functions as a plausible explanation for the historical arc of PSAC and individual events within that arc.  One central difficulty is that, like the “toggle-switch” view of early modern chymistry as playing out along a philosophy-science rubric, bits of evidence become interpreted only as they seem pertinent to the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric.  Did the quotes above from Kennedy, DuBridge, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the PSAC recommendation on pesticide regulation procedure really reflect the significance that Wang ascribes to them?  Or does the significance read into those quotes ring true because we already accept that good and evil events are mainly explicable in terms of the victories and failures of skepticism in combating policies rooted in faith rather than reason?

Thus a second difficulty with the skepticism-enthusiasm rubric is that it invites us to stop asking questions just when the questions start to get really interesting.  As I mentioned in Pt. 1, further questioning is not intended to “rescue” the positions ascribed to “enthusiasm” from that accusation.  The point is to arrive at as thorough an understanding of history as we can.  In Pt. 3, we will look at some of the questions that might have been examined more thoroughly in In Sputnik’s Shadow.

What possible motivation could historians have to stop asking searching questions about history?  This has to do with this blog’s longstanding interest in historians’ turn away from engaging with each other and the growth of an imperative to engage the public at-large.  If we believe our history is lesson-bearing, that is has a clear normative component, we have plenty of motivation to reinforce mythologies of the past that reinforce the normative component in our own writings.  Here, for example, is the bulk of the ending of Wang’s book:

Although it is crucial to clarify the scientific argument over global climatic change, it takes political leadership, and often scientific activism, to move toward the making of prudent decisions to avert or at least mitigate a possible environmental catastrophe.  However, the George W. Bush administration, like the Nixon and Reagan administrations before it, seems to think that, on the one hand, faith-based politics and ideology take priority over evidence-based scientific reasoning and technological evaluations, and, on the other hand, that American military-technological superiority could be relied on in pursuing domestic and international objectives.

What is potentially at stake is not just precious resources wasted or critical warnings ignored, but the cultivation of a blind faith in technological solutions to social and political problems that had led the United States into disasters like the Vietnam War, and, in many ways, the war in Iraq.  […]  The division over the Iraq War, just like that over the Vietnam War, has unfortunately also spilled over into other areas of the relationship between the scientific community and the federal government, deepening the breach that already existed over federal support of basic research and the formulation of a sound environmental policy.  That is a pity, because it will take more than the “shock and awe” of military and technological power to win the war on terror and solve the myriad other problems facing America and the world.  […]  If PSAC scientists’ experiences in the post-Sputnik era of the Cold War hold any relevance for us today, if their technological skepticism still speaks to our own age of technological enthusiasm, it should alert us to not just the potentials but also the limits of technological fixes, to the necessity of taking actions in the face of potentially catastrophic environmental changes, to the need for a balanced science policy that looks beyond immediate technological payoff, and to the value of transparency and dissent in a democratic society.

Theodicy indeed.  Historians of science love to look back on the simplicity of past thinking about the relationship between science, state, and society, and to offer cogent reminders about the need to think about things in a more complex way.  But, what if it is in our own professional self-interest to endow our writings with a broader cogency?  Does this causes us to simplistically ascribe a simplicity to past thought in order to simplistically explain, and thus claim a (totally ineffective) authority over, the problems of the world today?  What effect does this have on the historical narratives we write, and the historical picture of the past we collectively build?

This is not a problem with Zuoyue Wang — he is a terrific researcher, and I always look forward to his writing — this is a problem with the institutions and intellectual life in the history of science that prevents good research and writing from accumulating into a well-functioning historiography.


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