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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Please Speak Out about Militarization of Science!*

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I hope Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a smash hit when it debuts Sunday night, as much so as the 1980 Cosmos hosted by astrophysicist Carl Sagan. I also hope Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new series, uses his star power to ignite a much-needed debate about the militarization of American science

Unlike his predecessor, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new series Cosmos, has avoided speaking out on military research and other controversial issues.

Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, is already one of the most prominent science communicators in the world. And yet he is so focused on celebrating science that he seems loath to delve into linkages—historic and current—between science and war.

In 2011 comedian Stephen Colbert, who has a knack for posing tough questions in goofy guise, asked Tyson whether scientists deserve to be depicted in movies as bad guys, who “lead us to the Terminator or… create the superbug that wipes out the world.”

In his reply, Tyson seemed to absolve scientists of responsibility for their research: “When you part the curtains, at the bottom of all that, there’s a politician funding that research… We have scientists who invented the bomb, yes, but somebody had to pay for the bomb, and that was taxpayers. There were war bonds. There was a political action that called for it. Everyone blames the scientists.”

Earlier this year, Tyson went further, implying that scientists’ view of nature actually makes them averse to war. He told Parade Magazine that “when you have a cosmic perspective, when you know how large the universe is and how small we are within it—what Earth looks like from space, how tiny it is in a cosmic void—it’s impossible for you to say, ‘I so don’t like how you think that I’m going to kill you for it.’ You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t. Especially not astrophysicists—we see the biggest picture there is.”

If only Tyson’s depiction of scientists were true! His description of physicists in particular is “simply wrong,” historian of science Patrick McCray notes in “An Open Letter to Neil de Grasse Tyson.” “Consider just one university—Caltech,” McCray writes. “Its physics department was entirely militarized during World War Two and churned out over 1 million of bombardment rockets. Caltech’s Willy Fowler (Nobel Prize, 1983) did pioneering work on nuclear reactions in stars; he also led a secret 1951 study to promote the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet attack… On the other side of the Iron Curtain, there was Yakov Zel’dovich…, who made major contributions to astrophysics–and to designing weapons of mass destruction for a murderous totalitarian regime.”

Tyson’s statement, McCray adds, represents “a total disservice” to his predecessor Sagan, who “perhaps more than other scientists of his generation, understood and witnessed how his fellow scientists–especially physicists–had contributed to the arms race… Sagan used Cosmos as a warning for how science–as wonderful as it can be–can also be an awful awesome tool when misused or applied without any sense of humanistic temper.”

By “militarization of science,” I mean the skewing of research toward martial ends. According to the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, the 2013 U.S. budget granted $140 billion to all agencies for research and development. More than half of that amount, $71 billion, went to the Defense Department. Another $2.426 billion was allocated to the Department of Energy for “Weapons Activities,” and $729 million went to the Department of Homeland Security for R&D.

Physics is far from the only field benefitting from all this spending. In previous posts, I have complained about neuroscientists’ efforts to gain more military funding; about the involvement of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in a major new brain-mapping initiative; and about the participation of leading psychologists in a controversial mental-health program for soldiers.

Some scientists, to be sure, are antiwar activists. For example, psychologist Roy Eidelson and anthropologist Brian Ferguson have courageously spoken out against the participation of their disciplines in U.S. military operations. Ethicist Jonathan Moreno and security analyst Peter W. Singer have also pointed out the downside of innovation in drones, “neuroweapons” and other technologies.

But I can’t remember a time when so few prominent scientists have taken a strong antiwar stance. Other than, perhaps, MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who is 85, what major scientist today is criticizing U.S. militarism, and raising tough questions about science’s role in perpetuating war? Where is today’s equivalent of Carl Sagan? Or the great chemist Linus Pauling, whose anti-nuclear activism led to a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing (and accusations that he was a communist sympathizer)?

Scientists, who have historically helped perpetuate war and even benefitted from it, have a special responsibility to seek war’s end. At the very least, scientists should publicly debate the pros and cons of doing war-related research. (In my post on this proposal, I confessed that a defense contractor once gave me money for my ideas on fighting terrorism.) Tyson would be the ideal moderator for such a debate.

He apparently fears that speaking out about U.S. militarism would undermine his role as a cheerleader for science. According to a recent profile in The New Yorker, Tyson “refuses to take explicit political positions in public, or to criticize elected officials, even those who reject evolution; he would rather invest his energies in creating a more enlightened electorate.”

But Tyson’s celebrity also gives him the power to serve as science’s conscience, as Pauling and Sagan did. As the historian McCray says in his letter to Tyson, “Cosmos and its promotion is going to give you a big bully pulpit. Use it wisely. Use it like Carl Sagan would have.”

*See Tyson’s response to this post, and my response to him, in my next post. I also talk with my pal George Johnson about Tyson’s stance on science and war on Bloggingheads.tv. If you’re not totally sick of hearing me by then, listen to me argue on “Big Think” “Why the U.S. Military Needs to Shrink.”

Postscript: For more on Tyson’s political engagement, or lack thereof, check out a revealing 2013 interview of Tyson by Scientific American blog editor Curtis Brainard, who was then at Columbia Journalism Review. For a more upbeat take on Cosmos than mine, see today’s post by Clara Moskowitz.

Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls, via Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tyson_-_Apollo_40th_anniversary_2009.jpg.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:27 pm 03/7/2014

    I think it is ridiculous to try to present Caltech as somehow special in their participation in the war effort during World War II. Are we going to say that because they produced rockets they are evil but those who worked on radar were different, special, working on a defensive system? I don’t think you want to go there. Radar was used to identify and attack submarines and aircraft and ships. Isidor Rabi was head of a department of the Radiation Lab at Columbia. When he was tasked with developing a new application for radar he would always ask, “How many Germans will it kill?” In the US the scientists involved with developing sonar, radar, and the atomic bomb began their work in 1939 or 1940, well before the US declared war. They did it so that Germany and Japan and Italy could be defeated.

    You are trying to make a case that all wars are unnecessary and evil AND suggesting that the involvement of science is a modern circumstance. What is new is the slow push to disentangle science from war. When did peace movements and international conflict resolution first show up as an international effort? Even famous pacifists like Einstein can find motivation to become participants in a war effort. He was happy to lend advice on the separation of weapons grade uranium and plutonium when asked.

    Invention, and the science and engineering that goes with it, is inseparable from the history of warfare.
    Scientist may not lead armies but in the post stone age history of mankind not a single war has been fought without the use of weapons. Those weapons did not magically appear into the hands of the warriors. Someone had to develop the weapon.

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  2. 2. sjn 2:29 pm 03/7/2014

    Thanks for being perhaps the sole remaining voice within Scientific American to raise these issues. As a long time reader, I remember in the 80′s when debate over Star Wars/Missile defense was widespread within the pages of SA. That has disappeared. Your suggestions for COSMOS need to be just as much directed to Scientific American.

    The scientific community as a whole prefers to bury these issues. They do not wish to confront the militarization of the Federal R&D budget. After you subtract the NIH funding (the last residue of bipartisanship being the fact the Alzheimer’s & Cancer don’t respect political ideologies), DoD & DoE’s nuclear weapons programs take up the vast majority of the remaining spending.

    Elite physicists will lobby for more funding to maintain their desired programs for “new physics” in astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics. They will not challenge the militarization of science – their silence on that is part of the political deal to secure their desired funding from a hostile congress.

    But if as scientists, we all accept the projections of the most recent IPCC report then our R&D priorities are woefully mis-directed in any sense of ongoing “national security”.

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  3. 3. z34aa 5:39 pm 03/7/2014

    Good for Neil deGrasse Tyson for not falling pray to the modern day addiction of adding in politics to everything. I would say he is following the harder path since, as evidenced by this very article, people are always trying to drive prominent individuals into taking a side on their pet issues. I’m sure he has plenty of political leanings, but he has decided, as is his right, that he cares more about promoting science, or “cheerleading” as Mr. Horgan so condescendingly put it, and keeping the flame of curiosity alive in youths who have to contend with the American education system trying to snuff it out.

    Those who wish to complain about their values not being advocated by others should consider achieving the same level of profile as the one they berate, so they can champion the issue themselves.

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  4. 4. Owl905 6:22 pm 03/7/2014

    The article and the author bring their own political beliefs to the discussion. The ‘militarization of science’ is a sad piece of anti-war anti-armies fiction. It belongs on a protest placard, carried by a bull-horned screaming slogan-seller. It doesn’t matter that the author later tries to shave it to a specific. He’s complaining about the American ‘military industrial complex’ when he should be complaining about the Russian complex that just invaded the Crimea.

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  5. 5. desktop 10:23 am 03/8/2014

    The money almost always corrupts points of view.

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  6. 6. tuned 10:26 am 03/8/2014

    Defense is as unstoppable as breathing.
    Best try to genetically unravel the roots of aggression.

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  7. 7. z34aa 9:54 pm 03/8/2014

    I have been watching and listening to more of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s past discussions and speaking events, having only listened to him on the radio a few times previous to this, and I must say his power to communicate the wonder of science, and the incredible majesty that is the universe in such a way as to be comprehensible to those with only a smattering scientific knowledge, it’s incredible. And the thought of people browbeating him to include their own bias and biasing views… frankly, I find it rather disgusting, like someone scrawling political slogans on a artistic masterpiece.

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  8. 8. neildegrassetyson 10:18 pm 03/8/2014

    Thanks, John, for your candid reflections on my public postures. I happen to be in contract on a book that explores the militarization of science. It’s half written, but it’s been slow to finish due to the making of Cosmos. I hope to submit it by year’s end. In any case, the book will not be a political manifesto — more of an exploration of the timeless relationship between of the needs of science and the needs of the military.

    One important difference between the scientist’s peace movement of the Cold War and anything that has followed is that nuclear weapons, the foundation of Cold War terror, were the sole purview of physicists. So they carried an extra accountability for their existence and their ultimate proliferation.

    Today, wars are fought with high-tech weapons such as drones, and smart bombs, space surveillance, and stealth technologies, all of which fall well-outside the moving frontier of theoretical particle physics. So perhaps the peace-loving scientists you seek should be drawn from the fields of information technology, nano-technology, or aerospace engineering. They can speak best and comment on the activities of their colleagues.

    I repeat here, as you accurately quoted me above, but seemed to bypass: No scientist working for the government has a job outside of tax-based sources of support – paid by citizens in the service of national policy implemented by a Congress and a President. I can scream at lawmakers without limit, but their duty is to serve their constituents. And so it’s the electorate that I, as a scientist and educator, will always target for my messages.

    Lastly, you speak as though all War is bad. I tend to agree with you on a personal level. But I know as a matter of political awareness that not all wars are unjust and some wars are, in fact, worth fighting. Many scientists who serve military interests do so because they believe deeply in the value of their work to the security of our country. To them, your letter above would ring hollow, especially since your best examples are drawn from four and five decades ago.

    Respectfully submitted,
    -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City

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  9. 9. Amethyst3905 10:43 pm 03/8/2014

    It’s a sad day when someone w/so much clout is afraid 2/b an individual of great magnitude & bring change 2 the world by taking a stand & being a voice of change in a non confrontational way to other great minds thinking. The term individual means nothing when a persons stands w/the rest- one must strike out on their own path 2 make a statement w/their individuality 2 make the message clear- were not going 2 c this tomorrow nite. Especially if the Pres. is opening 4 Tyson & this event. It would behoove us not 2 feign blindness, Tyson’s stance is clear, he has taken a side. Not vocally but actionwise. That of the Gov’t & that is y the Pres., is opening tomorrwo bcz the gov’t has increased their budget on many of the NASA prgms & have added many new ones as well- getting back into the race so to speak. I know this 4 fact. Ive seen the proposal’s & budget’s. This is all a “Fine Mess” I do have to say this: It is a wonderful time to b alive though… many new discoveries lots of new planets as we’re passing the Milky Way, There’s alot ot live 4. Also, unfortunately let’s not b clouded- everything goes hand in hand. We can’t have one thing in this world w/o the other. Just as Popes bless soldiers b4 war, there’s a tie btwn science & war & politics- it’s just obscurred. Like I said b4 a “FINE MESS”

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  10. 10. Amethyst3905 10:49 pm 03/8/2014

    Final note: Tyson is one hell of a speaker & very well educated. Ive alway’s been enthralled by his speeches & hosting. & He can run the HP like nobody’s business!… I wish 4 definitives w/him that is all- bcz he is a powerful voice, game player in the scientific community that could hold a lot of water for the RIGHT reasons.

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  11. 11. Asmodeus 11:38 am 03/12/2014

    John Horgan apparently would have preferred that Hirohito’s Japan and Hitler’s Germany won the Second World War. Because it is clear that the bomb is what allowed the good guys to come out on top in that one.

    But then all war is bad and awful and horrible and all scientists should be on the side of the same peace at all costs that, say, Neville Chamberlain represented.

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  12. 12. Postman1 6:59 pm 03/12/2014

    I rarely read anything by Horgan and don’t know why his blog is even on the SA site, but when I saw the subject, I was curious. Sad that Horgan is so lame he fails to use Tyson’s proper title, Dr.
    Kudos to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and thank you for your comment (#8) above. You have reenforced my reasons for watching your new show.

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  13. 13. larkalt 7:36 pm 03/12/2014

    Why don’t you let Neil deGrasse Tyson have his own style. He isn’t the reincarnation of Sagan. You can speak out against militarization of science yourself if you want to.

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