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My Exchange with Neil deGrasse Tyson about Science and War

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


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In my last post, I criticized Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new science series Cosmos, which is premiering tonight, for downplaying historical links between science and war. I pleaded with Tyson to speak out about the militarization of American science, which I fear is perpetuating war. Below is Tyson’s response to my post, followed by my response to him.

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey. Copyright 2014 FOX Broadcasting/Patrick Eccelsine.

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

Neil, Thanks for your gracious, thoughtful response. I agree with you that in a democracy like ours, we all bear some responsibility for our nation’s actions. So all of us—whether scientists, politicians or ordinary folks—should be concerned with all U.S. military activities, including research.

Yes, some wars have been more “just” than others. But over the last decade, the U.S. has waged two wars, with dubious justification, that have caused enormous suffering. And all wars—including WWII, the ultimate just war–have been horribly destructive.

No sane person wants war. So why can’t we end war once and for all? You strike me as an optimist, who has faith in the fundamental intelligence and decency not only of scientists but of all people. I’m an optimist too. That’s why I believe that humanity can solve the terrible problem of war. The only question is how.

Is the U.S. promoting peace by maintaining a gigantic military empire? By selling arms to the rest of the world? Are scientists promoting peace by engaging in weapons research? The aggressive U.S. deployment of drones has triggered an international arms race in the technology. Doesn’t this trend imperil our security?

The more we ponder these issues, and debate them, the more progress we will make toward world peace, in spite of our inevitable disagreements about how to get there. That is my hope. That is why I write obsessively about war, and why I pestered you to speak out on the the militarization of science, which is a crucial piece of the puzzle of war.

So needless to say, I’m thrilled that you’re writing a book on the topic! When you are on your book tour, I hope you’ll give a talk at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, which does a lot of defense research. Whatever your message is, we need to hear it.

Postscript: I talk with my pal George Johnson about Tyson’s stance on science and war on a new segment on Bloggingheads.tv. I also argue “Why the U.S. Military Needs to Shrink“ on a recently posted “Big Think” video.

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. tuned 3:17 pm 03/9/2014

    You can no more stop defense as you can breathing.
    Best to weed out the aggressive nature of people with genetic engineering.
    Otherwise the millennia have proved it futile.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rshoff2 3:41 pm 03/9/2014

    Your last post wasn’t a criticism, and Mr Tyson’s response was indeed gracious and on topic. I would say that this was a productive exchange. Thanks for including us…

    btw, I would like to comment on one phrase in Mr Tyson’s response as it relates to lawmakers.

    “…but their duty is to serve their constituents”.

    No, their duty is to serve the country. We are a Republic. The way we choose our leaders is via a democratic process. But the leaders are not beholden to their ‘constituents’, they are beholden to the entire citizenry and the country as a whole. Unless they are greedy little sobs that are only interested in power and re-election.

    Therein lies our problem(s)…..

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bremsstrahlung 5:23 pm 03/9/2014

    “… I believe that humanity can solve the terrible problem of war. The only question is how.”

    Fair enough John. Tell everyone how you propose to solve the terrible problem of war.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jcurci 11:33 pm 03/9/2014

    “Are scientists promoting peace by engaging in weapons research?”

    You think the answer is a definite no? How can you ask that as a rhetorical?

    I mean sure, there are a lot of questions about whether it’s a good idea to have an efficient military:

    –If we’re good at fighting wars, maybe we’ll be inclined to start more wars, and more people will die and be maimed and made homeless overall.

    –With modern technology, killing (arguably in some cases) becomes less traumatizing for the soldier, so people are more willing to become soldiers, operate weapons, and use lethal force.

    But there are also some good arguments for the other side.

    –Don’t we want to police to have good equipment? Wouldn’t more people die every year if the police were armed with muskets?

    –Inaccurate weapons lead to civilian casualties. Better guidance systems save lives.

    –Defense mechanisms for vehicles protect soldiers for being killed.

    -A more efficient military means shorter wars. It’s the drawn out fighting and the power vacuum that we’re not strong enough to fill that lead to mass casualties.

    It’s more complicated than “guns kill people, lets not make any more guns.” I’m not saying it’s necessarily our duty to be the world’s police, and I’m certainly not saying that Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be worth it. I’m also not using the word “country,” because I’m more concerned with “world.” Unfortunately I of course have my own opinions, but I think that it’s important to always look more closely a the question that you, at this point, are.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:08 am 03/10/2014

    I would point finger not at astrophysicists, but at engineers (drones) and information scientists (mass surveillance).

    But indeed, scientists have another duty as citizens, to raise awareness and action. Ultimately, it is American nation who decides whether to elect and scrutinise own leaders. And those leaders grow defense budget at the expense of much-needed civilian research.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:13 am 03/10/2014

    I also note, that current generation of scientists seems more complacent about implications of their research that 1950′s scientists.

    Some scientists who constructed nuclear weapons became anti-war activists. But I don’t know of a single drone engineer who became anti-war activist.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:20 am 03/10/2014

    Last post: scientists too often accept selfishness and myopia: ‘I got my grant, I don’t care what army will do with it’. But ultimately, the whole society, scientists, army and everybody suffers decline.

    I don’t say that every war is unjustified, rather than USA has a history of engaging in pointless interventions and delaying needed ones. However, every single country which consistently prioritized army over development quickly failed.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Von Stupidtz 5:28 am 03/10/2014

    1) Is the U.S. promoting peace by maintaining a gigantic military empire?

    It serves as a warning to those who want to break the peace.

    2)By selling arms to the rest of the world?

    Just enough to maintain the balance of power.

    To be honest, you guys only sell obsolete stuff,Mr. Bond gets the latest stuff.

    3)Are scientists promoting peace by engaging in weapons research?

    “The best weapon is one you never have to fire”
    Scientists just make sure that such is the case.

    4)The aggressive U.S. deployment of drones has triggered an international arms race in the technology. Doesn’t this trend imperil our security?

    I like to call it “first mover advantage”

    Arms race doesn’t sound like a new trend to me. Its been going on for centuries.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Asmodeus 6:28 am 03/10/2014

    “No sane person wants war. So why can’t we end war once and for all?”

    Really, you don’t know the answer to this question? Really? And you are a scientist?

    Link to this
  10. 10. rshoff2 10:35 am 03/10/2014

    @Bremstraulang #3 – I don’t know exactly what John’s ideas are, although he has documented them in books, and I cannot speak for him. But I have an idea on how to start. We can begin with an education process that our genes/instincts do not dictate war as people believe. It’s a social construct.

    Link to this
  11. 11. solspot 12:51 pm 03/10/2014

    Mr. Horgan,
    Wasn’t your main point that Tyson does not fill the shoes of Carl Sagan? Tyson’s response completely dodged that whole point like a politician, and you let him get away with it!
    1. Tyson avoids taking a stand so that he won’t lose his audience/constituency; this is exactly what Sagan was not afraid to do.
    2. Tyson admits that he targets the electorate; ergo, his reputation as a political publicity hound who taps into Sagan’s public appeal every chance he gets.
    3. Carl Sagan did published research up to the end.
    Tyson is no heir of Carl Sagan unless he starts to take a stand against the politicization and militarization of science.

    Link to this
  12. 12. TexHarwood 1:46 pm 03/10/2014

    I believe the solution is in politics. Nation States have war powers. People would have to have a way to revoke those war powers from the nation states.

    The only way I could see this happen is for the creation of a United People to reign in the United Nations.

    The average person does not want war, only some politicians, well-meaning or mentally disturbed as they may be.

    Recently, organisations representing big global business have made progress in stripping away some of the nation states sovereignty, when some of these states’ policies are deemed as bad for business.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if these organisations came to the conclusion that war is just plain, bad for business and must be eliminated?

    On another side to this debate: What about the artist’s role in the design of weapons? Everything that is designed begins with a drawing.

    Link to this
  13. 13. TexHarwood 2:06 pm 03/10/2014

    Within science itself, would science be able to provide theories and mathematical formulas, statistics and experiments to prove the concept of war as bad or counter productive to mankind, this planet and beyond?

    Some concepts of the theory of biodiversity come to mind.

    Scientists discover chemical formulas and physics principles, but these are then converted into weapons of war by … warriors.

    Link to this
  14. 14. TexHarwood 2:19 pm 03/10/2014

    There is a difference between theoretical and applied science. If the scientist tells you something is possible, that is one thing. If the engineer tells you something is possible, watch out.

    If the theoretical scientist can prove war is bad or counter productive, the applied scientist would have to comply.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Bremsstrahlung 5:16 pm 03/10/2014

    “… our genes/instincts do not dictate war as people believe. It’s a social construct.”

    I’m sure John agrees with you.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Bremsstrahlung 5:33 pm 03/10/2014

    And a view from the other side. :)

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

    Link to this
  17. 17. Chryses 6:15 am 03/11/2014

    Bremsstrahlung,

    Well, it is Mr. Horgan’s soapbox, after all. I suppose one might indulge his prejudices here.

    Link to this
  18. 18. rshoff2 11:27 am 03/11/2014

    Bremsstrahlung – I’m not sure that John agrees with me. And I’m wouldn’t be surprised if he is spiritually minded, whereas I am definitely not. Besides, his thinking is lightyears ahead of mine and not even fair to compare.

    However, and it’s a big however, John has got me thinking about war. He’s got me recognizing the fact that we so easily believe that we are doomed to war. Too easily, in fact. Isn’t it worth a second (or third) thought?

    Certainly we have genes that govern conflict and survival. Genes that motivate us to aggressive behavior and self-defense. But the concept of socialization of peace that John has introduced to me indirectly through his blogs and interviews is also driven genetically.

    In my mind, the aggression genes belong to us as individuals. That is called a fight, not a war. War belongs to society. If we do not wish to perpetuate war as a society, we are not obligated. What if, in fact, we actually decided to nurture a society driven by our peaceful genes? Is that not as likely as a society driven by our survival genes? Is war about survival at all? How driven to war are we really, and how much is it a manifestation of society?

    So, perhaps in order to move forward we need to be willing to separate the concepts of the individual from greater society, and realize that we have social genes that are every bit as strong and relevant as we have survival genes.

    Link to this
  19. 19. rshoff2 11:32 am 03/11/2014

    ugh… more typos..

    “And I’m wouldn’t be surprised…” should be of course, “And I wouldn’t be surprised”….

    And any others. Embarrassing.

    Link to this
  20. 20. solspot 6:04 pm 03/12/2014

    Many sources will verify that, historically, war is always about land and access to resources which represent wealth; war starts from greed. If wealth is threatened, and negotiations fail, war results. There is no war gene unless there is a wealth or greed gene. Financial security is a mental construct that alleviates fear of loss. Leaders can relate this fear to any convenient ideological motivation (religion is not a requirement), or simply relate financial loss to fear of family violence (murder, rape, slavery, starvation, sickness, child perversion, and on and on…). Fear is the source of all anger and violence; but war requires greed.

    What Horgan seems to be pointing out is that scientists are as susceptible to greed as anyone else. Scientist leaders can be just as greedy as any other human leader. History shows us that technological leadership in war is not limited to the hard sciences and engineering; experts in social sciences, especially psycho-sciences, can be more devastating in war than any bombs.

    After Pearl Harbor, FDR said that our enemy is “fear itself”, which supports the above thesis. But he also knew that war profiteers, and generals greedy for glory were just as much a threat. The same can be said about scientists who are greedy for wealth, power and glory. If scientists continue to become ideologically motivated, politicized, glorified and dependent upon political contacts for funding, they will continue to lead us into war. Manipulation of genes, or invention of technological devices cannot eliminate greed. We can only eliminate war by creating a value system that shames the greedy, and a communication system that exposes them. The Bill of Rights addressed this solution: Freedom of a responsible press, freedom of responsible speech, beliefs and values.

    All that Tyson has to do, all that we need to do as scientists, is support that agenda of tolerance and responsibility. Unfortunately, Tyson and other scientists (and science writers!) are becoming so political, and have been so intolerant of the beliefs of non-scientists, that it would take a major attitude change. We can only hope.

    Link to this
  21. 21. FlexibleArrangement 6:06 am 03/15/2014

    @20. solspot

    “war starts from greed.”

    There are other casus belli. Religion is an example.

    “We can only hope.”

    Pandora would agree with you.

    Link to this

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