Who is Mr. Piel? He is an American, a Harvard graduate (1937 magna cum laude), and a journalist who has devoted his career to the promotion of public understanding of science. From 1947 to 1984 he was president and publisher of Scientific American and is now its chairman. (In 1984 his son, Jonathan Piel, became editor.) He is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), America’s premier scientific organization. He has been elected to the Harvard board of overseers twice and has been, or is, a trustee of Radcliffe College, New York University, and the Mayo Foundation. He has received various prizes for popularization of science and in 1980 was the Magazine Publishers Association’s Publisher of the Year. In short, he is a well-educated American who, although not famous, is of more than average distinction and influence; a man of achievement who, although associated with science, is not himself an egghead. A biographical sketch notes “he flunked physics and at Harvard he kept a respectful distance between himself and such subjects.”
Why did he go to Moscow? To be conferred with an honorary degree (Doctor Honoris Causa) by Moscow State University. What did he say in Moscow? Before we consider his acceptance speech it is worthwhile to enter the spirit of the occasion—a public event at a major university in Soviet Russia.
Official Communist doctrine would have been the approved language of discourse. This system purports to be a scientific form of government. Marx and Engels punctuated their writings with allusions to the physical sciences intended to suggest by association that their theories of economics and politics were as well-founded as the law of gravity. For example, Engels’ pamphlet “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” argued that Marxism is scientific socialism, whereas other brands of socialism are mere meanderings of wishywashy idealists. Lenin also invoked science when he defined the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In “The State and Revolution” he wrote: “The scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more or less than authority untrammelled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any laws whatever, and based directly on violence.” Since Lenin’s time the use of the name of science to endorse Communist rule has continued; a biography of Brezhnev published in the U.S. in 1978 was written by members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Some members of Mr. Piel’s audience may have had doubts about Communism, particularly its claims to be scientific, but, well aware of the high cost of public dissent in the Soviet Union, they would have kept their doubts to themselves. But Mr. Piel, an American, has the good fortune to be a citizen of the freest country in the world. Since he would not, therefore, have been under any government coercion to promote a particular viewpoint, we must assume his words were sincere. He said, in part: “During the past four centuries science has been liberating increasing numbers, now nearly one-third, of mankind from toil and want and even from submission to received authority.”
Who are these people, amounting to almost a third of the world population, who are liberated from toil and want by science? The present world population is five billion and a third of this is 1.7 billion, so the group certainly cannot be the Western democracies (USA, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan), whose total population is only 0.7 billion. On the other hand, the 1.6 billion total population of the Communist countries (USSR, its East European empire, mainland China, Vietnam, plus a few less populous countries) is slightly less than 1.7 billion. In other words, the Communist world amounts to nearly one-third of mankind and appears to be the only meaningful group that fits this description. The 2.3 billion combined population of the Western and Communist blocs is significantly more than one-third of mankind, so it also seems clear that the group in question cannot include the Western democracies.
Mr. Piel’s view of the statistics of global liberation, his argument (made earlier in his lecture) that science is the proper context for Communism (in view of its claims to be a scientific form of government), and the circumstances of his lecture—all these factors must have combined to give his audience the strong impression that he sees Communism as the science that has liberated “nearly one-third of mankind from toil and want.” In fact, this is probably the message that any potential listener would have heard.
The belief that Communism liberates people does not deserve comment, though Communist ideology does liberate one small group of people—the Communist elite who rule the people in the name of the people. More than 150 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated the paradoxical possibility that a ruling minority might use “the interests of society” as a shield to protect their power and privilege. He wrote: “Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants.” It was the Communist elite who were Mr. Piel’s hosts and on whose behalf he spoke, knowingly or not.
If Mr. Piel’s support of Communism has no objective basis, why does he sound like a Soviet propaganda mouthpiece? Can there be a subjective explanation? Does he have some reason for resenting the U.S. or the free enterprise system? This is hardly likely. In fact, since he and some colleagues bought the title to Scientific American in 1947, the magazine has prospered. So much so that for some years now Scientific American has been one of the best-known popular science magazines, both in the U.S. and internationally. With monthly sales of 600,000 it has also been one of the most successful commercially (despite losing money in the last year or two).
The abilities, hard work, and guidance provided by Mr. Piel and his associates were undoubtedly major factors in this success story. The measure of this success became evident in the summer of 1986 when a West German publisher bought the privately owned company Scientific American, Inc. for $52.6 million. (As part of the deal. Scientific American will continue to operate as an independent enterprise with Mr. Piel continuing as chairman and his son as editor and publisher. Higher offers, which did not include this guarantee of the editorial policy’s continuation, were refused.) A news item in Nature (10 July 1986) reported Mr. Piel’s shareholding in the bought-out company as about one-sixth, in which case his share of the sale would have been about $9 million.
His trip to the Soviet Union to hobnob with the Soviet ruling class was nothing new. For more than 50 years now, fellow travelers have been visiting the land of the victorious proletariat, telling the inhabitants that they are liberated from “toil and want,” and then returning to the security and comfort of the unliberated Western democracies. What is new is to see pronouncements such as Mr. Piel’s published in the pages of the most prestigious journal of American science.
Science, whose scholarly pages enlighten readers with peer-reviewed research papers, authoritative review articles, and news items, and which has a weekly circulation of 160,000, presented Mr. Piel’s words as an editorial (17 January 1986 issue), along with a footnote which made it clear that it was an excerpt from his Moscow State University address.
Although the appearance of discreetly packaged Soviet propaganda in Science was an isolated event—a bland globalism characterizes the typical Science editorial on the world scene—it highlighted the extent of science journalism’s politicization. The mental texture is routine nuts-and-berries leftism, but with a new spice added by activist senior scientists who, since their participation in the construction of the American nuclear bomb, have been on an extended guilt trip.
Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) promote this political agenda. A January 1986 UCS letter to solicit new members opens:
President Reagan’s relentless drive to develop “Star Wars” has become the major obstacle to arms control.
At the Geneva summit, our President wasted an unprecedented opportunity to negotiate with the Soviets. . . .
Apparently the 1980’s have modified the 1960’s slogan “We must not negotiate through fear, but we must not fear to negotiate” to the simpler “We must negotiate.”
Mr. Piel retired from the presidency of the AAAS, which publishes Science, in 1986, but during his term both he and the president of the American Physical Society served on the interlocking boards of the FAS, the UCS, the Arms Control Association, and the Pugwash movement. So it’s no surprise to find these organizations’ politics reflected in the content of scientific journals.
It is Scientific American itself which affords the most powerful example. At first blush this would seem to be an improbable suggestion; articles on the origin of the solar system or innovative laser applications in manufacturing do not afford much scope for political bias. But the magazine also has frequent articles about military subjects, particularly nuclear weapons. Since the late 1940’s it has featured over 100 such articles, most of them appearing in the last 20 years.
Although the subject of nuclear weapons is unavoidably political—no one would claim that nuclear bombs are built to satisfy scientific curiosity—there is nothing wrong, per se, with articles about them. It was the discoveries of science that made nuclear weapons possible, and it is essential that scientists should be able to engage in public discussion of their significance.
But it is precisely this political context—the momentous question of whether the Western democracies will survive, or succumb to, totalitarian encroachment—which Scientific American consistently ignores. So great is the gap between the magazine’s implicit view of the U.S. position and the actual position in which the U.S. finds itself that a hypothetical U.S. citizen whose sole source of information about the wider world is Scientific American would be at a loss to understand why his fellow citizens bear the burden of maintaining a large, modern military.
Instead, the magazine retreats into an escapist world where increases of U.S. military strength decrease U.S. security, while increases of Soviet military strength increase U.S. security. The reader is not subjected to anything so crude as a declarative sentence—rather, he is invited to see modernization of the U.S. military in a negative light with the Soviet dictatorship as a benign background figure. A 1982 article by Randall Forsberg promoting the nuclear freeze provided an example. At that time (November 1982), when NATO was still a year away from initial deployment of new U.S. Pershing II intermediate-range missiles and cruise missiles, the nuclear freeze’s crucial feature was that it would prohibit such deployment while making no demands on the USSR, which was in the process of deploying an estimated 900 warheads on its new SS-20 intermediate-range missiles targeted at Western Europe. “The new SS-20’s actually reduce the nuclear threat to Western Europe compared with the old SS-4’s and SS-5’s they are replacing,” stated the article and then soothed any misgivings about this perspective with suitable rationalization.
The magazine’s authoritative popular-level articles about science, technology, and medicine, which by their nature are completely apolitical, are a surprisingly effective vehicle for its political agenda. Even though most people have little or no knowledge of science, they are aware that “in terms of the fulfillment of declared intentions, science is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon.” They hold science in high regard and, by association, are disposed to hold science-related publications in high regard as well.
Scientific American is a prestigious magazine. Eighty-seven Nobel prizewinners have written for it, and the New York Times calls it “this country’s and perhaps the world’s outstanding forum for communication between the scientists and the intelligent public.” In its promotional material. Scientific American goes further, billing itself as “The Final Authority.” (This boastfulness would make most scientists nervous. Scientists do not expect to uncover ultimate truths; their realization that as the island of knowledge grows so its shoreline with the surrounding ocean of ignorance becomes longer and longer instills a natural sense of humility.) Sad to say. Scientific American dispenses not science but a mixture of science and the politics of The Nation.