Should the Scientist Be King?

Two years after Hitler came to power, the Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller left Germany for the United States to escape politics and retreat into the laboratory. But no scientist in the 20th century has been more involved in politics than Teller. An eminent and controversial figure, Teller worked with many of the most brilliant scientists of his generation—Bohr, Fermi, Szilard and Oppenheimer. Often called “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” Teller is coming to be known a

Nov 2, 1987
Edward Teller

Two years after Hitler came to power, the Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller left Germany for the United States to escape politics and retreat into the laboratory. But no scientist in the 20th century has been more involved in politics than Teller. An eminent and controversial figure, Teller worked with many of the most brilliant scientists of his generation—Bohr, Fermi, Szilard and Oppenheimer. Often called “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” Teller is coming to be known as “the father of SDI,” President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. His involvement in both projects has earned him both the praise and the scorn of scientists and nonscientists alike. In his book Better a Shield Than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense & Technology (Free Press, 1987) Teller reflects on his life and offers his views on a range of science, technology and defense issues. In an interview with THE SCIENTIST (September 21, 1987, p. 14) Teller said “I am afraid that science is getting more politicized. I think it would be better if scientists spent less time on politics. “In the following excerpt from the book, Teller argues that scientists should not decide how their findings are used.

EDWARD TELLER

The rapid advancement of science has made our small globe an extremely dangerous place. And who is to blame? Scientists, of course. They should now find the means to rescue us from our superabundance of power. That is their moral responsibility. Furthermore, science has become too complicated; knowledge is advancing too rapidly. The layman can hardly understand the new problems and certainly cannot solve them. Better leave it to the scientists. Ideas of that kind are often implied. What is, indeed, the responsibility of a scientist? How are his activities related to the concrete, horrible danger that faces us, the possibility of a third world war? When the scientists were told that they were responsible, many were ready to respond. Whey they were told that they were the only ones clever enough to accept the heavy burden, there was little protest.

In the age of science, should the scientist be king? The question is not new. According to Greek tradition, Socrates discussed it, and scientists in turn have read the words ascribed to him. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates expounds ideas about how an ideal community should be governed. He proposes that all power should be exercised by a small number of people who have received a most rigorous education. They should own no property, devote their lives to the commonwealth, and live together as in a military camp. Having proved through many years of apprenticeship that they are strong, wise and unselfish, those guardians, as Plato calls them, should take over the unchecked, unlimited direction of the state. Those highly educated, highly dedicated people are more commonly called philosopher-kings. In the modern state, such kings would be picked not from the ranks of philosophers but from the ranks of scientists.

Is there any sense in the argument that the scientist should make the decisions? Is it true that because a scientist conceived of the atom and put it to use, he should now say what to do with it? Do we insist that the men who make the laws, the legislators, apply those laws? Or do we rather separate the powers of Congress from that of the judges? Do we insist that our generals who know most about war make the decisions between peace and war? In a democracy we say that the powers should be divided, and the ultimate power must belong to the people.

I deeply believe that not practicing democracy, leaving the decisions to scientists, is dangerous for our country. Scientists need not and should not make the decisions about the uses of science and technology. Scientists have been trained in a peculiar manner. They are faced with surprising and sharply defined situations; they deal with puzzles that are like chess problems. With all the elements in hand, they make a choice. It may be difficult, but it can be done. And once the solution is found, there is no doubt about it.

Political decisions call for different abilities. They call for an understanding of a great number of facts. They call for decisions made on the basis of insufficient evidence. More than anything, politics calls for feeling and for compromise—things that the scientist in his magnificent but sharply circumscribed field has no occasion to practice. When he deals with the intricate but consistent web of nature, he may be a genius. In the ever changing world of human relations, he is a child.

Scientists have responsibilities that are real and great. The scientist must try to understand nature and to extend man’s use of that understanding. When a scientist has learned what he can learn and built what he can build, his work is not yet done. He must also explain in clear and simple terms what he has found and what he has constructed. And there his responsibility as a scientist ends. The decision on how to use the results of science is not his. The right and the duty to make such decisions belong to the people.

As a citizen. the scientist must contribute to decisions. He must do so no less and no more than a farmer, an artist; or any other member of our democracy. But what man of conviction can remember the necessary distinctions in the heat of an argument? In an ideal sense the scientist’s responsibility is limited. By being limited it is enhanced. What he has to do, no one can do in his stead. And the last of his job, to explain clearly and objectively his results, may well turn out to be superhuman. Who can be objective? Who can separate undeniable facts from implied conclusions? Let us be eontent if the scientist attempts to be honest. Let us not assume that he is unprejudiced. But let us require that he name his prejudices. Free debate between prejudiced advocates is a tortuous road toward truth. But it has proved more reliable than any straight doctrine.

The scientist has done his full duty only if he becomes a participant of our vital, multi-colored democratic society. Our society is “embroidered with every kind of flower” and of those flowers, science is one of the most beautiful. Its beauty is indeed due to a constraining rule, not to possession of truth, not to authority based on truth, but rather to the endless search for truth and continued sharings of every new truth and every new problem with his fellow citizens.

In discussing science, scientists and the paradoxical system called democracy, I have disagreed with positions attributed to scientists and sometimes advocated by them. Nevertheless, there is nothing I value more than science. By that I claim no special preeminence or privileges as a ruler. In human life and particularly in the life of a democracy, many points of excellence are of highest value.

For the mountain climber, the conquest of the summit is the only real passion. For the musician, nothing exists even vaguely comparable to the magnificence of music. The tiller of the soil knows in his bones that everything starts and ends in good earth. For the physician there can be no more exalted profession than to give health and life. A dedicated politician is deeply aware of the fact that he is carrying a superhuman responsibility on his all-too-human shoulders, and that knowledge gives him courage and strength. In our world there must be many perfections.

The perfection of science has a special role, because our age is the age of science. It is science that changes our lives, habits, hopes and fears from decade to decade. Science is the motor that propels us with increasing speed into an uncertain future. Still, the scientist should not be in the driver’s seat.

Today, scientists are actually in control of one nation. In Taiwan, approximately one-half of the highest government offices are held by experts in the natural sciences. Most of them are American-educated chemists, mathematicians, engineers, or physicists. They have helped to improve the living standard on a small, resource-poor island. In 1950 the Taiwanese were no better off than the people on the subcontinent of India. In 1986 they are as prosperous as Israel.

Who should govern is one of the mankind’s oldest and least tractable questions. The scientists of Taiwan have made a sizable contribution to the well-being of their nation. However, the role of those scientists does not persuade me that in the age of science the scientist should be king. Taiwan’s system of government currently resembles Plato’s republic in several respects. However, the Taiwanese situation lacks wide applicability as an example of scientist-kings: No one will claim that those scientists are perfect.

Teller is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.

Copyright © 1987 by The Free Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.