Culture Watch

“My” scientists

Throughout my time on college campuses the men and women of happiest hope and cheer have been, more often than not, science persons. Theirs is the house of optimism, the truest faith in the future of mind. The other weekend I served in a work party with some topranked scientists, and good humor was in the equation from the start. A Cal Tech eminence apostrophized his pet, a cat named Caspar Weinberger. A mathematician entertained at lunch by remembering (nearly total recall) the discipline of geography as visited upon schoolchildren in his day and mine. (“Georgia produces naval stores!”) During the group’s first evening together, after dinner, a distinguished medical man dealt amusing damnation on the new dogmas of “holistic” medical care. The specific target was an urban health care project shaped (or maddened) by the universal longing for “added years.” People by the thousands, it seems, are enrolled in a large-scale effort to beat the death rap by Controlling The Variables. One doesn’t just think right caloric intake in this system. One thinks right nap, right anger, right drink, right jogging, right sex, right employment, right air ... A mistake—brio after a party, celebration cigar, late-night skinny dip, or a missed pushup at dawn-shoots a week, maybe more, of bonus life. “It’s always an extra eleven years you’re promised, why eleven?”

That same night, the room suddenly turning quiet, a chemist described an experiment involving bugs done by a friend interested in waves. The focus of research interest was responsiveness—the pace of natural knowing. A scorpion is placed on a bed of sand . . . Some feet away, a considerable distance behind the creature, a pencil point is lowered toward the bed with immeasurable slowness and gentleness, with in fact a pressure so light that, when it does touch down, the measuring apparatus will register nothing, “not a tick on the dial” ... At last the pencil point grazes the top grains of sand, contact not actually visible to the eye. Whap! The scorpion flings about combat-ready, as though tremor in a microfilament were some kind of crashing boot.

“There you are,” said a second voice, someone across the table grinning at my concentration. “If we knew what they know, you see—what nature knows . . .”

“If we knew!” exclaimed the chemist who told the story. He paused, brightened. “Yes. Well, we’d try to imitate. We could try is the idea. If we knew.”

Entertainment, in a word, sociability, instruction. Now and then, though, I heard a sound less buoyant and, in company of this sort, less familiar— complaint and dourness . . . conventional English Common Room sounds. Research funds vanishing. White House coolness to science advisers. Decisions to put complex energy issues on state ballots for settlement by the electorate. A chemist talked bitterly about the impossibility of clarifying the true nature of the choices, about resource depletion rates, safety records, and controls in nuclear energy plants. Meanwhile, we’re running out, the man said, gesturing with a white-knuckled fist. It’s not hysteria. Houses will freeze some winter, factories shut down. “We’re heading straight for an Ice Age if we don’t move but the word doesn’t get out.”

What’s more, people kept reverting to federal and other surveillance—"harassment” of researchers in the name of public safety, shallow media “investigations” of the FDA alleging federal softness on drug manufacturers. Twice during the weekend I heard, from researchers in different fields, a story (a myth?) about the “bureaucrats who blew the whistle on thalidomide.” The line was that whistle-blowing desk-commandos have been blowing ceaselessly ever since they were awarded whistles. “National heroes,” said one complainant. “You forget that these people say No over and over, never say anything but No, years and years of it . . . Dozens of reliable, useful, fully safe treatments, drugs, whatever, senselessly held up for retesting—blocked off, sent back. If you always say No, you’re bound to be right about something in the end. But it’s not protection, it’s cruelty.”

What do you do about it? I asked, unsettled.

“Quit. Quit in the end. Let it all dribble away.”

It’s easy, of course, to exaggerate and melodramatize. The after-dinner critique of holistic medicine and biochemical eleven-pluses was meant as a thrust at vulgarization of science, but the overall tone wasn’t bad-tempered. The chemist who warned of an “Ice Age” to come trembled with deep belief as he spoke but his apocalyptic passion wasn’t shared by the colleague who answered:

Second Chemist: “It needn’t be the end. We can—”

First Chemist: “Why? How can it not be the end?”

Second Chemist (smiling gently): “People could learn. There’s time.”

First Chemist: “Everybody? You need everybody.”

Second Chemist: “I believe in the possibility of conservation.”

First Chemist: “Of course. You conserve. I conserve. I don’t call that hope.”

Second Chemist: “There has to be hope.”

Then, too. there was the subtle scorpion and other bits suggesting that joy survives—enthusiasm for the potentially fathomable mystery, for the endlessly teasing worlds out there. Still, the impression left was that the greatest human adventure, science, was on a downer. Each time the negative current began flowing, I found myself thinking, Friends, please, you mustn’t, that’s our song, the humanist blues, truly the willow doesn’t weep for you. Stereotypes about sunny scientists are embarrassing, but believing in the need for differences among the academic divisions isn’t a mistake. Ideas have ages and science ideas are young, whereas teaching well on the humanities side means learning young to sound old, being old before your time, mastering an accent in your twenties that will prevent you from sounding absurd reading Oedipus at Colonus out loud. But elsewhere . . .

There’s a chance that infecting everybody with the tragic sense of life may wreck the balance of intellectual nature.


Harold Schilling’s The New Consciousness in Science and Religion (Pilgrim Press. $7.95) is a badly written book on a vast subject, full of exclamations, seldom mentally poised in its optimism. Its central assertion is that the gift to humankind of “unprecedented creative and transformative power for building the world of the future" is in fundamental harmony with the open nature of the universe and might well be called “God.” The book’s argument gathers force from well-chosen passages from philosophers of science, and drives hard against science-angst. Schilling’s notion is that possession of the gifts he celebrates carries with it two perils. The first is that humanity will exaggerate its own powers, see itself as God, miss the truth that divinity and meaning lie in the shaping spirit of potentiality, in endless openness, not in individual Eustaces and Eustacias. The other peril is that people will underestimate the power they’ve been awarded, will chicken out instead of recognizing and exploiting the tremendous new possibilities emergent hereabouts. A scientist turned in middle life toward theology, Schilling claims it’s the second peril that’s more to be feared. The New Consciousness is a cheerleading work in some chapters, a plain old locomotive for S-C-I-E-N-C-E, and persons of elegant taste in either culture will back off from that. But there’s a time for cheerleading, as well as for sane warnings, viz: “. . our deadliest danger: that we

may in our chronic shortsightedness fail to recognize the new doors that will be opening to us, or, if we do recognize them, [won’t] have the courage or will to enter them. What a tragedy that would be!”

5-10 chances in a million

Home from my science party, eager to play advocate, I pick up a current Scientific American, open to the lead piece, and feel my weekend clarities pitch and shake. Looking into research practices, a writer finds that:

* A significant number of officially qualified U.S. medical researchers would not hesitate to expose members of a control group of healthy children to the risk of contracting leukemia by injecting radioactive calcium into

their bones for experimental purposes.

* Researchers based at one major hospital bothered only slightly more often than not to tell patients to whom they administered an experimental drug that it could be harmful to them.

* In a drug research project involving fifty-one pregnant women, more than half the patients were under the impression that they were required to take an untested drug as a condition of admittance to the delivery room.

The author of the piece, which excoriated medical researchers for failure to police themselves, was Professor Bernard Barber, chairman of the sociology department at Barnard and a member of Columbia’s “Human Subjects Review Committee.” Summarizing recent scandals and steps taken by the federal government to protect human subjects from violations of rights and dignity, he acknowledged what my scientists had made plain—that the regulations, commissions, and councils now overseeing research, and all interference in medical activities by outsiders, are viewed by many investigators as “onerous and even dangerous.” But he then went on to set forth the results of a study indicating that the abuse of human subjects in medical experimentation qualifies as an important “new social problem,” and that more social control, not less, is probably the current need.

Scary stuff indeed, these results. To secure them, Prof. Barber devised six hypothetical experiments and submitted them to investigators and administrators in hospitals and research centers, asking whether and under what conditions each experiment would be approved. One example, an attempt to study bone metabolism in children suffering from a serious bone disease, proposed to give radioactive calcium to children with the disease and also to a control group, “measuring its uptake by bone.” The protocol explaining the experiment noted that the size of the radioactive dose “would only very slightly (say, by 5-10 chances in a million) increase the probability of the subjects involved contracting leukemia or experiencing other problems in the long run.” But while a majority of reviewers did turn the experiment down, 14 percent of them said they would approve it “even if the odds were only one in ten that it would lead to an important medical discovery.”

Comparable attitudes surfaced not only in “a significant minority” of responses to the remaining five experiments, but, as Barber pointed out, in

related probes previously conducted by investigators in other fields. The carelessness of many medical researchers about securing “informed consent” when using untested drugs was particularly striking. At one famous university hospital and research center, where a new “labor-inducing drug” was used on pregnant women, each of whom signed a consent form, only 39 percent were aware that they were “subjects of research.” Most of the women did not understand that:

. . . there might be hazards, that it was a double-blind experiment that they would be subjected to special monitoring and test procedures or that they were not required to participate; four of the women said they would have refused to participate if they had known there was any choice. Many of the women had been referred for the study by their private physician, but instead of being informed that an experimental drug was to be administered they were told that it would be a “new” drug; they trusted their doctor and assumed that “new” meant “better.”

Given this kind of evidence that human concerns are often left at the laboratory door, why were “my” scientists sore at bureaucratic interference, social control, and the like? Were they in fact oblivious to ethical questions? Prof. Barber found his answers in failures of professional education, and in the social structure of competition and rewards. His survey disclosed that the most permissive behavior in experimentation in human subjects occurs among scientists on the make—“the relatively unsuccessful . . . striving for recognition . . . caught up in the socially structured competitive system of science . . . pursuing the prize of peer recognition . . . [overvaluing] scientific work as against humane therapy.”

As highly successful figures, my scientists were morally isolated, certain of their own standards but removed from levels of their discipline where suspicion of impropriety isn’t, to judge from the record, an impertinence or irrelevance. The Scientific American piece (February 1976) supports the notion that it’s meretriciousness, not science, now under fire; if my friends read it, they might buck up.

Profession power

But is bucking up the true need? Low morale at the upper levels of the scientific community is one problem. Another is research ethics and public control. Another is inadequate diffusion of information about energy resources. I’d argue, furthermore, that encapsulation at the top—the absence of conversancy among professional leaders with standards and practices other than those of their peers—is yet another problem and not only in medical research but in virtually every profession. The case is that a dozen items fall in what Bernard Barber describes as the “class of problems created by the impact of professionals and professional power on the general public and on public policy.” And the professional continues to see himself as man of destiny, our savior. The other day the head of the National Institute for Education announced publicly that this country already has the “technical and economic means" for providing equality of education for every citizen and “. . . right now we are gathering the knowledge needed to put that vision into effect.”Heaven ahead.

Last winter a bill aimed at developing fresh perspectives on the professions was introduced in Congress by Rep. John Brademas. It called for creation of a National Professions Foundation, modeled on existing federal arts and humanities foundations. The preamble contains some intelligent comments about the lack of attention paid to the “manner in which the public professions affect the quality ot life,” and about failures to anticipate “the impact upon the Nation of new developments in education, medicine, science, business, law, technology,” etc. The bill calls for coordinating the public professions that are now sealed off from each other as they address the same or interlocking public problems. And it proposes to finance studies aimed at improving curriculums in professional schools (of 300 medical investigators responding to Prof. Barber’s surveys, only one person had ever had a course devoted to issues in research ethics), and other efforts to acquaint the professions with their own internal grounds for pride and shame.

in Washington recently, feeling civicminded, interdisciplinary, and self-conscious simultaneously, I inquired about this piece of legislation, and learned that it isn’t a hot ticket in the Education and Labor Committee; Rep. Brademas himself points out that he introduced it only “by request” of others. I wonder whether something like it, with safeguards against government control, shouldn’t be made a cause.