The Challenges of Science


By FRANK B. JEWETT, President, Bell Telephone Laboratories, New York City

Delivered before Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Washington, D. C., Tuesday, April 30, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 574-576.

FOR more than a decade there has been a rising tide of writing, discussion and oratory on the "Challenge to Science." During these terrible depression years it has become a popular indoor sport. To my way of thinking, most of it is largely sound and fury generated either by sloppy superficial thinking; by the normal human tendency to over-simplify a complex condition and pick out a scapegoat or whipping boy for castigation in a Roman holiday, or in some cases by a conscious effort to produce a smoke screen designed to hide something else.

Involved in it all is a large element of an extremely common human characteristic which is the very antithesis of the scientific method. It is the characteristic which finds its complete flowering in our approach to many social and most political problems, namely, an appeal to our emotions before we know the facts. As a consequence we frequently find ourselves in the absurd position of attempting to warp facts into the pattern of our preconceived ideas of what we think ought to be or of seeking data that can be dressed up to appear factual, for face-saving purposes.

That science and its fruits are a major if not a paramount factor in the problems which confront men today is patent. The Challenges involved in Science are as numerous, varied, and important as the human interests which they touch. In the main, however, the Challenges are those of and not to Science. Attempts to direct our thinking into the to category are mere shadow boxing and action based on forensics or intricate legal enactments not in consonance with fundamental laws is merely the building of mud dams in a futile endeavor to prevent the waters of an inexhaustible flood from running down hill. Such dykes may for a moment deflect or retard the streams; they may serve temporarily the self-interest of an individual, a group or even a nation. In the end, however, they will break and when they do the destruction of the pent up flood will leave in its wake a mass of wreckage far worse than anything which an intelligent direction of the original flood would have produced. About all that can be said in favor of the dam-building theory is that the wreckage is something for our children rather than for us to clean up.

The fundamental reason that the Challenges involved in Science are of and not to it is grounded in two innate characteristics of man himself—curiosity and self-interest. He has always been interested to fathom the unknown and has always sought to develop and exploit to the full every new tool or device which offered promise of serving his self-interest or his existence.

Science holds out indubitable promise of new tools and new devices and it is inconceivable that men will not seek to exploit them. This would be so for us even if we were isolated and protected from the rest of mankind. In a war-torn world where we are neither isolated nor protected and where others are bending every effort to speed up the tool-making process, it would be suicidal for us to turn our backs on what Science has to offer.

Further, the Challenge is not what we do but how we do it. Our problem is to set the greatest total benefit at the least total cost—using both benefit and cost in their broad overall sense. No matter what we do or how we do it, we can not escape paying some price in dislocation of established customs and values or in individual human suffering but we can, if we are wise and tolerant, avoid paying the extreme price being exacted elsewhere in the virtual mass elimination of individual freedom.

If there is an exception to the thesis that mainly the Challenges are of Science—if in fact there is a broad challenge of society to science—it is the challenge to do faster, further and on a broader front. To see this we have onlyto look through and beyond the smoke of discussion about current so-called technological unemployment which is raging here in the United States but practically nowhere else in the world. Everywhere society is putting pressure, direct and indirect, on fundamental science to discover new and better building blocks and on applied science to use these blocks in the creation of new, cheaper or more powerful machines, using that term in a broad sense.

The pressure comes both from the sectors of peaceful usage and of war. Even here in America the influence of the urge from the sector of potential war is great, as any of us who are brought in daily contact with it can testify. In the rest of a war-torn world it is for the time being paramount. But everywhere, and particularly here in the United States, is the ever present powerful pressure of peaceful desires. For any one of a thousand reasons, individual or collective, we want more, better and cheaper things, be they goods or services. Wherever science holds the key to these desires, society exerts pressure to turn it. Sometimes it is the pressure of imagination which sees entirely new scientific applications. More often it is the pressure of individual or group endeavor to escape from the strangling forces of an ever-increasing economic burden and for which science appears to offer the only avenue of deliverance.

Sometimes these forces are direct and explicit, as for example in society's regulation of public services privately performed. Here there is a continuous positive force acting always in the direction of more extensive, better and cheaper operation. Far more extensive are the indirect forces which operate on all alike to achieve the same end. Among such are the ever-increasing load of taxation; of costs for elaborate reports and records; or artificial restrictions on wages and hours of work; of costly litigation, and of a hundred and one similar non-productive burdens.

We are not here concerned with the question of whether these things are necessary or desirable in the evolution of society. Nor are we interested in an academic discussion of whether they may not be Nature's way of providing occupation for men and women who in an earlier age would have been forced to engage directly in the manual operations of producing goods or services. All that concerns us here is their effect on science. That effect has been enormous and in the last analysis springs from the primordial instinct of self-preservation we all possess.

Wherever through science there is hope of survival and escape by a more extensive employment of inanimate nature, the force and challenge will be applied to science. This is true not only as regards the individual but as regards the group and the nation as well. As one looks back over the history of the past decade or so, it seems clear that the influence of these indirect forces has been enormously accelerated. In passing it might be pointed out that many of these indirect forces are not local but are generated by what men are going with science in distant parts of the world.

In connection with the argument for intelligent direction of natural forces as against unintelligent effort to thwart them, it may not be inappropriate to call attention to a common experience in science and engineering. Usually in dealing with a new problem involving many interrelated factors, which while recognized are not fully understood, there is a turmoil of trouble. In such cases it is the universal experience that when any key factor is fully understood and utilized in accordance with that understanding a great number of difficulties disappear almost automatically.

Feeling as I do about science and the problems and challenges which inhere in it, it seems to me that the best contribution I can make to this Forum is to elaborate a bit on why there can be no real Challenge to Science and then point out what seem to me to be the inescapable Challenges of Science to society.

The real reason that there is no substance in a Challenge to Science is that Science is fundamentally nothing but a concept of the best, most powerful and quickest method man has ever devised for extracting accurate certain knowledge (useful or otherwise) from the vast conglomerate of the unknown. Its handmaidens are the techniques which ingenious men have developed in many fields to assist them in digging out some particular bit of new knowledge or in solving some particular problem. The process is always and everywhere the same. It starts with a mental hypothesis about the unknown based on a knowledge of the known, followed by a series of rigidly controlled experiments designed to evaluate one factor at a time. Whether the initial hypothesis is right or wrong, old or new, is of little consequence since it is on the results of proven experience that future action depends. Emotion plays no part in the process and it is an axiom of the scientific method that an hypothesis is cast into the discard without regret if it can not be supported by fact. It is equally axiomatic that even the most ancient and venerated hypothesis which has withstood innumerable assaults must die when confronted with a single proven fact that it can not explain.

In the 150 or 200 years that science and the scientific method have been growing and expanding into new fields in an ever-accelerated fashion, there has grown up a curious phenomenon among the men who have devoted their lives to some branch of it. As a group and without regard to field of interest, race or nationality, they, more possibly than any other group, have the capacity to fight, quarrel and cudgel each other lustily but without rancor, at the science hustings and to drop their disputes completely on the appearance of an established fact. To what extent this is the result of their occupation in a common field and to what extent it is because the occupation may attract everywhere only men of similar characteristics, I do not know. I feel quite sure, however, that the disciplines of science play no inconsiderable part in the result because most scientists and engineers confronted with questions in fields outside their own where rationalization by the scientific method is at present non-existent or essentially impossible, act just as emotionally as any one else. To the extent that discipline in the scientific method influences not only the result but also the ability of men to live amicably together, it may be one of the Challenges Science presents to society.

Being a simple intellectual concept, which during the past two centuries has spread to every nook and cranny of the world and taken hold directly or indirectly of the imagination of millions of men, science is not something which can be challenged successfully except by some other simple concept. Such a concept would have to be one that commanded universal appeal as offering something of greater human value than inheres in the future of science. It would have to be a sort of world-wide religious fervor. At the moment nothing of the sort is in sight.

What now are the fundamental factors in science which present and govern the major challenges it presents to society? For the moment we need not concern ourselves with questions raised in a single industry or even in a single sector of science. These are mainly local affairs akin to the skirmishes which accompany a major battle. They may be very real and sanguinary for those involved but individually they play little part in the larger conflict. Three things should be clearly understood at the outset—

1. What we are talking about when we discuss Challenges is Science as it affects us through application and use of its results. Excitement and debate about science merely as knowledge is merely a modern version of discussing the number of angels that can stand on a pin point.

2. Qualitatively the effects of modern science are not different in kind or quality from those which have existed since man devised the first tool to make a new or better product or one which required less human labor in its operation. Always the introduction of a new thing has acted in the same way. It has been used to further both the arts of peace and those of war. It has always stirred up exactly the same type of discussion we are now engaged in. Long before the term "science" was invented, men struggled to limit or prohibit as well as to encourage the use of new and strangle things which tended to alter the established ways of life to which they were habituated. Always they have used the same arguments but never have they succeeded in stopping for long the onward trend or of altering the human urge that gave rise to it.

3. That what makes the matter so important to us is due to two things: (a) the number and magnitude of the changes which applied science has introduced and is introducing, the rapidity with which we are being called on to cope with them, and the practical certainty that the problem is destined to become harder rather than easier; and (b) that it is a problem for us and not one which confronted our forebears.

Mention has already been made of what, basically, science is and of the fact that two centuries of operation have proved its power to extract, understand thoroughly and utilize new knowledge. During these two centuries, and quite apart from the material effects which science has brought about, three things which bear on our future have been made clear:

1. The volume of the known, and hence the number of starting points for excursions into the unknown, has been vastly augmented.

2. Knowledge of science and its methods has been spread among all civilized men and all have access to a common store of information. Rightly or wrongly it is a basic tenet of science that new knowledge should be promptly and widely disseminated. The result is that tens of thousands of trained men everywhere are at work blasting out and using new knowledge.

3. There is no scintilla of evidence that biologically man has changed an iota in the period. He has a greater fund of knowledge, yes, but the mainsprings of his desires and actions are the same. He is still motivated by curiosity, love, fear, hate, self-interest (as he understands self-interest) and the multitude of other things which determine his thoughts and actions. So long as science holds out the prospect of new things useful to man, they, or some of them, will think it advantageous to secure them.

Does science hold out this prospect and, if so, how far and how certainly can we look into the future?

That there is a vast unknown yet to be explored is certain. What it may contain we do not know but of some things we are as certain as men can ever be in dealing with a future rather than a past.

Recent work in nuclear physics, in chemistry and in the biological and medical sciences has given indisputable evidence of new things, new forms of energy and new controls of life hitherto unknown. That these will be mere accretions to our store of interesting knowledge but without useful application by man is inconceivable. While no one cansay with certainty what or where the use will be, no one at all conversant with the facts is likely to argue that the applied science of the future will be less revolutionary than that of the past or that it will present fewer problems to society.

Nor is there, so far as I can see, any nourishment in an isolationist or defeatist attitude. With man and science being what they are, no nation, even one infinitely more endowed with all of location, brains and material resources than is the United States, could or would dare to refrain from utilizing the potentialities of science to the full so long as others elsewhere thought it profitable to do so. Ability to remain aloof from the rest of mankind would itself demand this quite apart from the necessities of social and commercial intercourse.

These are among the Challenges Science presents to Society. Whether we like them or not we cannot escape accepting them. I for one have no fear of accepting. My experience and my reason lead me to the conclusion that while there are obvious difficulties and dangers in any course, they are far less in one designed to control wisely the social results of a full use of science than in any attempt to limit that use. Nor can I believe that human animals capable of originating the basic concepts of science and disciplining themselves to the point where they have learned more about things they will never see or hear, feel or taste, than about most of the grosser things about them, are incapable of devising proper methods for the control of their creations. In this task Science offers a challenge of method.

"Smug, pious generalities some one will say. They can't be applied practically." I dissent although I have no illusions about time or short cuts. I have spent my entire active life trying in common with many others to create an adequate electrical communication facility—adequate both materially and in its broad social effects. As human things go it is a small affair. I know we have made progress but I know also that there is still a vast amount to be done and that the work may never be fully completed.

The Challenges of Science to Society are really challenges to all of us individually and collectively. In reality they are challenges to clear thinking, to tolerance, to essential fair dealing, to education and self-discipline. If in our individual or business affairs we lack these and are motivated solely by an "everybody for himself, devil take the hindmost, gambler desire for present results without thought of tomorrow or our children" then the Challenges of Science may indeed prove a Witches' cauldron.

To those of us interested in the permanent present and future welfare of business the factors and methods for coping with the Challenges of Science seem to me fairly obvious. Among them are—avoidance of embarking too blithely on adventures supported mainly by a chorus of "I think this or that" voiced by scientific enthusiasts, entrepreneurs or sincere but essentially ignorant people; restraint in proceeding too quickly on a big scale operation without the proven backing of a laboratory trial—it is a commonplace of science that in the great majority of cases what we cannot do successfully in a test tube we cannot hope to do in practice; recognition of the inherent characteristics of man to the end that we work with rather than against them; a decent regard for the social effects of a new operation to the end that the reaction to altered conditions is not too violent.

Men of science can and should be able to assist—they cannot possibly solve the problem alone. They should be promising guinea pigs for a better social education system.