G. Pascal Zachary: I just want to say it’s a priv­i­lege to be here, and I’m hum­bled by the chance to share with you some of my his­tor­i­cal ideas. And thank you Joi and to Ethan for includ­ing and empha­siz­ing a his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion. I also want to thank the President my own uni­ver­si­ty, Michael Crow at Arizona State University for his con­tin­u­ing sup­port. By the way I asked for this. [Indicating podi­um.] The rea­son this is here is I can’t stand up for the dura­tion of my talk. I’m part of the Woody Allen school of pub­lic speak­ing, and so I asked for this.

Finally, I want to thank Jerry Wiesner, who has words embla­zoned on the wall in the lob­by. Of course, Jerry like Vannevar Bush, was a sem­i­nal fig­ure at MIT. Jerry was the Science Advisor to President Kennedy and then President of MIT from 1971 to 1980. And he reminds us on the wall—you should go look at it—that human­i­ties and the human­ist is very impor­tant in engag­ing tech­no­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty and the world of sci­en­tists and engi­neers. And he encour­ages sci­en­tists and engi­neers to engage the world of human­i­ties and the human­is­tic enterprise. 

And so we’ll turn to rebel sci­en­tists. And I’m going to make an argu­ment in this talk that dis­sent is valu­able not mere­ly to estab­lish your moral dimen­sion or to make a moral act or moral pos­ture. It’s essen­tial to sci­en­tif­ic progress. So we can’t do with­out dis­sent; it’s not an affectation.

And I have this, my click­er. And so we’re going to go right into the meat of the subject. 

Because we want to unpack the con­cepts of dis­sent and dis­obe­di­ence. They start with dis­agree­ment. Disagreement is fun­da­men­tal to dis­course, but also to the pur­suit of knowl­edge. If our goal as peo­ple in the acad­e­my and in the sci­ence and engi­neer­ing world is to cre­ate new knowl­edge as well as new tools, dis­agree­ment is important. 

Dissent is an act that involves argu­ing we’re doing some­thing incor­rect­ly and we want to revise.

Disobedience and defi­ance are rais­ing the stakes. Because knowl­edge enter­prise has its own rigidi­ties and inher­ent con­ser­vatism. And so peo­ple often defend what ends up being wrong. 

Interestingly, many sci­en­tists, and in more recent times soft­ware pro­gram­mers, have argued that what they’re doing is art, it’s akin to poet­ry. (If I begin to fall off the stage I would like some­one to just raise their hand, okay. Then I’ll know. I’ll pull myself back.) But sci­ence is an alliance of free spir­its. This is not gen­er­al­ly what the admis­sions to MIT or oth­er great uni­ver­si­ties are empha­siz­ing. They’re empha­siz­ing math­e­mat­i­cal prowess. 

And of course Freeman Dyson, a physi­cist, I believe that sci­en­tists should be artists and rebels.” Very very inter­est­ing con­cept. It’s a minor note in the his­to­ry of sci­ence but it’s one that fits well with the notion that rebel­lion is cen­tral to science. 

Bertrand Russell, who was a poly­math a hun­dred years ago in Britain, he pret­ty much knew every­thing. He was also a fab­u­lous math­e­mati­cian and logi­cian. And he talks about free­dom. Freedom for new truth involves equal free­dom for error.” And this becomes prob­lem­at­ic to us. Because often rebels are right, but often they’re wrong. And so we can’t sim­ply pre­sume that rebel­lion on its face is pro­gres­sive. And I’ll get back to this.

So we’ve got three pil­lars of moral and intel­lec­tu­al dis­sent with­in the sci­en­tif­ic domain that are estab­lished through his­to­ry. Dissent is part of an attempt to ground sci­ence in moral­i­ty. Fighting to gain the moral high ground is often where pol­i­tics plays out most dramatically. 

Dissent is cen­tral to the rise and fall of sci­en­tif­ic par­a­digms. See Kuhn, The Function of Dogma in Scientific [Research],” Kuhn’s famous for­mu­la­tion around fifty-five years ago that just as reli­gion defend­ed their dog­mas, sci­en­tists also did. And so rev­o­lu­tions are essen­tial in sci­ence and they’re car­ried out by dis­senters, who lat­er of course become the pil­lars of the establishment.

So, these two impuls­es con­tribute to the moral and intel­lec­tu­al foun­da­tion of research and dis­cov­ery. If we learn any­thing or if I con­vey any­thing, it’s that dis­sent is not a moral affec­ta­tion. It is cen­tral to the knowl­edge cre­ation enterprise.

There’s a draw­ing of Thomas Kuhn. And if you haven’t read Structure of Scientific Revolutions, if you haven’t come to grips with Kuhn’s ideas, what­ev­er their flaws he’s a very very impor­tant fig­ure because in his descrip­tion of par­a­digms and in par­a­digm shifts, dis­sent is essen­tial to the demol­ish­ing of old or out­mod­ed paradigms. 

Again, I’m try­ing to pro­vide a func­tion­al­ist jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for dis­sent. Because too often crit­ics of dis­senters sim­ply say we are express­ing an emo­tion­al or affec­tive or psy­cho­log­i­cal posi­tion. We’re not.

So, inter­nal dis­sent, very impor­tant. That’s dis­sent with­in a dis­ci­pline. It has ele­ments of a friend­ly argu­ment. One of my old friends, Dan Gilmore, sit­ting in the last row because he wants to be as far away from me as pos­si­ble, we con­stant­ly argue but about a set of issues that we both care pas­sion­ate­ly about. But it has ele­ments of a fam­i­ly feud. We both have the same ends in mind but very big dis­agree­ments about the means.

Dissent, when it moves out­side of the dis­ci­pline, direct­ed at peers and elites with­in the field— And you often see uni­ver­si­ties and the schol­ar­ly fields are char­ac­ter­ized by hier­ar­chies where elites often try to pro­mote or silence dif­fer­ing views. And they do it through jour­nals and through the whole appa­ra­tus of schol­ar­ship. Often these are pro­fes­sion­al only. So, some­one may be a vocif­er­ous dis­senter who’s a physi­cist but actu­al­ly they’re a mild-mannered per­son, and they nev­er com­plain about any­thing even at home. It’s a very pro­fes­sion­al type of dissent.

So some­times rebel­lions are car­ried out with­in schol­ar­ly fields, and over the course of twen­ty or thir­ty years you see a com­plete change in empha­sis, in what’s taught in text­books, in what’s taught in uni­ver­si­ty under­grad­u­ate intro­duc­to­ry pro­grams. And that is the apoth­e­o­sis of dis­sent, when dis­sent becomes the new con­ven­tion­al wisdom.

Official or exter­nal dis­sent, what Joi was refer­ring to about dis­sent against gov­ern­ment, dis­sent against tyran­ny, dis­sent against reli­gious author­i­ty. It is the stuff of leg­end and often Hollywood. The moviemak­ers hit upon these strug­gles because they are pit­ting, often, a char­ac­ter, an indi­vid­ual who suf­fers for their beliefs, shows brav­ery, and either tri­umphs or does­n’t. But ulti­mate­ly, in the movie, some­body on their side wins. 

So in the old­en days we had science—knowledge-makers—pitted against the church. In this case we’re talk­ing about the Catholic church in the West. But there were oth­er reli­gious insti­tu­tions in oth­er parts of the world that had a sim­i­lar role. Dictatorial gov­ern­ments in recent times. I mean, I’ve done a lot of stud­ies of World War II, and in the 1930s Hitler talked about rid­ding Germany of Jewish sci­ence. Jewish physics, in par­tic­u­lar. He asso­ci­at­ed physics with Jews and want­ed to expel Jews from the field and he talked about their eth­nic­i­ty rather than the con­tent of their work. And so you’ve seen this in recent times, too. 

Official dis­sent often dom­i­nates the sto­ry of dis­sent. There is a lot of tyran­ny that occurs at the sub-state lev­el. And we’ll see a lit­tle bit of that lat­er. So nar­ra­tives are dom­i­nat­ed by the heroes, the knowledge-seekers. Or the orga­nized estab­lish­ment that is com­mit­ted to deceit or at least to wrong ways of look­ing at the world. This makes for good nar­ra­tives, and actu­al­ly is large­ly true. It’s large­ly sup­port­ed by the his­tor­i­cal record.

Robert Oppenheimer, anguished in this pho­to­graph. By the time of this pho­to­graph a bro­ken man. One of the great American physi­cists of the 30s. Was the sci­en­tif­ic direc­tor of the Manhattan Project. And then in the 1950s ran afoul of a fac­tion with­in the mil­i­tary that was angered over his oppo­si­tion to devel­op­ing the hydro­gen bomb. Oppenheimer him­self— And this is often part of the sto­ry of sci­ence, of even sci­en­tif­ic rebels. They can be very vain, very ego­tis­ti­cal. And rather than qui­et­ly with­draw, Oppenheimer sought a pub­lic fight in which he was humil­i­at­ed and retired to Princeton to nurse his wounds and became, in this era of McCarthyism, a hero. But pos­si­bly a hero for the wrong reasons. 

But you see how the pow­er of images and the doc­u­men­tary by John Else, the incom­pa­ra­ble John Else, The Day After Trinity. Well worth view­ing if you want a vivid illus­tra­tion of the cost of dis­sent and also how dis­sent can be mis­un­der­stood. Oppenheimer was no paci­fist. He just thought atom­ic weapons were enough.

This is prob­a­bly the most con­tentious thing I’ll say. Hopefully my use of com­plex lan­guage and being on the stage will under­cut your sense of resis­tance to my mes­sage. But one thing that I’m real­ly try­ing to get across is we pre­sume that dis­sent and rebel­lion in sci­ence is pro­gres­sive, but it’s often reac­tionary. This adds to the com­plex­i­ty of our problem. 

Russell told us the free­dom to make mis­takes is cen­tral to the sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ty. When Vannevar Bush, who nego­ti­at­ed and con­struct­ed the gov­ern­ment research con­tract that allowed the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to direct­ly con­tract with uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors and inde­pen­dent sci­en­tists, the con­tract says, All you need to do is give us a good effort and we’ll pay you. If your out­comes don’t match what were promised, no big deal.” 

Well, no oth­er field works that way. You don’t sign up to build a bridge for the US gov­ern­ment and tell them, We’ll see how it goes. If it falls down we still want to get the full pay­ment.” But when you’re doing research under con­tracts that were designed and devised in World War II and con­tin­ue to this day, what the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment insists upon is only that you real­ly tried. That the sci­en­tists real­ly showed up for work. If they don’t deliv­er what was promised, the mon­ey still comes. And sci­en­tists have argued that they need that free­dom to drill dry holes, to make mis­takes. They can’t be pres­sured into deliv­er­ing when deliv­ery isn’t pos­si­ble. That might pro­mote decep­tion, say. And you do see that in coun­tries that have very repres­sive regimes. Their sci­en­tists some­times do a lot of incen­tive to lie.

So, dis­sent is in a sense a kind of praise song for uncer­tain­ty and that the enter­prise of sci­ence is very linked to the clas­si­cal lib­er­al ide­al of a soci­ety where free­dom and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty count for a lot. And I think a lot of you in this group are very imbued by a sense of your own freedom. 

So just a brief tour in the time that remains of the his­tor­i­cal roots of rebel sci­en­tists. Because your legit­i­ma­cy as rebels today and dis­senters today in part depends upon the legit­i­ma­cy gained by past dis­senters and rebellions. 

So Galileo, found guilty by the Inquisition in 1663. He wants to advance the claim that the Earth and oth­er plan­ets revolve around the sun.

Interestingly, the moth­er of his dis­sent is tech­nol­o­gy. So we we have sci­ence and engi­neer­ing and tech­nol­o­gy as an instru­men­ta­tion. And Galileo, like many great sci­en­tists, his career is trans­formed by embrac­ing a new tool. He quick­ly buys a tele­scope, I believe devel­oped in Holland, and he improves it. And through improv­ing it can get the sort of evi­dence that he needs. 

And this is real­ly often where sci­en­tif­ic dis­sent springs from. It’s new tools that expose new data. Because evidence-based claims are what the dis­senters and the estab­lish­ment share. Everybody says they’re mak­ing evidence-based argu­ments. The dis­senter often comes along with a new tool and says, Look. This is evi­dence we haven’t seen before. We have removed the cloak over the unseen.” And so Galileo’s real achieve­ment was technological.

Another dis­senter who deserves more atten­tion and of course got it in his life­time ulti­mate­ly, Joseph Rotblat, a physi­cist from Poland. Went to England then joined the Manhattan Project. Amazingly, despite all of the fer­ment and regrets after Hiroshima, only one physi­cist quit the Bomb project. And it was Joe Rotblat and it was in secret. You did­n’t tweet when you quit things in the 1940s. Nobody knew. He snuck out of the projects. But in the 50s, so about ten years after Hiroshima, Einstein and Bertrand Russell form group called Pugwash. And that group, Joe Rotblat essen­tial­ly becomes the staff direc­tor, the actu­al organizer.

Rotblat’s dis­sent, and his proac­tive activ­i­ty to build bridges between physi­cists in the Soviet Union and physi­cists in America, there was a belief that if these physi­cists under­stood each oth­er bet­ter, maybe they would act in con­cert to slow the arms race.

Over time, Rotblat was award­ed the Nobel Peace Prize. And his career and the life of Pugwash— which still exists—is a tes­ti­mo­ny that dis­senters can build last­ing insti­tu­tions and what starts as a secret act of defi­ance can become lat­er a pub­lic one.

Here, very close to home, Norbert Wiener. Very con­tro­ver­sial, com­plex fig­ure. A prodi­gy. In 1946 he gets an inquiry after the War ends. Of course, the US has won. They now occu­py Japan and Germany. Wiener had helped with artillery. There was a big prob­lem with mak­ing mis­siles more accu­rate, mean­ing hit their tar­gets. Their tar­gets were peo­ple or machines. So the idea was to make the bombs bet­ter at killing things and destroy­ing things. Wiener by 46, 47, he feels he should­n’t be help­ing this any­more. There was a prob­lem, though. This type of mis­sile accu­ra­cy was cen­tral to the world of com­pu­ta­tion that was emerging.

And so he says that he won’t help any mil­i­tary projects or receive any mon­ey from the armed ser­vices. So he insists on the ulti­mate pow­er we all have, and that’s to say no. To refuse and with­draw. We all can always say no. And some­times say­ing no is our only and best option. 

But Wiener fell prey to a para­dox which he nev­er acknowl­edged, which is we don’t always know what our work can be used for. I was talk­ing to Ethan this morn­ing and I just men­tioned that we could be work­ing, he could be work­ing, on a won­der­ful game to edu­cate young peo­ple using the Web, and some dif­fer­ent kinds of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. And then unbe­knownst to him, a mil­i­tary research team takes these ideas and maybe even direct­ly applies them to a very dif­fer­ent prob­lem. So Wiener’s refusal to work on mil­i­tary prob­lems real­ly does fall in the cat­e­go­ry of moral ges­ture because he can’t know for sure whether or not any of the things that any­body’s work­ing on will be mil­i­tar­i­ly rel­e­vant. But it does­n’t dimin­ish the importance.

There was in the 40s, in the 60s, peri­od­i­cal­ly, and you see it in the com­put­er com­mu­ni­ty, soft­ware pro­gram­mers, this notion that you know, echo­ing Marx, work­ers of the world unite!” If all the physi­cians get togeth­er, if all the soft­ware pro­gram­mers get togeth­er, if every­body who works on Facebook says no, they can stop some­thing. It’s just very very dif­fi­cult to get that kind of unity.

To return to the sin­gu­lar voice, one of the most impor­tant sin­gu­lar voic­es of the 20th cen­tu­ry in sci­ence was a marine biol­o­gist who would have got­ten her PhD—she got a Master’s at Hopkins. She need­ed a cer­tain lev­el of employ­ment and pay. She went to work for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in the Fish and Wildlife Service. And work­ing for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, some­thing many of us aspire to do, right? To become a fed­er­al bureau­crat. What a goal. But yet, as a fed­er­al bureau­crat she incu­bat­ed two great books that were both best sell­ers. She had a boss that helped her—also a fed­er­al bureaucrat—helped her get into The New Yorker. And she becomes an impor­tant voice for envi­ron­men­tal­ism gen­er­al­ly, but in par­tic­u­lar indus­tri­al pollution.

So in the 50s, oceanog­ra­phy and marine biol­o­gy come togeth­er in [Rachel] Carson. In her dis­sent against mass spread of indus­tri­al chem­i­cals. There were all these famous films of chil­dren bathing them­selves in DDT and the exces­sive use of chem­i­cals. She was­n’t against chem­i­cals, she was against their exces­sive use. And she also is very con­cerned about explod­ing hydro­gen bombs in the ocean. It’s aston­ish­ing to me because I’m only 61. I’m not 101. And yet in my very life­time, our gov­ern­ment has gone from pol­lut­ing our plan­et on a mas­sive scale that’s incon­ceiv­able to any­one under 30, a thou­sand above-ground explo­sions of hydro­gen bombs, to pro­fess­ing that they’d like to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment and save it. In a mere 50 years. It’s aston­ish­ing. So the world real­ly has changed a lot.

Roger Revelle was a mil­i­tary oceanog­ra­ph­er dur­ing World War II. He was a naval offi­cer. He had been a lead­ing oceanog­ra­ph­er at Scripps Institute in San Diego. During the war, he helps. He was an offi­cer in the Navy. After the War the Navy takes up the task of becom­ing the major source of fund­ing for physics, oceanography—what were then called the hard sciences. 

Because he’s a reli­able reserve offi­cer now and the head of the lead­ing institution—along with Woods Hole one of the two lead­ing oceanog­ra­phy insti­tu­tions in the US—he’s put in charge of some­thing that went under the name of Bravo.” It was just a sim­ple exper­i­ment. The Navy was curi­ous, if we blew up a coral reef with a hydro­gen bomb what would hap­pen? They real­ly want­ed to know.

They assem­bled a team of a hun­dred sci­en­tists under Revelle. They were hop­ing that what would hap­pen is, their hypoth­e­sis was, you know how when you take a bath and then you pull the plug and it all goes down the drain? That’s what they were hop­ing. You would go boom, and then it would come down, and then it would sink to the bot­tom of the ocean. And it would nev­er be touched again. It would just sit there. 

And they thought that Revelle and his team would find that. Instead Revelle and his team found some­thing real­ly real­ly dif­fer­ent. They did two things. They cre­at­ed a new set of tools to fol­low the move­ment of water to the oceans. And that led them to the cer­tain­ty that the radioac­tive H‑bomb debris spread all over the planet. 

And then sec­ond, because they were inter­est­ed in the rela­tion­ship between tem­per­a­ture in the atmos­phere and move­ment in the oceans, they in 1957 pub­lished a paper, Revelle and a man named Hans Suess— And that’s not Dr. Seuss, by the way. It’s a com­mon mis­take— Hans Suess, pub­lish a paper in 1957 that is the begin­ning of the dis­cov­ery of glob­al warm­ing. And it’s all done because a sci­en­tist says, I am not going to do what the Navy wants.”

Another exam­ple in the same peri­od, Barry Commoner, a biol­o­gist, also con­cerned about the effects of hydro­gen bombs, comes up with an inter­est­ing and the first impor­tant exam­ple of cit­i­zen sci­ence. Asks moth­ers around America—and he was espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in involv­ing women in this move­ment to face the cost of the H‑bomb. Asked them to send the chil­dren’s baby teeth as they fell out. 

A small manila packet with a couple of baby teeth on it, next to an index card with various details collected as part of the Baby Tooth experiment

He got thou­sands and thou­sands of baby teeth. And in fact these are some of the actu­al records. And those baby teeth aston­ish­ing­ly con­tained stron­tium 90. In the teeth of babies. And of course by deduc­tion, of adults too. Strontium 90 can only occur from a hydro­gen bomb. 

When the Atomic Energy Commission is con­front­ed with this evi­dence, they do some­thing that shows in the face of dis­sent the state can crack. And they crack. They say, Commoner, the sci­ence is sol­id. There is stron­tium 90 in your babys’ teeth.” They just said like many peo­ple say today, Don’t wor­ry about it. And the teeth fell out, huh. So let’s move on! Let’s watch Dick Van Dyke Show.”

But that was a major vic­to­ry. And as the estab­lish­ment begins to accept dis­si­dent sci­ence, of course the dis­senters grow stronger. And by the end of the 60s the rela­tion­ship between many aca­d­e­m­ic sci­en­tists, not just gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists, and sci­en­tists at MIT, and the Vietnam War becomes a source of con­tro­ver­sy. There’s a real­ly excel­lent book, Becoming MIT, that was pub­lished on the 150th anniver­sary of MIT. It has a great chap­ter by Stuart Leslie on the Vietnam War. And the Vietnam War changes the way MIT thinks about social respon­si­bil­i­ty and by exten­sion the way aca­d­e­m­ic sci­en­tists think about clas­si­fied research. Many aca­d­e­m­ic sci­en­tists now refuse to do clas­si­fied research, and while it’s crept back on cam­pus­es, it’s much much reduced.

So the cul­ture of dis­sent today is embed­ded in techno-science, mean­ing in engi­neer­ing and sci­ence togeth­er in the research enter­prise. In some set­tings like Silicon Valley where I spent many many years, in north­ern California—I still have a home there—disobedience is nor­mal­ized. Oh, if you’re going for a job at Google or Facebook you’ve got to say you’re an anti-corporate. You could start doing all kinds of things that look like you’re insub­or­di­nate. And that is…you know, we see it in vac­cine skep­tics. How dif­fi­cult it is for the left and the right to fig­ure out who are these vac­cines skep­tics? Robert Kennedy’s son is one of the lead­ers. Of course he was a great lib­er­al. And then free­dom to be wrong. That’s real­ly real­ly important.

One final point. I’ve got one minute. Do engi­neers and sci­en­tists have a dif­fer­ent approach to dis­sent? I think the his­tor­i­cal record shows the answer is yes. Many engi­neers think of them­selves as employ­ees. And they do what the employ­er says or they work with­in the con­straints of the employ­er then maybe they have a per­son­al life where they might dissent. 

When there was a March [for] Science in DC, was there a march for engi­neer­ing? No. AAAS sup­port­ed the March for Science. IEEE, elec­tri­cal engi­neers and the most impor­tant engi­neer­ing asso­ci­a­tion, did not. So we see a very dif­fer­ent approach to dissent.

So dis­sent­ing sci­en­tists and engi­neers are part of the land­scape of research. 

And in the last sec­onds I’ll just say that the future of dis­sent and dis­obe­di­ence, which many of you are com­mit­ted to, should pay atten­tion to his­to­ry. Because his­to­ry may show you pat­terns. How they play out so you can antic­i­pate bet­ter what your strug­gle might face. And sec­ond, it gives you legit­i­ma­cy. And it shapes your expec­ta­tions for social respon­si­bil­i­ty and good. Because dis­senters range across the spec­trum between Wiener say­ing no and on the oth­er end replace­ment activ­i­ties. Rachel Carson had a whole dif­fer­ent idea of mod­ern life.

So let me close on that. I real­ly appre­ci­ate your atten­tion. And I hope dur­ing the break I can answer some ques­tions indi­vid­u­al­ly for peo­ple. Thanks a lot for listening.

Further Reference

Defiance video archive