The Citizens Among Us
Science, The Public, and Social Change
August, 29 2008
By Howard Zinn
and Gabriel Matthew Schivone
Author and activist Howard Zinn was one of the speakers at a
critical social forum held at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in Cambridge, on March 3, 4, and 8, 1969, in which MIT
students and scientists had joined together and organized a research
stoppage to protest the unexampled levels of U.S. government violence
in Southeast Asia. The event known as "March 4"
included some of the world's most eminent and influential scientists
coming together to make what they called a "practical and
symbolic" gesture of halting their research activities to discuss
the misuse of science in world affairs, particularly the relationship
of American science-and the shared responsibility of American
scientists-with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in
Together with a powerful invocation (known as the March 4 Manifesto,
signed by 48 MIT faculty) having been written for the event, addressed
to the academic community and the public at large, the activities of
March 4 (including several panels on engrossing subjects as
intellectual responsibility and the impending perils of weapons of
mass destruction) were organized into recognizing the "dangers
already unleashed"-those which presented "a major threat
to the existence" of humanity-while providing possible
solutions and raising serious alternatives to overcome them.
small group of determined organizers and concerned scientists, reason
for their actions was self-evident: As a heavily bloody and calamitous
war was being waged by the most powerful country on earth-while the
majority of its academic community observed with relative
silence-the very gesture of leading world intellectuals halting their
professional, daily activities before the public and the world in
order to consider the human consequences of their scientific work was
to say, quite simply, that their role as human beings precedes their
professional title of "scientists."
down with Professor Zinn (who had participated in one of the March 4
panels entitled "The Academic Community and Governmental
Power") in his office at Boston University on Wednesday, July 23,
2008, to discuss some of the issues. (This dialogue is part of
an ongoing collection of interviews and essays on the subject of March
4 being organized for publication. Note: Parts of the text have
been expanded after follow-up correspondence between the
Science and War: A Macabre Dance
GMS: Let's start with the second resolution of the March
4 Manifesto: "To devise means for turning research applications
away from their present emphasis on military technology toward the
solution of pressing social and environmental problems."
Would you explain the importance of this idea of scientific
ZINN: It's been a long-standing problem of science
being used for destruction or for construction. It goes back to
Hiroshima and Nagasaki-it goes back to the atomic bomb. In
fact, that probably was the first really dramatic instance of the use
of the latest scientific knowledge to kill human beings. And the
development of modern weapons technology-the atomic bomb and other
weaponry-all that has become much, much more important in recent
years as war has become more technological, and as the scientists have
become more important in the making of war. So I would say that
issue, which was put forward in the March 4 Manifesto, is even more
important today. At that time, it was important because the war
in Vietnam was going on, and there was a direct connection between
science used for military purposes and the deaths of people in
What has been, and is, the relationship of American science and
scientists with the State throughout history until today?
Well, until World War II, I don't think the relationship between
science and government was a particularly critical one. Now,
sure, we had Alfred Nobel creating dynamite and therefore creating the
possibility of weapons, bombs that used dynamite. In other
words, there was always a scientific component to modern war. I
mean, you can argue that as soon as guns became used, science became
involved in their manufacture-rifles, machine guns, artillery.
So, yes, there's always been this connection. But it wasn't
until World War II, in as I said before, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki
that this relationship between science and government took an enormous
leap forward. Or, you might say, backward . And then
science became inextricably intertwined with governmental policy-and
that's the way it's been ever since.
What are some examples of scientists and intellectuals
engaging their support of various war efforts?
In the First World War, intellectuals (who had first declared
themselves against war) rushed to support the war, carried away by
government propaganda against the Germans. John Dewey, Clarence
Darrow, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, lent their names and their
prestige to the war effort. Historians organized a committee to
put out pamphlets in support of the war.
In the Second World War, virtually all intellectuals supported the
war. (Dwight MacDonald and a small group of Trotskyists were
exceptions, of course.)
The most dramatic example of scientists involved in WWII was the
Manhattan Project in which the greatest scientists in the nation and
scientist-refugees from other countries joined to produce the atomic
bombs which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was only
one of these mobilized scientists-Joseph Rotblat-who quit the
project rather than work on the bomb. Other scientists developed
radar and the Norden bombsight.
Prior to the Korean War, scientists worked on the creation of napalm
which was used in that war and again in Vietnam. In fact, the
Dow Chemical Company became the target of anti-War protesters because
of its role in producing napalm used in Vietnam.
A number of leading intellectuals rushed to support the invasion
of Iraq in 2003, reflected in the pro-War editorials of the major
newspapers-the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street
Objectivity and American Science: Image and Reality
Do you see any differences in the social sciences and the hard
sciences concerning what some people call ideological control?
Do you find one to be more or less prone to such constraints on
themselves or their work than the other?
Let's put it this way: I think the difference between the hard
sciences and the soft sciences is very much exaggerated. And
there's a kind of traditional notion that scientists are less prone to
subjectivity and ideology than social scientists-the historians and
economists, and so on. But I think that's a delusion, and I
think that, actually, the same problems apply to both of them.
In the case of scientists, there's more likely to be
self-deception about objectivity. I think that social scientists
are probably more ready to accept the fact that they're not objective,
but with scientists-just the very nature of science with
quantitative data and experiment sort of creates the illusion of being
objective and being free from political and ideological influences.
But I would argue that it is an illusion and that, therefore, both
hard and soft sciences are much closer together in that respect than
most people think.
What do you think about using scientific method regarding
human affairs? In other words, if one has such scientific training as
we find in university, does it make it easier to analyze certain
catastrophic situations like the Iraq War? For example, do you
find it helpful as a historian using such quantitative and qualitative
I'm very suspicious of the use of so-called "scientific
data" to come to moral conclusions. For instance, in the
arena of political science: Political scientists in the last few
decades prided themselves in becoming more scientific. In fact,
what used to be called "departments of government" soon
changed their names to "departments of political science."
And the word "science" brought the so-called "political
scientists" closer to the illusion that hard scientists have.
And the fact that they were using quantitative data and statistical
measurement made them think that they therefore were coming to more
accurate conclusions about the world than they had before. I
don't think that's true because I think the most important decisions
are moral decisions. And no amount of quantitative data can
really lead you to a correct decision on moral issues. And, in
fact, they can deflect you from making moral decisions by sort of
deceiving you about the scientific nature of what you are studying.
So, I'm very dubious that using so-called scientific and quantitative
methods brings you any closer to solving crucial moral issues.
The first point of the Manifesto, "to initiate a critical
and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where
science and technology are of actual or potential significance",
stuck out to me differently than the others. It seems very basic
to simply encourage critical thinking, especially among
"educated" people who, it's generally assumed, have been
taught critical inquiry from an early age. Is this always the
case? It seems always assumed that scientists are always
objective, critical thinkers.
Yeah, well, of course, that's one of the myths of science: that
science is above and beyond ideology and politics. And, of
course, science has always been tied into ideology and
politics-certainly more and more in these sixty years or so since
World War II. And I think it's very important for scientists to
recognize that there's no such thing as neutrality in science; that
your science has an effect on society in one direction or another. And
if you hide that fact from yourself, well, you're deceiving yourself
and deceiving others about the role of science in society.
Here's an interesting example from the University of Arizona,
in my home town of Tucson: There's a yearly memo proclaimed and
circulated by the president of the university (the one most recently
appointed being Robert N. Shelton) addressed to the campus community,
very strictly barring all "political activity" for
university employees. It encourages UA faculty and staff not to
engage at all in political activity while on "university time"
or with "university resources," but rather to do be
political if they so wish-"on their own time." Now,
although it is explicitly stated the memorandum is enforced to protect
state funding and the outcome of elections, one of the implications is
that, in order to be effectively objective in their scientific
professions, and to be good scholars, there must be a calling for
disinterested scholarship in the face or shadow of political
This is the president of the University of Arizona?
Yeah, well, this just shows how little wisdom you need to become
the president of a university. Obviously this president has no
understanding of the fact that neutrality is impossible, that
objectivity is a myth. All intellectual work has a moral
component and works either on behalf of the human race or against it.
And, in fact, to claim neutrality and to dissociate yourself from
participation in the world of ideas and the ideological and real
conflicts in the world is really to permit the world to go on as it
was. In other words, to refuse to intervene-to refuse to use
your energy, your talent, your knowledge for the betterment of the
human race-means that you are allowing those people who have been in
charge of policy to continue in their ways. It means that they
can go in their ways unimpeded. They can do whatever they want
because, essentially, you have withdrawn an enormous number of people
who have potential power-brain power, political power-you've
withdrawn them from the political arena. And you've left the
field to the so-called "experts"-who are not experts at
all-and whose continued dominance is actually a danger to the human
It is ironic that the university, which provides itself on its
intellectual superiority, should discourage faculty and students from
using their knowledge and their analytical abilities, their moral
judgment to participate in the social struggles outside the
university. In other words, the university then becomes the
servant of the dominant powers in society, who prefer that knowledge
be used only to maintain the status quo, to train young people to take
their obedient places in the existing society rather than challenging
the people in power.
The Citizens Among Us
Now, is it possible to drop out of this university system, as
some have suggested, wanting nothing to do with it or its money
because of the sheer amount of war collaboration? If so, is this
necessarily the way to go, in your opinion?
Well, of course it's possible to drop out of the system.
It's possible to say goodbye. But it's very, very difficult
because peoples' livelihoods, peoples' economic security is very tied
up with their jobs. And so giving up your job becomes a very
serious personal hindrance to the security of yourself and your
family. That makes it very difficult to drop out.
Now, there are scientists who have refused to work on projects.
There were a few scientists who refused to work on the atomic bomb.
Joseph Rotblat, as I said before, left the Manhattan Project-he
didn't want to work on the bomb. And there've been other
scientists who have refused to work on military-related technology but
they do it at risk. They risk their jobs, their livelihoods.
In other words, it's possible to do it, but it's difficult.
Point Five of the Manifesto reads: "To explore the
feasibility of organizing scientists and engineers so that their
desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into
effective political action." How might an organized
scholarship-scientists organizing themselves around such issues as
dissent and non-participation-benefit society?
Well, a very important factor in making it possible for scientists to
move from military projects to civilian projects is having the support
of your colleagues. That's why the growth of organizations like
the Union of Concerned Scientists or the organization of the atomic
scientists who put out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is
important as a support for individuals who want to follow their
consciences rather than their financial success and careers. So,
it's still difficult, but it seems to me that when you get together
with other people and you decide collectively that you are going to
oppose the use of science for military purposes it becomes easier.
And we have examples like that.
We have the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear
War. There are thousands of physicians of the IPPNW, and they
certainly have sort of made it a principle for them to speak out
publicly. And they've been successful-not successful enough,
obviously, but successful-in educating the public of the dangers of
I remember when the IPPNW came out with its study-this was in
the 1980s-of what the effects would be on the Boston area from a
nuclear blast. Well, it went into great and horrifying detail
and, you know, I think that was instructive and educational for a lot
of people. So, there's great work that can be done by people in
the sciences who are organized in that way.
Why do you think that the possibility of abolishing war is so
difficult for people to understand?
Well, one reason it is so difficult is that there's a tendency to
believe that what has happened in the past must inevitably continue to
happen in the present and future. In other words, since the
history of humankind, there's been a history of repeated wars, almost
continuous warfare. It's very hard for people to accept the fact
that this might come to an end. Indeed, Tuberculosis was a
scourge all through the history of humankind and it was hard for
people to accept the fact that it actually might be done away with.
The history of warfare likewise has made it difficult for people to
accept the fact that there could be a break with history and war could
be abolished. That's one reason.
Another reason is that there are certain wars that have been imbued
with a grandeur and nobility, that makes people think that war can be
useful, important, even necessary for valid human purposes. I'm
speaking particularly about World War II.
After all the disillusionment that followed World War I, World
War II made war acceptable again because it was a war against this
great evil-fascism. And it is still today considered "the
good war." It is still today presented as the example of
"the just war." And while I seriously question this
characterization of World War II, there is no doubt that its
reputation has imbedded in people's minds the idea that it is possible
to have a "good war", a "just war." I think
that is a great obstacle to people accepting the idea of the abolition
Going off your earlier comment on "experts", a word
that's thrown around a lot in our society-I hear it a lot especially
in university-is the word "professionalism." It's
like a rule of propriety to people in various professions such as
cooks, cleaners, retail and food service, artists, teachers, lawyers,
doctors, etc, to "be professional", and to know their place
and not involve themselves in matters that are deemed
Yeah, well, this is a recipe for disaster. That is, to have
everyone in society work only within their profession, within their
job. Not to look outside the boundaries of their job means to withdraw
as a citizen. It's actually the opposite of democracy.
Democracy requires the full participation of all citizens, whatever
their occupation, whatever they do, whether they're dishwashers, or
college professors, or scientists. For them to not devote some
part of their lives to examining the larger society in which they work
is to really drop out of the social structure and allow a small number
of powerful, political leaders to do what they want,
uninhibited-uninhibited because there's no opposition, because
everybody in society is paying attention only to their profession,
essentially neutered, essentially helpless. So, as I said, this
is the opposite of democracy which requires the full participation of
everybody in the political process of decision-making.
You've often mentioned an interesting quote from philosopher
Jean-Jacques Rousseau about professionalism.
Rousseau wrote: "We have physicists, geometricians,
chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians and painters in plenty, but we
have no longer a citizen among us." He was pointing to the
specialization in modern times, in which people were divided into
professional groups who concentrated their attention on their narrow
specialties, leaving the important decisions in society-war and
peace, wealth and poverty-to be made by professional politicians.
This was a surrender of moral responsibility by people who
concentrated on becoming "successful" in their own field,
and not risking their safety and economic security by entering the
arena of social struggle and moral decisions.
Tying into our discussion: what do you think of the notion
sometimes referred to as the "responsibility of the
intellectual", that is, the more privilege you have in society,
the more opportunity and choices you have and, therefore, the more
responsible you are for the atrocities of your own government, since
you are more able to speak out against them?
That is an interesting point. Intellectuals have a
respected place in society, and have the ability to communicate,
through writing and speaking, to the larger public. Therefore,
they have a moral responsibility to use this special power on behalf
of humane values, on behalf of peace and justice. Their failure
to do so is therefore especially to be condemned.
Scientists pride themselves on the ability to make pure
science and come to exact scientific conclusions, but it's also often
assumed therefore that these sort of people-people with $100,000
educations, degrees and technical specialties-are better equipped
than others to act as experts or to reveal gospel and come to moral
conclusions regarding human affairs. Do you agree? I mean,
what do you think people need, then, to be able to make moral
decisions, if not some kind of "special"
Sheer knowledge, whether of science, history, or any of the
disciplines, does not make anyone more capable of making moral
decisions, which only require common sense, common decency,
compassion-all of which are traits possessed by all human beings,
regardless of how much "education" they have had.
During the Vietnam War, for instance, all surveys showed that the
people with the most education were most likely to support the
government in that immoral war, and people with only a high school
education were more likely to oppose the war.
Students and Social Struggle
During the Vietnam War it was students who originally
envisioned and organized the March 4 event. What importance do
the issues we've been discussing today have on young people and
I would argue that there is nothing more important that an
education can do than to turn the student away from the narrow
confines of material success in the present society. That is, to
turn the student away from merely becoming a cog in the machinery of
current society and have the student think in broader terms of social
justice and about creating a better world.
Unfortunately, our education system is geared to prepare young
people to become successful within the confines of the present
society. It doesn't prepare them to question this present
society, to ask if fundamental change is needed. And so I
believe the most important thing education can do is to take the
students out of this narrow concern with learning what they need to be
successful in their profession and make them aware that the most
important thing they can do in their lives is to play a role in
creating a better society, whether it's stopping war, or ending racial
inequality, or ending economic inequality. This is the most
important thing that education can do. And I think our most wise
of educators-our philosophers of education, like John Dewey-have
recognized this as the critical problem of education.
In your speech at March 4 you spoke of the young Harvard and
MIT students, who, along with other classes of people, became
enthralled by the fervor of the war effort during the First World War
and eagerly joined the army under slogans like the one in the ironic
mural in the Widener Library at Harvard that reads, "Happy is he
who in one embrace clasps death and victory." However, you
noted that things had changed for the young students of MIT and
Harvard during the Vietnam War who were obstreperous and angry at the
government. It's interesting to me that young people like
Harvard & MIT kids possess often times debilitating privileges of
race and affluence yet there are examples of these kind of students
placing themselves at the barricades, as it were, sacrificing as much
as others who are more recognizably oppressed. What do you think
accounts for this?
I think it's because young people have an inherent desire to do
something important in society. And, therefore, if that desire
becomes strong enough it overcomes whatever in their background might
induce them to play a passive role. And so I'm not surprised
that students at Harvard and MIT would become active.
But, of course, during the Vietnam War it's very hard to make a
distinction between elite institutions and ordinary colleges in terms
of student activism. Because, in the case of the Vietnam War,
student activism took place all through the spectrum of universities
from the most prestigious to the least prestigious. Sure,
students at Harvard and MIT were active, but students at Kent State,
just an ordinary state university, were very, very active. It's
just that students at Harvard and MIT, when they became active, their
activity was especially noticeable because of the prestige of their
universities. But, in fact, there was no particular superiority
of Harvard and MIT in terms of activism when you looked at activism
around the country.
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
Also in your speech at March 4 you suggested developing
independent sources of power to counter the use of force and deception
by governments. You stated that, "in a society held together by
falsehood, knowledge is an especially important form of power."
But how can knowledge overwhelm brute force when it comes down to
Well, knowledge can't, by itself, overwhelm brute force.
It's only when that knowledge is translated into organization and
mobilization, and that knowledge is reaching large numbers of people
who then can resist the power of government, or corporations, or the
military. I mean, if you are an ordinary worker, and you have
the knowledge that you are being exploited as a worker, that obviously
isn't enough. But if there are enough people in the workplace
who have this knowledge and then transform what they know into
organizing themselves, then they can act in unison and they can create
a power which the most powerful corporation cannot overcome.
Essentially, corporations and governments depend on an obedient
population to maintain their power. If that population-that
is, the people who work for the corporation, the citizens of the
government, the soldiers in the military-withholds its support,
stops cooperating, then the supposed all-powerful corporation,
government, military become helpless. So it's a matter of
transforming that knowledge into organized power.
The main portion of this interview was conducted in Professor
Zinn's office at Boston University on July 23, 2008.
*A most especial thanks is extended to Mary E. Barnes for her
invaluable aid as an editor.
Howard Zinn is an artist, playwright, historian, social activist,
and Professor Emeritus of Boston University. He is author of
three plays, as well as many numerous books and articles on history
and social justice including the landmark A People's History of the
United States and his most recent book, A Power Governments Cannot
Suppress (City Lights, 2006).
Gabriel Matthew Schivone is an editor of Days Beyond Recall
Alternative Media and Literary Journal. His articles, having been
translated into multiple languages, have appeared in numerous journals
such as Z Magazine, Counterpunch and the Monthly Review, as well as
Contre Info (France), and Caminos (Cuba). He is most recently the
recipient of the 2007 Frederica Hearst Prize for Lyrical Poetry. He is
also an active member of the University of Arizona chapter of Amnesty
International, Voices of Opposition (to War, Racism and Oppression),
Students Organized for Animal Rights, Sweatshop-Free Coalition, and
Dry River Radical Resource Center. He can be reached at:
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