Science, Conspiracy, & Journalism: A Cold War Anecdote

I’m currently teaching a third-year course on the history of truth. The course examines the historical mechanisms that contributed to the social production and consumption of knowledge over time. It interests itself in the construction of “matters of fact,” and how scientific praxis emerged as the primary mode of knowledge authority in the modern world. It aims to explore the cultural features of who could practice science and how their scientific method came to be ingrained as a method of forging consensus among scientists, and how their findings came to be adopted as truths to a more general public. More significantly, this course proposes to examine how these activities changed or evolved over time.

We read Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump and talked about Boyle’s literary technology and virtual witnessing as pillars of the new experimental science. Recently, I lectured on Robert Kohler’s Lords of the Fly as a corollary investigation of the experimental life, and I stressed Kohler’s discussion of the moral economy. Collaboration, trustworthiness, fraud, failure, metaphors in science have featured throughout lectures and discussions. But I have had little opportunity to share anecdotes. Anecdotes can be fun.

Next week, I will be running a small module on science journalism in the twentieth century. I’m especially interested in themes surrounding science literacy and the media’s role as broker in communicating scientific information—translating it for a lay audience. In his classic essay, “Roots of the New Conservation Movement,” in Perspectives in American History  6 (1972), Donald Fleming talked about politico-scientists—scientists were politically engaged (Barry Commoner, for one)—as being part of a specialized fifth estate intent on informing the public. This during a politically tense period in American history.

As a topic, it reminded me of a story Barry Commoner relayed to me during the oral histories I conducted with him. Let me start with the report written by William Laurence (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—and one of our in-class subjects), which appeared in The New York Times on December 29, 1954.

Headline: "Scientist Decries Curb on Condon."
Headline: “Scientist Decries Curb on Condon.”

In 1954, E. U. Condon was an elder statesman of American physics, a notable quantum physicist from the 1920s, and the outgoing President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After World War II, he had also suffered serious scrutiny from a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Condon had been particularly critical of imposed secrecy in science, and strongly advocated continued international scientific cooperation. On 1 March 1948, the subcommittee described Condon—at the time, the director of the National Bureau of Standards—as “one of the weakest links in our atomic security.” Condon was by no means a radical thinker, but he did believe that science only functioned properly in an open society. His AAAS election (in 1951) had been somewhat controversial, and by 1954 the label of “Communist” or “security risk” constituted a black mark. But turn your attention to the final paragraph: “Dr. Condon received an ovation as he rose to address his colleagues.”

Warren Weaver was a strong supporter of Condon’s (as his remarks above might attest). The young Barry Commoner as well. The story that Commoner told me involved this evening and the standing ovation as Condon retired from his role as President. At the conference, Commoner—who knew Laurence—invited Laurence to join him and others for dinner and drinks before the evening lecture. Because the conference was in California, the time difference was such that Laurence needed to file his story before dinner so that it could appear in the following day’s paper. He hadn’t filed his story yet, and asked Commoner how the membership would respond to Condon’s term. Could vocal support be interpreted as political subversion in Cold War America? The ovation (reported) was hardly a certainty. Commoner assured his friend that there would be a standing ovation: File the story and come for a drink. Which Laurence did. The ovation was reported (if not printed) before it happened. Returning to the conference hall for the evening proceedings, Commoner walked Laurence to the front row of the auditorium to sit down. After Weaver spoke and introduced Condon, Commoner told me (almost 50 years later), Commoner pulled Laurence by the shoulder and gruffly said: “Bill, stand up!” At which point the two led the standing ovation—giving credence to the story Laurence had already filed.

It’s a fun little anecdote, and Commoner told it to me at least twice. But I was reminded of it this week while preparing to discuss and have students research the relationship between science, journalism, and the public.

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