Foggy Notions

By W. Patrick McCrayNovember 9, 2020

Foggy Notions

Rational Fog by M. Susan Lindee

MORE THAN SIX YEARS AGO, the celebrity science communicator and astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a short interview to Parade magazine. His anodyne comments to the Sunday newspaper publication would have probably been forgotten except for one curious remark. As he reflected on witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, he noted that scientists have been reluctant to engage in military activities. “You will never,” Tyson remarked, “find scientists leading armies into battle.”

Historians and other scholars familiar with scientists’ actual activities branded Tyson’s off-the-cuff observation as being so patently absurd as to be “not even wrong.” That is to say — there are so many examples that the claim beggars further inspection, let alone belief. Nobel laureate and chemist Fritz Haber, for example, eagerly led German efforts to launch the first full-scale use of chemical weapons in World War I. Too long ago? Okay. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher (also a chemist) sent British forces to the Falkland Islands. More recently, a former physics student with a doctorate in quantum chemistry named Angela Merkel dispatched German troops to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. And then there are the countless physicists and biologists who, throughout the 20th century, contributed expertise to building and improving weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps this explains why Tyson eventually co-wrote a book called Accessory to War, the subtitle of which — “The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military” — surely stands as an apologia for his previous blunder.

The terrain where scientific knowledge and military applications meet, maraud, and maim is the subject of M. Susan Lindee’s new book, Rational Fog: Science and Technology in Modern War. Lindee, a professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, is best known for her 1994 book, Suffering Made Real. This work explored the ways in which the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to long-lasting and ethically compromised studies as part of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. While some of this material also appears in Rational Fog, Lindee expands her lines of inquiry to a wide-ranging set of cases that explore “the line between reason and violence.” The result, built largely on synthesizing science, technology, and military histories written by other scholars, is a sometimes successful book that is part history and part “reflective exploration of technical violence.”

The introduction to Rational Fog sets forth the goal of tracking how “key technologies and sciences mattered in the history of science and war.” Two ideas, both articulated on the same page, struck me as exceptionally powerful. It’s well understood that scientific knowledge is produced in a diverse and eclectic array of settings — the field station, the hospital, the astronomical observatory, and, of course, the laboratory. Lindee suggests that “at least since the 1940s,” another key setting is the battlefield, which forces us to reconsider the moral valence we attribute to science. Even more compelling is her suggestion that, in the course of battles and wars, new knowledge — what she calls “collateral data” — is created, often unintentionally. The idea and image of collateral data emerging out of torn human bodies, ruined landscapes, and wrecked cities is ethically and theoretically intriguing. I would have loved to see it used as both an animating and anchoring concept throughout Rational Fog.

In the first chapter, titled “To Hold A Gun,” Lindee, whose expertise is post-1945 America, explores the role of firearms in the development of societies ranging from indigenous people in North America to Sengoku-era Japan and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Her questions — “Did gunpowder and the gun lead to the rise of the modern state? Did they provoke colonial empires? Did the gun produce the slave trade?” — are vitally important, but her answers are unsatisfactory at best. At worst, they point to a naïve technological determinism. In 1962, Lynn White’s book Medieval Technology and Social Change suggested that new technologies like the stirrup gave rise to European feudal society. White’s thesis has largely been unhorsed but Lindee climbs back into the saddle and suggests that firearms ended European feudalism. To help support this claim, she approvingly cites Jared Diamond on how “‘guns, germs, and steel’ shaped political relationships around the world.” But feudalism was many things — an economic system, a set of social relations and obligations, a political arrangement, a way of organizing and distributing land — and no one technology (or perhaps even any technology) killed it. As to whether guns produced the slave trade, this is something any historian of ancient Rome or medieval Europe would find risible. Trade in humans existed long before gunned-up Portuguese and Dutch traders appeared in West Africa. Such provocative questions deserve better historical answers.

The reader finds firmer historical ground when the narrative enters the 20th century. Two chapters explore how industrialization and a desire for efficiency increased the lethality of military technologies. The 19th century saw the advent of “industrial” large-scale conflicts. Consider the American Civil War or the Crimean War, with their mass-produced weaponry and logistical feats accomplished via steam-powered railroads, and through the communicative power of the telegraph. As Lindee notes, these conflicts presaged the changing status of “civilians” who, because of their role as factory workers, came to be viewed as legitimate targets. The quest for rational and efficient killing led as well to economies and weapons of scale. From Civil War–era ironclads, one can trace a path to the dreadnoughts of the early 20th century and, eventually, to the modern aircraft carrier. (Nuclear-armed aircraft carriers have more destructive capability than the fiercest battleship, despite Lindee’s claim to the contrary.) But the apotheosis of scientists’ participation in warfare surely lies with their enthusiastic development of chemical weapons. Fritz Haber looms large here. His familiarity with scaling up chemical experiments to the factory level was a direct result of his prewar role in developing an industrial process for efficiently and inexpensively synthesizing ammonia. The clouds of poison gas that then wafted over battlefields represented an entirely different kind of rational fog.

Subsequent chapters transport the reader beyond the muddy quagmires of World War I to the sleek delivery systems of nuclear destruction that helped end World War II. Lindee shows how medical doctors and psychologists produced scientific knowledge from the crucibles of shattered minds and bodies. We get a sense here of how scientists from an array of disciplines set aside moral qualms (if they had any to start with) and mobilized for war. The experience of American scientists during World War II in particular provides a fulcrum around which she balances much of her story. But some mistakes dull the edges of her insights. The key article on fission by Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner was published in February 1939, not March 1939; 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima (not the 60th); some 600,000 Americans worked on the Manhattan Project, not 120,000, et al. Oversights like these from a major university press are disappointing.

Rational Fog becomes more concrete in its historical assessments with the beginning of the Cold War. Two chapters explore how the minds and bodies of human subjects became legitimate sites for doing science. Human bodies may be targets but, once injured, they constitute “a key form of evidence” relevant to generals as well as scientists. Lindee details, for example, the work of researchers such as Eric Prokosch who performed gruesome yet innovative experiments to understand wound ballistics. This research — what Lindee calls “a form of ‘public health in reverse’” — studied how bullets and other projectiles could be designed so as to cause more damage to the human body. From insults inflicted on cadavers and other subjects, one could reverse-engineer from the field laboratory all the way back to a rifle’s barrel on a battlefield.

The minds and psyches of enemies, real and potential, were just as much targets as were their bodies, factories, and cities. Scientists engaged in wide-scale programs to change minds through propaganda, psychological warfare, and attempts at mind control. This had the effect of elevating the status of “soft” (i.e., human) sciences like psychology and sociology. Scientists from Cornell, for instance, ran a project in northern Peru in the 1950s, which aimed to help indigenous people “modernize.” In effect, this entailed their adopting the tenets of capitalism so that markets, along with hearts and minds, would be transformed. CBS’s Walter Cronkite featured the effort in a program called “So That Men Are Free.” But the participating anthropologists, who found their expertise being plied in the service of political indoctrination, soon realized “there was no innocent place to stand.”

Throughout Rational Fog, Lindee labels what scientists produce in their professional activities as “truth.” Philosophers of science might have a difficult time with this. I teach my undergraduate students that what scientists produce is reliable knowledge about the natural world. In the process, they see that scientists also try to generate consensus (not certainty) about that knowledge. So, it was jarring to see repeated references to how “science can produce truth.” This was even more perplexing because Lindee’s department has helped produce and popularize a view of science and technology based on social constructivism. (A classic book, in fact, in the history of science is Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth.) Science and scientists don’t manufacture Truth any more than artists produce Beauty. The line between truth and knowledge remains stubbornly foggy.

Setting aside debates about whatever it is that scientists actually do deliver, Rational Fog demonstrates that their expertise is remarkably effective when combined with militaristic goals and a drive toward rationality and efficiency. I think the biggest success of Lindee’s book is her observation that this professional accomplishment has had a strange and twisted effect in the modern era. Because the military’s use of science (and scientists) has been so effective throughout the past century, it has perversely helped shore up the legitimacy of science. One may doubt the “science” of climate change or vaccines, but the power of science is displayed every time a drone carries out a remote strike, a jet breaks the sound barrier, or a nuclear warhead “explodes” inside of a computer simulation. It may be inconvenient, but those truths are neither nebulous nor negligible. They are lethal.


W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara where he researches and writes about modern technology and science.

LARB Contributor

W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and the author of five books on the history of modern science and technology including Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture (MIT Press, 2020). McCray is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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