Science in Self-Defence: Doing Science in Public in 1930s Britain

By Sam Phoenix Clarke (@samjphoenix)

Britain in the 1930s saw a surge in popular science-writing, with scientists and scientific journalists of all stripes attempting to publicise the revolutionary discoveries of early twentieth-century science. Biologists such as Julian Huxley and John Randal Baker took to radio to popularise the latest discoveries in genetics and the social and political implications of heredity, while physicists such as James Jeans and Arthur Eddington wrote for the public on the religious and philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, arguing that the indeterminacy of fundamental particles justified the return to a spiritualist, anti-materialist view of the world as a reality conceived in the mind of some unknowable mathematician-deity. A faction of scientists on the left wing of British politics, however – the loosely associated ‘social relations of science’ movement, saw in scientific progress the potential for a radical reorganisation of social life, one that would place the political economy of science in the hands of the public, and nurture a political culture in which citizens were capable of consciously ordering scientific research as so to best serve the needs and welfare of the public.

Scientists such as the physicist and x-ray crystallographer John Desmond Bernal; the physiologist and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane and the zoologist and statistician Lancelot Hogben formed and organised around a variety of groups that advocated for the self-conscious, planned application of scientific research to social welfare, often from a socialist position. For these scientists, the First World War and its aftermath had led to a shift in the locus of scientific discovery and technological innovation: away from the isolated research of individually wealthy scientists, and towards research programmes funded and coordinated by either large corporations for the purpose of profitable innovation or nation-states for the purpose of military security. Scientists recognised the vast potential that this opened up for coordinated, large-scale research, and the dangers entailed if these potentials were directed primarily towards destructive ends. The heavy use of new military and communications technology under emergent fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Spain only seemed to confirm this. The Great Depression, from 1929, had also thrown European capitalist economies into crisis, with large-scale unemployment and poverty causing many to question the sustainability and potential for recovery of the liberal market economies. This led, in the case of some scientists, to the sense that capitalism was failing to make use of technological innovation: that new discoveries in agriculture, in chemistry, in engineering, were doomed to be wasted in an economy in which new technologies are only implemented when it is sufficiently profitable to private enterprise to do so.

In works such as Bernal’s 1939 The Social Function of Science[1], these scientists concerned themselves with dispelling various illusions around the role of science in human affairs – ideologies which took science to be necessarily a fragmenting, destructive social force. Against the accusation that technological innovation necessarily drives unemployment and economic crises, these scientists argued that capitalist misapplication of technology, rather than technology itself, drives crisis: that science, rightly, works to lower the labour-cost of producing the necessities of human survival, and that it is only when coupled with a capitalist market economy, where goods are produced for profit, rather than human utility, that this is a dangerous force – as technological improvement of production creates more commodities than can be profitably sold, with the result being that surplus goods are destroyed, and those that labour to create them go unemployed. This could be remedied, for our scientists, with a conscious organisation of technology to serve human needs: that scientific methods of production could, and should, be applied so that goods are produced with the minimum input of labour, and to directly fulfil the material needs of the consuming public. 

These scientists, however, were not aiming simply to be propagandists for their profession – to defend the public relations of science from attitudes that saw scientific rationalism as undermining religious and ethnic underpinnings of solidarity, that saw scientists as warmongers eager to develop the latest poison-gas, that saw technology as an inevitable driver of unemployment and economic crisis. Rather, their political project entailed making citizen-scientists: cultivating a public understanding of science and technology that both framed the organisation and application of science as an open, contested issue in democratic life, and instilled citizens with the knowledge, dispositions, and habits of mind to become prospective legislators around the place of science in social life and the fulfilment of needs.

That science is an activity practiced by specialists, they argued, does not mean that scientists and technologists ought to autonomously direct its course and the corresponding impacts on social life; that science deals with a natural world of out-there objects does not mean that scientific discovery will deterministically force society down a particular course of social development. The social relations of science – the manner in which society organises scientific research, and the manner in which science and technology are allowed to work back on society – was, for them, essentially an open question in democratic life: if we are to exercise control over our collective relationship with technology, and ensure that it serves our needs, rather than us becoming servants of the machine, we must take part in collective political practice in order to establish a desirable relationship with our natural knowledge, its makers, and its applications.

What kind of citizen must one be, in order to play such a role in self-consciously shaping our relationship with science and technology? Existing science education, for these scientists, was drastically insufficient as an answer to this. As a system of rote memorisation, of the accumulation of facts, it had failed to instil the spirit of science as a living, critical process of inquiry, but instead ‘precisely the reverse’, the acceptance of fact on authority[2]. In teaching science as a detached, ahistorical process carried out by the individual genius, it had failed to teach science as something that emerges in response to historically specific needs – instead, as something ‘so departmentalized and divorced from any other aspect of culture’ that it fails to do more than prepare the student for specific technical training[3]. The result is a system of ‘parrot-like learning’, a ‘stifling of intelligence and criticism’ that does nothing to either educate citizens on the place of science in everyday life, nor prepare them to think about it through the lens of politics: the lens of needs that we are scientifically capable of meeting, but go unmet due to political and economic organisation that fails to apply our knowledge to human need[4].

Works of science popularisation by these scientists were thus intended to teach science as it actually happens in life, and to demonstrate the possibilities which a rational, self-conscious organisation of science could realise. Lancelot Hogben’s 1938 bestseller, Science for the Citizen: A Self-Educator based on the Social Background of Scientific Discovery[5], teaches science as such: material such as the laws of thermodynamics, the discovery of antibiotics, and the ecological consequences of urbanisation and industrialisation, are presented both as developments of scientific knowledge, and as responses to particular social needs. The history and theory of science is presented as a ‘story of the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, disclosing as it unfolds new horizons of human wellbeing’ – but a story that is stunted by the perverse incentives of profit and secrecy ‘when the social incentive to new productive accomplishment is lacking’, and when ‘its custodians lose the will to share it with others’. J.B.S. Haldane, in turn, wrote over forty articles for the communist newspaper The Daily Worker, published in 1939 as the volume Science and Everyday Life[6]. These articles took as their starting-point the mundane objects of everyday life – chapters include ‘Bread and Ham’, ‘Bad Air in the Home, School, and Barracks’, and ‘The Economics of Cancer’ – and attempt to simultaneously teach a general scientific understanding, while demonstrating the specific historical processes which have shaped the disparities, irrationalities, and dangers in society’s implementation of science.

In pieces such as his remarkable essay On Being One’s Own Rabbit: The Story of a Minor Skirmish in the War Against Disease[7], Haldane provided visceral accounts of his own self-experimentation, and various other forms of citizen contribution to scientific knowledge. While an eminent biochemist himself, with specialist knowledge and privileged access to channels of knowledge-production, a point he often emphasised is that to think scientifically about the objects and problems of everyday life is not, and should not, be the sole prerogative of the professional scientist. As a motif for a social philosophy of technology, this was the common core of left-radical scientists in the 1930s: that while science, if left to the whims of private capital and militaristic nation-states, has the potential to be a violently destructive force, the only route out of this is to be collective democratic control of the social organisation of science. We cannot unlearn our knowledge; to attempt a regress to a pre-scientific epoch would be futile at worst and catastrophic at best. If the worker is to resist science becoming the unwitting agent of economic crisis, the willing handmaiden of warfare, and the technically perfected instrument of fascism, this must be the practical decision of a populace that recognises that the impact of our technologies upon ourselves is not a given, but an open, contested, and malleable problem of political life; they must learn science in self-defence.


[1] J.D. Bernal (1939) – The Social Function of Science. London: George Routledge and Sons Ltd.

[2] Bernal – The Social Function of Science p.72

[3] Bernal – The Social Function of Science p.75

[4] J.D. Bernal (1940) – Science Teaching in General Education p.1. Science and Society, 4:1, pp.1-11.

[5] L.T. Hogben (1938) – Science for the Citizen: A Self-Educator based on the Social Background of Scientific Discovery. Woking: Unwin Brothers Ltd.

[6] J.B.S. Haldane (1939) – Science and Everyday Life. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

[7] J.B.S. Haldane (1927) – On Being One’s Own Rabbit – in Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto and Windus.

Image credit: Azerbaijani poster from 1939 showing the contribution of scientists and academics to social welfare. Licensed for non-commercial use and accessible here.

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