October 06, 2004

Remembering Our History


In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, historian Peter J. Kuznick has a must-read essay about the last election in which scientists got heavily mobilized. The year was 1964, and a vast number of leading American scientists decried Republican candidate Barry Goldwater for his nuclear bluster, which they considered a grave danger to the world. Most notably, many of the original makers of the A-bomb aligned against a political candidate they feared might use it. Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey had a powerful impact on the election and Goldwater's resounding defeat.

Fast forward to the present. Although Kuznick does not seem to agree, I would say that we find scientists more electorally motivated today than they've been since 1964. Granted, the issues are very different. Scientists are angry about embryonic stem cell research and climate change, as well as the administration's disregard for their expertise. Nuclear weapons policy provides part of the impetus for scientists' discontent, but only a small part.

What difference will it make this time? Well, I doubt that scientists today could have the same impact that they had in 1964. For one thing, I don't think America regards its its scientific community with the same sort of awe that it did during the early Cold War. We tend to distrust scientists more, and put them on a pedestal less.

Nevertheless, given the mobilization of usually quiescent scientists, 2004 does present a strong analogy with 1964. And Scientists and Engineers for Change are trying to make the most of the opportunity. It remains to be seen whether their activities will have any substantial effect. Next week I'll be in Ohio, attending this "S&E4C" event, and will report back my thoughts on whether it had any impact.

Posted by jmellicant at October 6, 2004 02:47 PM