Reader’s beef of the month

Last year, John Brockman, my literary agent as well as the agent for many other popular-science writers, put together his annual book of answers to one Edge question. The 2015 book was This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress. My short contribution was “Free Will”, and since everyone knows why I think that notion should quietly lie down and expire, I won’t go into it. Rather, I wanted to show how it prompted an irate email from someone whose name I have expunged out of mercy:

Dear Sir:

I’ve read what you wrote in This Idea Must Die.

Maybe you should look at Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the civil rights movement, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.” King publicly asked America’s clergymen to come to Selma to help him, and hundreds of them poured in. He would have accepted science professors too, of course, He needed all the help he could get. But no science professors showed up. They didn’t care. There was a contest here to see who cares about morality, religion or science, and religion won in a landslide.
Branch is a personal friend of Bill Clinton. I doubt that he is biased in favor of religion.
In the 1980s, the same story. Lots of clergymen condemned Reagan’s mass murder in Central America, but when did the Nobel Prize winning scientists sign a petition condemning it? Never. They didn’t care. If they had done that, maybe the American people would’ve woken up a little bit, but they didn’t care. Sagan could’ve written a book called “Reagan Is Committing Mass Murder” but he never bothered. Instead he wrote about comets and “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” a completely worthless book.
Read any biography of Richard Feynman. You will see he never showed the slightest interest in politics, or in improving the world. He lived for pleasure.
[Name redacted to protect the clueless]
As far as I can determine, this letter has nothing to do with free will. Rather, it’s an indictment of scientists for being unconcerned with social progress. The problem is that it compares scientists with clergymen, but what about every other profession? Just counting academics, what about economists, art historians, or medical school professors? For that matter, what about plumbers, dentists, engineers, merchants, or baseball players? Clearly the clergy would be overrepresented in matters like the civil rights movement, for Dr. King was one of them. But the workers for racial equality weren’t all clergymen: what about the thousands of students who marched for civil rights—some of them dying? I was one of them (no, I didn’t die!), and I have the lapel buttons to prove it.
As for Feynman, well, he wasn’t totally silent on matters of social import. He cared deeply about education, wrote textbooks, and we shouldn’t forget his presence on the Challenger panel—he zeroed in on the O-rings (as had the engineers who were overruled) as the cause of the disaster.
As for scientists not interested in improving the world, the writer is simply an idiot about that. Many scientists go into their professions to improve the world, or to understand it in ways that could lead to a better world. I’m not saying that all of us are deeply invested in improving society, but I’ll also claim that, as a group, scientists have done a tremendous amount for humanity, and I’m counting here the material and physical well being of humanity, not the bonus of giving us an inspiring understanding of nature.


  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Two word: Szilard Petition.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink


    • dan bertini
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      I could be wrong but isn’t everything scientists do for the betterment of human-kind. Just the medical sciences alone have afforded us a better life. Hell, where would we be without evolutionary law? After all we are all African are we not? Was Feynman not part of the Manhatten project?

      • David L
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Feynman, a self-proclaimed nonuser of Marijuana, showed up at a student protest (in about 1967 or 1968) against California’s drug laws carrying a sign “Foolishness should not be a felony!”

        Several Caltech professors were reluctant to speak at the 1970 campus teach-in on the Vietnam War for fear of losing NIH or NSF grants. A few did speak, but the main attraction was Ray Bradbury, before he turned conservative in his old age.

        Plant biologist Arthur Galston, a professor at Yale whose research on plant growth regulators led to the development of Agent Orange, traveled to North Vietnam to survey the damage done by defoliation. From there, he became the first American scientist to visit the People’s Republic of China–before Nixon’s famous visit.

        • dan bertini
          Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          When chairman of Yale’s botany department, Arthur Galston’s ethical objections led President Nixon to end the use of agent orange.

      • eric
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        Don’t forget Pauling. He won the Nobel prize in Chemistry and then won the Nobel Peace prize for his political activism.

    • Les
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink


    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Two more words: Norman Borlaugh.

  2. Charlie Jones
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    It is relatively easy for (protestant?) clergy to take the time off to go do protests because many are in charge of their own churches. They can appoint their assistant pastor to give a sermon or two and take the next week off demonstrate without fear of salary loss or disapproval from their flocks. The rest of us tend to have a boss and find ourselves in a complicated web of institutional obligations that are not so easily severed.

  3. stephen oberski
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Well I have to agree with Mr. Redacted when he says that the public is far more willing to listen to “science professors” and “Nobel Prize winning scientists” than they are to America’s clergymen.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      That email made no sense from first letter to the last. But if the other baseless ideas were born out of ignorance, that one must have been birthed by stupidity.

      • Kevin
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        I agree. WTF was that letter on about.

        There is some element of emotion mixed with forgetfulness and lack of control for precise proposition forming. Mr. (or Mrs.) redacted is not likely to be assisted by any form of constructive criticism.

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. It was one long non sequitur.

    • Posted February 23, 2016 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      No. Millions of Americans reject the evolution theory because the clergy rejects it, though science professors and Nobel Prize winning scientists endorse the theory. In Texas, a mini-epidemic of measles in 2013 resulted from churchgoers following the advice of pastor Terri Pearsons to skip the vaccine.

  4. Jamie
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Lolz… when scientists do speak up about social issues, such as global warming, what happens? On issues from the atomic bomb to the snail darter, scientists take positions and speak out, just like everyone else. Selective attention much?

    • Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Selection bias, yes. I think this selection is facilitated by the fact that Americans overwhelmingly accept that morality is religion’s domain. When issues arise people actively look to see what the “moral experts” have to say. When non-clergy speak up people just don’t pay special attention to the profession of the speaker, whether it’s a biologist or a gas station attendant.

  5. sshort
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I think the problem here is the Professor’s reasoned arguments are interfering with irate righteous reader’s sincerely held belief.


    …kinda thing.

    • sshort
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      REASONED… can I blame that on spellcheck?

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Well, you can’t blame it on free will.

        • sshort
          Posted February 23, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink


  6. BobTerrace
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    For every member of the clergy who helped with social progress, there are probably 100 who retarded that progress. Mike Huckabe, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Kennith Copeland, Crefli Dollar, Eddie Long, Randy White, the hundreds charged with sex crimes and thousands more, ad nauseum.

    • Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Indeed. I’d bet the list of clergy that didn’t support King is much longer than the list of clergy that did.

      • Les
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Like most of the white Southern Protestant Clergy. Lots of crosses showed up at segregationist rallies.

        • Posted February 23, 2016 at 6:27 am | Permalink

          While I’m sure that there were clergymen struggling against slavery, I remember well that the abolitionist characters of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” complained of the clergy standing in their way and justifying slavery.

  7. Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Let’s make a more accurate scorecard.


    Cured diseases, alleviating the suffering of billions.

    Figured out energy and how to transform and manipulate it, giving us a much more habitable world (for better or worse…)

    Developed advanced agriculture, greatly reducing famines and malnutrition.

    I could go on but scientists already win with these three, vs clergy:

  8. DrBrydon
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    The letter writer makes the assertion that no scientists supported the Civil Rights movement, or opposed Reagan. That seems unlikely. But also implicit is that no clergy opposed the Civil Rights movement, or supported Reagan, which I know is untrue. Clergy are people just like any other. Their training and position do not, in fact, give them special powers of discernment. If ALL of the clergy in the US had supported the Civil Rights movement (or opposed slavery for that matter), for example, then it might mean something special about their role in the world. As it is, and as has been observed before, their inconsistency undermines claims to special knowledge.

  9. David Fuqua
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Scientific and academic books (e.g. economics) have as a central purpose changing and advancing our understanding of the world. Such writing is as fundamental to social justice as marching down Broadway in a protest parade. Your book, Faith vs. Fact, is a prime example of a scientist advocating a reasoned view of the world not one based on unprovable beliefs that probably didn’t advance social justice when they were new ideas.

  10. Bill Shipley
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Actually most scientific organisations and most individual scientists go out of their way not to comment (in the name of science) on public and political issues except when those issues directly involve scientific topics. This is entirely appropriate since it is only in the relm of science that such people and institutions have any claim to special knowledge. Having the AAAS publicly pronounce on (say) race relations would make no more sense that having a professional plumbing group do this.
    On the other hand religious institutions and “professional” religious leaders explicitly claim to have special insight into morality. T

  11. HaggisForBrains
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    King publicly asked America’s clergymen to come to Selma to help him, and hundreds of them poured in. He would have accepted science professors too, of course, He needed all the help he could get. But no science professors showed up.

    If they weren’t invited to the party, why should they show up?

    • Richard
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Actually, how does he know that none showed up?

      Did the marchers have to register their occupations? I doubt it. So, unless science professors were required to wear a “I am a science professor” badge, how does he know that none were in the march?

      • Posted February 22, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. He doesn’t.

        As I wrote above, the American public gives the clergy bullhorns while ignoring Joe Protester because the American public already thinks the clergy are the leaders in moral issues.

      • Posted February 23, 2016 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        The same about charity and volunteer work. Whenever there is such a cause, people of different religions as well as atheists and agnostics show up. Many of the religious people carry labels announcing their religious affiliation, while non-believers do not feel this need, they are motivated just to do the work. Then, other people say that atheists are not as charitable as believers.

  12. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    To become concerned about a social problem or social injustice I don’t see how what career field you are from has anything to do with it. In the civil rights issue in America (which still goes on today) there were all kinds of people concerned or participating in that. Besides, politically is where these things are mostly addressed and that takes numbers (millions) of people to take part, such as voting and not just the marching and demonstrating.

    Often science does play a major part, especially when the issue is directly related to science, such as climate change. Also, I believe it was Einstein who wrote a letter to FDR addressing the concern for what the Germans were doing and pushed for development of the atomic bomb. Science, I believe does show up as well as any other field.

    I could also say why is it that religion played a part in civil rights? Maybe it was because most of the leaders in this were black. Who else would be expected at the front of this line. But they had to pick and choose which parts of the bible they referred to in this struggle.

    • eric
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I believe it was Einstein who wrote a letter to FDR addressing the concern for what the Germans were doing and pushed for development of the atomic bomb.

      Sort of. He agreed to sign and send the letter because of his political influence, but AIUI the letter was actually composed by Fermi and a few others, with Einstein serving as something of a figurehead.

      Of course this undermines the complainer’s point. The letter you refer to was actually composed by a bunch of scientists coming together to voice a social concern, rather than it being the product of a single person (Einstein).

      • Randy Schenck
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the clarification, I was just going on memory there. But another point would be – Where do we draw the line between Inventor and Science or Scientist? I would say that many inventors of important tools were doing science. What about Fleming or Edison, were these folks not scientist? Moving society forward was more than a civil rights issue…were the Wright Brother’s doing science or just running a bicycle shop.

      • colnago80
        Posted February 22, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        It’s my information that the letter was mostly authored by Leo Szilard who was the man tasked to travel to Einstein’s summer retreat to obtain his signature.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 22, 2016 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

          But there is a list of scientists who signed it for a very good reason. It is evidence that scientists are humans like everyone else and might even have ethical concerns that they act on when confronted with the kind of science people like to throw up as examples of “evil science”, specifically, the atomic bomb.

          • Posted February 23, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

            I think that all the scientists who signed it had good reasons.

  13. Mark R.
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    “There was a contest here to see who cares about morality, religion or science, and religion won in a landslide.”

    Yes, that proves it…a contest “here”! Where, in the living room? Strangely religious people often don’t link medical science to science either. People take health care for granted or if they’re cured from some disease think g*d did it. But I wonder if it would have been a landslide had the contest been between morality, religion and medical care.

  14. Nell Whiteside
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    The guy is nuts! To say that Sagan wrote a completely worthless book is beyond my ken.

    Our modern world is pervaded by science – from on-tap, potable water and electricity in the home to public health, modern medicine, computers, cars,space travel, etc., etc..

    Religion, on the other hand, has been/is telling incredible fairy stories to gullible people for money – what is moral about that?

  15. Jack
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I was hoping this was gonna be a steakhouse review, but no… And still, not anything we can sink our teeth into! 😉

  16. Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Sagan didn’t write a book that this writer wanted him to so his book is worthless? This is as stupid as the assertion that you can’t attack theology until you’ve read all of it.

    Einstein didn’t cure cancer or march in protests so his work on relativity and quantum mechanics must be useless for improving the world?

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Carl Sagan spoke out against Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, and got arrested protesting against nuclear weapons in Nevada in the mid-1980s.
    Albert Einstein was a strong supporter of civil rights, but passed away before the King civil rights era.

    Martin Luther King strongly encouraged (in person) black actress Nichelle Nichols to not quit Star Trek. NN went on to become a recruiter for NASA, recruiting Sally Ride and America’s first black female astronaut Mae Jemison. Thank you, Dr. King, for your contribution to our space program.

  18. Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I still remember as a 15 year old watching the final episode of Sagan’s Cosmos, called Who Speaks for Earth — which one basically one long spellbinding stoner-rant against nuclear weapons and a plea for peace and progress. In fact the whole series was about the good science can do, from the practical to the wonderful.

    And in the long term, I think the utter decimation by genetics of any pseudo-scientific basis for racism serves ethics and social progress as well as any (purely) political activity.

  19. frankschmidtmissouri
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Linus Pauling (Jr and Sr), Percy Julian and Albert Einstein .

    And don’t forget that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was addressed to eight Judeo-Christian clergymen who had urged him to call off the demonstrations.

  20. Stephen Zeoli
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I guess it was clergymen who invented all the vaccines that keep people from getting horrible diseases, or all the other medical breakthroughs that help restore people to health.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Not quite. The typical believer position amounts to some form of “all good things come from the big bearded guy in the sky.”

      They wouldn’t necessarily have a problem admitting that vaccines were accomplished by scientists, but they don’t give the scientists credit for that. The credit goes to God. Anything else would be arrogant.

      Now, bad things? They are more than happy to give people credit for the bad things they do.

  21. Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Hm, the US’s most cited intellectual, whatever you may think of him (politically or scientifically), is both an activist and a scientist (linguist). An interesting counterexample …

    • colnago80
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      If you are referring to Noam Chomsky I would take great exception to his being the most cited intellectual in the US.

      • Posted February 23, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        “Great exception” – you mean you think that’s factually wrong or that it is morally wrong? The latter we can debate; the former seems to be right. (As he is the most cited living author, last I checked, and hence a fortiori within the US, where is.)

  22. Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Also, Sagan’s bit about nuclear weapons was not just his thing – Douglas Hofstadter wrote about it too. (I wasn’t aware at the time, being a child, but I have the _Metamagical Themas_ volume where that stuff was reprinted.)

    (And there are many other examples.)

  23. Merilee
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Quel dumb-ass!

  24. Les
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I hate it when readers-with-beefs make general statements based on their notions.
    Einstein wrote “Out of My Later Years”. He advocated civil rights well before it was mainstream. Fermi, too. Fermi’s grandaughter told me Fermi had a large group at a hotel. He was told they didn’t serve blacks. He left the hotel and took his group with him.

    • dan bertini
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Could not agree more!!

  25. colnago80
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Let’s also not forget an Englishman named Charles Darwin who was actively opposed to slavery in the American Southern states and, along with his Wedgwood inlaws, strongly lobbied against British intervention in the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, which many in the British Government favored as they feared that eventually the United States would eventually eclipse Britain as the preeminent world economic and military power.

    • Erp
      Posted February 22, 2016 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      Darwin was relatively quiet in his abolitionism (though one has no doubts about his views when reading Voyage of the Beagle).

      As for scientists leading on ethical issues there is also Pugwash which was organized by physicists to try to lower the risks of weapons of mass destruction being used.

      • steve
        Posted February 23, 2016 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        To Erp:

        And that’s the thing. Because we have books and now the Internet, today’s generations can be positively influenced by the writings of long-deceased people. Therefore It doesn’t matter so much what their actions were at the time that they were living.

        And to Mr(s) Name Redacted: Carl Sagan? Get real — That scientist’s books and life work changed people. Changed their worldview. Made them make life-changing decisions. You can bet on that! This is the power of the printed word.

  26. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    What an idiotic letter. Replete with carefully cherry-picked examples and full of non sequitirs.

    ‘Because group [A] did not organise an action as an identifiable group that shows that none of [A] cared about it’ ?
    And therefore ‘None of [A] care about *any* social issues’ ?


    I could say [the readership of WEIT] obviously does not care about social issues because they have not, collectively, organised and signed a petition about, umm, [the treatment of lower-caste Hindus in India].

    I would guess that scientists are (sweeping generalisation) at least as socially aware as any other class of people. The fact that they, as an identifiable group, have not chosen to pronounce on non-scientific issues proves nothing about what they may individually have done.

    Oh, and Feynman obviously enjoyed enormously doing what he was doing. Good on him! More people should be like that.


  27. Posted February 22, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Jonas Salk.
    “Jonas Edward Salk (/sɔːlk/; October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995) was an American medical researcher and virologist. He discovered and developed the first successful polio vaccine. Born in New York City, he attended New York University School of Medicine, later choosing to do medical research instead of becoming a practicing physician. Salk earned his medical degree at this university, and then in 1939 he became a scientist physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. ”
    “Salk campaigned for mandatory vaccination, claiming that public health should be considered a “moral commitment.”[6] His sole focus had been to develop a safe and effective vaccine as rapidly as possible, with no interest in personal profit. When asked who owned the patent to it, Salk said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” “

  28. Diane G.
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I must like train wrecks because I always look forward to Readers’ Beefs. This may well be the best one yet! Great responses, everybody!

  29. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Two words for your correspondent: Albert Einstein.

    Also, the scientific father of the A-bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, became on outspoken opponent of nuclear warfare, and an activist for non-proliferation.

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