Science in Christian Perspective



March Fourth Convocation: Science and Society
Richard H. Bube
Stanford University

From: JASA 21 (June 1969): 51-52.

A voluntary day-long stopping of research activities by faculty and students was observed on March 4 at over 50 universities across the nation. The purpose of the research shutdown was to afford the opportunity for careful examination of the growing social and political concerns of scientists, particularly in connection with the complexities of military vs. humanitarian involvements. This article is a report on the March Fourth Convocation at Stanford University.

Opening Presentations

P. Grobstein, a graduate student in biology, summarized the chief concerns of the convocation: (1) that science and technology are losing relevance to the real needs of the world, and (2) that we do not have the means to control the future of science and technology. Questions raised included: What is the responsibility of the scientist in society? Is the scientific community functioning as a vital part of society? Have scientists lived up to the responsibility that is inescapably theirs because of the power that their knowledge gives them? Should we think of science as morally neutral, only a useful technique? He pled for a free and open investigation of all problems, the emphasis that a rational search for truth is still a viable approach.

Dr. J. Lederberg, Professor of Genetics and Nobel Laureate, called nationalism one of the principle diseases of the human condition. It might be easier to modify man through affecting his innate biology than to modify him through reforming his social institutions. Science was presented as being almost the most subversive (i.e., non-nationalistic) enterprise carried on in the world today. (It is curious that the Christian Church did not suggest itself in this connection.) In place of our passive acceptance of present discriminatory practices before birthwhich we call global malnutritionDr. Lederberg presented the need to set up a rational human biological policy. The question needs to be faced: is life itself and its indefinite elongation the system value to be pursued by such a policy? Should a decision he made evaluating a long miserable life with respect to a shorter happy one? Technical possibilities now on the biological horizon calling for policy attention are: (1) pre-natal detection of birth defects in infants with subsequent authorized abortion; (2) augmenting the genetic blueprints of individuals in the way that we are currently protected against certain viruses by innoculation; and (3) the development of asexual reproduction, with at least the possibility of attempting to solve the relative influence on the individual of genetic vs. environmental effects.

Dr. L. I. Schiff, Professor of Physics, defended the importance of basic scientific research as valuable to all of society and deserving of support from all branches of society. He argued that to use present or potential applicability as a criterion to judge the merit of basic science is to deprive it of its basic genius.

Dr. S. Drell, Professor of Physics, a member of Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center, and Presidential
Science Advisor, summarized both the positive and the negative contributions of modern technology. He addressed himself to the question, What role can a scientist play in government? Frequently quoting Einstein, "Politics is much harder than science," he emphasized that a scientist decides what is, but a politician must decide what ought to be, and then must decide what can be done. Scientists speaking to the question of what ought to be speak with no special authority compared to any other citizen of the country; scientists speaking to the question of what is and what can be done are exercising their particular expertise. He discussed the complex technical considerations involved in the antiballistic missile program and indicated that sound technical inputs often make it much more difficult to come to a decision.

Dr. J. Linvill, Professor of Electrical Engineering, emphasized the many ways in which the engineer is busy working for a better society. Specific examples drawn from the program at Stanford include a reading aid for the blind, electronic instrumentation for medical research including a computer program for analysis of electrocardiograms, and the utilization of satellite communication for education in undeveloped countries.

Appropriately the opening and closing sessions of the Convocation were held in Memorial Church.

Panel Discussions

Following the opening addresses were a series of seven workshop panel discussions on the topics: technology and social development, military-industrial-university complex, biology and its implications, basic science: who should support it?, chemical-biological warfare, antiballistic missile, and population and pollution. Underlying some of the reaction to the technical discussions was the feeling that the technical details were only one small feature of the total picture, that somehow one had to learn how to feed moral and ethical values into the total decision-making equation.

Another point frequently emphasized was that the responsibility for undertaking a specific research project is that of the individual faculty member in the university, who contracts for each project independently. The responsibility of the individual research worker is to refuse to work on directed research in an area he considers in good conscience to be immoral.

Scientists, Engineers, and Politics

This was the title of the closing address by Dr. M. Perl, Professor associated with the Stanford Linear
MARCH FOURTH Accelerator.He emphasized that political reality, like physical reality, had to he lived and dealt with. The recognition of political reality meant the recognition of five points; (1) self-interest groups exist, (2) individuals' ideas will be intransigent because the organization to which they belong profits by a particular approach, (3) decisions in the legislature are not based on a simple rational approach, (4) the public is in despair about understanding technology, and (5) the scientific establishment tends not to rock the boat. He called scientists to become involved as scientific advisors to government, by contributing to the general public information both individually and through concerned societies such as the Federation of American Scientists and the American Society for Responsibility in Science, and by helping to put science and technology back into grass-root politics. Facing the realities of political life calls for the acquisition of political power to combat self-interest groups by lining up our own self-interest motivated allies; insisting on open professional and public debate on such urgent issues as pollution, environmental problems and the weapons program; being prepared to make suitable "deals" to achieve desired goals; voluntary offering of service by scientists as professional advisors to the Congress; and last of all-luck.


Yes, "Politics is much harder than science." It is certainly harder than science-and coffeeklatsch evangelism. What is the responsibility of the man who is not only a scientist-but is also a Christian? It is timely that the theme of the 1969 Annual ASA Convention (Gordon College, Massachusetts, August 19-22) is Science, Scripture, and Social Issues.