College Quarterly
Spring 2007 - Volume 10 Number 2
Reviews The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite
Ann Finkbeiner
New York: Viking, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The complex and sometimes secretive relationships among the academy, the church, business, and government have long been problematic. The disinterested intellectual project is always in danger of being compromised by ideological and material interests that have little interest in the dispassionate search for truth and much to do with advancing the power and authority of social groups and institutions whose concern is not with knowledge so much as with how knowledge can be constructed and used for social, political and economic advantage.

Currently, financial rewards in the form of research grants and corporate partnerships are a temptation for ambitious academics eager to gain the funds necessary to further their scholarly pursuits and their careers. Since generous financial support is rarely available from educational institutions alone, professors and college programs are regularly invited to apply for and to receive external assistance from large corporations – both public and private. In the best of all possible worlds, this can make for a win-win-win relationship. Researchers get to complete their work; business and government get to put the research to practical, profitable purposes; and educational institutions get to claim that they house legitimate, if not always “world-class” research facilities, thus attracting prestigious professors and prospective protégés who will take up torch for the new generation.

There are, however, potential downsides. Two are of immediate interest here.

First, there are ethical questions concerning the violation of the rights of experimental subjects. It has, for instance, been revealed and is now fully acknowledged that the Canadian government’s Defence Research Board funded experiments with LSD in the early 1960s using students and musicians at Montreal’s McGill University, and tested even stronger hallucinogens in secret experiments in rural Alberta. These experiments, as others in the mid-1950s involving patients at McGill’s Allen Memorial Institute, were conducted without the informed consent of the subjects in an effort to provide a covert CIA front organization with information about the ability of such substances to control human behaviour. (It didn’t work.) At stake were government-sponsored violations of civil rights in the aid of a dubious political agenda and the ethical problems associated therewith. This especially egregious example is not offered to imply that such violations of written (and unwritten) ethical codes are part of a dismal but no longer dangerous history. Ethical abuses continue.

Second, there are questions of censorship. Dr. David Kern, an Occupational Health physician at a hospital affiliated with Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, was commissioned by a local textile mill to investigate two cases of a rare lung disease among its one hundred and fifty workers. When he found six more cases making for a rate of one in twenty-five workers (the average rate being one in forty thousand people), he presented his findings in an academic paper. The firm then threatened to sue, saying Dr. Kern had revealed “trade secrets.” The university backed the company. The clinic was closed.

In another widely publicized case involving Dr. Nancy Olivieri of Toronto, a professor/physician was contracted by Apotex, a private pharmaceutical corporation, to conduct tests on a new product, deferiphone, intended to treat the hereditary blood problem known as thalassemia, a hemoglobin disorder. Olivieri discovered not only that the drug was ineffective, but that it also had dangerous side-effects and – despite warnings from the company – published her results. She was terminated by the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, and compelled to undertake several years of administrative struggle and civil litigation before being vindicated and regaining her job. At stake were corporate-sponsored abdications of social responsibility in the aid of financial advantage and the ethical problems associated therewith.

These are only two of a multitude of examples of the difficult circumstances in which academics can find themselves when they become involved in work for commerce and industry on the one hand, and governments, especially in the military, intelligence, police and security branches, on the other.

They are mentioned not because they are startling – though they are – but because they are the tip of a proverbial iceberg. They are meant to reflect the fact that major social institutions exert a persistent influence upon those who teach and do research in the finest traditions of the academy. Not long ago, that influence was largely religious.

As postsecondary education has grown and expanded, the external influences have become economic and political. Of course, that does not mean that religious doctrine no longer applies in some parts of the educational sector. The ongoing debate about “intelligent design” assures us of that. Still, at least in Western societies, the influence of religion in otherwise secular educational institutions has recently abated, though there are a number of institutions such as evangelical Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach that promote fundamental Christianity under the guise of higher learning. Regent University and its dogmatic ideology is nonetheless recognized by the American Bar Association, and has produced graduates such as Monica Goodling who was senior counsel to former US Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Justice Department liaison to the White House as well as about 150 others who have proudly served the current US administration. Despite the publicity won by people like Goodling (and Gonzales), it is important to acknowledge most intellectual offenses do not reflect rigid ideological doctrines which permeate the curricula of serious educational institutions. The offenses are just as debilitating, but they are far more subtle. They are “hidden in plain view,” as they reflect the larger culture. They give rise to more frequent conundrums when academics face potential ethical dilemmas, conflicts of interest and issues of both academic freedom and public responsibility that lurk, half-hidden, in the fine print of lucrative applied research contracts among governments, private companies, teachers, universities and, increasingly, colleges.

Partly because of the fiscal crisis experienced by public educational institutions, such issues are sometimes more easily finessed today than they were when such matters merited headlines in school newspapers and the mainstream media, and occasionally led to student protests on campus. For some scholars, these encumbrances are now merely the ethical costs of doing business. In former times, questions such as the fundamental incompatibility of academic and military or industrial research were hotly debated. In May, 1968, to cite one instance, the Federation of American Scientists spoke out strongly against classified research in all its forms, and denounced the University of California for lending “its name and implicit endorsement to weapons laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos.”

Speaking personally, I well recall doing graduate work at the University of Hawai’i at a crucial time in the Vietnam conflict. Among anti-war students in close proximity to Pearl Harbor and a large military population, it was understandable that American involvement in Vietnam was emotionally and intellectually contested. So was alleged collusion between educational administrations, research scientists and military or defense contractors. Accordingly, it was with some satisfaction that I read a public statement on a proposed policy that was offered on 2 December 1968 by prestigious educators including anthropologist Gregory Bateson, political scientist Rudy Rummel, and prominent social commentator and psychologist Paul Goodman, as well as University of Hawai’i Security Officer Thomas Gray. Their intrepid manifesto dealt with classified research and argued that “no member of the faculty or administration should contract for research or transmit research findings through means by which the methods of research and the findings are restricted from the public domain.”

In retrospect, nothing could have been more obvious.

So, even today when institutional money is tight but generous rewards are available from other sources, secret arrangements undertaken for politically insalubrious purposes by professional academics are regularly subjected to the deliberations of academic ethics committees and often rejected in theory, if not always in practice, by responsible members of the academic community. There is, however, another side to the issue.

One of the by-products of our collective hyper-anxiety in an age in which we are daily confronted by unfathomable events and relentlessly impenetrable problems of alleged moral decline, social decay, environmental degradation and threats to our safety and security at home and abroad, is the desire to restore the appearance of normalcy at almost any cost. An important means to this end is the pre-dismissal of so-called “conspiracy theories.”

Presidents and prime ministers, editorial writers and other public opinion leaders can hardly be condescending enough when rejecting the conclusions of people who “follow the money,” “connect the dots,” and otherwise reveal links between spidery organizations and nefarious events. Whether linking the price of gas to an oil oligopoly that purports to be governed by market forces, worrying still about who really killed John F. Kennedy, or wondering aloud about the relationships between the arms industry and war or the pharmaceutical industry and disease in underdeveloped nations, those who voice dissent about the reprehensible effects of the secretive institutions that appear to dominate our political economy are easily labeled “delusional paranoids,” and written off by influential political leaders, mainstream pundits and their captive suburban audiences. The trouble is that sometimes there really is a plot. Sometimes, Guy Fawkes wannabes really do want to blow up Parliament. Always there are those who would like to profit from the sale of the dynamite.

In such circumstances, caution is advised. It is unwise to indulge in fantasy. Unless I miss my guess, there is no international conspiracy of bankers, Masons, Knights Templar or sex-crazed anarchists eager either to control or, worse, to bring down Western civilization (that there are groups which explicitly desire to do the latter, of course, cannot be doubted; but, they are largely the official enemies in the “war on terror,” and therefore not at issue here.

We must, however, be alert to the exaggerations of those who demonize corporations in much the same manner as the “witch-hunters” of the 1950s deployed the ruse of a vast international communist conspiracy or those who are currently convinced that inter-galactic agents in the form of little green men are just biding their time, awaiting the perfect opportunity to rescue their brethren from Roswell. It is not prudent to assume that every “articulation agreement” between business or government and academia is part of an ineluctable and reprehensible scheme to undermine the legitimate social purposes of education and thus automatically hand over control of our students to the global corporate agenda. Sometimes good things happen.

There are, however, plenty of instances in which clever scientists (whether of the social or natural variety) are playing a risky game. In Ann Finkbeiner’s account, one such collection of high-minded and highly placed theorists and researchers has been assembled under the cover title of the “Jasons” (or, Jason, for the singular and plural seem interchangeable, whether speaking of the organization or its members). The Jasons were first “outed,” so to speak, when some of their reports were included in the top-secret internal account of the Vietnam conflict, The Pentagon Papers. Those documents, it will be recalled, were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the once-proud New York Times and Washington Post, and were published despite the threats (and to the annoyance) of the US government in 1971. The Jasons keep their membership secret and their meetings closed. Most of their reports are officially restricted, and the extent of their real influence is uncertain. What, after all, is the good of a secret organization if its construction and effects become public knowledge?

Finkbeiner’s book has been highly praised by John Horgan, who expresses gratitude for the work of critics like her, saying that science “is and always has been as morally fallible as any other human activity,” but that it bears a greater responsibility because of its “immense potential for altering our lives for good or ill.” Horgan should know. He is director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, which is located on the western side of the Hudson River perilously close to the site of “Ground Zero,” the site of the World Trade Center. He has written candidly of his own encounter with the Jasons.

Created as a sort of free-floating think tank in 1960, Jason has proffered advice to sequential US administrations on a variety of topics. Prior to a falling out in 2002, its funding came largely from the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Claiming ruthless independence from “special interests” and ideology, it conceived itself as uniquely placed to provide the government with pragmatically hard-nosed, scientifically objective and politically disinterested analysis. Jason took on any subject. It explored the feasibility of using low yield nuclear weapons to destroy bridges in Vietnam in the 1960s; it also encouraged President Clinton to sign the comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996. It was impassively involved in determining the feasibility of diplomatic and military initiatives as exclusively practical matters.

In 1993, Horgan was approached by a defense contractor which was advising a federal security organization on terrorism. He was, by his own admission, flattered, challenged and tempted by the money that was offered. Disclosing a certain “ethical elasticity,” he depended for advice on the comments of world-famous physicist and long-time Jason, Freeman Dyson. “Dyson,” he says, “made Jason sound like fun: a bunch of brilliant iconoclasts brainstorming during summer vacations about problems ranging from nuclear missile defense to climate change.”

Finkbeiner probes deeper. She was able to contact a number of Jasons and succeeded in interviewing thirty-six (published estimates of the total roster range from forty to about one hundred). Some refused to be interviewed. Some agreed only on condition of anonymity. Her book reveals that the $850 a day now paid to Jasons, while worthwhile, seems to be among the least of the motives for joining. More important is the sense of self-importance to be had from playing the part of a confident Washington insider. More likely still are altruistic, if naïve, beliefs that the Jasons make positive contributions to society by, if nothing else, exposing strategic errors or technological flaws in government plans and, of course, also solving real scientific problems in the bargain. They certainly have the skills to do so. Nobel laureates and giants of the intellectual community including Dyson, Hans Bethe, Steven Weinberg and the legendary Murray Gell-Mann have been Jasons. Too often, however, Finkbeiner concludes that their bargain is ultimately Faustian.

Jason has applied its collective braininess to such projects as the “electronic infiltration barrier” that did not, as it happens, protect South Vietnam from North Vietnam’s flow of troops (they tunnelled underground). Jason also worked out puzzles in adaptive optics, allowing telescopes to correct for atmospheric interference – information kept under wraps for a decade until the military found a use for it in Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). Today, they may be providing advice on the occupation of Iraq; but, we won’t get the details on that soon, if ever.

Until Finkelbein’s book, what we knew about Jason was largely what could be gleaned from the Pentagon Papers and from the academic rumor mill. The new revelations about the Jasons make captivating, if unsettling, reading. The book discloses the tangled web of ambition, opportunity and entitlement that comes with being a top-ranked egghead and the depth of the pit into which some come perilously close to falling.

Apart from the thrill of taking a vicarious tour through the minds of men and women who have chosen to participate in suspicious, shady and sometimes unsavory projects, what can we learn from the Jasons about our own life in education?

Few of us, after all, are likely to be invited to join the club. Not many are even likely to face the sorts of ethical decisions that ties to external funding agencies place on people who receive the modest rewards available to entrepreneurial college teachers through research projects undertaken as part of associate or applied degree programs through college-industry partnerships and few of which are apt to be classified as crucial to national security. For the majority, moreover, it is also a long way from the college classroom to plainly unethical experiments on psychiatric patients or confrontations with large corporations eager to stifle research for which they paid and consequently think they own, no matter what public interests may be in play.

What is not hard to observe, however, are the non-academic priorities that are increasingly insinuating themselves into college curricula and educational policies and practices. The extensive commodification and commercialization of education is available for all to see. Some educational leaders applaud the corporatization of education, boasting that they are leading schools away from the hopelessly romantic and materially irrelevant traditions of critical reflection on the nature of knowledge and power, and into the exhilarating hurly-burly of the global marketplace in which education will be tested not by standards of truth and wisdom but by the salability of its products – either in terms of the skills of its graduates or the results of its research. The uncritical submission of education to the demands of the market are, I submit, as corrosive of education and as baleful a trend for society as the domination of that market by what US President Eisenhower astutely labeled the “military-industrial complex.” What few know about that phrase is that Eisenhower originally intended to say “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” but was persuaded to drop the last item for fear of bringing the Republican Party into disrepute. Today, the complex has become more complex, for it might be time to think in terms of “the military-industrial-governmental-educational” complex, with the last item – in conjunction with information technology in all its forms – providing ideological support for the political economy that drives us.

As a former friend once confided to me: “If you’re not paranoid, you don’t know half of what ‘they’ are doing to you.” I was unable to find out either, because he soon afterward joined “them.”


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology