Progress

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 1 September 1945.</strong>

Mass-Observat

"What with them scientists and Mussolini and Hitler, the world'll be a bloody mess soon, that's what I think." The prophecy was made by a young carter in 1938. A report to Mass-Observation in 1941 described an acquaintance's attitude to scientists: "Mr _____," it said, "is firm in his belief that all scientists should be hung by the neck until dead and then left as a grisly warning to others. This procedure, he states, is necessary to stem the spate of horrible things which flow from their laboratory benches. He would also like to see the aeroplane inventors and technicians enjoying a similar fate to the science-mongers."

A Mass-Observation investigation in 1944 showed that nearly one person in three takes the view that mankind is not progressing, is "progressing backwards", or is progressing too fast. "They're progressing too much, I think. I don't think it's natural for everything to be so mechanical. We're crazy for greed and speed. Things move too quickly. We're overstepping in some ways," said one woman. Again: "We're sort of relying too much on machinery. It's spoiling the health of people." And a third comment: "I think we're doing too much thinking. We're meddling too much in things we ought not to."

When news of the atom bomb broke, we found many of the old fears and confusions coming up. At first many looked on it as simply another bigger and better bomb - "I think it's marvellous. It's just what we want, isn't it?" or: "Well, they used things like that against us, so we should use them against them." That attitude did not last long. A middle-aged working man said: "It's too much. We're going too fast. I'm on the same sort of thing in the food line, so I know what it is. We're one generation too early. We're not fit to handle such things." And another: "It's a sign of deterioration that these things have to be. Man's getting away from his God and what he knows is right."

We asked people, during the three days following the news, if they thought in the long run the invention would be a good or a bad thing for mankind. A considerable majority thought it would be bad. To many, it seemed to bring the end of the world out of the realms of fantasy into the foreseeable future. "To use my husband's words," said a woman, "it'll wipe the world out in time." And again a middle-class woman of 20, who thought the discovery should be des troyed after the Japanese war, said: "If science can get the atom bomb it can get more powerful things, and it'll be ghastly for us. We'll just melt away like water - just melt."

Ordinary people's ideas of what scientists are like are very largely based on films and thrillers - the cold, dispassionate, infallible, mysterious and incomprehensible figure. In the invention of the atom bomb the film character seems to have stepped right off the screen into the everyday world. Here at last is the fantastic invention holding the power of life and death over the whole world. It was an educated woman of 55 who said: "James Watt and his kettle started all this trouble. I'd like to drown all scientists. We'd be better without them."

The significance of these remarks should not be exaggerated, but they are made by a considerable minority, and they have been made now for a long time. It needs no psychologist to see that a deep feeling of guilt has been brought to the surface by the atom bomb, climax to the guilt-stimulants of six years' war. Large numbers of people wish the greatest discovery in the history of man kind had never been made; they think the chances are it will be used for evil purposes.

This is a first reaction. If some think it is the scientists' "fault", the origin of this feeling is plain enough. They need a scapegoat to take the blame from their shoulders; and scientists, fictionally aloof, amoral, emotionless, detached from the troublesome dreams of guiltless suburbia and the innocent couples in the one-and-ninepennies, fill the bill.

What is needed now is a systematic de bunking of the fictional picture. Everyone who has met them knows that scientists quarrel with their wives, have bad dreams, go to the flicks, keep dogs and cats, and wonder, like everyone else, whither mankind? Bring the scientist publicly down to the human plane on which he has always lived privately, and these destructive scapegoat blames will lose their focus. There is a growing, but so far vague, idea among ordinary people that science ought to be "controlled". The danger is lest "control" of science be taken to imply the suppression of irresponsible inventions or a pogrom of over- brilliant inventors, instead of a responsible supervision of the use to which new techniques and discoveries are put.

THIS ENGLAND, 1945

The atomic energy latent in women, if released for destruction, would save the world. - Report of a Methodist address in Hornsey Journal

In fairness to all, I must say that the bookmaker who has stayed at home has served his country, and his absent colleagues, well. - Letter in Sporting Life