Rent-a-Genius

New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006

Last summer, I received an e-mail message from a defense contractor that was advising a federal security agency and wanted my ideas on fighting terrorism. I assumed it was a joke. But when I called the contractor's number, a woman named Debbie convinced me that the firm and the offer were real. Her firm's client was seeking advice from non-experts who could "think outside the box."I loathe militarism, so I worried that accepting the assignment would be hypocritical. But the invitation was flattering and challenging and the money was tempting. So I agreed. As long as I didn't propose anything that violated my principles, I told myself, what would be the harm?

It seems only fair to reveal my own ethical elasticity before I pass judgment on Jason, the subject of the journalist Ann Finkbeiner's fascinating, disturbing new book. I first heard about this secretive group of independent government science advisers in 1993 from the physicist Freeman Dyson, one of Jason's longest-serving members. Dyson made Jason sound like fun: a bunch of brilliant iconoclasts brainstorming during summer vacations about problems ranging from nuclear missile defense to climate change. But Finkbeiner shows that at times, Jason seethed with ethical conflict.

Of the 100 or so scientists who have served on Jason, Finkbeiner has interviewed 36. A few spoke anonymously, and others refused to talk at all. That reticence is not surprising, given that as much as three-quarters of Jason's work has consisted of classified military projects, some of them morally questionable. Like Errol Morris's film "The Fog of War," in which Robert McNamara painfully revisits Vietnam, Finkbeiner's book shows how even the smartest people with the noblest intentions can end up committing shameful acts.

Jason (the term refers both to the group as a whole and to individual members) was conceived in the late 1950's, when the physicist John Wheeler proposed assembling a few dozen top academic scientists to give the government no-holds-barred advice. In 1960 the group began gathering each June and July in various locations. Physics was still riding the wave of prestige generated by the Manhattan Project, and all the original Jasons were physicists. Mildred Goldberger, the wife of the early member Murph Goldberger (and herself a physicist), proposed naming the group after the mythical Greek hero. Funding came primarily from the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon (known today as Darpa).

Those who eventually enlisted included giants like Dyson, Murph Goldberger and the future Nobel laureates Steven Weinberg, Val Fitch, Charles Townes, Murray Gell-Mann and Leon Lederman. Some of their motives, like serving their country and reducing the threat of nuclear war, were altruistic. Others were less so: becoming an insider with access to secret information; finding "sweet" solutions to technical puzzles (to borrow Robert Oppenheimer's description of the Manhattan Project); and getting paid ($850 per diem today).

The Jasons interviewed take pride in some of their accomplishments. They have excelled at "lemon detection," finding the flaws in ideas like "dense pack" nuclear-missile sites, which one Jason, Sid Drell, called "dunce pack." In the 1980's, Jason helped establish a Department of Energy program to improve the accuracy of climate models. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in part because Jason had concluded that tests were no longer needed to ensure the viability of America's nuclear arsenal.

Jasons also contributed to the invention of adaptive optics, which boosts the power of telescopes by correcting for atmospheric distortion. On the other hand, the Pentagon kept the technology classified for almost a decade to reserve it for a project that many Jasons opposed, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Episodes like these made some Jasons wonder how much good they were really doing. Dyson complained that "the secrecy held up progress in adaptive optics for 10 years."

The Vietnam War was the group's nadir. In 1966, Dyson, Steven Weinberg and two other Jasons compiled a classified report that weighed the pros and cons of using low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy bridges, roads, airfields, missile sites and troops in Vietnam. The report concluded that using nukes made no military sense. Dyson told Finkbeiner that he and his colleagues would "probably" not have issued a report that reached any other conclusion. Yet the disturbing implication is that, under different circumstances, nuclear attacks might make sense. Finkbeiner accuses Dyson and his co-authors of "supping with the devil."

Meanwhile, other Jasons designed an electronic "infiltration barrier" to keep Communist troops out of South Vietnam. The barrier consisted of minuscule land mines and microphones that could be dropped from airplanes. The mines were intended not only to maim but also to make a noise detectable by the microphones. The microphones would radio a computer that analyzed the signals to determine if they came from peasants, animals or enemy troops. If convinced that enemies were in the region, American commanders would order an airstrike of cluster bombs. The Jasons argued that their barrier represented a relatively humane alternative to the wholesale bombing of North Vietnam. But the electronic barrier failed to stop either the bombing or Communist infiltration.

Jason's Vietnam-related research was exposed in 1971 when The New York Times published its articles on the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War commissioned by McNamara. Antiwar activists denounced them as war criminals. A woman sitting on a plane next to the Jason Richard Garwin stood and proclaimed: "This is Dick Garwin. He is a baby killer."

Finkbeiner clearly likes most of her subjects. But she doesn't let them off the hook. She gently yet firmly keeps asking, What were you thinking? Most seem to agree with Murph Goldberger that Jason's involvement with Vietnam, while well intentioned, was "the greatest mistake that any of us ever made."

Steven Weinberg apparently agreed; he resigned from Jason in the early 1970's "because I had no idea whether what I was doing was useful or not." But he rejoined in the 1980's as a senior adviser, and Jason continues to attract new members. Even before 9/​11, Finkbeiner notes, Jason had increasingly turned to counterterrorism projects, but she offers few details. Nor does she mention whether Jasons are advising the United States on the war in Iraq.

One current Jason, a chemist called Professor Y, defends her military research as an ethical responsibility. "If I tell the truth, even about frightening weapons systems, that's got to be the right thing to do." But this seems nave in light of Jason's history. Professor Y, and indeed all scientists advising the military, would do well to question whether they are really making the world a safer, better place.

Finkbeiner's book also carries a message for those who fear we are entering an anti-science age, in which right-wing politicians, religious fundamentalists, Luddites and postmodernists challenge science's authority. Some scientists are circling the wagons, depicting science as the embodiment of enlightenment and all its critics as knaves or buffoons. But science is and always has been as morally fallible as any other human activity. Indeed, because of its immense potential for altering our lives for good or ill, science needs critics like Finkbeiner now more than ever.

Selected Works

Books
McSweeney's Books, 2012.
With Reverend Frank Geer. Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Hutchinson. Brown Trout, 2002. Royalties go to Help the Afghan Children Inc.
Misc. Writings
Review of The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2011
Review of The Information by James Gleick, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2011
Review of "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, Globe and Mail, Oct. 8, 2010.
Review of "What Darwin Got Wrong," by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 2010
Review of "The Shallows," by Nicholas Carr, Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010.
Article in Slate, Aug. 4, 2009
Review of "Year Million," Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2008
Neuroscientific critique of the Singularity, IEEE Spectrum Magazine, June 2008.
Article in Discover Magazine, April 2008
Review of biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson and Jurgen Neffe, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.
A report on "mystical technologies" for inducing religious experiences, Slate, April 26, 2007.
Q&A with Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, National Geographic, February 2007.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science for Discover, October 2006.
Review of The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006.
Essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
Essay in the New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006.
Review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. New York Times Book Review, December 18, 2005
Profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
An essay inspired by the Centennial of Einstein's revolutionary papers on relativity and quantum mechanics. New York Times, August 12, 2005
Researchers have found evidence for the controversial "grandmother-cell" theory. Discover, June 2005.
An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005
An essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 12, 2004
Cover story for Discover Magazine, October 2004.
A critique of Buddhism, published online by Slate (slate.msn.com) February 12, 2003.
Published in Discover Magazine, February 2003. A profile of the Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern and his five-year study of peyote use by members of the Native American Church.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 31, 2002.
An essay published on the oped page of the New York Times Christmas Day, 2002.
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Outtakes from Rational Mysticism (published here only)
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?, with digressions on Yogi Bhajan and Amrit Desai.