Perilous Discoveries: The Unintended Consequences of Scientific Secrecy
Humankind thrives on the discovery of new technologies to better our lives—but sometimes, our good intentions prove destructive beyond our greatest fears.
What is the place of secrecy in scientific innovation? Sponsored by Season 2 of Manhattan on WGN America, we’ll examine the often heavy consequences of such secrecy, just like those faced by the characters of Manhattan as they rush toward saving lives—or committing a necessary evil, in their perilous discovery.
Secret Heroes?: The Manhattan Project
As World War II reached its climax in the mid-1940s, some of the world’s brightest scientists were hard at work on a project in a secret research facility in New Mexico. These scientists’ work would come to be known as the Manhattan Project, and—though at the time unknown to all but a few individuals on the planet—it would change the trajectory of human history.
Led by renowned theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project was responsible for the development of the world’s first nuclear weapons. After years of research, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped its payload, Little Boy, on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The device held immense destructive power. Its blast instantly killed more than 80,000 people, and injured another 70,000. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, the United States dropped its second nuclear weapon, Fat Man, on Nagasaki, killing almost 28,000 people. In the face of such overwhelming devastation, Japan signed the instrument of surrender, ending the Pacific Theater of World War II.
History may not have been kind to Oppenheimer, but according to Ray Monk, author of the biography Robert Oppenheimer: Life Inside the Center, the divisive scientist ultimately believed in the moral justness of his work. “Imagine being in charge of a secret project costing one billion dollars on which the fate of your country or even the world turns,” Monk says. “And if he succeeds, he succeeds in making the world’s most terrifying weapon, capable of mass killings. Oppenheimer thought it completely justifiable that the Allies get the bomb before the Germans. He was persuaded by [Danish physicist Niels] Bohr’s argument that atomic weapons would bring an end to war itself, precisely because its horrific nature makes wars unthinkable.”
Today, the Manhattan Project serves as terrible reminder of the potential costs of human ingenuity. However, it is far from the only instance of a scientific endeavor with dire consequences.
Even if secret, the work of the Manhattan Project was highly directed and deliberate; the development of the atomic bomb was no accident. One would hope the United States could dedicate the same scientific willpower and devote the same resources to tackling the greatest scientific dilemma of our time—climate change. Unfortunately, one might then be disappointed, both in our lack of progress on this issue in the decades we’ve known about our impact on our global climate, and in our refusal to plan in any cohesive way a strategy for future climate science innovation.
Corporate Secrets, Global Consequences: Climate Change
Climate scientists have been desperately trying to convince willfully ignorant politicians of the very real dangers of climate change for years. Many of these attempts have been ignored, and it would currently appear none of the current Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls see our changing climate as a priority—with the possible exception of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who sagely reminded viewers that “America is not a planet” during the second GOP presidential debate on CNN. His impressive grasp of astronomy aside, Rubio is likely unaware—along with much of the American public—that ExxonMobil knew the potential dangers of rising carbon dioxide emissions in 1981, seven years before the issue became a matter of public interest.
Newly released correspondence from Lenny Bernstein, a climate scientist who worked for ExxonMobil for more than 30 years, proves the energy giant was fully aware of the harm carbon emissions could have on the environment—so much so that the company declined to tap a huge gas field in Indonesia, a site that would have been the single largest source of carbon emissions in the world at that time. Not only did ExxonMobil know about the dangers of greenhouse gases years before the issue became a political time-bomb, but the company also spent more than $30 million over the next 30 years funding organizations that actively deny climate science, for fear of what legislation limiting the use of fossil fuels could have on its bottom line.
“What it shows is that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation,” says Alyssa Bernstein, Director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University.
Blame the market for ExxonMobil’s—shall we say—fudging of the data on the coming global apocalypse, if you like, but don’t look to the American government for an inspiring, alternative attitude. Economic calculations may have been an aspect, too, of the CIA’s decision to secretly test biological weapons on its own citizens during the 1960s, in the the agency’s secretive MK-ULTRA program. From 1953 until 1964, the CIA conducted tests on American citizens to determine the potential applications of psychedelic drugs as part of the United States’ ongoing political conflict with the former Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. At that time, it was suspected that LSD had significant potential as a coercive tool, and officials in the American intelligence community believed that Chinese, North Korean, and Russian intelligence operatives were using the drug to brainwash American captives.
LSDeclassified: Psychedelics and the CIA
CIA operatives dosed hundreds of unwitting U.S. citizens with LSD in order to observe its effects. Mental patients, the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and prisoners—“people who could not fight back,” as one agency officer described them—were all subjected to forced LSD ingestion as part of the CIA’s research. The agency conducted 149 separate experiments into mind control and other applications of hallucinogenic drugs, all of which were ultimately useless, according to Sidney Gottlieb, the man responsible for overseeing that part of the MK-ULTRA program, shortly before he retired from the agency in 1972.
The program yielded no scientific benefit, and left many subjects’ lives in ruin. At least one test subject died, and many others were left with serious psychological problems or went insane. Despite the damage the CIA had done, Gottlieb was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal in 1973, the same year the agency deliberately destroyed much of the evidence pertaining to the MK-ULTRA program.
“Gottlieb never did what he did for inhumane reasons,” says John Gittinger, a psychologist at the CIA who vetted Gottlieb prior to his appointment as supervisor of the program. “He thought he was doing exactly what was needed. And in the context of the time, who would argue? But with his experiments on unwitting subjects, he clearly violated the Nuremburg standards—the standards under which, after World War II, we executed Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity.”
The Terrorist Cult: ISIS and Psychological Power
The CIA’s experiments may not have had any scientific value, but coercion and psychological manipulation have long been tools employed by violent organizations. To take an example from current headlines, thousands of teenagers have been coerced into joining ISIS, but this phenomenon is much more insidious than appealing to typical teenage angst. According to Steve Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church (or “Moonies”) who was involved in the forced deprogramming of cult members during the 1980s, ISIS is using mind control techniques more commonly seen in destructive cults to recruit impressionable young members to wage its war on the West.
“One key concept is that people are not making informed choices,” Hassan says. “[Recruits] don't know what it is they're getting involved with fully. They're given enough information to formulate a fantasy or projection. Like my group—I thought we were going to end poverty, end war, end crime, make an ideal kingdom of heaven on earth. That was the fantasy that I was told initially; it wasn't a religious group at all. And, within two weeks, I find out we're all bowing to an altar, praying for God to help the messiah to take over the world, and we'll all speak Korean. I only found out two years into it that we would kill everybody who didn't convert—which is exactly what ISIS is doing.”
Hassan says ISIS uses a technique common in hypnosis known as a “double bind,” in which the potential recruit being groomed is given the illusion of choice to make it seem as though joining the organization is the recruit’s choice. ISIS recruiters, he says, are familiar with social psychology and the principles of influence, which may explain why the group has been so successful in bolstering its ranks. These techniques may not display the implementation of hard science in order to exploit or harm innocent people in the same way as MK-ULTRA or the atomic bomb, but the psychological finesse shown by ISIS recruiters nonetheless displays a similar desire to use empirical observations to exert deadly power over human lives.
The quest for knowledge is as human an instinct as any; it’s what drives us to discover, to push ourselves and our species toward unseen heights and unimagined progress. However, our history shows we often value the impulse to discover new tools at our own peril. We should never, of course, stop innovating or seek to quell our innate curiosity. Rather, we should make sure to learn from the past to ensure our breakthroughs are used to help our human community—or risk the consequences.