|©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
Please consult the author for permission to republish any part of the thesis.
When Edwin Slosson died late in 1929, it was left to his successor, Watson Davis, to summarize the achievements of Science Service in the 1920s. In a glowing fin de decade report to the board of trustees, Davis made his evaluation.
What has Science Service accomplished in the nine years of its active existence? The spirit of the public toward science and the spirit of the scientific world toward the public has changed. Science Service cannot claim full responsibility and credit for this metamorphosis, but it can be said fairly that its pioneering in the presentation of accurate and interesting accounts of science to the public through the press has been a major contribution.As this study has attempted to demonstrate, Science Service was indeed instrumental in awakening the scientists, the public, and the press to the importance of science in American society, though with varying degrees of success.
Regarding the improvement in the scientists' attitude toward society, Science Service was more a product than a cause, for it was founded by men such as George Ellery Hale and William E. Ritter, who hoped that popularization would develop the public support needed to continue the centrally-organized structure of science evolved during the First World War. World War I had demonstrated to the scientists that their profession could be of critical importance to the nation and that the nation, in turn, could be of great assistance to science. By providing scientists with accurate reporting of their work, Science Service may have contributed toward improving their willingness to have their research publicized, but the influence was strictly secondary to that of the war.
The impact of Science Service on the American daily press, however, was much more pronounced, resulting in a marked upturn in the quantity and quality of popular scientific reporting. Science Service was chiefly responsible for selling science to newspaper editors and for increasing by twentyfold the amount of newspaper space devoted to science during the 1920s, according to Benjamin Gruenberg in his report on Science and the Public Mind. 199 It was able to accomplish this by substituting "romance" for sensationalism as a tactic for attracting readers, and establishing new standards of accuracy in reporting the facts ,of science. The venerable historian of American journalism, Frank Luther Mott, has given a large share of the credit to Science Service for stimulating a general reform in science reporting. 200 And in a master's thesis entitled "A History of Science Writing in the United States," by Carolyn Hay of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the founding of Science Service is cited as one of the landmarks in the history of science writing which led to the emergence of science journalism as a full-time profession. 201 Science Service played an important role in the professionalization of science journalism through the promotion of high standards and its training of science writers, a large number of whom moved on to careers elsewhere. In 1934 the community of science journalists was large enough to organize itself as the National Association of Science Writers, of which Watson Davis and Robert Potter (also of Science Service) were founding members. 202 Not only did Science Service succeed in establishing a place for science news in the daily press, but it altruistically sought to improve the quality of science journalism as a whole.
Science Service undoubtedly increased public appreciation of science in the 1920s, though to what extent is almost impossible to say. Certainly the fact that its news stories were used by over one hundred newspapers, with readers numbering almost one-fifth the total circulation of the American press, indicates that the Service had cultivated a substantial audience by the end of the decade. 203 One should remember, of course, that when Science Service was founded in 1920, popular interest had already been aroused by the dramatic war-time applications of science, the radio craze, and the relativity controversy, and thus the Service's contribution was not so much in stimulating public curiosity as in nurturing it. Whether the scientists' postwar concerns of establishing financial support and public sympathy for science were fully realized is less certain. In regard to establishing "adequate support" for science, the impact of Science Service is extremely difficult to evaluate, though of certain facts we may be sure. Funding for scientific research did increase in the 1920s; the number of industrial research laboratories, for instance, more than tripled. 204 However, an ambitious drive begun in 1925 to establish a National Research Endowment of twenty million dollars had collapsed by 1932, the victim of the Depression and other complex factors. 205 Though popularization may have contributed to securing financial support for science in a minor, indirect way, it very definitely did not produce "money by the million and the billion" as John J. Carty had anticipated. 206 Whether Science Service helped make science "duly appreciated," in the sense of making the public think more scientifically and less irrationally, is equally difficult to determine. Edwin Slosson, during his last years of life, claimed he could find no signs of improvement in American culture. In his first annual report to the board of trustees in 1921, he had called attention to "the wave of superstition and reaction which is now sweeping over the world . . . . 207 At that time some of the trustees regarded his opinion as overly pessimistic, but near the end of the decade, Slosson observed that this reactionary movement had developed far more rapidly than he had foreseen, as manifested by the conviction of John Scopes in 1925 for teaching the theory of evolution. 208 Slosson was deeply disturbed by the growing number of anti-evolution laws around the country, and when the famous controversy at Dayton, Tennessee, took place, he initiated in Science News-Letter a series of articles by various biologists entitled "Evidence for Evolution," sent Watson Davis and Frank Thone to cover the trial, and personally assisted in coordinating the testimony to be given by leading scientists on the validity of evolution. Slosson was frequently in contact with Clarence Darrow during the trial, helping arrange the scientific defense, though their efforts proved fruitless since the judge refused to allow the scientists' testimony to be heard. When Scopes was finally convicted, Science Service sponsored a fund-raising drive to help send him to graduate school. 209 After Scopes' defeat and the passage of anti-evolution laws in other states, Slosson saw little hope for civilization, concluding that "the anti-scientific spirit still prevails and superstition continues to advance. 210 Edwin Slosson died on October 15, 1929, unable to discern any encouraging signs in American life, and if he had lived to see the Stock Market crash on October 24, only nine days after he died, he undoubtedly would have believed that his most dismal prophesies had been fulfilled.
We may conclude, then, that Science Service truly did constitute a new voice for science in its unprecedented dedication to accurate and authoritative reporting of scientific news. After the founding of Science Service in 1920, the popularization of science could no longer be equated with the vulgarization of science. However, Science Service was a voice which, because of its close ties with a conservative scientific community, became a spokesman for the ideological commitments of that community, to solicit support for the advancement of science and to encourage scientific thinking in the public mind.
That a disturbing element of elitism was implicit, if not always explicit, in the scientists' two concerns of postwar popular science is readily apparent in almost any of Edwin Slosson's writings. Slosson and many other scientists of the 1920s clearly viewed themselves as the advance guard of civilization, whose moral obligation was to lead the inferior "multitudes" down the "safe blazed paths" of science, as Watson Davis so aptly phrased it. 211 Accordingly, any movement that threatened to impede the march of scientific progress, be it racial mixing, abstract art, or a revival in astrology, was labeled as antiscientific, irrational, and hence immoral.
In a sense, however, Slosson's elitism was justifiable in that the vast achievements of science in the early twentieth century did seem to promise a better world, an "Era of Enlightenment" as Slosson called it, in which man would be freed from the tyranny of hard labor and encrusted prejudices. And Slosson and his fellow scientists can hardly be blamed for propagandizing on behalf of the instrument which they believed would usher in this new era, or for spreading the gospel to those whom it might greatly benefit. Yet it would seem that a truly popular science should do more than just proselytize. As Oscar Handlin has perceptively remarked in his essay on science and popular culture, "the profound uneasiness about the consequences of the new ways of knowing will be quieted only if science is encompassed within institutions which legitimate its purpose and connect its practitioners with the populace. 212 While Science Service should be regarded as a first, significant step toward the development of such an institution, in the 1920s it fell far short of establishing a genuine rapprochement between science and the public. Even though Edwin Slosson, in his first annual report to the trustees, disclaimed any intention of leading Science Service on a crusade against the anti-scientific spirit, as the decade wore on his evangelistic inclinations increasingly swayed his writings and the policies of Science Service in that direction. 213 So intense was his vision of a world remade by science, and so fervent was his desire to implant that vision in the mind of the "multitudes," that the popular science of Science Service under Edwin Slosson came remarkably close to resembling the sermons of a former chemist.
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