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©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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THE FOUNDING OF SCIENCE SERVICE (CHAPTER I - PART IV)


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Science Service was the product of the fortuitous conjunction of two separate proposals for popularizing science, one from a group of scientists in Washington, D.C., and the other from wealthy newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps in California. After the war, scientists such as Hale and William J. Humphreys, a meteorological physicist from the U.S. Weather Bureau, revived their campaign for a popular science journal and this time received strong support from members of the University of Chicago group who had stifled their efforts in 1916. The war experience of Lt. Col. Robert Millikan, for example, had wrought an abrupt transformation: the haughty "isolationist" became the most visible spokesman for science of the 1920s, and even served as a trustee of Science Service for many years. 41

Almost simultaneously, E. W. Scripps was formulating his own ideas on a scientific news service with his close friend William E. Ritter, a prominent zoologist at the University of California who also collaborated with Scripps in the founding of the Scripps Institution of Biological Research at La Jolla, California and the Foundation for Population Research at Miami University. On November 11, 1919, as yet unaware of the scientists' scheme for a popular journal, Scripps, his son Robert, and Ritter formed the American Society for the Dissemination of Science. Their avowed object was

to make the greatest possible use of the press in the way of disseminating that knowledge which is the result of painstaking research carried on by a few hundred, or at most a few thousand, well-trained men equipped with great mental capacity. 42

The society was to be a nonprofit news-writing service for supplying articles on science to newspapers, modeled on the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a syndicate founded by Scripps, which presumably would be a customer of the new agency. 43

When Ritter began soliciting opinions on this scheme from the scientific community, he serendipitously encountered the Washington group's plan for a popular science magazine. The Washington scientists were naturally delighted to find such an enlightened patron as Scripps, especially since funding had proven difficult to obtain, and, led by William J. Humphrey, they sought to pool their resources in a single venture. After Ritter had determined from interviews with over three hundred scientists and journalists that Scripps' proposal had widespread support, a meeting was arranged, at Humphreys' suggestion, between the three members of the American Society for the Dissemination of Science and representatives (which included Hale and Millikan) of three national scientific societies: the National Academy of Science, the National Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On March 17, 1920, at his vast ranch "Miramar," perched on a windy mesa near San Diego, Scripps described to this audience his plans for a new society that would combine the journal of the Washington scientists with the news service of his own design and that would be governed by representatives of Scripps, the three scientific associations, and the journalistic profession. The next day, March 18, 1920, the Science News Service was formed and William Ritter elected its first president. 44

That summer the Science News Service chose its first editor, Edwin Emery Slosson, a former chemist, literary editor for the Independent for eighteen years, and author of a best-selling book on the chemical industries. However, Slosson had also been approached by Vernon Kellogg of the National Research Council to edit a popular science journal which some of the Washington scientists were still considering establishing. Slosson was doubtful of the financial success of an independent magazine in a period of strikes and rising prices, and so solved his dilemma by suggesting that the journal be combined with the Science News Service, where it could be launched when economic conditions improved and public support was assured. Later in 1919, Slosson accepted the post with the Science News Service, whose name was changed on December 30 to simply Science Service. An auspicious beginning now seemed guaranteed; a capable editor with experience in both science and journalism had been engaged, the blessings and guidance of the leaders of the American scientific community had been secured, and ample funding had been obtained from E. W. Scripps, who agreed to give thirty thousand dollars a year to the new agency and, if it proved successful, an endowment of half a million dollars. 45

E. W. Scripps, at first glance, would not appear to be a likely prospect for a patron of science. An indifferent if not a hostile student, Scripps never went beyond the secondary schools, and his interest in science did not even begin until he reached middle age. He did acquire an early love for books from his sister, who read the classics to him on the Illinois farm where they grew up together. However, his intellectual interests were mainly literary and, in combination with his shrewd business acumen, led to a career in journalism that made him a millionaire by the age of forty. Founding the first penny newspaper in America, he developed the Scripps-Howard chain of more than thirty newspapers, as well as creating the Newspaper Enterprise Association and the United Press. Scripps fiercely refused the respectability brought by wealth, however, taking pride in his reputation as a "damned old crank" and living life just as he pleased, which included cigar smoking, whiskey drinking (he claimed to have drunk over a gallon a day at one point in his life), and dressing "like a cattle baron." Scripps' independent spirit eventually led him far from home. The last years of his life were spent on a series of yachts, on one of which he died in 1926, anchored off the coast of Liberia with only a few employees to attend his burial at sea. Even with such an unusual background, Scripps developed a great respect for scientists, those "men of great mental capacity" as he called them, whom he believed were "so blamed wise and so much the creatures of reason rather than instinct that they cannot comprehend why God made nearly all the rest of mankind so infernally stupid. 46

Scripps' admiration for science probably derived from his friendship with William Ritter, from whom he may also have absorbed the scientific community's two concerns of postwar popular science. In a letter to Scripps, Ritter indicated that the purpose of their mutual endeavor was "to make science duly appreciated and adequately supported." 47 In the same letter, Ritter articulated the scientists' fears brought on by the war:

I do not believe it is too much to say that there are few really open, alert minded scientific men in the country who do not recognize, more or less clearly, that the continued progress if not the actual existence of our nation are now in the balance. Probably no scientist anticipates such a collapse as has lately befallen several European nations. Rather they see in the sum total of present conditions and tendencies evidence that unless far reaching modifications in our national life are brought about, the peak of our curve of growth and prosperity is reached, and from now on we shall be sliding down . . . the other slope of the curve. I am quite sure that a goodly number of scientists are convinced that a far wider dissemination among the people than now exists of the results of scientific investigation and of the method and mental attitude of science is indispensable if such national down-sliding is to be averted.

And finally, we know for a certainty that a considerable number of men of science believe that something similar to Science Service is absolutely necessary as one means for accomplishing the results desired. 48

Ritter's letter to Scripps clearly expressed his commitment to the two concerns of the scientific community, to solicit the support for science deemed necessary "for the continued progress if not the actual existence of our nation," and, on the personal level, to inject the ''mental attitude of science" into the minds of the people.

That Scripps fully shared these concerns is indicated in the "Statement of Purpose" of Science Service, probably written at least partly by Scripps, which asserted that Scripps was "convinced . . . of the importance of scientific research to the prosperity of the nation and as a guide to sound thinking and living . . . .. 49 Scripps' concern for the advancement of science is evident not only in his philanthropic ventures mentioned above, but also in the fact that he hoped one result of Science Service would be that scientists increased their income. 50 His desire to enhance the progress of science arose from his fears that democracy was endangered by uncontrollable forces and that science was its only hope for salvation. Though Scripps was a vigorous advocate of democracy and equality (he was strongly pro-labor), he had serious doubts as to the ability of the working classes to wisely exercise their democratic privileges. Scripps expressed this problem in terms of a "syllogism" in which he explained that:

it's useless to think of making the world safe for democracy without thinking of making democracy safe for itself. And the only way of making democracy thus safe is to make it more intelligent. But since to be intelligent is utterly impossible without having much of the knowledge, method and the spirit of science, the only way to make democracy safe is to make it more scientific. 51
Thus, for Scripps, science was the guardian of the democratic way of life, and he believed, with William Ritter, that its "spirit" and "mental attitude" must be impressed upon the common man in order to guarantee domestic and international [sic] tranquillity.

The task of popularization, then, was to "democratize" science and bring it within reach of the many. Scripps' experience as a journalist had convinced him that most Americans, "the 95 percent" as he called them, received the bulk of their education not from the schools but from the daily newspaper. Unfortunately, science coverage in the press had produced only a "vast quantity of misinformation" and "the tales of [scientists'] adventures, dramatic as they are, seldom find their way into print . . . . . 52 What was needed then was an organization to act as an interpreter which, through the newspapers, would translate the concepts of science into "plain United States" and provide "the 95 percent" with the basis for forming intelligent opinions on matters of national importance. 53 Science Service was this organization, the expression of E. W. Scripps' fears for the fate of democracy, his faith in the innate educability of the masses, and his belief that science was the key to progress.

Chapter One -    Part I    Part II    Part III    Part IV    Table of Contents
 


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



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