When Science Meets Capital

Against the Current No. 210, January/February 2021

Guy Miller

The Tragedy of American Science:
From Truman to Trump
By Clifford D. Conner
Haymarket Books, 2020, $26.95 hardcover.

“WE’RE NUMBER ONE!” has been the battle cry of American exceptionalism for decades. In the best of times it rings arrogant and boastful. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the year mark and the U.S. death toll climbs over 250,000, the chant has taken on the ghostly pallor of delusional.

As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd summed it up, “The Shining City on the Hill is an ugly pile of rubble.”

The Tragedy of American Science (TAS) was ready to go to the printer just as the pandemic was gaining a foothold in the United States. The publisher, Haymarket Books, wisely decided to postpone the release date to allow Clifford Conner to write an epilogue. “The COVID-19 Pandemic” stands as a searing indictment of the Trump administration’s response to the crisis.

Conner condemns the Trump leadership as “characteristically fatuous and obstructionist.” Almost two years before the first confirmed U.S. COVID case, the Trump wrecking crew was busy eliminating the vital early warning system so essential in containing the spread of a virus.

In May, 2018, the White House put the National Security Council directorate on the chopping block. This directorate had been set up, in the wake of the earlier SARS and H1N1 flu alarms, precisely to respond quickly to a potential viral pandemic.

Another cost-cutting blow came in September, 2019, when the administration shut down a USAID program called Predict. Predict had been responsible for identifying 1200 viruses, among which — what leaps out in retrospect — 160 were novel coronaviruses.

TAS goes on to catalogue blunder after blunder by the science-challenged Trump. Conner cites several, but nothing sums up Trump’s frivolous disregard for the burgeoning catastrophe better than his appointment of Vice President Mike Pence to head up the White House Corona­virus Task Force.

Pence’s record includes such anti-science gems as: “global warming is a myth,” “smoking doesn’t kill,” along with his espousal of “intelligent design.”

The epilogue goes on to explain how big agribusiness sets the stage for viral outbreaks. Conner writes, “Poultry farms are the notorious incubators of viral diseases (i.e. bird flus).” To grasp the tectonic shift that U.S. egg production has undergone, consider that in 1929 the average chicken flock contained 70 birds, by 1992 the average flock size had grown to 30,000, and by 2002 the total chicken population reached a staggering nine billion hens. In short, big flocks make big flu.

Author Clifford D. Conner is a veteran historian of science (a one-time aircraft design engineer blacklisted for his stand against the Vietnam war). His previous books are A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and Low Mechanicks (2009) and Jean-Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution (2012).

The 22 chapters in The Tragedy of Ameri­can Science can be read independently. Conner’s writing style hits the sweet spot between popular and academic. The connecting thread that weaves TAS together can be found in the Introduction:

“The river of the tragedy has two headwaters: corporatization and militarization. Both are consequences of a profit-driven economic system that hamstrings humanity’s ability to make rational economic decisions.”

The book also spotlights at least two tributaries to Conner’s river of tragedy: public relations and universities.

From Tobacco Cover Up to Big Pharma

Tobacco and its corruption of science serves as a template for how corporations can manage the public and, at the same time, neutralize the government.

Tobacco pioneered the strategy for fending off restrictive legislation and altering a negative image. Its methods in doing so have stood the test of time; Big Pharma and the fossil fuel industry among others have successfully copied tobacco’s game plan.

From the time the first factory-made cigarette emerged from a rolling machine in 1880, its toxicity was an open secret. The expression “coffin nails” already dates from the 1880s, and “cancer sticks” was in common usage as slang for cigarettes in my 1950s childhood.

By the 1950s the big tobacco companies sensed that storm clouds threatening their profits were gathering on the horizon. Conner puts it this way, “Scientific evidence of tobacco’s carcinogenic and addictive properties began to surface in the 1950s. Large-scale tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers recognized the myriad threats to their industry that the revelations posed.”

What to do? Certainly, telling the truth was never on the table. Instead, Phillip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Benson and Hedges turned to public relations sharpies Hill and Knowlton to find a simpler solution: combat good science with bad science.

As TAS quotes Hill, “it would be crucial for the industry to assert its authority over the scientific domain.” To that end two veterans of the Manhattan Project, Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, were put on tobacco’s payroll. No matter that Seitz was an atomic physicist or that Singer was a rocket scientist. Their job wasn’t to argue the fine points of oncology, but to use their credentials as scientists to muddy the waters. It didn’t take much:

“Thanks to the largesse of the tobacco industry’s lobbyists, politicians needed only the slightest whiff of science to be persuaded not to burden the cigarette manufacturers with onerous regulations.”

No need to attack rigorous research findings head on, just manufacture controversy where there was none in order to create public uncertainty, and they were home free.

Tobacco sells a product that can only cause harm to its customers, while Big Pharma markets products that — at least in theory — benefit its customers.

But where the two industries are indistinguishable is in their relentless pursuit of profits. Bayer CEO Marjin Dekkers dispelled any lingering doubt about the drug industry’s priorities: “We did not develop this medicine for Indians. We developed it for western patients who can afford it.”*

If more proof were needed, the opioid epidemic has provided it. A super-profitable money maker for Big Pharma, opioids were hyped and sold to the American public like peanuts at a ballpark.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminis­tration database reveals that 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills were sold between 2006 and 2012. That’s a lot of pills; a lot of pain. Even more painful is that opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

Over the last 40-plus years, neoliberalism has turned large swathes of America’s heartland into what journalist Chris Hedges calls “sacrifice zones.” The disappearance of decent-paying jobs in these zones, leaving millions of working-class Americans with little hope and less future, is the real pain that opioid addiction addresses.

Thinkers in the Tank

TAS detours from the critique of American science proper with a chapter “Think Tanks and the Betrayal of Reason.” The founding of the Heritage Institute in 1973 marks in Conner’s words “a new kind of think tank, devoted primarily not to studying issues, but to advocacy.”

Throughout the rest of the 1970s the number of similar think tanks mushroomed, functioning as facilitators to the long rolling Thermador of American neoliberalism.

Conner cites the Heartland Foundation as the think tank “least likely to pass a smell test.” Because of its aggressively anti-science agenda — especially regarding climate change — it was dubbed the Flatland Institute.

From kindergarten to high school, Heartland specializes in lavishly produced and widely distributed materials injecting doubt and misinformation into the bloodstream of American education. Its funding is well hidden and its cash flow thoroughly laundered. It’s a safe bet, however, that the money trail ultimately leads back to the fossil fuel industry.

Birth of Big Science

There is a romantic vision of science featuring heroic scientists grinding away in near obscurity: Madam Curie risking her life in a laboratory deep in the bowels of the University of Paris, Edwin Hubble spending sleepless nights peering through the telescope on Mount Palomar, or Watson and Crick defying the skeptics at Cambridge University.

To whatever degree those images were ever true, they are no longer. Science is big business done on a big scale. Conner deconstructs the myth: “Science today is the domain of large teams of professional researchers working on a grand scale with substantial governmental and corporate funding.”

The Second World War, and especially the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, were the harbingers of this new reality, and soon the developing Cold War was there to seal the deal.

The Manhattan Project at its height employed 130,000 workers and cost $30 billion in 2017 dollars. Weaponized Keynesianism was born, and Cold War ideology was soon there to nurture it through its infancy.

Even before Germany surrendered, the U.S. had complied a list of 1600 scientists complicit in the Nazi war effort — not to be punished, but to be co-opted. The secret program that rounded up and vetted this German cohort was given the code name “Operation Paperclip.”

The biggest fish in the Paperclip pond was Werner Von Braun, himself a member of the notorious SS, the Schutzstaffel, but reinvented by his new American patrons to appear as a mild, pragmatic technocrat with a squeaky clean past. His job was to build big rockets for the U.S. military; big rockets that could carry big nuclear payloads.

[The 1960s satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer wrote the lyric: “When the rockets go up, Who knows where they come down? ‘That’s not my department,’ says Werner Von Braun.” — ed.])

In the closing months of WWII, Von Braun had been instrumental in bringing the V-2, or Vengeance Weapon-2, online. The V-2 was the world’s first long range guided ballistic missile. 1,500 V-2’s rained down on Britain in a desperate, last minute attempt to change the course of the war.

The missiles killed 7,250 British citizens. It was even more deadly to the concentration camp inmates who assembled the weapon, killing at least 10,000 of them in the Dora-Nordhausen camp. Dora-Nordhausen slave laborers who did not meet quotas were routinely hanged directly above the assembly line. The dead bodies were meant to be seen, and Von Braun, who visited the assembly line, surely saw them.

Another murderous Nazi conscripted for the U.S. war machine was Dr. Hubertus Strughold. Brought to Randolf Field, Texas in 1947, Strughold previously plied his trade at Dachau. At Dachau, Strughold was the director of the Luftwaffe’s Institute for Aviation. Conner writes:

“Another focus of Strughold’s research was how hypoxia — oxygen deprivation — at high altitudes affects human beings. In a 1942 study, two hundred Dachau inmates were tested in a low pressure chamber…. Eighty of the two hundred subjects died of asphyxiation, and the survivors were killed so their bodies could be autopsied.”

Thus was American Cold War science polluted with murderers from its inception.


The American people’s relation to science has always been governed by a series of binaries: approach/avoidance, skepticism/trust and rational/irrational.

Since the days of Truman, corporations have mastered the art of manipulating these contradictions, pressing on the accelerator of trust when profits were to be gained (e.g. selling unnecessary drugs), and hitting the brake of skepticism when profits were threatened (e.g. discrediting environmental concerns over oil drilling.)

The Tragedy of American Science makes a strong case for freeing science from the fetters of capital and rededicating it for the good of humanity. “Science for the People,” more than a chant or a slogan, is an imperative. The choice between science for profit and science for the people is stark and the stakes are high. The survival of our planet demands we make the right choice

*On January 21, 2014, Ketaki Gokhale of Bloomberg published a story in Businessweek on disputes over drug patents. The story closed with a rather sinister quote attributed to Bayer CEO Marjin Dekkers, “We did not develop this medicine for Indians. We developed it for Western patients who can afford it.” The comment in question was made by Dekkers at a December 3, 2013 event hosted by the Financial Times, titled “Buffering the Pharma Brand: Restoring Reputation, Rebuilding Trust.” Quoting from Transcript of Bayer CEO Marjin Dekkers’ quote at the December 3, 2013 FT Events, regarding India compulsory license of Nexavar, from Knowledge Ecology International.

January-February 2021, ATC 210


  1. Excellent review! It makes me want to read the book, and also to re-read “A People’s History of Science”.

  2. Once upon a time the WASPy Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and formulator of the pious 12 Steps, while pondering AA finances asked: Where is the proper point for faith and money to come together? For me, the reader, half Jewish, baptized Catholic, the answer was obvious – Protestantism. Unfair joke maybe but I thought of it while reading this interesting review of The Tragedy of American Science. The corruption of science by the power and money of industrial capitalism took its most lethal form in the twentieth century. But it wasn’t new. Four hundred years ago Galileo was hot to sell his telescopes to the mercantileists and militarists of Venice. It seems so innocent. No Harvard researchers bought off to poison a population with sugar. No pharmacopeia of toxins in our food. No tobacco doctors. No fracking or Bhopal corporate criminality.Or Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez. No Trident submarines or Space Force…No surprise that Nazi brains were turned into Western heroes when scientifically expedient Then there is the medical industrial complex and that particular crime against humanity that is the American health care system, its corruption writ large in the time of Covid.

  3. Appreciate the fine review of Conner by Miller in ATC. One small spelling correction: it is ‘Thermidor’ that Miller wants to refer to, rather than Thermador.

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