Killing The Dr. Evils of Iran: Is it Open Season On Scientists?

By Malcolm MacIver | November 30, 2010 10:56 pm

dr-evilA few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.

The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.

Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.

Although on the fringe at present, there are parts of the public which are already in tune with this lethal segue. They view scientists as the people that bring us global warming and much else that is taking our technological society to potential crisis. Unfortunately, the way scientists are depicted for dramatic affect in popular entertainment doesn’t always help. A recent opinion piece in Nature criticized the effort of certain organizations to make the depiction of science and the work they do more accurate in movies. (I responded in another post.) Below the article, however, was one reader’s comment that made me think about how these unrealistic portrayals can be causing some real damage:

The reason that most depictions of science in movies are in a negative light is because it’s a reflection of reality. Every day, science is poisoning our oceans and air, destroying our communities and creating terrifying new weapons to be employed on the poor and oppressed of the world.

The “awkward nerd” depiction of a scientist is far too fair. They are the monsters tearing our world apart while having the temerity to hold us in contempt for “not understanding them.”

How ironic that this comment serves as its own best argument for the need of some smidgen of truth in character development, contrary to the thesis of Daniel Sarewitz, who penned the Nature opinion piece.

Not surprisingly, the motivations of scientists are much more diverse than the simple portrayals of narrative fiction. They range from a desire to make the world a better place, to the self-centered pursuit of prestige, money, and power with little regard for the ethical implications of one’s scientific work. The first type doesn’t get a whole lot of play, while the second has great dramatic potential, and so we see it a lot more. As the French novelist Henri de Montherlant wrote, “happiness writes white. It does not show up on the page.”

Could the dramatically compelling caricatures of scientists of the “evil genius” type underlie some of the thinking behind the assassination attempts on Iranian scientists? It seems a stretch. But in its suggestion of a strategy for dealing with technological development of another country that is thought of as a threat, the killing of Iran’s scientists raises some troubling concerns about how scientists can be scapegoats for a society’s discomforts with technological progress, and how narrative fiction can be a lubricant for such a move.

Comments (13)

  1. Greg

    It seems that you are grasping at something to connect these events to. The depiction of scientists in films and other dramatic mediums today are entertaining and that is why they are always maniacal or sadistic. Similar to police and doctors and any other field, the idea is to create a caricature of the mundane to make it approachable yet entertaining. That aside let’s get back to the real heart of the matter, why the scientists are being killed.

    You get it wrong right from the start; “Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause.” The problem is that you discount(“regardless of…) the main dilemma(potential nuclear war) and exchange it with the rather trivial question of scientists being killed. The fact of the matter is that nuclear physics is still rather complicated(I’m told), so countries who want to acquire this weapon need talented scientists to facilitate this transition. That is all. Nuclear weapons are the ends, the scientists are the means. If kangaroos were the means then whoever killed the scientist(s) would have butchered all of Australia’s loveable marsupials.

    Parallels drawn to the cultural revolution, Pol Pot and other dictatorial mass genocide of academia and intelligenista; are principally and practically unfounded mostly because scientists of the practical nature(engineers) were highly valued. Only the poets and philosophers in most cases were targeted for “reeducation”.

    In any case, the scientists in this arena are merely things; such as an oil refinery or a weapons depot, anything that gives advantage to the enemy. And as such they are regular and certainly legitimate targets.

  2. rabidmob

    I don’t think these two puzzle pieces quite fit together.

    I don’t think the targeted attacks of assassins are very equivalent to a mob mentality of people picking up their torches and pitch forks.

    Science may not be completely blameless in our modern technological environmental catastrophes, but thinking it is solely responsible is quite naive.

    Greed and population size would seem to me, to be much more likely the main culprits.

  3. Christopher Moser

    This is at best a stretch, and in many ways irremediably reductionistic.

    On the most simple level, the author projects western cultural values (in this case anxiety biased inductions) onto unknown assailants with unknown motives, who likely have no cultural identification with those the author invokes.

    The yet to be ruled out possibility of domestic Iranian intrigue further weakens the author’s thesis.

  4. Katharine

    And people wonder why I’m not fond of humanity.

    Without us, they’d still be hunter-gatherers. Have they figured that out?

  5. Katharine

    And yes, I do have a special hatred for anarcho-primitivists.

  6. Fish

    Scientist are no different than anyone else. They do what people pay them to do. And if you have scientist that do not have jobs, they will do whatever they can to feed their families, just like anyone else on this planet.

    In the instance with Iran, the scientist are being treated the same as military personal. They are only separated by their high education and job role, but still serve to make the country a better military power. As such they are military targets, what is so hard to grasp about that?

    Finally, grouping all scientist together is like grouping all factory workers together and saying they are all the same people polluting our world. Lets not forget just because someone invents a process, does not mean they have polluted anything. It takes a business man to fund it, workers to build it and operate it, and most importantly customers to by the products. Why single out only the scientist when all of them play a roll? Back to Iran, the scientist is the most vulnerable link, so naturally they will attack it.

  7. You are grasping at straws. Without scientists, megalomaniacs have no toys to play with. There is no scientific code of ethics. Why not? You might want to start your inquiry there.

  8. “Scientist are no different than anyone else. They do what people pay them to do. And if you have scientist that do not have jobs, they will do whatever they can to feed their families, just like anyone else on this planet.”

    Well, actually no, but thanks for playing Nihilist For The Pay !!!

    cf. Rachel Carson.

  9. Malcolm MacIver

    I agree with Gregg’s point, shared by several of you, that the leap from the incident in iran to our own domestic version of this problem is a big one (hence my phrase “it seems a stretch”) but the fact that there’s a problem here that needs further discussion is evidenced in his and Fish’s comments:

    “In any case, the scientists in this arena are merely things; such as an oil refinery or a weapons depot, anything that gives advantage to the enemy. And as such they are regular and certainly legitimate targets” (Gregg)… “the scientist are being treated the same as military personal…” (Fish)

    Perhaps what is needed here (and was missing from the initial post) is clarification that scientists who have a hand in developing “weapons-based technology” are often much further removed from the military than many people realize, and may not even foresee that their work may be used to destructive ends. A previously assassinated Iranian physicist, Masoud Alimohammadi, was a theoretical particle physicist, whose work had no impact on nuclear technology. Was he killed because he is educating the next generation of nuclear scientists? Will covert attacks on leading scientists lead to an escalating cycle of tit for tat in which leading scientists of the US, Israel, or whoever else gets the blame are also killed?

    For how much causal distance from lethal technologies does moral culpability stretch? Are universities and research parks the factories and fuel depot targets of upcoming engagements? The trajectory here is worrisome.

  10. Brian Too

    If you make powerful enemies, you better have powerful friends. At the very least.

    However this could all be a bit paranoid. There seems to be a credible internal opposition in Iran; it’s not inconceivable that there are some extremists among that group. Also, it’s not like this area of the world doesn’t have plenty of tensions and animosities at the national level. You don’t only need to look at the major powers to find people who have motives to commit such an act.

    In fact that might be part of the problem. It’s like an Agatha Christie story; everyone has a plausible motive to commit murder. The butler, the friendly neighbor, the dissolute son, the angry daughter, the spurned spouse, on and on it goes!

  11. Thomas

    Brian, while there is internal opposition in Iran, would they really target a nuclear scientist?

  12. It is interesting to observe the double standard applied by US observers with respect to the purported nuclear weapons program in Iran. Considering that the US has the world’s largest stock pile of nuclear weapons and it is the only country in the world that has actually used any against civilian targets, twice in the last 65 years, it’s hard to accept the US protests of the Iranian nuclear program. Hopefully, this will not be a repeat of the US government’s claims of the production of nuclear weapons in Iraq. Assassination attempts on US scientists would be unacceptable, so should any government-sanctioned assassinations of Iranian scientists.

  13. Brian Too

    @11. Thomas,

    Don’t know. Goes to my larger point though that there are plenty of suspects. They exist domestically, regionally and globally.

    The motive for a domestic assassin? Well how’s this for a start. The government has repressed, rather violently, opposition forces, including those that challenged a national election result. The demonstrations were large and well organized (from an outsider’s perspective). It’s not difficult to imagine that opposition politicians might consider Iran’s bellicose attitude towards outsiders, especially on matters of nuclear power, to be counterproductive. Even if they supported the nuclear program in principle.

    Therefore to a domestic opposition force, the nuclear program as it stands might become the very symbol of the government they oppose.

    I’m speculating here, but it seems to me that there’s an entirely plausible reason for the internal opposition to want to stop or redirect the nuclear program.

    Similarly plausible motives exist for regional players, major powers, and so forth. Again, it’s like Agatha Christie. Perhaps “The Mousetrap”?

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