Presented at the 2013 Muriel Rukeyser Centenary Symposium, March 14-16, 2013, Eastern Michigan University
The Book of the Dead explores the corruption of the body that echoes the corruption of the land as humans attempt to harness power and take control of the natural world. However, another corruption shows itself when we meet Dr. Goldwater, brought in to testify at the hearing. My first reading of the poem took place in a near void of knowledge regarding the Hawks Nest disaster, and I didn’t see that Dr. Goldwater is on the Union Carbide payroll, compensated for his testimony; all I saw was a doctor, pressured to give a definitive “yes” or “no” even as he explains that “Medicine has no hundred percents” and that “most doctors avoid dogmatic statements. / avoid assiduously ‘always,’ ‘never.’” This, as much as the words of the silicotic workers, chilled me.
Muriel Rukeyser held a deep fascination with the scientific and respected its methods as a sort of poetry. It is hard, then, to see this passage and ignore the corruption of science—the way financial interests and politics demand the sacrifice of some of its central tenets. Just as the life of a person depends on respiration, the life of science depends on skepticism and a staunch refusal to put an agenda ahead of integrity. A well-designed experiment aims to disprove a hypothesis, and even our most basic observable forces are not considered proven—gravity is a theory. Yet in the world of politics, congressional hearings, and legal proceeding, “theory” is a dirty word, and if scientists cannot claim definitive proof, they might as well keep quiet, because it will be no less effective in influencing opinion.
As readers, when we hear Dr. Goldwater squirm when asked for answers in “‘no’ and ‘yes,’” we are tempted to shake our heads at his cowardice, wishing he would stop hiding behind uncertainty and help the serving of justice by offering decisive expert testimony. This is a pressure felt by all but the most theoretical scientists—to use their so-called powers for “good,” as defined by some subjective standard, when in fact to use their powers for any agenda is to discard the objectivity vital to the scientific method; this pressure, in most cases, is what leads brilliant people to do bad science, to fudge the data or exaggerate the implications of their findings, to minimize experimental flaws and claim a tiny margin of error.
Science is an uncomfortable thing. It demands an acceptance of uncertainty and a recognition that uncertainty can still be significant. Dr. Goldwater say, “I hope you are not provoked when I say ‘might,’” because so often, the only options available to scientists in Dr. Goldwater’s position are to surrender their scientific ethics or surrender their voice and insight. It is not experience or education that makes a good expert witness, although those things ice the cake; rather, it is a willingness to frame scientific findings in an unscientific way for an audience who will accept nothing less.
So what do we make of Dr. Goldwater? Is he a victim of corruption or a willing participant? Like the racial and class tensions that are understated but very present in The Book of the Dead, the issues Dr. Goldwater embodies are systemic, not limited to this hearing, or this event, or this era. A better question might be, what do we make of our reaction to Dr. Goldwater? What do we make of the fact that his offering responsible, scientifically-minded testimony strikes us as evasive and cowardly? What do we make of the wish that he would speak in certainties for the sake of justice for the workers? The suggestion that a doctor ought to advocate on behalf of Union Carbide offends us, but when we urge him to advocate on behalf of the silicotic workers, we are rooting for the same rejection of principle, and must question our own ethics as much as those of anyone else.
© Alice Thomsen