We continue our series on Tim Power’s War Without Mercy with a discussion of the role of social scientists in the construction of propaganda. We have already seen that Japan’s social scientists were working on the question of how to construct a new social order for the pacific under a Japanese empire, but their role by no means ended there, and nor was this kind of distasteful theorizing limited to Japanese scholars. In fact the work we saw in our previous post was largely conducted in secret,and served less to construct propaganda as it drew on existing racial ideology to develop practical plans. And in this we see the nub of a fascinating problem. By the time Japan had spent 10 or more years at war in the Pacific her propaganda had become so entrenched that the social scientists’ work had itself been infected by the kind of foolish ideologies that so much effort had previously been put into convincing the population to believe.

The same can be observed of allied war planers before the war. Based on the theories of racial and social scientists, Britain’s military planners really believed that Japanese would make bad pilots and couldn’t win aerial warfare – they had been told by their scientists that the way Japanese women carry their infants affects their inner ear and makes them unsuited for aerial manoeuvres. Also they believed the Japanese to be short-sighted and timid, and had been told that their lack of initiative would make them predictable and uncreative war planners. Even at Iwo Jima, when the Japanese defence used coordinated heavy artillery, they decided the Japanese must have German support; they assumed this after initial victories in the Pacific as well, because their racial theories didn’t allow non-white races to win.

These fallacies in the support of propaganda were not accidental, either. Sometimes considerable effort would be put into research and justifications for certain political views. Social scientists played a key role here, presenting both academic and popularized descriptions of Japanese culture that supported the views being presented by government propagandists. Extensive effort was put into proving that the Japanese as a race were trapped in a childlike mental state, with the preferred theory appearing to be that Japanese toilet training techniques were so horrific that they arrested the development of the Japanese psyche, rendering them also vicious-tempered and subservient to authority figures. That’s right, a whole race’s psychology traced to it’s choice of toilet paper, and entire theories of wartime conduct developed on this basis.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a whole bunch of social scientists spent a large amount of time working on a complex set of theories that ultimately ended up agreeing very closely with the base propaganda of the US government and Leatherneck magazine, any more than that a previous generation of scientists labored to prove that blacks were inferior to whites; or archaeologists managed to prove that the white race settled India. It’s a salient lesson to all of us – especially those of us in or near academia – that the much-vaunted intellectual freedom and independence of academia always ends up telling us what we want to hear. This shouldn’t seem so surprising, given human nature and the way society works, but the history of academia’s service to unpleasant ideas should stop us being too self congratulatory about how free-thinking we really are in our ivory towers. My own field of statistics prides itself, I think, on being quite independent and free-thinking[1], but it’s worth remembering the somewhat unpleasant eugenics of Fisher, and the role of demographers and population planners in the Nazi occupation of eastern Europe – all very good examples of academics supporting the status quo when, in retrospect, the status quo was obviously wrong and in many ways evil.

Maybe things have improved since world war 2, but maybe also they have just become more sophisticated, or the stakes have been lowered. We’ve seen plenty of social science in support of foreign intervention (e.g. The domino effect) and dictatorship (some of our more morally bankrupt economists on Chile, and a wide smattering of pre-70s leftists on Eastern Europe), and the history of population planning hasn’t been free of controversy in the post-war era. So it’s worth remembering that quite often scientists are working as hard to reflect perceived wisdom as they are to uncover genuinely new ideas. Where the propaganda is needed the academics seem to be able to find a basis for it; and where it has already taken hold they are as likely to perpetuate it (or just lend it a little nuanced sophistication) as they are to challenge it. And you certainly can’t rely on us to bear the load of intellectual honesty when the stakes are high. So next time a scientist tells you they have stunning proof of a commonly-held prejudice, you should probably just smile and back away politely. Who knows where their work will end – it could be a population planning document whose contents have long since passed into preposterous fantasy; or it could be a firestorm in Tokyo. But like as not, their work isn’t going to get you to any profound truths – or at least, that is the lesson we can learn from the involvement of academics in the development of the theory underlying propaganda and race hate in world war 2.

fn1: though maybe this field is better characterized as a bunch of ratbag leftists, at least in my experience