Eden wins award for book on government's failure to predict nuclear fire damage

Whole World on Fire, by CISAC associate director for research Lynn Eden, received the 2004 Robert K. Merton Professional Award from the Science, Knowledge and Technology section of the American Sociological Association. The award was presented to Eden on Aug. 15 during the association's annual meeting in San Francisco.

The award committee cited the book's merits:

"Whole World on Fire is an ambitious undertaking that examines a critical problem using theory and methods from two fields of sociology: the sociology of science and technology and the sociology of organizations. It is a study of how organizational processes led nuclear scientists to drastically underestimate the damage of a nuclear attack. At a deeper level, it is a study in the social construction of organizational knowledge.

"The question Eden addresses is: How and why, for more than half a century, did the U.S. government fail to predict nuclear fire damage as it drew up plans to fight strategic nuclear war? Eden's research shows that U.S. efforts focused on the damage that would result from the explosion while systematically ignoring the far more damaging effects of subsequent fires. How and why could this 'ignorance' continue until today? . . .

"This book takes a position on an ongoing scientific controversy about the predictability of fire damage and on scientists' current assessments of risk. There is a debate in science and technology studies about whether we should take positions on scientific controversies--that is, on the science itself. Some scholars prefer to leave arguments about the 'science' to the scientists and instead follow the activities and political logics of the various debating parties. In this case, Eden chooses to take a stand on the truth claims of the science in question. As such, Whole World on Fire is a work of intellectual daring.

"To our knowledge, there have been few sociological studies that have penetrated the inner workings of the military establishment. Few sociologists have studied the highest reaches of the social structure, as does Eden in this study. In fact, those of us who study science and medicine usually do our research in university-based laboratories or teaching hospitals--that is, we study people who are in some senses like ourselves.

"While the book addresses a critical issue--that is, nuclear-weapons policy, it is an exemplar of how sociological concepts can illuminate important public issues. Eden's analysis can be readily applied to explaining how decision makers construct relevant and legitimate science to illuminate disasters such as the collapse of the Twin Towers. But what convinced one committee member of the book's power was a recent New York Times article describing the findings of the committee investigating the Iraq War. The Committee reported that the CIA had systematically denied the credibility of numerous reports that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction did not exist, in part because those reports were outside its organizational frame.

"Finally, we all believe that this book will have a major public impact. In addition to its accessible style and meticulous research, the book is often riveting and sometimes chilling. We had thought that by now everyone believed that survivable nuclear war is an oxymoron; that people had filled in their bomb shelters long before the close of the Cold War. That a significant portion of the military establishment still believes that a limited, winnable and survivable nuclear war is possible gave us nightmares. That Eden's book may give people nightmares is only appropriate, given the frightening scenario she presents."

Serving on the award committee were Renee Anspach, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan; Sydney Halpern, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago; Kathryn Henderson, Department of Sociology, Texas A&M University; and Joan Fujimura (Chair), Department of Sociology and Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.