The Grand Social Experiment | Van Kooten on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Rick Van Kooten


Following the bleak nihilism of Cat’s Cradle, the next novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, presents a more optimistic side of Vonnegut’s philosophy, even as it is presented as a blistering satire as in Cat’s Cradle. In many ways, Vonnegut’s body of work up to this point could be considered not only a literary project but as a grand social experiment spanning decades, most prominently seen in Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and our current novel of interest. Vonnegut is clearly a man of science, and uses it to apply to social science, himself explaining his own tendency to carry out experiments in his writing:

It’s the nature of my education. I was educated as a chemist and then as an engineer, and my elder brother, my only living sibling, is a reasonably famous scientist, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut. The experimental method has always been very much in my mind. I got into this frame of mind during high school, setting up experiments to see what happened and regarding this as a very pretty way of making God reveal himself. Regarding Rosewater, I said to myself, ‘Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?’ So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.1

The novel presents the fictional Rosewaters, an ultra-wealthy American family whose ancestor acquired his wealth essentially by profiteering during the Civil War. The main character, Eliot Rosewater, fights in World War II and returns with what many consider a heretical idea (particularly his uncle) that everyone deserves to be equally happy and people who inherited wealth did nothing to deserve it. In response to his conscience and combat fatigue, he returns to his ancestor’s hometown of Rosewater, Indiana and uses the substantial funds of the Rosewater Foundation to help its citizens. Rosewater is the place where Eliot’s ancestors pirated their wealth, and he decides that he must give back something, at least himself, to the descendants of the people who had been enslaved for the Rosewater fortune. “I’m going to love these discarded Americans,” he proclaims, “even though they’re useless and unattractive. That is going to be my work of art” (44) (or science project). In the meantime, a conniving lawyer looking for a cash-in decides to attempt to prove that Eliot is insane in his actions, and the foundation money should be handed off to his distant cousin, currently a suicidal, middle-class insurance man.

Eliot admires science fiction writers, and in a blaze of meta-faction, Vonnegut writes of Eliot’s stumbling into a science fiction writer’s convention where he rants:

I love you sons of bitches…You’re the only ones who’ll talk about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years . . . You’re the only ones . . . who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents and catastrophes do to us . . . . (18)

Science fiction can be very useful as a means of drawing our attention to the modern world and society—we have the power to create better realities for ourselves. Eliot insists that they write a science fiction novel about the “silly ways that money gets passed around now, and then think up better ways” (23), i.e., as an experiment.

Kilgore Trout makes his first appearance among many in Vonnegut’s novels, and Eliot considers him to be a prophet among other science fiction writers. Trout’s “favorite formula was to describe a perfectly hideous society, not unlike his own, and then, toward the end, to suggest ways in which it could be improved” (21). Trout clearly is acting as a stand-in for Vonnegut himself, expressing his opinions directly, and the “hideous society” here is capitalist America.

It is Trout who, at the insanity trial of Eliot, insists that what Eliot did in Rosewater County was far from insane:

It was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time, for it dealt on a very small scale with a problem whose queasy horror will eventually be made worldwide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use? . . . If we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out. (265)

Trout feels, moreover, that “the main lesson Eliot learned is that people can use all the uncritical love they can get” (269).

Social experiments can provide incredible insights to human behavior, from the dark and famous Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s “just following orders” Obedience Experiment, to the demonstration of the “halo effect” (see details in a list of the top-ten most influential social experiments). Many social science experiments are concerned with the causal effects of various policies and other societal factors. Do small class sizes raise students’ standardized test scores? Would universal health care improve the health and finances of the poor? Does raising the minimum wage help with unemployment rates? How does one design experiments to explore these questions?

All of science is open to bias, defined as the systematic distortion of the estimated intervention effect away from the “truth,” caused by inadequacies in the design, conduct, or analysis of an experiment. To avoid such biases, we usually use a scientific control experiment, where the person conducting the test only changes one variable at a time in order to isolate the results. An experiment where all subjects involved in the experiment are treated exactly the same except for one deviation is an example of a control experiment. This increases the reliability of the results, often through a comparison between control measurements and the other measurements.

There are a large number of different types of bias. Even in my “clean” field of physics, we tend to look, sometimes subconsciously, for errors in our analysis only when we get a surprising result or effect. This leads to people re-examining their analyses, and since there are often alternative approaches and/or subtle hidden bugs, the final conclusions typically end up more in line with previous results. This “confirmation bias” can be addressed by using a “blind analysis,” where the computer or a colleague hides the identity of the data or shifts its values by a hidden amount while the computer analysis is performed, debugged, and finalized. As a result, the researchers do not know how any of their decisions about the analysis and its checks and debugging will affect the outcome. Only at the end are the researchers told the real identity of the data, i.e., the hidden amount of the shift is revealed in an “unblinding.” This is different from double-blind studies in medicine, where experimenters and the patient are kept in the dark about which drug the patient received, so as not to influence their observations or get a different kind of bias known as a “placebo effect.”

Experiments, particularly those involving humans, can be prone to even more sources of bias, sometimes due to small sample sizes and the difficulty in setting up reliable control samples, including the need to avoid “confounding bias.” For example, a research group might design a study to determine if heavy drinkers die at a younger age. Their results indeed show that people who drink excessively are likely to die younger. However, it is quite possible that the heaviest drinkers hailed from a different background or social group. Heavy drinkers may be more likely to smoke, or eat junk food, all of which could be factors in reducing longevity.

A fascinating way to minimize such biases in social experiments is being pursued by our very own Salo University colleague Ted Castronova, who proposes using existing game technology to build simulated human societies formed by game players in a virtual environment as a platform to run controlled experiments. It has been shown that these societies that emerge in virtual spaces like this emulate many relevant real-world human behaviors. As an example, one could address the question of why countries fortunate to have abundant natural resources tend to have lower economic growth? Two virtual worlds could be set up, one with large levels of natural resources, and another with lower levels, and many thousands of game players randomly assigned to each one to observe the differences and the causes of the differences. The experiment can be run multiple times. The experiment can change different categories of natural resources. Such macro-social questions are among the most “wicked” problems that we face today. We should still recognize that no method is perfect, and this new method cannot remove all biases—and is sure to have some problems—but the pursuit of new methods is an essential part of scientific progress. We see this in the novel: Eliot’s work in Rosewater is a new approach to old human problems. It surprises everyone!2

Back to God Bless you Mrs. Rosewater, in his grand social experiment set up in the novel, what in the end what Eliot Rosewater has discovered is amusingly captured in his baptism address for twins:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (129)


1. William Rodney Allen, Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut. Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

2. Ted Castronova, personal communication.