Shall Science be Sterilized?

Albion Small

The esoteric group which produces the ex cathedra deliverances of the New York Evening Post is made up of gentlemen conventionalized into imposing facility in giving plausibly Pickwickian utterance to fatuous prepossessions.

A recent instance is a laboriously sophistical editorial, which ingeniously darkens counsel by solemnly chiding a sociologist for "mistaking his mission," when he exhorts his fellow social scientists not to be con-tent with card-indexing the past or the present, but to subordinate that process to constructive work upon the future.

There is a pedantry which convinces itself that adding a decimal place to the precision of the location of the boundary line between the science and the art of medicine is a more worthy pursuit than finding out how to adapt medical knowledge to practice. There is a smugness which classifies an application of ascertained facts to a patentable invention as a discovery "of the head," while it treats endeavor to use ascertained facts for the betterment of human relations as an impotent impudence "of the heart." There is a journalistic prudery which regards itself as licensed, not to say divinely appointed, to read into the words of anyone who ventures an unconventional opinion whatever glosses are necessary in order to convict the innovator of folly. By some mysterious law of association, these platitudes are suggested by the essay in question.

Much of the recurrent discussion as to whether a given activity is "scientific" or not is a mere matter of the use of terms. Much of it merely raises questions of boundaries between different phases of mental activities, which must pass through the whole circuit from stimulus, through knowledge, and feeling, and volition and the technique of execution, or sink into the rank of abortions. Much of it is merely dogmatic disguise for the amiable conceit that systematic effort toward ends which the dogmatizers approve is scientific, while equally systematic effort toward ends which the dogmatizers disapprove is unscientific. Let us relax our features in the appropriate smiles!

Pathetic solicitude about the sanctity of science is one of the most convenient finding-marks of laissez-faire philosophy. If knowledge

( 652) can only be so sterilized that it is in no danger of fertilizing action which might disturb the equilibrium of things-as-they-are, your laissez-passez theorist will furnish forth all its natal anniversaries with verbal nose-gays, and enjoy his full quota of sleep in peace. But there is a cry of abomination in the traditionalist camp whenever knowledge of things as they are, and as they need not be, except by grace of general consent, moves a scientist to be true to himself as more-than-scientist, by investigating how facts as they are known may be controlled, by appeal from general consent to better instructed general consent, in the interest of situations more worthy to be. This is solemn trifling; and judicially minded men who have been trained in scientific methods and who know both the limitations and the uses of science, know that it is either a conscious pose, or it is pompous ignorance. In either case it is worth noticing simply for the sake of reaffirming the proposition that scholars stultify themselves if they adopt a conception of science which bars or exempts them from sharing in constructive work.

To be sure, there are areas of scientific inquiry which do not now and may never yield results which can appreciably affect the conduct of life. The men who devote themselves to research in these fields cannot of course be expected to make first-hand contributions from their specialty to problems of human action. On the other hand, it really amounts to a demand that life shall be rated as an irrational procedure at best, and that it be accepted as such, if we call thinking and other activities unscientific in the degree that, so far as our knowledge goes, they are contingent. Compared with the whole content of human' activities, our total of science conclusive enough to furnish demonstrative authorization even of our routine programs is woefully small. Nevertheless, we neither doom ourselves to inaction till science becomes inerrantly prophetic, nor do we brand ourselves as unscientific, when we eat our breakfast without possessing indubitable proof that it will not poison us; or when we go to our daily work without sure knowledge that our next footfall will not close the chain of causation that will stop the action of brain or heart; or when we put the telephone receiver to our ear without infallible assurance that it will not end our lives with a shock. In our contacts with our fellow-men, we should mark time till we dropped lifeless, if we waited for unquestionable evidence that their actions would correspond to our expectations.

Life in society is experimental at best, so far as human powers of prognostication are concerned. Deliberate experimentation of society, by society, for society, may be just as scientific as individual or group

( 653) experimentation in the laboratory. The constructive spirit among social scientists is not a disposition to act, regardless of the state of knowledge. That would surely be unscientific. It is rather a purpose to use all the extant or obtainable knowledge pertinent to the situation in question, first, in forming conclusions as to the degree in which the situation utilizes all the resources in sight for human advantage; second, in visualizing conditions indicated by knowledge not yet fully applied in the programs of life; and third, in stimulating experimental effort to work out programs which will turn the unutilized resources into realizing the vision.

In form and in spirit all this is as loyal to the laws of science as the efforts of Darwin and Wallace to solve the mysteries of organic variation, or of the Curies to learn the properties of radium. It is, furthermore, that better thing than science—that more-than-science, which loyalty to life demands, viz., application of such science as there is to inquisitive experience that may at once enlarge the range of living, or that in any event will increase our knowledge of the difficulties of enlarging the range of living.

When the do-nothingists warn scholars not to enter the field of social experiment, because it is not science, they are as silly as if they should exhort farmers not to send their children to school on the ground that education is not farming.


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