Madness in the method

March 28, 1997

It is not scientific inquiry that produces anti-science feeling but distorted ideas of what it means to be 'scientific', argues Mary Midgley

Particular myths that have come down to us from the Enlightenment are now giving trouble. The trouble with Enlightenment concepts is that they tend to be extremely simple and sweeping. That melodramatic simplicity has been one of their chief theoretical attractions. It is also their chronic weakness. For instance the Enlightenment's overriding emphasis on freedom conflicts with other equally important ideals such as justice. Freedom to carry weapons, for example, can lead to serious harm.

In the case of the physical sciences that simplicity has played a great part in making possible the astonishing success of these sciences. It has given western civilisation an understanding of natural mechanisms far beyond that of any other culture. But what we need now is to think how best to live with science's difficulties and responsibilities, and how to shape its further development.

Early this century, before disillusion set in, scientific prophets proclaimed their total confidence in the "omnicompetence of science". That phrase might sound like a satirical parody of their faith, but it is not. The phrase was used, quite literally, by theorists to claim that something called science could indeed encompass the whole range of thought. As Pandit Nehru put it: "It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people ... The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science."

By this word "science" Nehru meant the scientific spirit, by which he meant more than a mere neutral curiosity about facts. Nehru saw the scientific spirit as a moral force that "alone" could solve all these problems. He included in science the decent liberal attitude out of which it grew, expecting that the scientific spirit would include wise and benevolent use of its discoveries. He was certainly not thinking of "science" as a force likely to involve industrial pollution, or the invention of refined methods of torture, or opportunities for profiteering, or a concentration on weaponry.

Nehru, and many people who have shared his hopes, expected from the thing they call science nothing less than a better ethic. They relied on it to do what religion had formerly been supposed to do - namely, provide a comprehensive world-view that would prove certain standards of conduct were right. They hoped that a scientific basis for morals would supersede all the corruption and confusion of traditional ethical thinking.

Our disillusionment with science surely centres more on the failure of this spiritual and moral hope than on the mixed results of scientific practice. Of course that practice has produced technology that has often done harm as well as good. But the harm has been very largely due to the lack of the promised new wisdom.

We must wonder now why so many people expected that wisdom to appear? From Hobbes and Bacon to Auguste Comte and B. F. Skinner, scientific prophets regularly made Nehru's mistake of expecting the wrong kind of thing from science. They built up a distorted notion of what science itself was. What they promoted as scientific thinking was actually an uncriticised ideology with a remit to direct the whole of life.

Throughout this century, people presenting this ideology have repeatedly assured a bewildered public that policies which in fact had little to do with science must be accepted because experts had shown that they were scientific and objective. The notion of objectivity involved here is of the first importance. It does not just mean ordinary impartiality. It centres on treating people strictly as objects - that is, as if they were just lifeless, unconscious blocks of matter. Thus, behaviourist psychologists claimed they were being scientific in telling parents not to show affection to small children and to leave them alone as much as possible because this behaviour was more objective than traditional ways of treating them. In cases of this kind, the mere fact of reversing a tradition and attacking ordinary feeling was often enough to suggest that the claim was scientific.

Probably the most striking case of this distorted approach is Industrial Taylorism, commonly known simply as scientific management. This is the philosophy of the conveyor-belt, the doctrine that workers ought to be treated like any other physical component on the production line, any reference to their own point of view on the matter being considered subjective and so an unscientific distraction. What is interesting is that neither the economist who devised this approach nor Henry Ford who accepted it thought of it just as a quick way of making money. They saw it as scientific progress, a laudable extension of physical science into realms formerly occupied by subjective sentiment and superstition.

Another favoured way of achieving this extension is the simple device of mentioning quantities rather than qualities. Thus, policies can be said to be scientific if they involve counting or measuring something, never mind whether that particular thing needs to be counted or not. The American spin-doctor Dick Morris lately claimed scientific status, saying that all he does is to "reduce the mysterious ways of politics to scientific testing and evaluation".

This kind of distortion is a serious evil and a travesty of real science. No wonder it produces "anti-science feeling" today. What worries people is usually not scientific enquiry itself but this imperialistic ideology. Throughout the social sciences and often in the humanities, distorted ideas of what it means to be "scientific" and "objective" still rule much research.

Even within science itself, this simplistic approach is beginning to make trouble. Our familiar stereotype of scientific rationality is still the one that was modelled on the methods used by physics in the 17th century. But for many purposes physics has moved away from those methods. The structure of matter, which early pioneers believed to be so simple, has turned out to be profoundly complex. The simple machine model that so gripped public imagination in the early days of the Enlightenment has been superseded in large areas of physics.

In biology, the influence of that model has lingered longer. Many biologists still tend to see mechanism as the only truly scientific thought-pattern because they take it still to be central to physics. And for some time, this belief has concentrated their attention strongly on problems in microbiology, leading them to neglect larger-scale matters such as the behaviour of whole organisms. But now a number of biologists are suggesting this neglect is unbalanced. So efforts are being made to "put the life back into biology" by bringing these larger units into focus again. Even the largest unit of all - Gaia, the biosphere within which we all live - is no longer outlawed as unscientific but is beginning to serve as a focus of ecological inquiry.

The trouble with Enlightenment myths when they get out of hand is that they exalt the form over the substance of what is being said, the method over the aim of an activity, and precision of detail over completeness of cover. In all these areas of science, that has been the effect of the ideology I have been trying to examine. In all of them, it seems to be lifting now and we need to help it do so.

The pioneers of the Enlightenment whom we still honour - Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau - were people who said new things that were extremely startling. If they were brought back today, they would surely be shocked to find that some of their ideas were being treated as unalterable scripture, barriers to new thought in a world that is changing even faster than theirs did.

Mary Midgley is a philosopher, formerly at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. This article is based on her 1997 Amnesty lecture.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments