An attack on science

April 11, 1997

From Patrick Riley

DESPITE the reassuring sub-heading of the article ("It is not scientific inquiry that produces anti-science feeling but distorted ideas of what it means to be 'scientific'") it must be presumed that Mary Midgley's Amnesty lecture - the condensed version of which appeared under the heading "Madness in the method" (THES, March 28) - was a thinly veiled attack on science. Science was accused of establishing an "imperialistic ideology", misleading the public, failing to provide moral and spiritual guidance, generating a technology that is harmful and indulging in retrograde and outmoded thinking. All of this is hopelessly distorted.

Antipathy to science is the result of misapprehension of what it is. Science is an epistemological philosophy that embraces the Humean dichotomy of rational and real knowledge. It is based on the validation of ideas about the real world by experimental comparison of the behaviour of objective reality with that predicted by conceptual models. It is no more than this. It is, therefore, extraordinary of Mary Midgley to talk disparagingly of the "melodramatic simplicity" of science and to imply that there is something wrong with the scientific method. Moreover, it is misleading in the extreme to state that the ideas of Galileo, Newton and others are treated as "unalterable scriptures" or barriers to thought. Economy of descriptions and the linearity of logic tend to generate simple models of reality but failure of coincidence with objective behaviour implies inaccuracy of concept and new hypotheses are engendered. The simplicity of science lies in its rational empiricism not in the concepts that it generates.

Science has proved highly successful in rendering the workings of the natural world sufficiently comprehensible for the application of this knowledge in the form of technology. The control of the uses to which this technology is put is not the domain of science. Science is a method of acquiring knowledge; it cannot be said to have "responsibilities".

The charge that Hobbes, Bacon, Comte and Skinner promoted "science" as an uncritical ideology is plainly false. The implication that science treats people "strictly as objects" is a petty attack on behaviourist psychology. As for "scientific management" - it has not the remotest connection with science.

There is little doubt that one of the factors leading to the public disenchantment with science is the failure of science to provide the wisdom and ethical framework on which a stable, just and contented society can develop. But, whatever Pandit Nehru presaged, science is incapable of dealing with ethics since, for it to be applied, it requires an external reality with which concepts can be compared. It is doubtful whether empirical tests of good and evil are possible.

If science has "difficulties" they are generally those of low public appreciation and inadequate financial support. The further development of science cannot be "shaped", only helped or hindered. Mary Midgley's distorted picture of science can only act as a hindrance.

Patrick Riley, University College London Medical School

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