Commentary Magazine


Science Is a Sacred Cow, by Anthony Standen

A Modern Idol Under Fire
Science Is a Sacred Cow.
by Anthony Standen.
Dutton. 221 pp. $2.75.

 

From a distance, science looks as a whole like the secure, foolproof, intelligent, and eminently successful enterprise that it is only in part. Up close one discovers that the uncertainty characteristic of our life here below has not left it untouched, even on its highest reaches. And when we get to such a fundamental question as what science is, things really become confusing. In despair, some authorities have decided that science is anything that is produced as a result of the application of the “scientific method”; others, that it is anything a scientist does in his field; others, anything that “works.”

In all this, one thing is certain: science is not simply the rigorous antiseptic procedure described in books on science and scientific method and which, a number of writers tell us, would drastically improve our lives if it were applied to the problems of war, poverty, happiness, and so on.

The virtue of Science Is a Sacred Cow—outside of the fact that it is witty and entertaining—is that the author knows this simple and sanctimonious view of the value of science will not hold up. His first two chapters form an excellent polemical essay on scientific education—what is claimed for it, what it actually is, and even a hint as to what it should be. Mr. Standen, speaking with a perfectly clear-eyed view of scientists, professors, textbook writers, college presidents, and students, points out that the major claim for science in education is that it will make students intelligent, objective, unprejudiced, and good citizens—in short will spread, by contagion or osmosis, “scientific qualities of mind.” Yet these qualities of mind only rarely characterize science teachers, scientific texts, or scientists; at any rate, not more so than any group of competent, honest, and intelligent workmen.

Any science course consists of technical education in practical procedures in various fields. If it is very goody it may also teach some of the basic theory behind these procedures. Yet the theory is generally accepted by the students—if they understand it at all—on faith. Science courses, at their best, will make good physicists and biologists, but there is nothing in scientific education as such which makes of a good physicist or biologist a good man—that is, a man with the virtues of intelligence, objectivity, and all the rest. These have to be approached directly, not through the teaching of science.

This does not mean that scientific education is not terribly important: we all depend on science for the practical and technical operations of running our civilization. But to believe that the study of the most practical way of handling electricity, or of the workings of the atom bomb, will lead to proper qualities of mind per se, is, Mr. Standen thinks, completely illegitimate. Mr. Standen also asserts that the survey course in science, which, by less devotion to details and more to principles, presumably leaves a useful residue of a generally applicable “scientific attitude of mind,” will do nothing of the kind; it will not even make good scientists. As someone who has taken these courses, the reviewer is in full agreement.

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The rest of the book consists of chapters on physics, biology, psychology, and the social sciences, in which the author examines these fields with a view to determining the degree to which they approach the ideal conception of science. (A. W. N. Sullivan, in a 35-cent Mentor book, The Limitations of Science, went through the same sciences in the same order, and on a rather deeper level: the two books supplement each other wonderfully.) Mr. Standen points out that only physics is capable of rigorously deriving its facts from a small group of tested hypotheses; that in biology, laws are based on something akin to aesthetic analogies; that psychology never gets around to the important questions (unless, like Freud, it becomes “unscientific”); and that the social sciences more often than not use the technical language of science to dress up the ordinary operations of scholarly investigation.

The chapter on mathematics is rather more questionable. Mr. Standen asserts that mathematics is “true science,” because it alone leads to known truth rather than probable opinion. However, one might counter that this is because it alone is not bound by any contact with empirical reality. He also manages to drag in God at the end of this chapter, when he belatedly adds to the possible values of scientific education (particularly the mathematical part of it) the idea that it teaches us about God and his handiwork. I prefer his formulation in the first two chapters.

His last chapter, “Watch Those Scientists,” reviews the areas where we have to be careful of the scientists. Besides the atom bomb—concerning which Mr. Standen has nothing to suggest—there are truth drugs, lie detectors, polls, and a variety of other discoveries and activities which can be perverted to inhuman ends. It would have been just to point out that we have to watch everyone else, particularly governments, at least as much as scientists; but no one could quarrel with Mr. Standen’s general conclusion that we ought to regard the pretensions of scientists with skepticism and humor.

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Mr. Standen studied chemistry and engineering at Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and taught for a number of years at St. John’s, the “hundred-great-books” college. This book might be regarded as one of a number of recent volumes which have deprecated science and the modern world and advocated some kind of return to religion and ancient wisdom. Yet even if one rejects this general point of view, this individual book, because it limits itself to one sphere, and one with which the writer is well acquainted, and because it concentrates on destructive criticism rather than positive proposals, will be found stimulating.

One might argue with Mr. Standen’s style. He writes in a down-to-earth fashion, as if saying, I’m just an ordinary Joe, but anyone with plain common sense can show these guys up. But inside this apparently crude and hairy hand is a finely constructed skeleton, created by a solid grounding in ideas. Mr. Standen does not let the ideas and thinkers that have influenced him show through, as if afraid of frightening off his less educated readers. This is a trick that Time magazine often uses—making use of the intellectual’s heritage without exposing oneself as an intellectual, and it is questionable whether it is legitimate, even if the self-exposure might interfere with one’s educational purposes.

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