Commentary Magazine

Science: The Glorious Entertainment, by Jacques Barzun

Idols of the Lab

Science: the Glorious Entertainment.
by Jacques Barzun.
Harper & Row. 307 pp. $6.00.

A person reading Jacques Barzun's new book might well have misgivings about sending his children to college at all. He might also wonder how Barzun justifies the academic activities that go on under his own direction at Columbia University. For the bulk of this book is an expose' of the follies, absurdities, and downright drivel that passes for a liberal education in the average American university. A parent of a college student might feel reasonably confident that his child is picking up a decent amount of mathematics and natural science, if he takes those subjects. But in the social sciences and psychology, he will acquire an oppressive jargon that masks obvious truths and frantically accumulate statistics for their own sake, since the results of such activities are tidy and definite, however trivial. If the prospective student elects the humanities he does not fare any better. He learns only how easy it is to impose, quite mechanically, so-called “interpretations” indiscriminately on any work of art; all he has to do is bone up on simple-minded formulations of Freudian psychology, Greek mythology, or some other master plan. And, as with the business of criticism within the academy, so with the business of creation on its fringes. Art, too, has become the mechanical application of arbitrary blueprints, like the solution of so many engineering problems.

This story is told by Barzun with great wit and an ironic flair for the most telling and destructive examples. It is a story he has told before, in The House of Intellect, but it is well worth telling again. There is, surely, something radically wrong with the behavioral sciences, the humanities, and much that passes for art. And, what is worse, the absurdities exposed by Barzun are usually sponsored by foundation money.

I could thus endorse Barzun's exposé without qualification if it were not for two further aspects of his book. First, he is not content merely to catalogue academic ills, he wishes also to diagnose them. And second, he wishes to extend both catalogue and diagnosis beyond academic walls to that favorite target of so much mushy thinking nowadays, the predicament of modern man. On the first point, it is indeed possible to see, as Barzun does see, in the grotesque practices of behavioral scientists and humanists, an excessive admiration of science and its methods. And so science comes to play a central role in Barzun's diagnosis. He reminds us in his title chapter that science has allure. It involves the fun of discovery, the imaginativeness of great art, and the satisfaction of being able to say, “It works.” No wonder the rest of the academic community tries to follow suit. But the trouble with those who have slavishly emulated what they have supposed to be the methods of science is not that they have extended the bounds of scientific knowledge, but that they have merely parodied scientific procedures. Thus, it would be wrong to blame science for these atrocities, though the success of science may be the occasion for the virulence and epidemic proportions of the disease of science-aping. It is unfortunate that Barzun uses metaphors like “the imperialism of science” and places science in his argument in such a way as to suggest that it is the villain of the piece, bent on a vast conspiracy to usurp the functions and seize the territories of the humane studies. If there is usurpation it is from within; and social scientists, humanists, and artists are wholly responsible for it. Perhaps Barzun intended to say something like this, but his preoccupation with science as some brooding and menacing figure glowering at all its neighbors makes him rather prone to enter the lists of the pro- and anti-science tournament, described by Sir Charles Snow in The Two Cultures.


But even if his argument is stated with greater care, it becomes nothing short of absurd when applied outside the university to the general ailments that beset modern man. Are we to believe that divorce rates, juvenile delinquency, the breakdown of the family, etc., etc., are the consequences of science-aping? We speak of life as being standardized and mechanized, of course, and deplore the fact that we seem addicted to asking always “how much,” “how many,” or “how often” of anything that requires our judgment, but there seems at best to be only a punning likeness between mechanized lives and the science of mechanics. Science may have made possible the proliferation of the tangible things that we in turn prize for their tangibility, but it is more difficult to accuse the scientific attitude of being responsible for our habit of prizing whatever is tangible or measurable.

Barzun responds to these strains on his thesis by shifting it. We discover that it is not science after all that is at fault, but “techne,” by which Barzun means that way of life promoted by industrial society and the machines on which it is built. This, too, is a familiar theme that leads readily to hysterical reactions against the very idea of industrial society. Barzun does not wish to join that chorus of shrill voices either, for industrial society is here to stay, a condition of life to which we simply have to adjust. The threats of mechanization and automation have some relevance, no doubt, to those standardized and mechanized elements in modern living that he deplores. But then it is not clear what all this has to do with the other three-quarters of his book in which he deplores practices in the academic establishment. He appeals to a number of whole or half truths—science is responsible for industrial progress, industrial progress has created the horrors of modern life, the successes of science have worked mischief in the academic establishment. Science keeps reappearing and so it is used as the thread to unite arguments of quite different point and purpose.


There is much in Barzun's book, however, that suggests a common theme. There are ways in which his various cases do seem to resemble one another, though he is prevented from noticing them by his insistence on the slogan that we live in a scientific age. His examples, however, suggest less an addiction to science than a devotion to success. We hanker in ordinary life after the tokens of obvious, measurable achievement, however thin the satisfaction; and, as behavioral scientists, critics, or artists, we pursue the methods that insure us definite and measurable, if trivial, results—the two or ten steps to successful prediction, control, or the fashioning of marketable products. If we look to his examples rather than his thesis, we would be forced to conclude that we do not live in a scientific age at all, but we regard science, along with everything else, as of cash-value interest to youngsters on the intellectual make. The significance of what we do—either as persons seeking some measure of satisfaction for ourselves and those around us or as intellectuals attempting to illuminate and understand the world—falls into the background, if not into positive disrepute. All of this, I venture to say, has little to do with the scientific enterprise, though much, perhaps, with a scheme of commercial values that some aspects of scientific work embody.


Such a diagnosis would put Barzun's various complaints into a common focus. That he fails to do so is due to his tendency to look at human problems generally through a screen of academic problems. Within the university his diagnosis of science-aping is sound; moreover, it suggests just the remedy at which Barzun hints in his last chapter, where he reminds us that there are many modes of thought. Science is one; law, for example, is another. Law, too, is an admirably chosen instance with which to counter the tendency to think that rational procedures are exhausted by the methods of natural science. For law is an instance of a non-scientific use of reason which is at the same time highly disciplined. In short, in marking off the limits of scientific method, we do not reduce what lies outside those bounds to a chaos of mere sentiment and intuition.

It is thus a pity that so much sound criticism and such a suggestive remedy should be confused and distorted by Barzun's attempt to string all his complaints on the thread of science. Many in the scientists' camp will be offended by the suggestion that science is, in some subtle way, responsible for these ills, and reject this book as another anti-scientific tract, confirming their suspicion of humanistic follies. And members of the humanist camp, already nervous in the presence of science, will use Barzun's criticism as an excuse for all sorts of muddy thinking, just because it is not scientific and so cannot be judged on rational grounds. It may not have been Barzun's intention to widen the gulf between scientists and humanists; indeed, much of his book could be thought of as a quite important remapping of the geography of that gulf. But he cannot quite free himself of the clichés about our scientific age, and so his map is blurred, in outline as well as detail. It is especially unfortunate that he should have allowed himself to be distracted by such old saws when his criticism of contemporary intellectual life is so trenchant.

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