Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 38.djvu/35

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
25
MEN OF SCIENCE AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC.

often prove to be erroneous in the end, resulting in a diminution of that confidence which the public is, on the whole, inclined to place in the dictum of science.

Examples of this condition of things are by no means wanting, and they are not confined, as might at first be assumed, to the lower ranks of science. A distinguished botanist is consulted and advises concerning the location of the natural-gas field; a mathematician advises a company in which he is a stockholder in regard to the best locality for boring for oil; and a celebrated biologist examines and makes public report upon a much-talked-of invention in which the principles of physics and engineering are alone involved.

In these and many other instances which might be related, the motives of those concerned, at least on one side of the transaction, can not be questioned, but certainly their judgment is open to criticism; and the outcome of it all is that the confidence of the people in scientific methods and results is weakened. Fifty years ago or a hundred years ago, there was good reason for much of this sort of thing. Specialization was neither as possible nor as necessary as now; the sparseness of the population of the country, the absence of centers of learning and scientific research, the obstacles in the way of easy and rapid communication between different parts of the country—all these and other circumstances contributed to the possibility of a Franklin, who wrote and wrote well upon nearly all subjects of human thought; whose advice was sought and given in matters relating to all departments of science, literature, and art. Combining in an extraordinary degree the power of profound research with a singularly simple and clear style in composition, together with a modesty which is nearly always characteristic of the genuine student of nature, he wisely ventured further than most men would dare to-day in the range of topics concerning which he spoke with authority.

But at the present time and under existing conditions there is little excuse for unsupported assumption of knowledge by men of science; and, fortunately, the danger of humiliating exposure is correspondingly great. The specialist is everywhere within easy reach, and the expression of opinions concerning things of which one knows but little is equally prejudicial to the interests of science and society.

The scientific man should also be at least reasonably free from egotism in matters relating to his own specialty, and particularly in reference to his own authority and attainments therein. In controversy he has the advantage over most disputants in that he can usually call to his support an unerring and incontrovertible witness. A well-conducted experiment or an exhaustive investigation carried out with scrupulous honesty, deservedly carries