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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/October 1892/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | October 1892

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE CLAIMS OF SCIENCE.

IN the present day, when so many schemes for the reformation of society are on foot, and so many experiments are being made in the treatment of social diseases, it is of the very first importance that the claims of science to an authoritative voice in human affairs should be faithfully and adequately presented. The efforts which such writers as Spencer and Huxley have made in this direction are known to all well-informed persons, but there is still room for the enforcement of the lesson, and we welcome the appearance of a new and vigorous champion of the good cause in Prof. Karl Pearson, author of the Grammar of Science, recently published in the Contemporary Science Series. There are many points touched upon in Prof. Pearson's book which might give rise to difference of opinion; but no one who is imbued with the true scientific spirit can fail to concur most heartily in what he says in his opening chapter as to the "claims of science."

The first claim of science is founded on the essential difference between scientific and unscientific opinion. "The classification of facts," says Prof. Pearson, "and the formation of absolute judgments upon the basis of this classification—judgments independent of the idiosyncrasies of the individual mind—is peculiarly the scope and method of modern science. The scientific man has above all things to aim at self-elimination in his judgments, to provide an argument which is as true for each individual mind as for his own. . . . The scientific method of examining facts is not peculiar to one class of phenomena and to one class of workers; it is applicable to social as well as to physical problems, and we must carefully guard ourselves against supposing that the scientific frame of mind is the peculiarity of the professional scientist." Not only is this method not that of the average man, but its very existence is scarcely surmised by him. His method—if such it can be called—of arriving at conclusions is to fasten his attention on a few salient facts, and to interpret them according to his own prepossessions and interests. If asked to take a point of view from which, perhaps, other facts would become salient, or to divest himself of self-interest as a canon of interpretation, he will in general decline; in many cases, indeed, he will be totally incapable of responding to the invitation. The idea of requiring a wide range of facts as a basis for induction, of checking the result of a first survey or examination by that of a second, third, fourth, or tenth, and of treating self-interest or previously formed opinion as a disturbing influence from which the judgment is to be kept as free as possible, is one which long ages of struggle with the problems of Nature have at length bequeathed to the scientific workers of to-day, but which has no lodgment, and but slight recognition, in the minds of the multitude. Prof. Pearson is, however, of opinion that an instruction in scientific method might be very generally imparted, and that its effect on the mind of the ensuing generation would be marked. He considers, very rightly, that a scientific frame of mind is an essential of good citizenship, seeing that it is that frame of mind alone which leads a man to look beyond proximate phenomena, and above all to put aside personal bias. It is the peculiarity, as he well observes, of scientific method that, when once it has become a habit of mind, that mind converts all facts whatsoever into science. Good intentions are not enough to make a good citizen; a man may with the best of intentions, and even at great self-sacrifice, set himself in direct opposition to the best interests of the state. The trouble in such a case is that the man lacks knowledge, and, like an ignorant physician, either diagnosticates badly the evils he would remedy, or, if his diagnoses chance to be right—which is very unlikely—applies the wrong cure. Prof. Pearson does not pretend that as yet science can pronounce definitive and certain judgments upon all social questions; but he properly maintains that science should, as far as possible, be our guide to-day, and that it alone will ever lead us into a perfect comprehension of our social duties. "We are, therefore, in full accord with him when he formulates what he calls the first claim of science in the following words:

"Modem science, as training the mind to an exact and impartial analysis of facts, is an education especially fitted to promote sound citizenship."

The first claim of science being that it supplies the requisite method for dealing with social questions; the second, which flows naturally from the first, is that it brings actual principles to light which afford the most important guidance in social matters. Such Prof. Pearson holds to be Weismann's discovery—if it be one—of the non-inheritance of characteristics acquired during the lifetime of a parent organism. If Weismann's theory be correct, then, in Prof. Pearson's words, "no degenerate and feeble stock will ever be converted into healthy and sound stock by the accumulated effects of education, good laws, and sanitary surroundings. Such means may render the individual members of the stock passable, if not strong, members of society; but the same process will have to be gone through again and again with their offspring, and this in ever-widening circles, if the stock, owing to the conditions in which society has placed it, is able to increase in numbers. . . . If," our author significantly adds, "society is to shape its own future, we must be extremely cautious that, in following our strong social instincts, we do not at the same time weaken society by rendering the propagation of bad stock more and more easy." The argument under this head is not affected by the truth or falsity of Weismann's theory. If Weismann is right, we have to shape our conduct in such a way as to make the propagation of bad stock as difficult as possible, and we shall depend for the future welfare of society mainly upon a careful selection of stocks; if he is wrong, and stocks, no less than individuals, can be improved by education and outward circumstances, we shall apply ourselves more energetically to work in these directions. In either case, a verdict which science alone can render, is of the first importance in determining social action.

The third claim which Prof. Pearson makes for science is the obvious one that its suggestive discoveries afford means for the improvement of all the material conditions of human life. In the popular apprehension this is the one incontrovertible claim of science, and upon this point, therefore, it is not necessary to lay much stress. It may, however, be remarked that many of the greatest practical triumphs of science in the present age have flowed from discoveries or observations which at the outset it was hard to link, even in imagination, with any important practical result. In the words of our author, "The frog's legs of Galvani and the Atlantic cable seem wide enough apart, but the former was the starting-point of the series of investigations which ended in the latter." In like manner, it is suggested, the recent discovery of Hertz, that the action of electro-magnetism is propagated in waves like light, and that light, as conjectured by Maxwell, is only a special phase of electro-magnetic action, may in a generation or two do more to revolutionize life than even the discovery of Galvani as developed in the electric telegraph.

In the fourth place, science, instead of repressing, as some erroneously believe, tends to develop the imagination. Our author puts the case well: "All great scientists have, in a certain sense, been great artists; the man with no imagination may collect facts, but he can not make great discoveries. If I were compelled to name the Englishmen who during our generation have had the widest imaginations and exercised them most beneficially, I think I should put the novelists and poets on one side, and say Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin." When facts have been accumulated and classified and their relations have been carefully traced, the next step is the discovery of some comprehensive formula which, conceived as a law or principle in nature, will sum up and explain the totality of the phenomena. This, as Prof. Pearson states, "is the work not of the mere cataloguer but of the man endowed with creative imagination."

Finally, science not only stimulates but disciplines the imagination and, with it, the aesthetic faculty. "With the growth of scientific knowledge," it is well remarked, "the basis of the aesthetic judgment is changing and must change. Many things in poetry and art which pleased our grandfathers, or even our fathers, are becoming to us, from our changed point of view, insipid and foolish. Many expressions that were part of the recognized stock in trade of poetry are losing, if they have not already lost, all their value for aesthetic purposes. It is not that our generation is growing less susceptible to beauty, but that, it can not recognize as beauty that which is not felt to repose on the true." In the conclusion of his introductory chapter Prof. Pearson states that science endeavors to provide a mental resume of the universe; and, though this great synthesis is not complete, and probably never will be, "it is better to be content with the fraction of a right solution than to beguile ourselves with the whole of a wrong solution"—words which we heartily echo. We do not think there is a point in this truly valuable chapter—the introduction to what is on the whole a most valuable book—on which we have not ourselves insisted at one time or another; but, as stated above, we rejoice at the appearance in the field of every new prophet of scientific truth. Prof. Pearson is not a new writer entirely, but in this work he appeals to a new circle of readers, to many of whom we have no doubt he will bring home a new and salutary conception of the place and function of science in the modern world. The battle of science seems to be nearly won, but overconfidence is always dangerous, and, as our author himself remarks, we see in our time "the highest intellectual power accompanied by the strangest recrudescence of superstition." Let the guardians and champions of truth be, therefore, unremitting in their vigilance and ceaseless in their efforts, till science has become to all mankind the symbol of blessing and of hope.

 

 
THE ROCHESTER MEETING OF THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION.

Under the dignified and tactful presidency of Prof. Joseph Le Conte, of the University of California, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a pleasant and profitable meeting at Rochester, August 17th to 23d. The University of Rochester placed its commodious buildings at the disposal of the Association; within a few paces stood open the doors of the Ward Natural Science Establishment; the nurseries, for which the city is famous, were of easy access; and in its Silurian outcroppings and glacial drift the vicinity had much to attract the geologist. In his address as retiring president, Prof. A. B. Prescott, of the University of Michigan, showed how inseparable are pure and applied science in the field of chemistry, making a forcible plea for the endowment of original research. No laboratory work worth doing, he argued, can ignore laboratory work already done; study of the latest books, memoirs, and periodicals must go hand in hand with experiment. Nature is best known face to face, but the printed page is usually essential for the introduction.

In Section A, that of Mathematics and Astronomy, Prof. J. E. Eastman, of Washington, as vice-president, delivered an address on Neglected Fields in Fundamental Astronomy—in determining the absolute position of the stars. Interest in this section centered in the spectro-heliographs taken and exhibited by Mr. George E. Hale, of the Kenwood Astrophysical Observatory, Chicago. These pictures mark a notable advance in the application of photography to astronomical research, the solar faculæ for the first time being clearly seized. In acquiring information regarding the earth, Mr. R. S. Woodward described how he had been able to approach accuracy within one part in five millions: in measuring the base-lines for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey he had secured constancy of length in a standard bar by immersing it in melting ice.

In Section B, that of Physics, Prof. B. F. Thomas, of Columbus, Ohio, chose for the subject of his address as vicepresident, Technical Education in Colleges and Universities. He held that their mathematical courses of education are usually too elaborate, are rarely drawn as they should be from practical examples, and ought as much as possible to be adapted to the special career the student means to enter upon. He noted with gratification how Stevens Institute was doing one thing well, and would rejoice to see other technical institutes each devoting itself to thorough education in civil, mining, and other distinct departments of engineering or other science. He commended literary studies and the art of clear and ready speaking. It is not so much what a man knows, he said, as the proportion of it that he can communicate, that makes him useful. Papers of value in this section discussed the sensitiveness of photographic plates, the photographic analysis of vowel-sounds, and a photographic mapping of the magnetic field. Interesting ascertainments of the distribution of energy in the spectra of the glow-lamp and the arc-light were also presented.

In C, the Chemical Section, the vice-president, Prof. Alfred Springer, of Cincinnati, spoke upon Micro-organisms of the Soil, indicating the important part they play in the chemistry of vegetation. Prof. H. C. Bolton, of New York, stated that his bibliography of chemistry, comprising ten thousand titles, is in press. Mr. Alfred Tuckerman, also of New York, read a brief note on a list of mineral waters, with analyses, which he is preparing for publication.

In Section D, that of Mechanical Science and Engineering, Prof. J. B. Johnson, of St. Louis, delivered an address on The Applied Scientist. Much attention in this section was bestowed upon instruments of precision and the difficulties attending their manufacture. Prof. W. A. Rogers, of Waterville, Me., had found the lack of homogeneity in even the highest grades of steel to be a grievous obstacle. Mr. J. A. Brashear, of Allegheny, Pa., stated that he had found a fortnight's labor necessary in bringing a plate two inches square to a satisfactory surface as a plane.

In E, the Geological Section, Prof. H. S. Williams, of Yale, the vice-president, gave a masterly address on The Scope of Paleontology and its Value to Geology. Prof. R. T. Hill, of Washington, read a paper on The Volcanic Craters of the United States, of much interest.

In Section F, Biology, Prof. S. H. Gage, of Cornell University, set forth The Comparative Physiology of Respiration, in his address as vice-president. Respiration, he said, is a mere mechanical help to enable oxygen to permeate living substance. Oxidation is not direct in the living tissue, as in a burning candle, but the tissue takes the oxygen and makes it an integral part of itself as it does carbon and other elements, and when finally energy is freed the oxidation occurs and carbon dioxide appears as a waste product. An animated debate in this section turned upon Weissmann's criticisms of the Darwinian theory that characteristics acquired during the individual life are transmitted to offspring. Prof. Manly Miles cited Dr. Dallinger's experiments in support of Darwin's view. These experiments, conducted continuously for seven years, had gradually brought micro-organisms, extremely rapid in their rate of reproduction, to enduring a temperature of 158° Fahr.; their normal temperature having been 60°. Prof. C. V. Riley remarked that most insects are born orphans; if they do not inherit characteristics acquired through the experience of their ancestors, how can they come into the world so richly endowed in aptitude and instinct, and what can so clearly difference the instinct of one insect from that of another? In this section the pressure of papers has of late years been so excessive that it was decided to divide the section in two: what in future will be known as Section F will take zoology for its field, and Section G (G being hitherto an unappropriated letter) will be devoted to botany. It is proposed that during each annual meeting a day shall be set apart for joint sessions, when papers occupying ground common to zoölogy and botany will be read and discussed.

In H, the Anthropological Section, Mr. W. H. Holmes, as vice-president, delivered an address on The Evolution of Æsthetics. Prof. F. W. Putnam outlined the archæological and ethnological exhibits to be presented under his direction at Chicago next year. He has a staff of some seventy explorers at work gathering anthropometrical statistics and collecting material. His reproductions of Indian settlements will represent aboriginal life in North, Central, and South America. The Canadian Government, through Prof. "William Saunders, of Ottawa, will extend important co-operation; the New York State Commissioners for the World's Fair will provide an Iroquois stockaded village, with its characteristic long house of bark.

In the absence of Mr. S. Dana Horton, Section I, that of Economics and Statistics, chose Prof. Lester F. Ward as its vice-president. His thoughtful and provocative address treated The Psychological Basis of Social Economics. Economists, he said, have laid undue stress on the biological forces, the strictly individualistic aims, to be observed in human society. As intelligence and sympathy increase, the effect is that purely animal impulses are not simply qualified, but often reversed; competition steadily gives place to an ordered co-operation which, in the end, is much more gainful to all concerned than the first estate of universal conflict. The question as to what is best to be done with the municipal services which are in their nature monopolies, received some elucidation at the hands of Prof. E. W. Bemis, of the University of Chicago. He brought down to date his studies of municipal gas-works, maintaining that they had yielded substantial benefits as contrasted with works in corporate hands. Danville and Alexandria, Va., and Wheeling, W. Va., he said, operate their electric lighting as well as their gas supply municipally; and more than one hundred towns and cities in the United States own and manage electric-lighting plants.

The Entomological Club, which met concurrently with the A. A. A. S., heard an interesting paper from Mr. L. O. Howard, of Washington, detailing his plan of campaign against the mosquito. He employs kerosene spread as a thin film over the breeding-places of the insect; the oil remains efficacious for two weeks, and, as a little of it goes a long way, the cost is a mere trifle.

A capital lecture, fully illustrated, on Hypnotism, was given to the Rochester public by Prof. Joseph Jastrow, of the University of Wisconsin. Mr. C. K. Gilbert, of Washington, who discoursed on Coon Butte and Theories of its Origin, did not prove so interesting. It is perhaps in its endeavor in some measure to requite hospitality by its public lectures that the management of the Association is most open to criticism. Had popular elements in the Rochester programme received more attention, it is safe to say that the local accessions would have exceeded the small total of twenty-six.

Madison, Wis., was chosen for the next place of meeting, with Prof. William Harkness as president. The vice-presidents elected were: Section A, Mathematics and Astronomy, Prof. 0. L. Doolittle, South Bethlehem, Pa.; B, Physics, Prof. E. L. Nichols, Ithaca, N. Y.; C, Chemistry, Prof. Edward Hart, Easton, Pa.; D, Mechanical Science and Engineering, Prof. S. W. Robinson, Columbus, O.; E, Geology and Geography, Prof. C. D. Walcott, Washington; F, Zoölogy, Prof. H. F. Osborn, New York; G, Botany, Prof. C. E. Bessey, Lincoln, Neb.; H, Anthropology, Prof. J. Owen Dorsey, Tacoma, Md.; I, Economic Science, Prof. William II. Brewer, New Haven, Conn. The probable time of the next meeting will be the week beginning August 19, 1893.

The Geological Society of America accepted an invitation to hold its winter meeting at Ottawa, Canada, December 28th-31st.