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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/July 1898/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.

 
SCIENCE AND ITS CRITICS.

IT is somewhat difficult to account for the attitude which a number of able men take toward science, an attitude of grudging recognition, of carping criticism, and too often of sarcastic misrepresentation. In England Carlyle and Ruskin have been the leading representatives of this phase of thought, if such it can be called; in France we have M. Brunetière and his school; in Russia, Tolstoi. The latter has lately republished in a Russian periodical a brochure by Edward Carpenter, the English title of which we at this moment forget, but the object of which is to show the abstract and unpractical nature of science; and to this he has prefixed a preface in which, following the English author, he gives science a very severe hauling over the coals.

What is it all about? What has science done to these gentlemen that they look upon it with so evil an eye? Do they dine less agreeably because science has discovered some of the laws which underlie good cookery? Are they angry with science because it has diminished disease and appreciably improved the expectation of life of each of them? Are they out of humor with it because it has done so much by anæsthetics and antiseptics to relieve human suffering? Is their grievance that a certain rational order has been introduced into our conceptions of the universe, so that, while we are still profoundly ignorant of many things, our ideas, so far as they go, have a certain harmony and coherence? If one only knew just how and where science had trodden on the corns of these very able writers, it would perhaps be possible to understand their attitude; but, as it is, in their deadly determination to find fault with science, they remind us very much of the wolf that had so heavy a bill of indictment against the lamb. The parallel stops here; the grumblings of the wolf were the necessary diplomatic prelude to the devouring of the lamb; but these gentlemen can not devour science. They grumble, and they grumble, but science goes on its way: nulla vestigia retrorsum.

Let us, however, examine the terms in which the great Russian author formulates his complaint:

"The strong, sensible laborer supposes that men who study, and are supported by his labor, shall be able to tell him where to find happiness. Science should teach him how to live, how to act toward friends and relatives, how to control instincts and desires that arise within him, how and what to believe. Instead of telling him these things, science talks about distances in the heavens, microbes, vibrations of ether, and X rays. The laborer is dissatisfied. He insists on knowing how to live. . . . The essential thing is the total view of life, its meaning and aims. Science can not rise to that view, religion alone can do so. . . . Science is constantly pointing to its victories over the forces of Nature, to electricity, machinery, and the like; but sensible men see not those things, they see only the misery, suffering, degradation, and hardships to which so many are subjected, and the little prospect of relief that is in sight. Were our men of science to teach men more about religious, moral, and social truths, we should not see the hundredth part of suffering and hardship which are now seen on every side."

Now, what is the answer to all this? The first answer we feel disposed to make is that the illustrious critic does not seem to have taken up as definite a standpoint as could be wished. He says at one moment that science can not rise to the point of view necessary for supplying-moral guidance to the people—that religion alone can do it. A moment after he says that ninety-nine hundredths of all the suffering in the world would disappear if men of science "were to teach men more about religious, moral, and social truths." How are they to do it if science is powerless to deal with these things? Waiving this point, what may be said is this, that science reaffirms all the important moral truths that the experience of the ages has imparted to mankind, and places them on something better than an empirical basis. Mr. Spencer's two volumes on the Principles of Morality are full of valuable observations and illustrations bearing on the conduct of life; and other writers have dealt with the same general subject with various degrees of force and impressiveness. There is this distinction, however, to be drawn between moral truths and other truths, say the truths of purely physical science: the latter only require to be intellectually apprehended, the former require to be lived. We heard long ago of the servant who knew his master's will and did it not. Was any one but himself to blame for his disobedience? We are not told so; and Count Tolstoi has a great respect for the writings in which this type is given to hs. Unhappily, the type is eternal; which of us can say with assurance that we have never fallen into like transgression?

This simple consideration, it seems to us, serves to show the folly of blaming men of science because the world is not better than it is, or for pursuing, while society is still so imperfect, their researches into distant regions of space and time, into the infinitely great or the infinitely small. Let the accusers of science say what moral truth of importance to mankind science has weakened. Let them say to what moral truth it has not at least added some strength. The Founder of Christianity did not rail at science. He did not say that it was because the Scribes and Pharisees did not teach sound and penetrating moral doctrines that the world was as bad as it was. As reflected in the fourth Gospel, what he taught was that there was a light which was ready to lighten every man that came into the world, but that "men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil." To day there are thousands of agencies in operation for instructing men in their duties and teaching them the significance of life, and there is reason to hope that they are not all working in vain. Only we must bear in mind that all moral teaching is a summons to moral effort, a summons to rise above our everyday selves, a summons to more or less of self-renunciation. Why should men of science be blamed because they are not infinitely more successful than ministers of the gospel in enlightening dark minds and strengthening weak wills? If it is the function of religion, as Count Tolstoi says, to take the total view of life and seize its true significance, why does it not fulfill that duty? It really is most singular that no sooner has the eminent critic got to the point of seeing where the responsibility lies for the proper instruction of mankind, than he turns savagely round on the men of science, and tells them that if they would deal out religious, moral, and social truths to mankind, the miseries and hardships of our present social state would all but disappear.

Mankind, let us trust, is slowly climbing the ascent to a higher moral state and better social relations; but what all reasonable persons should recognize is that it is not merely knowledge that is needed to sway men in the direction of right action. Whether knowledge is effectual in prompting to any action depends upon the manner and circumstances in which it is applied. Men sometimes gain wisdom from experience, and sometimes their moral natures respond to the appeals of some great teacher; but it is probable that the most solid gains which humanity makes result from the action of selection—the kind of selection which social life sets in operation. To say that science puts forward claims which it can not make good is a misrepresentation, as we have often shown in these columns. Science gathers knowledge and makes this knowledge available for all the world. If it is not more actively engaged in missionary work we fail to see matter for surprise. There are, as there have always been, diveisities of gifts in the world, and it is not only possible but probable that the skilled observer, or the acute inductive reasoner, might not have any great talent for evangelizing the masses. Still, in a world where knowledge and theory are both so much required, such laborers are surely worthy of their hire. Why they should be singled out for the taunts and reproaches of eminent men of letters it is difficult to see. It would come with better grace from these gentlemen if they would direct their strictures first to those of their own craft, and ask the critics, essayists, and novelists of to-day why they do not take in hand the regeneration of society instead of spending their energies, as so many of them do, in the search for mere literary adornment or in striving to say cleverly things that might better never be said at all. But the great truth which should never be lost sight of is that moral progress is for every individual a personal question and is a matter of personal endeavor. Whether virtue can be taught is a question as old as Plato and probably much older. However that question may be decided, one thing is certain, that growth in virtue can not come from teaching alone, and that to blame men of science for not converting the world by means of lectures on moral philosophy is idle in the extreme.

 

 
SCIENTIFIC INSTRUCTION IN GIRLS' SCHOOLS.

The article on this subject by Mrs. Caroline W. Latimer which we published in our last number is one deserving of careful attention. A careless reader might possibly dismiss it as a plea for less science and more literature in girls' schools; but we do not ourelves so understand the writer. The contention is that in many, if not in most, schools scientific instruction is not judiciously imparted; that too many different sciences are driven abreast, as it were; and that, in seeking to cover too wide a field of knowledge and embrace too great a multiplicity of facts, the best results of scientific study are lost. We hold it entirely possible that such is the case, and when our contributor says that she knows from experience that it is so, it is reasonable to allow considerable weight to the statement. At the same time the very overloading of school curriculums with scientific studies—admitting all that our contributor says on the subject—must be regarded as an encouraging sign, for it shows that science has fairly conquered a domain from which only a generation ago it was almost wholly excluded. If it has overrun the territory in too promiscuous a manner that can easily be remedied; and, by the aid of a little reflection and experience, scientific instruction in girls' schools can be so organized as to produce the best results as regards not only the direct imparting of scientific knowledge, but also the infusing of new life and significance into other branches of study.

We quite agree with our contributor when she says that scientific teaching unaccompanied by practical work on the part of the student is a very ineffectual, not to say wholly useless, thing. Mere oral instruction or the study of text-books will never impart any adequate sense of the need for evidence or of the nature of verification; far from weakening, it can only tend to strengthen the habit of dependence on authority. But set young minds to make their own observations and draw their own conclusions, to verify experimentally the theories contained in the text-books, instead of simply taking them on trust, and the intellectual benefit will be lasting and far-reaching. Lessons of patience and exactness will be taught that can not fail to be of value in after life; and the highest purely intellectual result of education will be achieved in the acquisition of a true conception of the manner in which knowledge is built up and rational certitude acquired in all matters accessible to the human mind. The difference is vast between a mind which knows what verification is, what an experiment is, and one that wholly lacks such knowledge. The one can take a more or less accurate measure of the facts of life and of any given situation, while the other is to a great extent at the mercy of haphazard impressions. The one sails a definite course, making the best use of every wind; the other is apt to change its course with every change of wind.

In girls' schools the study of science assumes a specially important function. The fashionable doctrine to-day in some quarters is that there is no sex in mind; but, for our own part, we incline to think that even in these latter times there is sufficient difference in the mental habits of men and women to render instruction in the facts and methods of science of more pressing need from the point of view of individual development in the case of the latter than in the case of the former. Writers who are not open to the suspicion of prejudice dwell on the greater "instinctiveness" of women as compared with men. Instinctiveness may be a valuable quality, but it has the drawback of dictating a very summary and personal manner of deciding questions which really depend wholly on external evidence. It is common enough among men for the wish to be father to the thought; but in the case of women we may use with considerable appropriateness the ponderous paraphrase of Dr. Johnson, and say that "desire superinduces conviction." Not merely a thought, be it remarked, but conviction: and how convinced a woman may be on the side of her desires perhaps most people have experienced.

Some one may say that this is an interesting condition of mind, a kind of sweet unreasonableness, which no one should seek to interfere with. Banter of this kind may at times be amusing, but it does not decide any serious question. The study of science affords precisely the intellectual exercise best adapted to check waywardness of thought and bring the mind into a right relation to the questions which have to be faced in everyday life. It shows one clear road, one well-established highway, to true conclusions, and reveals the danger of short cuts and hasty judgments. It accustoms the mind to ask, in regard to any proposition or statement, "What is the evidence for this?" It accustoms the mind also to a condition of suspense in regard to questions which there are not sufficient data for deciding. This condition of suspense is precisely what untrained minds find it most difficult to endure. We have lately had experience of this on an immense scale in this country. When the explosion occurred by which the Maine was destroyed, how few were willing to await the result of expert investigation before arriving at a conclusion consonant with their own feelings on the subject! It is not uncommon to find people who show irritation if you express a doubt whether some statement they have read in the papers, and happen to be interested in, is well-founded. Belief is of the nature of an emotion, the indulgence of which is to the mass of mankind a pleasure. The student of science early learns that the emotion is one which requires control, and gradually he or she forms the habit of making reasonable verification a necessary condition of belief.

Another great advantage that science possesses, especially in relation to the female sex, lies in its impersonal character. In other spheres of activity personal leadership counts for much; but in the study of science, while individual teachers may exert a powerful stimulating influence, they do not impose their opinions. In all scientific work the one "ever-fixed mark" is truth, the proved conformity of fact with hypothesis. How interesting soever the views of this or that eminent professor may be, they must at all times submit to this test; and the humblest student may at any moment shatter by an experiment or an observation the most brilliant generalization of the most renowned speculator. We do not know of any lesson that can be more usefully taught in girls' schools than this—that truth is above all, and that truth depends, not upon any form of personal authority, but upon the direct revelations of Nature to those who interrogate her aright. This does not involve any depreciation of personal influence, which must always remain a powerful factor in the government of human life; it simply gives the mind a wider outlook upon the world, enabling it to pierce beyond opinion to something greater and more enduring than opinion, the ever-unfolding reality of things.

"Our little systems have their day.
They have their day and cease to be."

This utterance of a great poet is at one with the teachings of science; but what it is well to remember is that, as system after system fails, truth shines forth with ever clearer radiance and more benignant grace: it does not sink in their fall, but escapes to assume better forms and confer still higher blessings on human kind.

We are in sympathy with what our contributor says as to the desirability of supplementing the careful teaching of one or two sciences with general views, intelligently imparted, of all other leading branches of science. She recommends for special study in girls' schools physiology as a necessary subject, and either botany or zoölogy. We should like to put in a word for astronomy on account of the strong appeal it makes to the imagination, and the opportunity it affords for bringing into use whatever the pupils may have learned in the way of mathematics. Another reason may be found in its extremely interesting history. No young person should leave a school claiming to give a solid education without having learned something of the labors of the old world astronomers, as well as of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Herschel. One of the keenest of intellectual and emotional, we might perhaps say moral, pleasures is lost to him or her who, in the

"Rolling heaven, with all his signs revealed,"

sees nothing-but a medley of scintillating points, some brighter and some less bright, and knows far less of the movements of the heavenly bodies than the old Chaldean shepherds. The study of astronomy, we have reason to believe, is generally taken up by girls with much interest when an opportunity of doing so is afforded them; and we should like to ask Mrs. Latimer to try if she can not, in addition to the well-chosen sciences she mentions, find room for some really educative work in astronomy. With this addition her scheme would have our hearty approval.