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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/February 1900/The Man of Science in Practical Affairs

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | February 1900


THE human mind is addicted to the creation of types, a process which implies classification and generalization of a somewhat low order. Some prominent feature of the thing classified is selected for emphasis, and there is often a degree of exaggeration which leads, in the end, to caricature. John Bull, Brother Jonathan, the Jew of the comic papers, and the stage Irishman are examples of this tendency. So, too, a profession or occupation is summed up in one conventional character, with a little truth distorted as if seen reflected from the surface of a curved mirror. The likeness is there, but unlike the reality. The individual embodiment of the type is rarely, if ever, encountered.

The man of science deals with questions which commonly lie outside of the range of ordinary experience, which often have no immediately discernible relation to the affairs of everyday life, and which concentrate the mind upon apparent abstractions to an extraordinary degree. Accordingly, the scholar, the scientific investigator, is typified as an elderly dreamer in spectacles, who is so uncouth, so self-forgetful, so absent-minded, and so ignorant of practical matters as to be hardly more than a child. He is one to be cared for and humored, like an imbecile—treated with some consideration, perhaps, on account of his learning, but never to be trusted in the transaction of business nor in the administration of public affairs. With him, as an antithesis, is contrasted the practical man, who knows whither his steps are tending, who has learned to control others, and who never dreams of abstractions during office hours, if indeed he troubles himself about them at all. The one is thought to be vague, visionary, and unpractical; the other is deemed efficient, precise, prompt, and clear. Has this distinction any basis in reality? Do scientific pursuits disqualify a man for administrative responsibility?

These questions, like all other legitimate questions, are to be answered by evidence, and the popular impression is entitled to no weight whatever. This evidence is to be found by a study of the thing itself, the man of science as he actually is; by an examination of the training which he receives, the character of the work which he does, and the results which he accomplishes. By this method it will be found that the supposed type is purely imaginary, that the workers in science exhibit all the variations which are found in any other group of occupations, that the human race as a whole is their only symbol or representative. The man of science may be grave or gay, moral or immoral, social or unsocial, keen or visionary—in short, he may exemplify any trait of human nature, except the traits of ignorance and stupidity. He must be intelligent and educated, methodical and exact; apart from these qualifications he may resemble any other man, chosen from any other vocation. Indeed, his nearest analogue is the so-called man of business, and the chief distinction between the two is that one deals with unfamiliar, the other with familiar things.

The direct tendency of the scientific training is to develop as fully as possible the positive traits which have been mentioned. Each science is a body of systematic, well-organized knowledge, with clear fundamental principles and distinct outlines. The study of science is a continual discouragement of obscurity or vagueness; it is a discipline in the statement and solution of definite problems, and it trains one to see things as they are, apart from all irrelevancies. The technicalities of science, so bewildering to the layman, are merely aids to exactness, avoidances of circumlocution—in short, they are practical devices whereby labor is saved. Economy of effort is one of the features in which the scientific training excels.

The results of such a training vary, of course, with the individual, and depend upon his personal peculiarities. A broad man is broadened by it; a narrow man shuts himself up within the limits of a specialty. To some extent specialization is necessary, but there is a wide difference between the man who sees only his own province and one who realizes its relations to other fields. The same distinction is found in commercial life, and with the same results. The specialist in money, in stocks, in iron, or in cotton may be just as narrow as the specialist in stars, or reactions, or insects, and know little or nothing of any subject outside his own. Neither narrowness nor breadth of view is monopolized by any vocation. The mere fact that men of science rarely devote their attention to accumulating wealth does not prove them to be unpractical. They are not, as a rule, careless or thriftless in money matters; they are as likely to handle their financial affairs intelligently as any one else, but their main business lies in other directions. If seldom a millionaire, the man of science is still more seldom a bankrupt. In wild speculation the so-called practical man takes the lead, and anything which bears the trade mark of electricity, from the electrical refining of sugar to the extraction of gold from sea water, can secure from otherwise shrewd financiers the support which a worker in science would contemptuously refuse to give. A few years ago the would-be rain-makers obtained the money for their experiments from men of business, and from Congress even, in spite of advice based upon scientific knowledge, and failure was the inevitable end. In that borderland between business and research, which is known as applied science, the scientific student is more practical than the financier. When both work together, wealth is produced, but the seedtime of abstract investigation always precedes the harvest. The commercial value of exact knowledge is often very great, but to the prospective investor this truth is not always evident.

The practical value of the scientific training is perhaps most fully recognized in Germany. There the importance of the investigator, the apparently abstract scholar, is thoroughly understood, and to his work the great industrial advance of Germany is largely attributable. In chemical and electrical industries this is particularly true, and their growth can be directly traced to the influence of the universities. The German professor is a man trained to research, and from among his students many of the best investigators are chosen for service in the factories. German competition in the commercial world is to-day the bugbear of other European countries, and its success is due, first of all, to the utilization of trained intelligences. In our own country the importance of applied science is fully realized and its achievements are beyond dispute, but the scholar as yet receives less consideration than the commercial expert. The latter is practical, the former is regarded as visionary. Accurate knowledge is a good thing, but rule-of-thumb experience is often thought to be better. It is only when knowledge and experience join hands that the highest practical results are attainable, the one factor tending to advance, the other to perpetuate, industry. The man of affairs is not a practical man until he appreciates the force of these propositions.

At bottom the scientific training is a training in clear thought, precise statement, accurate observation, the verification of evidence, and the ascertainment of truth. Why should its recipient be unfitted for practical things? Good administration, the effective transaction of business, implies system, exactness, the judgment of evidence upon its merits, and the prompt solution of problems as they arise, and to each of these requisites the scientific education is directly related. What other training is less likely to produce dreamers, or more likely to develop efficient men? The main distinction between the workers in science and men of other vocations is one of aim, a difference in ambition, perhaps a difference in the point of view. The scientific scholar seeks to discover and possibly to apply new truth; and after that his ambition is to win the recognition of his fellows, to gain reputation, rather than to acquire wealth. He may not be indifferent to the latter purpose, but it is not his chief end. It is difficult to do both things well.

For the administration of large interests, involving the control of men and the building-up of great institutions, men of science have over and over again demonstrated their fitness. In the scientific societies of the world they have shown their capacity for organization, and in the management of schools and colleges their ability has often been proved. Among the presidents of universities and technical schools who have been drawn from the ranks of science I may mention Eliot, of Harvard; Gilman, of the Johns Hopkins; Drown, of Lehigh; Jordan, of the Leland Stanford; Chamberlin, of Wisconsin; Morton, of the Stevens Institute; and Mendenhall, of the Worcester Polytechnic. The Institute of Technology in Boston has been directed successively by Rogers, Runkle, Walker, and Crafts; the Columbia School of Mines was built up by a group of scientific workers, aided by President Barnard; and the list might be lengthened almost indefinitely. Have these men fallen below the average of their fellows? Have they not shown at least as high administrative ability as has been found elsewhere? The mere statement of their names is a sufficient answer, and renders argument unnecessary. With them the scientific training has not been a disqualification, nor even a handicap; it has rather been to their advantage, for to it they owe much of the insight, the power to grasp great problems intelligently, the ability to interpret evidence, and the tendency to prompt and decisive action, without which successful administration is impossible.

Again, consider the scientific institutions of the world, the museums and observatories, and the various governmental organizations in which science is recognized. In our own country, the Smithsonian Institution and National Museum were built up by Henry and Baird, in spite of great and varied difficulties; the Coast Survey was created by Hassler and Bache; and the Geological Survey was developed by a group of men among whom Hayden, King, and Powell were pioneers. The last-named organization has been controlled from the beginning by men of science, and the Coast Survey has been weak only when under nonscientific management. The Commission of Fish and Fisheries owes its existence and a great part of its effectiveness to its creator, Baird; the Army Medical Museum and Library represents the executive genius of Billings; and in none of these institutions has partisan politics ever exerted an appreciable influence. No bureaus of the Government have been more wisely or more efficiently handled than those which men of science have controlled; in none have there been fewer errors or scandals; there is not one in which the essential purpose of its existence has been better fulfilled.

Instead, then, of excluding the scholar, the investigator, the man who knows, the man of scientific training, from his fair share of public responsibility, we should do well to call him into service more and more. He may be, he often is, averse to administrative work, for the reason that it interferes with his chosen occupation, and hinders the prosecution of research. But his training and his mental bias are both needed in public affairs, wherein the scientfic method is too often unapplied. In European countries men of high scientific rank are frequently found in legislative bodies and ministries; men like Playfair, Roscoe, and Lubbock in England, Virchow in Germany, Quintino Sella in Italy, and Berthelot in France. With us in America the maker of speeches outranks the thinker in popular esteem, and is given duties to perform in which he may become ridiculous. Both in legislation and in diplomacy many questions arise which demand the most careful scientific treatment, or which can be answered only by thorough scientific knowledge, and many of these have been intrusted for settlement to men of no specific training whatever. Of late years we have had the fur-seal controversy, the question of forest reserves, the irrigation of our arid lands, problems of sanitation and water supply, and in each of these the man of science has played a part which was too often subordinate to that of the politician. In an ideal government the two should work together, each supplementing the peculiar ability of the other. Many details of the tariff, and a notable part of the coinage question, require scientific data for their proper settlement, but the true expert has not always been consulted. The result of this neglect is sometimes seen in courts of law, where questions of interpretation arise which might have been averted, obscurity in legislation being often due to the careless use of scientific terminology or to ignorance of the relations in science between two branches of industry. The voice of the trained investigator might well be heard in Congress, but his testimony now is limited to the committee room. Even there it is received with an attention which is too often mingled with incredulity. The myth of the dreamer, the visionary, is more than half believed.

The supposed type, then, is not a type, but an exception—a man of straw, which is hardly worth overthrowing. But the belief in it has been and still is mischievous, a hindrance to wise action, an obstacle to progress. The misconception has worked injury to science. These words of protest, therefore, are not wholly superfluous.