Tag Archives: science

Bertrand Russell

The political background of the atomic scientists’ work was the determination to defeat the Nazis. It was held—I think rightly—that a Nazi victory would be an appalling disaster. It was also held, in Western countries, that German scientists must be well advanced towards making an A-bomb, and that if they succeeded before the West did they would probably win the war. When the war was over, it was discovered, to the complete astonishment of both American and British scientists, that the Germans were nowhere near success, and, as everybody knows, the Germans were defeated before any nuclear weapons had been made. But I do not think that nuclear scientists of the West can be blamed for thinking the work urgent and necessary. Even Einstein favoured it. When, however, the German war was finished, the great majority of those scientists who had collaborated towards making the A- bomb considered that it should not be used against the Japanese, who were already on the verge of defeat and, in any case, did not constitute such a menace to the world as Hitler. Many of them made urgent representations to the American Government advocating that, instead of using the bomb as a weapon of war, they should, after a public announcement, explode it in a desert, and that future control of nuclear energy should be placed in the hands of an international authority. Seven of the most eminent of nuclear scientists drew up what is known as ‘The Franck Report’ which they presented to the Secretary of War in June 1945. This is a very admirable and far-seeing document, and if it had won the assent of politicians none of our subsequent terrors would have arisen. It points out that ‘the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past’. It goes on to point out that there is no secret which can be kept for any length of time, and that Russia will certainly be able to make an A-bomb within a few years. It took Russia, in fact, almost exactly four years after Hiroshima. The danger of an arms race is stated in terms which subsequent years have horrifyingly verified. ‘If no efficient international agreement is achieved,’ it states, ‘the race for nuclear armaments will be on in earnest not later than the morning after our first demonstration of the existence of nuclear weapons. After this, it might take other nations three or four years to overcome our present head start.’ It proceeds to suggest methods of international control and concludes: ‘If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.’ This was not an isolated expression of opinion. It was a majority opinion among those who had worked to create the bomb. Niels Bohr—after Einstein, the most eminent of physicists at that time—approached both Churchill and Roosevelt with earnest appeals in the same sense, but neither paid any attention. When Roosevelt died, Bohr’s appeal lay unopened on his desk. The scientists were hampered by the fact that they were supposed to be unworldly men, out of touch with reality, and incapable of realistic judgements as to policy. Subsequent experience, however, has confirmed all that they said and has shown that it was they, and not the generals and politicians, who had insight into what was needed.

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future?, London, 1961, ch. 2

Bernard Davis

In The Mismeasure of Man Gould fails to live up to the trust engendered by his credentials. His historical account is highly selective; he asserts the non-objectivity of science so that he can test for scientific truth, flagrantly, by the standards of his own social and political convictions; and by linking his critique to the quest for fairness and justice, he exploits the generous instincts of his readers. Moreover, while he is admired as a clear writer, in the sense of effective communication, he is not clear in the deeper sense of analyzing ideas sharply and with logical rigor, as we have a right to expect of a disciplined scientist.

It has been uncomfortable to dissect a colleague’s book and his background so critically. But I have felt obliged to do so because Gould’s public influence, well-earned for his popular writing on less political questions, is being put to mischievous political use in this book. Moreover, its success undermines the ideal of objectivity in scientific expositions, and also reflects a chronic problem of literary publications. My task has been all the more unpleasant because I do not doubt Gould’s sincerity in seeking a more just and generous world, and I thoroughly share his conviction that racism remains one of the greatest obstacles.

Unfortunately, the approach that Gould has used to combat racism has serious defects. Instead of recognizing the value of eliminating bias, his answer is to press for equal and opposite bias, in a virtuous direction—not recognizing the irony and the danger of thus subordinating science to fashions of the day. Moreover, as a student of evolution he might have been expected to build on a profound insight of modern genetics and evolutionary biology: that the human species, and each race within it, possesses a wide range of genetic diversity. But instead of emphasizing the importance of recognizing that diversity, Gould remains locked in combat with a prescientific, typological view of heredity, and this position leads him to oppose studies of behavioral genetics altogether. As the reviewer for Nature stated, The Mismeasure of Man is “a book which exemplifies its own thesis. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, researched in the service of a point of view rather than written from a fund of knowledge.”

In effect, we see here Lysenkoism risen again: an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma. To be sure, the new version is more limited in scope, and it does not use the punitive powers of a totalitarian state, as Trofim Lysenko did in the Soviet Union to suppress all of genetics between 1935 and 1964. But that is not necessary in our system: A chilling atmosphere is quite sufficient to prevent funding agencies, investigators, and graduate students from exploring a taboo area. And such Neo-Lysenkoist politicization of science, from both the left and the right, is likely to grow, as biology increasingly affects our lives—probing the secrets of our genes and our brain, reshaping our image of our origins and our nature, and adding new dimensions to our understanding of social behavior. When ideologically committed scientists try to suppress this knowledge they jeopardize a great deal, for without the ideal of objectivity science loses its strength.

Bernard Davis, ‘Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the Press’, The Public Interest, vol. 74 (Fall 1983), pp. 57-59

Steven Pinker

Science […] has granted us the gifts of life, health, wealth, knowledge, and freedom documented in the chapters on progress. To take just one example from chapter 6, scientific knowledge eradicated smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. In case anyone has skimmed over this feat of moral greatness, let me say it again: scientific knowledge eradicated smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York, 2018, p. 386

Scott Alexander

The motto of the Royal Society – Hooke, Boyle, Newton, some of the people who arguably invented modern science – was nullus in verba, “take no one’s word”.

This was a proper battle cry for seventeenth century scientists. Think about the (admittedly kind of mythologized) history of Science. The scholastics saying that matter was this, or that, and justifying themselves by long treatises about how based on A, B, C, the word of the Bible, Aristotle, self-evident first principles, and the Great Chain of Being all clearly proved their point. Then other scholastics would write different long treatises on how D, E, and F, Plato, St. Augustine, and the proper ordering of angels all indicated that clearly matter was something different. Both groups were pretty sure that the other had make a subtle error of reasoning somewhere, and both groups were perfectly happy to spend centuries debating exactly which one of them it was.

And then Galileo said “Wait a second, instead of debating exactly how objects fall, let’s just drop objects off of something really tall and see what happens”, and after that, Science.

Yes, it’s kind of mythologized. But like all myths, it contains a core of truth. People are terrible. If you let people debate things, they will do it forever, come up with horrible ideas, get them entrenched, play politics with them, and finally reach the point where they’re coming up with theories why people who disagree with them are probably secretly in the pay of the Devil.

Imagine having to conduct the global warming debate, except that you couldn’t appeal to scientific consensus and statistics because scientific consensus and statistics hadn’t been invented yet. In a world without science, everything would be like that.

Heck, just look at philosophy.

Scott Alexander, ‘The Control Group Is Out Of Control’, Slate Star Codex, April 28, 2014

Thomas Nagel

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.

Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford, 2012, p. 51

John Post

[B]elief in a “God-of-the-gaps” is vulnerable to scientific advances that close the gaps. Among the gaps on which theists once relied, and on which many still rely, is the presumed inability of the sciences to explain the origin of the human species or of life or the Earth or our solar system. These gaps have not been largely closed. The ultimate gap, for many theists, concerns the origin of the universe; even if the other gaps are closed, that one can never be. But we have just been seeing how it too might be closed.

John Post, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, New York, 1991, p. 90

James Ladyman and Don Ross, with David Spurrett and John Collier

Of all the main historical positions in philosophy, the logical positivists and logical empiricists came closest to the insights we have urged. Over-reactions to their errors have led metaphysicians over the past few decades into widespread unscientific and even anti-scientific intellectual waters. We urge them to come back and rejoin the great epistemic enterprise of modern civilization.

James Ladyman and Don Ross, with David Spurrett and John Collier, Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford, 2007, p. 310

Arthur Jensen

I have only contempt for people who let their politics or religion influence their science. And I rather dread the approval of people who agree with me only for political reasons. People sometimes ask me how I have withstood the opposition and vilification and demonstrations over the years. That hasn’t worried me half as much as the thought that there may be people out there who agree with some of my findings and views for entirely the wrong reasons[.]

Arthur Jensen, in Frank Miele, Intelligence, Race, and Genetics: Conversations with Arthur R. Jensen, Boulder, Colorado, 2002, p. 35

John Post

[I]f PSR [the principle of sufficient reason] is wrong and there are uncaused events, what happens to the imperative to seek causes? Should scientists and others now stop looking for them? Not at all. To seek causes does not commit us to believing there must always be a cause for us to find, no more than seeking gold commits us to supposing there will always be gold where we hope to find it. Often there will not be. On such occasions the better part of wisdom is to admit it and look elsewhere. Science does not presuppose PSR, even though science is an enterprise dedicated in large part to seeking causes.

John Post, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, New York, 1991, pp. 66-67

Alan Ryan

It is plausibly argued that, just as artistic and literary achievements flourish in a society held together by a good deal of political and religious repression, so the search for truth is effectively prosecuted in conditions where individual scientists feel as if they have no choice about the theories they accept; the totalitarian scientific community is an efficient device for, so to speak, launching the intellectual energies of individual scientists against the natural world.

Alan Ryan, J. S. Mill, London, 1974, p. 138

John Barrow

Science is predicated upon the belief that the Universe is algorithmically compressible and the modern search for a Theory of Everything is the ultimate expression of that belief, a belief that there is an abbreviated representation of the logic behind the Universe’s properties that can be written down in finite form by human beings.

John Barrow, Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation, Oxford, 1991, p. 11

John Barrow and Frank Tipler

Whereas many philosophers and theologians appear to possess an emotional attachment to their theories and ideas which requires them to believe them, most scientists tend to regard their ideas differently. They are interested in formulating many logically consistent possibilities, leaving any judgment regarding their truth to observation. Scientists feel no qualms about suggesting different but mutually exclusive explanations for the same phenomenon.

John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford, 1986, p. 15

Brian Charlesworth & Deborah Charlesworth

The relentless application of the scientific method of inference from experiment and observation, without reference to religious or governmental authority, has completely transformed our view of our origins and relation to the universe, in less than 500 years. In addition to the intrinsic fascination of the view of the world opened up by science, this has had an enormous impact on philosophy and religion. The findings of science imply that human beings are the product of impersonal forces, and that the habitable world forms a minute part of a universe of immense size and duration. Whatever the religious or philosophical beliefs of individual scientists, the whole programme of scientific research is founded on the assumption that the universe can be understood on such a basis.

Few would dispute that this programme has been spectacularly successful, particularly in the 20th century, which saw such terrible events in human affairs. The influence of science may have indirectly contributed to these events, partly through the social changes triggered by the rise of industrial mass societies, and partly through the undermining of traditional belief systems. Nonetheless, it can be argued that much misery throughout human history could have been avoided by the application of reason, and that the disasters of the 20th century resulted from a failure to be rational rather than a failure of rationality. The wise application of scientific understanding of the world in which we live is the only hope for the future of mankind.

Brian Charlesworth & Deborah Charlesworth, Evolution: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2003, pp. 2-3

Noam Chomsky

It is important to learn to be surprised by simple things—for example, by the fact that bodies fall down, not up, and that they fall at a certain rate; that if pushed, they move on a flat surface in a straight line, not a circle; and so on. The beginning of science is the recognition that the simplest phenomena of ordinary life raise quite serious problems: Why are they as they are, instead of some different way?

Noam Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988, p. 43

Rafael Barrett

Anarquista es el que cree posible vivir sin el principio de autoridad. Hay organismos esencialmente anarquistas, por ejemplo la ciencia moderna, cuyos progresos son enormes desde que se ha sustituido el criterio autoritario por el de la verificación experimental.

Rafael Barrett, Moralidades actuales, Montevideo, 1910

Ludwig Wittgenstein

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘A Lecture on Ethics’, Philosophical Review, vol. 74, no. 1 (January, 1965), p. 7