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©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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JUSTIFICATION BY UTILITY (CHAPTER III - PART II)


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A great deal of Edwin Slosson's popular science was devoted to emphasizing aspects of science--particularly its utilitarian aspects--which would be likely to increase public support for the funding of research. According to Slosson, the recognition of the practical benefits of science was the second phase of the popular appreciation of science (following the "Oh, my!" stage which centered around natural curiosities) and increasing this recognition would benefit both the public and science. 135 Hence he was dismayed by the results of a survey of the utilization of Science Service material which revealed that two of the most popular sciences were "the most remote and impractical of all, archeology and astronomy." In reporting these results to the American Association of Adult Education in 1928, Slosson acknowledged that such "superfluities" form a necessary part of man's intellectual diet, yet he made clear his belief that the applied sciences were the real backbone of modern civilization. 136 However, Slosson deliberately exaggerated the public's impractical interests--perhaps to dramatize his argument in favor of the opposite--for he failed to mention that the most popular stories indicated by the survey were on psychology, most of which concerned the quite practical subject of testing. 137

Slosson was worried that the public would mistakenly view science as a form of magic and the scientist "as a curious half-crazy creature talking a jargon of his own and absorbed in pursuits of these futilities. 138 In an article entitled "Must Scientists Wear Whiskers?" Slosson tried to counter this Faustian image by asserting that a contemporary convention of scientists "is as clean-shaven, as youthful, and as jazzy as a foregathering of Rotarians.'' 139 The modern scientist, Slosson claimed, is just as worldly as the businessman, for "it is [the scientist], indeed, who made the jazz age practicable; it was his researches into the properties of matter that gave us the automobile, the radio, and, one might add, the saxophone." 140 As Daniel Kevles has noted, by associating science with business and the fruits of technology, popularizers such as Slosson helped make the scientist a respected figure of the 1920s, and established a persuasive appeal for public financial support of science. 141 "Justification by utility," as it has been called, was used by scientists of the nineteenth century and earlier as an argument for the funding of research, and Slosson's use of it had many precedents. 142

Slosson's popular science involved more than just altering the scientists' public image, however. It also provided examples of how abstruse scientific concepts were vital to the life of the nation. For this purpose, World War I provided effective evidence, and Slosson's best-selling Creative Chemistry was filled with case histories. Slosson described, for instance, how science produced the poisonous chlorine gas used by the Germans and developed the new gases with which the Allies retaliated. Science also invented the rubber masks necessary for withstanding the poison gases, and, when Germany's supplies of natural rubber were cut off, science provided a method of manufacturing rubber from rotten potatoes. The war itself could be considered as simply a product of science, namely, "a series of explosive reactions involving the liberation of nitrogen." Science also had its beneficent uses, Slosson pointed out, for the nitrogen which destroyed armies also fed the world by fertilizing the soil. 143

No matter how abstract the theory, sooner or later it would produce tangible results, Slosson argued, for "money invested in scientific research of any sort is sure to prove a profitable investment in the end, though nobody can tell in advance when, to whom, or in what coin the dividends will pay. 144 In some cases scientific theories paid off in hard cash; the principal cause of the great accumulation of wealth in the modern world was applied science, Slosson claimed. 145 Even Einstein's theory of relativity might someday have practical benefits, for as soon as the mathematician invents a new formula, the mechanic snatches it from his hand and puts it to use. 146 While theories such as relativity or heliocentrism may not seem to have practical consequences, they can alter man's world view and thus profoundly influence the current of human affairs. 147 The philosophy of pragmatism, for instance, was inspired by the scientific methods of Ostwald and Poincare. 148 Political systems, too, were derived from scientific innovations; since science provides the basic means of production, Slosson maintained that both "socialism and capitalism are merely by-products of the laboratory.'' 149 Science was also making the world more democratic by abolishing class distinctions. Through artificial synthesis and mass production, science was making the clothing, perfumes, and other paraphernalia of aristocracy available to nearly everyone. Machines made possible by science would eventually eliminate hard labor, thus uniting the classes even further. Not only was the machine the "Great Liberator," it was also the "Great Leveler" and as such was "the most powerful of forces for democracy. 150 In other words, science was the source of economic, intellectual, and political progress.

One historian, Ronald Tobey, has asserted that the principal function of Edwin Slosson's popular science was proving the "fundamental philosophical proposition" that scientific ideas are the prime determinants of human progress. Tobey claims that this proposition was central to the ideology of science evolved by scientists in the postwar era to establish financial support for nationally organized science. 151 Tobey is certainly correct that the progress-inducing nature of science was a central theme of Slosson's popular science. In the tradition of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, Slosson was a vigorous advocate-along with such leading scientists as Robert Millikan--of what Daniel Kevles calls the "conservative syllogism" of the 1920s, i.e., "that science was good for business, business good for America, and, in consequence, science good for the nation's economic and spiritual well-being.'' 152 That Slosson, a staunch Republican, clearly supported this conservative syllogism is indicated by his frequent assertions to the effect that "with science in the lead mankind will make more progress. 153 And he certainly agreed with the Science News-Letter advertisement which proclaimed that "only through the development of science does a nation, a profession, an industry progress. 154

Slosson's faith in the conservative syllogism and his commitment to popularizing science both derived from his personal theory of the nature of progress. Progress, he speculated, was produced by the intelligent direction of power; power, by the intelligent direction of force. As an example he cited the force in the random motion of gas molecules which the scientist, through discovery of the gas laws, learned how to manipulate to move a piston in an engine; the mechanic then built the automobiles which harnessed the engine's power for the benefit of mankind. 155 The popularizer had a particularly important role in this process in that scientific ideas must be translated and interpreted before they can be applied. The purpose of the scientific interpreter was "to bring the results of scientific investigations as quickly as possible to the knowledge of those who are to put them into effect." 156 By reducing the time lag between scientific discovery and practical application, the popularizer helped accelerate human progress. 157 Thus for Slosson, progress was, by definition, the product of science aided by popular science.

Slosson's sweeping reduction of progress, and indeed all history, to a function of scientific advance strikes the modern reader as circular, if not simply false. Ronald Tobey has noted, for instance, that many of Slosson's claims for science as the sole source of progress are based on post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments. Tobey cites Slosson's presentation of such diverse historical developments as urban growth and changes in courtship patterns as inevitable products of the automobile, the automobile of the engine, and the engine of the gas laws. With such pseudo-deductive reasoning, Slosson reduced philosophies, political and economic systems, and even wars to the consequences of scientific discoveries. 158 While Tobey is quite right in claiming that Slosson's arguments, as historical generalizations, were patently fallacious, it should be noted that Slosson was writing not as a historian but as a popularizer, and as Tobey himself acknowledges, "the character of popular science . . . prohibited intensive reasoning. 159 It is quite difficult to imagine anyone establishing the truth of a "fundamental philosophical proposition" in the space of five hundred words, the typical length of the majority of Edwin Slosson's writings. Thus to apply rigorous logical criteria, as Tobey does, to a literary form which eschews intensive reasoning in order to reach the widest possible audience, is inappropriate to the spirit and substance of popular science, and severely limits the value to be gained from studying its history. Such an approach, as Charles Gillispie has noted, leads to the pessimistic view that "the history of the influence of science in culture is bound to be the history of a misunderstanding, in which what changes is the way in which the import of science is misunderstood. 160 Such an approach focuses unduly on the faults of Edwin Slosson's popular science, rather than seeking to understand the cultural tensions which it sought to resolve, successfully or not.

One of the cultural tensions with which Slosson was most concerned was, as mentioned above, the status of the scientific profession in American society. For Slosson's popular science to win the American public's support for science, particularly its financial support, it was not necessary to provide conclusive philosophical proof that science was the source of all historical change, it was sufficient merely to associate the scientist with the businessman and scientific ideas with practical achievements. Although it is true that this "strategy" at times resembled a public relations campaign, such a tactic is not necessarily as reprehensible as Tobey seems to suggest. 161 The popularization of science by scientists has traditionally bordered on the edge of propaganda ever since the need for equipment and materials exceeded the means of individual scientists. One historian has found, for instance, that in the popular scientific writings of the eighteenth-century mathematician, Bernard de Fontenelle, "propaganda for science went hand in hand with popularization. 162 As secretary of the Academie des Sciences in Paris, Fontenelle consciously stressed the utilitarian aspects of science in his writings in order to secure funds for research from the government on which the Academie depended. 163 In the 1920s, science was at least as economically dependent on society as in the eighteenth century, and Slosson's popular science, in boosting science as the source of progress, was using a time-honored tactic for approaching the age-old problem of patronage. As the "Statement of Purpose" of Science Service frankly claimed, Science Service "engages in no propaganda, unless it be called propaganda to urge the value of research and the usefulness of science. 164 Whether or not the popular science of Edwin Slosson and Science Service is construed as propaganda, the justification-by-utility argument was, and is still today, made necessary by the dependent relationship of science with society.

Slosson was well-schooled in the difficulties of financing research during his thirteen years with the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, from 1892 to 1904. In a study of agricultural experiment station scientists during this period, historian Charles Rosenberg recounts some of the obstacles encountered by the young chemists who staffed the station laboratories. 165 In the first place, few station scientists had time for research, overburdened as they were by questions from farmers and demands for testing. As Rosenberg notes, many of the young chemists "often found themselves prisoners of the deadening routine of fertilizer analysis. 166    Teaching responsibilities also encroached on research time since many station scientists, like Slosson, also held appointments at a nearby university. If time was available, money was not, for many of the stations were forced to rely on local farmers for contributions for equipment and supplies, and farmers were not easily convinced of the value of basic research to agriculture. Rosenberg found that many station scientists thus evolved a "rhetorical stance" which justified pure science on the basis of its potential usefulness. This "rhetorical stance" was, as Rosenberg noted, a vital necessity for those station scientists who wished to maintain their professional integrity and also relate the values of science with those of their agricultural constituency. 167 Edwin Slosson was undoubtedly among those station scientists who used the justification-by-utility argument in soliciting badly-needed financial support for science, and it was only natural that it became a cornerstone of his popular science.

Chapter Three -    Part I    Part II    Part III    Table of Contents
 


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



National Museum of American History

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