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David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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THE SCIENTIFIC HABIT OF MIND (CHAPTER III - PART III)


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Edwin Slosson held that there was yet a third phase in the development of the public's appreciation of science, which advanced beyond mere interest in natural curiosities or the practical applications of science. This third phase involved "the realization of the value of science as a guide in personal and political affairs . . . ." 168 Promoting this realization was the second integral concern of Slosson's popular science. Not only was science the instrument of progress, Slosson argued, it was a way of life, a state of mind, and a guide for correct thinking and behavior. A new era was dawning, the "Era of Enlightenment," in which "science shall devise and direct and not merely interpret." 169 In this new age, foretold by Francis Bacon, science would not only provide the means of living, "it will point out in what direction the human race may progress" and "it will discover what conduct is most conducive to human welfare. 170 To achieve this utopian state of affairs, it was necessary to cultivate the "scientific habit of mind" among the masses, the task not just of popular science but of all education, more important even than the dissemination of useful scientific facts. 171 Once established, the scientific habit of mind would endow the public with the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and thus make correct decisions on important issues, particularly scientific issues such as racial mixing.

In a democracy, this ability was crucial to the survival of the nation, for "an unsound popular opinion of the scientific question may bring popular ruin to a race." 172 The popular ruin which Slosson most feared was the "degeneration [of the white race] through indiscriminate multiplication of the unfit. 173 The threat of racial decline was not only a source of alarm to Slosson, it was a matter of general concern in the 1920s, a concern that was exacerbated by the studies of reputable scientists. In the Science News-Letter, for instance, it was reported that Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, a prominent anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, had issued a warning at the Race Betterment Conference in 1928 that "the greatest danger before the American people today is the blending of the negro tenth of the population into the superior blood of the white race.'' 174 The science of eugenics, Slosson believed, could prevent race suicide if only the masses could be made to understand that "the fate of a nation depends . . . on how they combine their chromosomes." 175 By giving prominent coverage to eugenics in the publications of Science Service, Slosson hoped to enable the public to make scientifically sound decisions in selecting marriage partners. 176

A more immediate threat than racial decline perceived by Edwin Slosson was a moral and intellectual decline, or, as he worded it, "a reversion to that primitive psychology that arose out of the [First World War], or out of which the war arose. 177 Despite his exuberant prophesies of a dawning scientific age, Slosson was deeply troubled by the war and its cultural consequences, which engendered in him a pessimism from which, according to his son Preston, he never recovered. 178 In his 1921 report to the trustees of Science Service, Slosson called attention to the "wave of superstition and reaction which is now sweeping over the world [and] threatens to carry away a large part of the gains made during the last century.'' 179 In one of a series of moralistic essays in his book, Sermons of a Chemist, Slosson asserted that this dangerous movement contained two seemingly opposite but related trends, naturalism and supernaturalism, both of which deviated from rational religion and sound scientific thinking. 180

Slosson detected naturalism in a variety of social and cultural guises, ranging from stream-of-consciousness literature to the "primitive African rhythms" of modern music. One of his most vivid passages is a diatribe against this "cult of naturalism."

The cult of naturalism is now dominant everywhere. The call of the wild is drowning out the appeal of civilization. "Back to barbarism!" is the slogan of the hour. Sink into savagery. Praise the country and denounce the city. Admire cliffs but make fun of skyscrapers. Extol forests and despise laboratories. Exalt the physical and ignore the intellectual. Spend half a million dollars on a new stadium and let the old library go to ruin. Abolish compulsory Latin and establish compulsory swimming. Patronize football and neglect debating. Up with the soldier and down with the savant. Promote pugilism and suppress pacifism. Jazz your music and cube your painting . . . . Condemn everything new and worship everything old . . . . Reprove and repress the Christian virtues of kindliness and universal sympathy . . . . The dominant tendency of the times is undoubtedly downward and backward, and the advance of science and the uplift of religion have not yet availed to check it. 181

To Slosson, naturalism was essentially an antiprogress movement representing a return to the barbaric customs whose sublimation was the whole purpose of civilization. 182

The rise of supernaturalism was perhaps an even more virulent threat. In his "sermon" on "The Revival of Witchcraft," Slosson predicted that an archeologist of the far future, who chanced upon the popular newspapers of the 1920s, would reach some startling conclusions.

[The archeologist] would conclude from reading these papers that astrology was more in vogue than astronomy, that our medicine was mostly magic, that the credulity of the common people was bound- less, and that the practice of necromancy, divination, and other forms of witchcraft provided popular and profitable professions. 183

To compound the problem, the work of certain men of science, such as Sir Oliver Lodge and William Crookes, was contributing to the "recrudescence of superstition," and certain scientific concepts, such as Freud's notion of the unconscious, were being drafted by nonscientists in defense of a spirit world. 184 Slosson complained that Einstein's fourth dimension, for instance, was widely misconstrued as "the abode of departed spirits, a spare room for ghostly visitors." 185 While certain scientists and scientific theories seemed to fuel the revival of mysticism, Slosson was even more concerned that the revolution in twentieth-century science had created confusion and alarm in the public mind, shaking its faith in science and reason, and leaving the masses vulnerable to superstitious cults. In Easy Lessons in Einstein, Slosson wrote that

there is a feeling among the general public interested in such things that the foundations of modern science are being swept away by the recent discoveries. The layman has been led to believe that such laws as gravitation, the conservation of matter and the immutability of the elements are the most certain and absolute truths of science. But now he hears reputable men of science talk calmly about the decay of matter and the transformation of one element into another, and gravely consider a theory which makes invalid Newton's three laws of motion. 186

To the man on the street science seemed to be committing suicide, and as its influence on the popular mind began to wane, the public, Slosson thought, was turning to the nostrums of supernaturalism.

Edwin Slosson's sometimes bitter denunciations of the reversion to naturalism and supernaturalism derived from his fundamental belief that both Christianity and science called upon man to rise above his animal origins and conquer both nature and his own natural impulses. In Creative Chemistry, Slosson proclaimed that "the conquest of nature, not the imitation of nature, is the whole duty of man," a sentiment which, in another work, he asserted was the central theme of his book. 187 Repeatedly in that work he argued that nature "is our treacherous and unsleeping foe, ever to be feared and watched and circumvented . . . ." 188 Slosson's aversion to nature at times bordered on the pathological, at least from a modern point of view. This is illustrated by an incident described by Slosson himself which occurred during a college class-session he was observing, in which a female student stated that the aim of science was "'the study of nature so that Man may learn to live in accordance with the course of Nature.'" In our present era of ecological awareness such a definition would be applauded. However, Slosson found it "false and heathenish" and "rose in wrath" to reprimand her, proposing instead that "'the aim of science is to enable man to seize the forces of Nature so that he may frustrate the course of Nature.'" Describing the girl as ungrateful for the warm buildings, clothes, and automobiles made possible by science, he concluded that "she probably rarely used her own legs except for dancing and then to very unnatural music. 189 A reviewer of Creative Chemistry understandably thought that Slosson had a "grudge" against nature, and perhaps he did, considering that his memories of his youth in frontier Kansas were dominated by buffalo hunts, Indian raids, and grasshopper plagues. 190 Slosson also found "scientific" justification for his animosity toward nature in his interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics. In a manner reminiscent of nineteenth-century natural theology, Slosson identified the "Devil" with the entropic tendency of nature (including human civilization) to revert to the chaos from which it sprang. Therefore, Slosson believed the worship of nature was immoral and must be opposed by God and man. 191

One way in which Edwin Slosson's popular science attempted to oppose the reversion to barbarism was by reassuring the public that the revolution in science was a benign metamorphosis and not a destructive dissolution. In this way, Slosson hoped to prevent the public from losing confidence in science and turning to mysticism. With this purpose in mind, Slosson soothingly argued that "really, the new discoveries are not so upsetting to science as they appear to the general public . . . .'' 192 He acknowledged that "science is molting now and looks queer," but maintained that "the public ought to understand that the process means growth and not decay. 193

In addition to such "pep talks" intended to calm public anxieties about modern science, Slosson offered a pragmatic philosophy of science which downplayed the importance of theories, believing that the public's shocked reaction to the new scientific discoveries was the result of a failure to understand that theories were only useful tools, not immutable laws of nature. In an article entitled "The Fiction of Force," Slosson asserted that while the layman mistakenly believed that theoretical constructs such as the luminiferous ether actually existed, scientists regarded them as only useful, though imperfect, hypotheses. The concept of force, for instance, which had been radically altered by Einstein, had never been intended as a statement of truth, but only as a mathematical expression used to symbolize an incompletely understood natural phenomenon. In a somewhat condescending tone Slosson remarked that

as of old the multitude will mistake the symbol for the reality and they will be shocked when some iconoclast [such as Einstein] smashes up with his hammer the idols they have regarded as absolute and eternal. 194

If the public could only be made to recognize the difference between the ephemeral theories of science and the eternal facts of nature, it would not lose its confidence in science when old, familiar theories were rejected. Since theories are only useful hypotheses, it followed that their truth or falsehood was of little importance to the scientist, who cared only how much they might aid him in discovering new facts. Thus a change in theory is of little consequence, for the facts of science never change and it is the gradual accumulation of facts which constitutes the real achievement of the scientific enterprise. Slosson explained that while the scientist adheres firmly to the facts of science, he holds his theories very loosely, adding that

the scientist never bothers his head with the question whether a particular theory is true or false. He considers it simply as more or less useful, more or less adequate, succinct and comprehensive. A theory is merely a tool, and he drops one theory and picks up another at will and without a thought of inconsistency, just as a carpenter drops his saw and picks up his chisel. 195

And as the carpenter drops his saw and picks up his chisel, so the physicist uses wave theory to explain one group of phenomena and quantum theory for another, and there was no contradiction in doing so and no reason to believe that the revolution in science had created intellectual anarchy. Besides, new theories do not abolish old theories, they merely explain and synthesize more facts than the old theories, for "revolutions in science do not destroy; they extend. 196 In science, Slosson claimed,

revolutions . . . never go backwards, and they differ from political revolutions in that nothing worth saving is lost. The new theory must always include all that the old one does and more. In their struggle for existence formulas fight like 80 snakes; the one that can swallow the other beats. 197

Through such pragmatic arguments Slosson tried to rally the public's flagging faith in science and prevent the defection of the masses to mysticism, a task which he regarded as his solemn duty as both a scientist and a Christian.

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


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979





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