A. W. Spencer-Bragg (Harold Walsby): Scientific Superstitions

The real problem is how scientific resources can be co-ordinated with our inadequate knowledge of mankind and the relation of man to man.
Dr. J. F. Moutford, Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool University.

In view of the very strong position occupied by scientists in modern civilisation – the fact that they hold many of the most strategic points and could throw society into chaos simply by refusing to co-operate – it seems surprising that they should continue to tolerate their position of subservience to men whom some of the most eminent scientists regard as “unfit handle modern scientific discoveries.” Scientists have a high regard for the inviolability of their calling, they are devoted to the service of mankind. How is it they are prepared to stand by and see their work not merely frustrated but turned to actively destructive ends?

One of the chief contributory causes is the traditional aloofness of scientists, the belief – which we have already mentioned – that science “must not meddle in politics.” This belief no longer exercises the same influence that it once did, but it remains a very important aspect of the relationship between science and politics. As Professor Mannheim has said:

There is scarcely a sphere of life about which we do not have some scientific knowledge as well as recognised methods of communicating this knowledge. ls it conceivable then, that the sphere of human activity (ie, political activity) on which our fate rests, is so unyielding that scientific research cannot force it to give up its secrets? The disquieting and puzzling features of this question cannot be disregarded. The question must already have occurred to many whether this is merely a temporary condition, to be overcome at a later date, or whether we have reached, in this sphere, the outermost limit of knowledge which can never be transcended? (Ideology and Utopia, p. 8).

In the past other spheres have been regarded as outside the field of science – one has only to mention the names of Darwin and Copernicus – the barriers could not be maintained indefinitely. It is difficult for us now to appreciate the factors which, before Darwin’s time, precluded biologists from investigating the origins of man, but it is quite clear that there was nothing in the nature of science which permanently excluded it from this field of knowledge. We can see that the belief – common among scientists of the period – that it was wrong to question the literal truth of the biblical Creation story was an unfounded belief – in fact, a superstition. The position is, much the same to-day in regard to politics. Nobody has demonstrated that science can have nothing to contribute to the problems of human government and, more directly, sufficient has been done by Freud, McDougall, Chakotin, Mannheim and others to show that the methods of science can be applied with very positive results to the problems of social psychology – which is, or should be, one of the major concerns of government. The belief that science must not interfere in politics is unfounded – little more than a superstition. But we must not dismiss it as merely a superstition and therefore to be ignored. Among primitive tribes a strong man can be subdued by the sight of a magic charm, and it is largely this modern scientific superstition which reduces science to the status of a mere servant of irrational politics and policies.

But this belief, although still very common, is no longer universal among scientists; general statements to the effect that science must concern itself with politics are frequently made, and it is coming to be recognised that scientists must share responsibility for the effects of their discoveries. Dr. Urey has said:

… we scientists can speak as citizens. As citizens we are people who have had more time than the rest of you to think about the political possibilities of the (atomic) bomb. We do not begin to know all the answers. But by this time we know the questions… despite all the reams of material which have been written about this, a dangerous proportion of politicians apparently do not know or understand even the questions.” (Reported in John Bull, 5.1.46.)

Sir George Paget Thompson, chairman of the committee of scientists appointed in 1940 In study the war-time development of atomic power, recently stated:

There is absolutely no scientific antidote to the atomic bomb, just as there is no antidote to an ordinary bomb. You might be able to stop it getting there, though even that would be more difficult with the atomic bomb. Few atomic bombs would be necessary. There is only a political antidote, such as some form of international agreement or control. (Reported in The Daily Sketch, 16.11.45, Our italics.)

Such general statements are not uncommon; they show that scientists are becoming ware of the problem, but do not go very far towards a solution – it is many years since the necessity for “some form of international agreement or control” was first recognised. Sincere and well-meaning as such pronouncements undoubtedly are, we cannot be surprised at their lack of effect; a more concrete problem is presented by the small success attending the efforts of those scientists who have endeavoured to take definite action in the matter. To mention only three, Professors Haldane, Levy and Bernal are all expert in their particular fields; they are skilled in scientific method – the technique of thought and action which is rapidly enabling man to establish himself as the master of creation – yet their political activity has not been very fruitful. How does this come about? It is not much use our advocating the application of science to politics if when applied it does not lead to a practical solution. If our examination of the crisis confronting society is to be of positive value we must show how the efforts of these and other scientists – and of those, generally, who attempt to be scientific and rational in their political thinking have been frustrated. Again we shall find that the barrier to effective action is an uncritically accepted belief – a superstition.

Of the two major political groups only the Left-wing makes any serious claim to be scientific in its attitude, and accordingly scientists who take an active part in politics tend toward the Left rather than the Right. When, therefore, we consider what has so far been achieved in the application of science to politics it is with the left-wing that we must mainly concern ourselves. The Right-wing tends to appeal to tradition, loyalty and practical experience; the Left is characterised by its insistence that the people must think. Mr. Attlee has expressed it:

… one thing is essential: that the people shall know, and shall feel that they know, the facts. They must have that full measure of information about the policies and actions of the Government which will enable them to judge it-to commend it when it deserves their commendation, and to criticise it when it deserves their criticism. (Reported in The Daily Herald, 7.11.45)

A scientist expresses the same idea, speaking of the social consequences of the atomic bomb:

We must support those of our political leaders who realise that a revolution has happened. We must listen carefully to those leaders who give us their best thought on what to do about that revolution… As mankind slowly comprehends, our problems will slowly become more simple.

But there is no time to waste… The bomb is fused. The time is short. You must think fast. You must think straight. (Dr. Harold C. Urey, Ibid. Our italics.)

Much effort is expended by the Left-wing in the effort to create an informed public critically interested in politics; books and pamphlets by the million are produced, classes, meetings and lectures organised. We do not propose to criticise the theories and proposals put forward; the point we have to make is that all this activity is founded on on assumption, the assumption that by these means it is possible to enlist enduring mass support, that the masses take, or will come to take, a permanently rational active interest in logical analysis and exposition of the economic and political system. If this assumption should prove to be unjustified then, evidently, much of this effort (Which absorbs by far the greater part of the energy and resources of the Left-Wing) is Wasted. Yet the Left-wing seem almost completely unaware of the problem. As one writer recently put it:

We might possibly have supposed and taken it for granted that, as it Was of such vital importance, this aspect of the… intellectual or ideological development of society would have been investigated and dealt with by those»the rational and scientifically-minded intellectuals – the validity of whose politico-ideological position depends so much upon it. But such is not the case. We may look in vain through the literature of the Whole of the Left-wing to find any clear recognition of the problem, let alone any attempt to investigate it. (Harold Walsby: The Domain of Ideologies)

Now this belief in mass rationality (actual or potential) is not merely assumed; it is asserted, often with a vigour and dogmatism quite foreign to the cautious, carefully-qualified pronouncements of science. We have already quoted a speech by Mr. Attlee; this continues:

I have an immense confidence in the common sense, political sagacity and realism of our people.

Frederick Engels, in his introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, (p. 27) declares:

Where it is a question of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake.

There was, as we have mentioned above, it period when practically everyone regarded the literal interpretation of the biblical Creation story as sacrosanct, not to be questioned by science; we also have our taboos – any effort to question the validity of the mass-rationality assumption, no matter how scientific, no matter how strong one’s evidence, meets with a very hostile reception and frequently leads to a charge of “Fascism.” (One reaction which such enquiries do not evoke is a successful effort to substantiate the assumption by reason and evidence.)

We must, of course, be careful not to fall into the opposite error, we must not assert, with equal dogmatism, that this assumption is not valid. In the next chapter we shall consider this question, bringing forward such evidence as space permits. For the moment, however, let us emphasise the consequences, if we should find the assumption to be unfounded. If this is the case, then our difficulty is at once solved. It is that arising from the signal lack of success attending the efforts of those scientists actively interested in politics to provide a practical solution for our social problems – as distinct from one which would work if the masses were interested in it. The failure is not due to anything in the nature of science or of politics which decrees their permanent separation nor to any personal inadequacies of the scientists concerned; the reason for it is the domination of advanced political thought by this unfounded belief in mass rationality, which has done much to prevent a scientific study of political psychology or ideology. We shall see later that in the study of ideologies there is a Whole new field for scientific investigation, results from which will no doubt radically alter the basis of political practice and theory. By making possible a control of society commensurate With our control over nature science – would release itself from its serfdom and mankind from the threat of atomic extermination.

Continue reading 999 – Emergency! (1946)
The Child with the Loaded Pistol | Social Hari-Kiri | Are Scientists Inhuman? | The Rape of Science | Scientific Superstitions | While Rome Burns | The International Volcano | The Final Crusade