George Walford: Notes on Science

‘Science, it may be said by those who are not scientists, deals in objective truth. But the scientists themselves do not see their work that way. They see it as dealing not with objective truth but with convenient fictions that are upheld so long as they continue to be useful.’ (Bailey, F. G. 1991 The Prevalence of Deceit Ithaca & London: Cornell U. P. xxi)

Science cannot predict the social behaviour of a single human being. Yet we unscientific creatures are constantly making such predictions with a useful degree of success. Every time we have any dealings, formal or informal, with another person, our own actions are guided by an expectation of their response and although we are sometimes shown to be in error, on the whole our expectations are justified.

The testing of hypotheses offers a more plausible scenario for the scientific undertaking than does induction from randomly-collected facts, and the question arises: Where do these hypotheses come from? Not from science, for scientific activity presupposes them. They are assumptions provisionally accepted in order to test them, and assumptions are what s.i. deals with. When scientists formulate hypotheses they are articulating those broad, general assumptions which lie at the base of their ideology.

‘There is a belief amongst laymen that science purports to represent a system of absolute truth, which is furthermore wholly independent of language; that the world behaves in such and such a way according to “blind immutable laws” – forgetting that such laws are man-made and expressed in human language. Scientific laws are not sets of rules that Nature must obey… they are rules which we ourselves must accept, if we are to communicate with one another in scientific discussion.’ (Colin Cherry 1961 (1957): On Human Communication NY: Wiley, 253)

The identification of science with truth, common among the more naive rationalists, depends on selection of evidence (usually carried out with no deceptive intent). Gleick’s book on chaos theory, for example, elicits the response ‘Isn’t science wonderful!’ But for every triumph he celebrates there was another piece of work (commonly many pieces) being demonstrated false, inaccurate or incomplete; those just drop out of sight, they cease to rank as science. It’s like playing roulette with every loss refunded.

‘A Californian researcher recently employed to find out what the public thinks of scientists was able to summarise his findings wordlessly, with a quick sketch of Frankenstein’s Monster.’ (Marilyn Butler)

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THIS society has developed powers which threaten to exhaust the resources of the planet. Soon if not now, in that way if not in this, the population will have to be limited and those who live will carry the guilt of all the lives, with all their potentialities, that were suppressed. This comes not from any social failure but from overwhelming success.

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.