Science and Society

Darlington, C. D. The Conflict of Science and Society (Conway Memorial Lecture). London, I948. Watts.

Eugenics Review, October 1948; 40(3): 158–159.

THE discoveries of science undermine the habits and beliefs of society and its material basis. Society opposes these changes and does so through the persons of established scientists, and even through the discoverer himself, who may have grave doubts about the publication of revolutionary findings. The history of universities and their scientific departments, no less than of other institutions and governments themselves, shows recurring resistance to new knowledge and new techniques. The exclusion of science from education has meant that the great offices of State have been filled by men trained to despise or ignore the forces which were transforming their society. Using his own methods the genuine man of science is bound to reach conclusions in conflict with the dominant character of his society. A crisis is on us, due to the conflict between the changes inherent in scientific discovery and the requirement of stability inherent in human society. No adjustment is possible unless we break the autonomous continuity of our social organs. Is our situation so easy that we can afford the perennial archaism of our great departments of industry, agriculture and health? Knowing how universities and ministries, religious systems and political institutions combine to thwart inquiry, we can safeguard ourselves against their actions. On whether we shall do so will depend the survival of our culture.

    This is an abstract of Dr. Darlington's argument, which is frankly polemical, and supported by many striking illustrations. It cannot be denied that science has a dynamic effect which is destructive of social stability; but perhaps it is not altogether a bad thing that society resists such changes. If we are to have government by popular consent, the public must be able to appreciate the nature of the changes that science demands, and the reasons for them; and popular education takes time. This imposes a delay between the appearance of a discovery and its application which has advantages. It gives time for debate by specialists and the testing of the validity or the value of the discovery. Not until the majority of experts are convinced can we expect universities and government departments to take administrative action, or the public to approve. In opposition to Dr. Darlington it might be argued that we look on science with an unscientific reverence, as if it were some form of magic, and that our present failing is to demand the premature application of half-baked theories, whose merit is to have been proclaimed by scientists in the face of common sense. Part of the troubles of our present planned economy are, in the opinion of some experts, due to the application of so-called scientific methods which have proved, at the cost of an experiment on a national scale, not to be scientific at all. Fiat experimentum in corpore vili.

    Science does not tell us this or that, it is the scientists who do the telling. When they are on their favourite subject they are likely to speak with a certainty which the facts do not justify; and on the whole the thwarted discoverer, whose frustration Dr. Darlington has deplored, tends to be rather more emotionally biased than the well-established and fossilized independent expert. In the present ordering of society the application of scientific discovery is probably rapid enough for healthy development at less than explosive speed. But the argument for inertia cannot so easily be used against the freedom of scientific inquiry, against the desirability of a universal scientific education, or against the deliberately cool-headed use of scientific method to investigate any problem which can be stated in a precise form, however loaded with emotion or obscured by dogma.