Reflections on Science and Society

by nyljaouadi1
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At Grove City College in the 1980s we had required courses which were dubbed “Key Courses” – you had to take survey courses in Religion and Philosophy, Social Science and History, Science, and the Creative Arts.  My Religion and Philosophy course was a year long, and the professor, Professor Reed Davis (now at Seattle Pacific University) — taught us Plato, as well as the Old and New Testament, and Augustine’s City of God and Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion.  But Professor Davis also raised questions throughout the course about values and scientific inquiry.

We read and watched Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, and I can remember today as if it was just yesterday, particularly the scene where Bronowski is at Auschwitz and he explains to the audience that science doesn’t dehumanize, dogma does.  He wanders over to a pond where the ashes of the deceased were flushed from within the camp, and he explains gas didn’t kill the millions who died in the Holocaust, but arrogance did; dogma did; ignorance did.  And, it is this arrogance, dogma, and ignorance, fueled by a quest for absolute and final certainty, that kills science.  Science and the institutions that make science possible are our bulwark against the dehumanizing terror of totalitarian madness. True science, Bronowski states, stands always at the edge of error, and is a testament to what we fallible humans can achieve despite our imperfections.  It is a deeply moving scene and message.


Professor Reed exposed us in that class to the work of the great physical chemist turned philosopher of science Michael Polanyi.  I don’t know how many of my classmates took so quickly to Polanyi, but I did.

I first read Science, Faith and Society and then The Study of Man.  I actually read both of those books before I read any Hayek, and simultaneously as I was reading Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises for the first time.  I knew nothing of the personal biographies of any of these individuals back in 1979-1980, but their words changed my entire world view, and their arguments have occupied a central place in my mental model ever since.  I would not read much more from Polanyi during my Grove City days. Instead, my reading was focused on studying the classical economists and the economists of the Austrian school, as well as assigned readings in philosophy, law, religion, and history.  I consider my Grove City education fantastic, but even as I was reading these works (and I did do the reading!) and contemplating an intellectual career (legal philosophy was what I was thinking), I did not make learning the top priority in my college life. (Sports and social life dominated).  But, by my junior year and after an invitation to join a “graduate seminar”  with visiting students from Argentina, France, and the US, my focus on becoming a professional economist started to take shape.


In 1984, I headed off to graduate school and would eventually be assigned to work with Don Lavoie, the main professor I had been attracted to move to George Mason University to study with.  Don was finishing both Rivalry and Central Planning and National Economic Planning: What is Left?  I was very late to the process, but I had to do the last minute check of references for Rivalry at the Library of Congress, and while not tasked with anything, I did get a chance to read in manuscript form NEP.

And, while reading Lavoie I would encounter Michael Polanyi again.  Different books, but still Polanyi – this time Personal Knowledge.  Now a graduate student and focused on becoming a scholar, my studies were my top priority. Lavoie taught me to really read, not just gather information as I turned pages, but to engage with a text, and in learning to read as a scholar he stressed the importance of hunting footnotes. So, I read Lavoie and I read Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, and of course Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. I sought to adjudicate between them related to what I had learned about science from Mises and Hayek, and in particular their critique of scientism.  I had already been persuaded that the greatest evil of the 20th century followed from totalitarianism, and that totalitarianism was a consequence in modern times of an unholy alliance between scientism and statism.  As Bronowski said, arrogance, dogma, and ignorance provide the justification for the killing.


I did not yet know anything about the personal biography of these different thinkers, let alone their own intertwined circles of influences back in Europe. These are all things I would learn over the next 30 years of intense study.

Mary Jo Nye’s Michael Polanyi and His Generation is an outstanding window into the life and historical context within which Polanyi would make his scientific contribution and reflections on the nature of the scientific enterprise and its place within a free society.  It also does an amazing job of contextualizing the education of talented young minds in Budapest and Vienna in the first decade of the 20th century, and the vibrant scientific community in Berlin in the 1920s.  Polanyi’s colleagues in Berlin won Nobel Prizes and were leaders in their respective fields, and Polanyi himself was a famous scientists in the field of chemistry and expected that his own work may be honored with such a recognition. When it didn’t happen, he wasn’t bitter, but sought to understand the conventions and practices in operation.  Nye’s book describes how Polanyi, as head of the physical chemistry department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (later Max Planck Institute) in Berlin in the 1920s, attempted to advance his own theories of absorption, but lost out in the competitive process of science.  Polanyi was convinced his was the right theory, but it was not accepted by his colleagues in the discipline.  Polanyi would later explain that a contribution in science is judged by three criteria: plausibility to the existing community; intrinsic interest to the existing community; and creativity and originality of the contribution.  Two of those are very conservative forces, but one is revolutionary. This essential tension in science, Polanyi argued, was critical to the orderly yet progressive advance of knowledge.  Quackery would be held in check, and yet innovation, novelty, and progress will be achieved slowly and surely and knowledge will accumulate.


But, in Polanyi’s time, the arrogance, dogma, and ignorance espoused by the fascists was also evident among communists, and so scientific inquiry was truncated not only in Germany but in Soviet Russia. Furthermore, the “men of science” in the UK and the US were parroting the arguments about the purpose of planning in the planned state as the model for scientific advancement.  The very foundation of the scientific enterprise and of the free give-and-take of the scientific community was threatened. The consequence wasn’t just slower progress on fundamental questions, or slightly more quackery on the margins of science, but the destruction of careers, and despair among scientists as knowledge was either destroyed or corrupted by the authorities in power.


I cannot stress enough how enjoyable it is to read Nye’s book and learn the details of the history that led Polanyi to switch his focus from scientific pursuits to a philosophical defense of the practice of free scientific inquiry.  The institutions governing the practice of science, like those governing commerce, must be strong and respected by their participants. If they are, the results are both orderly and progressive.  Knowledge advances, and our awareness of the unknown grows, so we strive to continually explore and learn more.  This is how we defeat the dark forces of arrogance, dogma, and ignorance- not through the planning of science, but its opposite, the free play of open debate and continuous contestation. The very success of sciences rests on freedom of inquiry and such freedom is in direct contradiction of any bestowal of special privileges to anyone, including the favored scientists of the established powers.




Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.

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