Saturday, August 3, 2013

George Orwell: "... the scientists themselves would benefit by a little education." Darwin agrees.

Most people know that George Orwell wrote about the dangers of authoritarian government in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm. What is less well known is that Orwell also wrote about the danger of the authoriarian potential of science. In his essay What is Science? Orwell argued that society confuses science, the "method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact", with narrow areas of knowledge such as chemistry and physics. Because of this confusion, society mistakenly attributes broad authority to scientists when their specialization actually makes them narrow minded and so unqualified to exercise broad authority.

Orwell wrote that scientists encourage this confusion in order to protect their own prestige and power. I think Orwell is right about this. I have written that scientists protect their power in various ways, such as suppressing information about ESP and the afterlife, conspiring to establish philosophical naturalism as a fundamental tenet of mainstream science, and initially ridiculing discoveries that were later admitted to be important. Because of all these actions, scientists have lost credibility with the public. People are more likely to believe in ESP if they are told it has been disproven by science. All of this supports Orwell's contention that scientists should not be given broad authority, which I also agree with. I have written that the public should demand government fund parapsychological research even though mainstream scientists are against it.

Orwell also felt that scientists needed a broader education, and science education for the masses would not make them better citizens if it only educated them in narrow specialties and not in methods of thought. Charles Darwin would probably agree with these sentiments. Toward the end of his career, Darwin noticed that he had lost the ability to appreciate fine arts such as poetry, paintings, and music. He felt that it was because he had spent so much time in analytical pursuits. Darwin thought this type of loss could be injurious to the intellect and moral character. There is a good physiological basis for this phenomenon. The study of neuroplasticity, how connections between neurons in the brain change over time, shows that neurons that fire together wire This means that engaging in one type of mental activity will cause neurons to form connections that foster that type of mental activity. Neglecting other types of types of mental activity will cause connections between neurons to be lost and the ability to engage in those types of mental activities will be degraded.

I believe this neuroplasticity is why many scientists are pseudoskeptics. Their lifelong habituation to reductionist thinking has caused their brain to become wired in a way that makes it impossible for them to conceive of phenomena such as ESP and the afterlife which, since consciousness is non-physical, cannot be explained in terms of simpler phenomena known to science.

Here are some excerpts from Orwell's What is Science? that show his views on science, education, and society.

What is Science?

Tribune, 26 October 1945


Science is generally taken as meaning either (a) the exact sciences, such as chemistry, physics, etc., or (b) a method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact.


In everyday life, however, both in speaking and in writing, when people say “Science” they mean (a). Science means something that happens in a laboratory: the very word calls up a picture of graphs, test-tubes, balances, Bunsen burners, microscopes.


Implied in the demand for more scientific education is the claim that if one has been scientifically trained one’s approach to all subjects will be more intelligent than if one had had no such training. A scientist’s political opinions, it is assumed, his opinions on sociological questions, on morals, on philosophy, perhaps even on the arts, will be more valuable than those of a layman. The world, in other words, would be a better place if the scientists were in control of it. But a “scientist”, as we have just seen, means in practice a specialist in one of the exact sciences. It follows that a chemist or a physicist, as such, is politically more intelligent than a poet or a lawyer, as such. And, in fact, there are already millions of people who do believe this.


...scientific education for the masses will do little good, and probably a lot of harm, if it simply boils down to more physics, more chemistry, more biology, etc., to the detriment of literature and history. Its probable effect on the average human being would be to narrow the range of his thoughts and make him more than ever contemptuous of such knowledge as he did not possess: and his political reactions would probably be somewhat less intelligent than those of an illiterate peasant who retained a few historical memories and a fairly sound æsthetic sense.

Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method – a method that can be used on any problem that one meets – and not simply piling up a lot of facts. Put it in those words, and the apologist of scientific education will usually agree. Press him further, ask him to particularise, and somehow it always turns out that scientific education means more attention to the sciences, in other words – more facts. The idea that Science means a way of looking at the world, and not simply a body of knowledge, is in practice strongly resisted. I think sheer professional jealousy is part of the reason for this. For if Science is simply a method or an attitude, so that anyone whose thought-processes are sufficiently rational can in some sense be described as a scientist – what then becomes of the enormous prestige now enjoyed by the chemist, the physicist, etc. and his claim to be somehow wiser than the rest of us?


At the moment, Science is on the upgrade, and so we hear, quite rightly, the claim that the masses should be scientifically educated: we do not hear, as we ought, the counter-claim that the scientists themselves would benefit by a little education.

Here is an excerpt from the Addendum to Charles Darwin's Autobiography

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.


This curious and lamentable loss of the higher æsthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

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