Joking about Science (II)

by | July 14, 2009 12:01 pm

Peter Dear

The nineteenth century invented the familiar terms pure and applied science as a way of reconciling these alternative understandings. Pure science, as the name suggests, is presented as the real thing, untainted by practical considerations and rooted in properly conducted empirical and theoretical investigation of nature. Applied science takes the knowledge provided by pure science and puts it to work. But that straightforward picture bears little resemblance to the complexities of real scientific activity: if applied science involved nothing more than the application of the results of pure science, there would be no need for research and development departments in manufacturing corporations, or research laboratories at chemical or electronics companies. The instrumental achievements of science would depend solely on the scraps falling from the pure scientist’s table.
In fact, the two faces of science are much more intimately interwoven  less like faces than like two ingredients of a thoroughly stirred mixture. Truth and utility, wrote Francis Bacon, the early seventeenth-century English philosopher and statesman, are the very same things. In other words, the truth of beliefs about the world is guaranteed only by the capacity of those beliefs to be turned into actions that produce the practical outcomes that human beings desire.
What we understand as the instrumentality of science was, for Bacon, nothing but the other side of the scientific coin. Where the poet John Keats wrote Beauty is truth, truth beauty, Bacon might have said, Utility is truth, truth utility as long as we take utility in a very broad sense.
But we don’t believe Bacon, either. Like Bacon, we value utility because it seems to lend credibility to the claims that science makes about the nature of the world  science is true because it works. But, at the same time, we won’t allow science to be reduced to practical utility, because that would destroy its intellectual status, as well as the intellectual status of scientists themselves, and would prevent science from giving explanations. So science must retain its claim to being natural philosophy, too.
Sometimes we believe that science is natural philosophy, and sometimes we believe that science is instrumentality. But in fact it’s both simultaneously, neither pure nor applied. If we could acknowledge that, we wouldn’t be joking about it.