Monday, September 19, 2005

Fictitious Romanticism

I meant to say something about this a while ago. A recent article in the Guardian sets out to defend science against science journalism -- a much needed thing. In particular, Goodacre is out to defend science against the claim that it consists of made-up claims, and to defend it against the made-up claims of journalists. And, of course, it just wouldn't be a defense of science against the made-up without taking time out to appeal to made-up history:

But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists' parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality: they do work that is either wacky, or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory and, most ridiculously, "hard to understand".

This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it's exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, only not as well written.

Err, OK, except that the Romantics didn't react "against the birth of science and empiricism". For one thing, the Romantics are too late, and the birth of empiricism too early (it would have to be a considerably delayed reaction!). For another, it's absurd to link 'science and empiricism' as if a reaction against empiricism were in any serious way a reaction against science. Empiricists contributed to science only fitfully; and you can be a perfectly good scientist without being an empiricist (most great scientists have been). Further, the Romantics didn't react against "the birth of science and empiricism"; with the exceptions of the more Kantian Germans (and Coleridge, whose Romanticism tends a little Kantian and a little German) they were, if the word means anything, empiricists, and what they reacted against was not science but what they saw as the attempt to replace living experience with abstract theory. Thus Goethe criticized Newton's theory of colors not for being scientific but for not being scientific enough -- if Newton were really being scientific, Goethe thought, he would have kept closer to the empirical facts instead of trying to build a theory out of a handful of experiments. More can be said on the subject, since it's an unruly movement to summarize, particularly in space this short; but Goodacre's claim is a clear instance of just making up events in the history of thought.

And don't even get me started on the characterization of Shelley's Frankenstein as a "paranoid fantasy" in which "science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures," which suggests to me that Goodacre has never actually bothered to read the book. Perhaps he just goes to the movies....

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