Monday, April 5, 2010

John Burnham, How Superstition Won and Science Lost, 1989

The skeptics claims against superstition are that it involves defective reasoning about the natural world or the inexplicable, that certain people encourage superstitious beliefs for their own reasons (usually not altruistic) and that superstition represents the surrender of the rational point of view.  And the skeptics fear that the irrational might destroy civilization.

The major tenet of the religion of science is that scientists offered natural explanations of all natural events, including human beings and their thinking.  In the 1930s, the last days of the undiluted religion of science, the aim of the popularizers was to get the reader to see the world as scientists saw it, orderly and unified, and to get people to think scientifically using the scientific method.  Their goal was the evolution of human beings and society into a progressively scientific civilization.

 In the late 19th century the man of science was someone who was devoted to the scientific method, and who believed that such devotion led to moral superiority.  They upheld a traditional view of culture, while at the same time adding to it, and they believed that science stood for objectivity.  In their pursuit of knowledge, they sought to eliminate the self, forswearing subjective emotional and personal advantage.  They sought to emancipate themselves from the misconceptions and prejudices of society and saw it as their duty to popularize science, to spread the religion of science.  (The myth of the man of science.  Scientists as a priesthood.)

At first popularization was the teaching of what scientists knew, but as science became professionalized and specialized, the function of popularization became the translation between scientists and the public.  Burnham identifies four main phases in the popularization of the natural sciences.

The first half of the 19th century is characterized by the dominance of natural theology and an increase in the number of full-time scientists.  In the 1820s the popularizing activity grew rapidly with schools, colleges, magazines and lyceums, and by the 1830s the popularizing activity was concentrating on the practical applications of science.  In 1850 and 1852 year books were published chronicling the progress of science and technology.  A connection was made between popularization and modernization, promoting a sense of human power connected to the natural sciences and the idea of progress.  After the Civil War there was a period of positivism and scientism, an ante-bellum synthesis of piety and practicality in popular science in which nature began to substitute for God.  The legacy of the early 19th century popularizers was a set of institutions and a concern for meaning and context, with the goal of conveying science to the public and diminishing superstition.

In the late 19th century, these popularizers emphasized facts, progress, practicality, but at the same time science was being more intensely applied to human beings and human affairs.  This was the dawn of the men of science and the beginning of the professionalization of science.  From the 1870s to the end of the century, scientists took the lead in presenting science to the public and science was part of high culture, something to be aspired to.  To love science was to love Truth.  Reductionism followed, and the belief that facts serve to explain the unexplainable, to illustrate discovery and to show the practical contribution of scientific knowledge.  In the 19th century popularization of science was a missionary activity aimed at converting people to the scientific way of life.  (Let’s all become Vulcans, live long and prosper.)

In the first half of the 20th century the religion and ideology of positivistic science peaked and popularization ceased to be under the control of the scientists.  After 1945 the media changed the characteristics of the popularization of science and it no longer supported the religion of science.  In the 20th century, as science becomes specialized, popularization shifts from science to technology (basic to applied).

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