jump to navigation

To see it as it is May 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
Tags:
add a comment

In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…

The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…

The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.

Advertisements

Stupidity below and love of power above October 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education, Politics.
Tags:
add a comment

Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I often wonder if this will ever cease to be the case. After all, if we look around us, the organizations that are most innovative and efficient, that are best at encouraging excellence and learning from mistakes, are not run democratically. Steve Jobs doesn’t need a majority of his company’s employees (or of his customers) to approve his every strategy. Generally, the greater the number of people who participate in making a decision, the worse the decision will be. (It is said that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Of course, this is all fine so long as Steve Jobs doesn’t have the power to put anyone in jail, levy taxes, or declare war. We have learned the hard way how important it is to limit the power given to any individual. The problem is that our system of government seems to mostly produce politicians whose main (if not only) skill is getting people to vote for them. And sadly, this is still most easily accomplished by appeals to emotion (especially fear), rather than by rational argument. Moreover, politicians have an interest in perpetuating whatever state of affairs will cause people to continue voting for them.

In “Freedom and the Colleges,” Bertrand Russell claims to have no doubt that democracy is the best form of government, and yet:

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power — namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for them to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

We need our educational system to produce a population that is rational enough and critical enough and well-enough informed, so that politicians will leave a five-minute conversation with the average voter feeling neither smug nor depressed, but challenged.

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power-namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for-them. to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.