The Scientific Method in a Crumbling State

In her review of Steve Jones’ No Need for Geniuses, Ruth Scurr laments the regression of scientific inquiry in Revolutionary France:

At the heart of the French Revolution there is a puzzle about why so little progress was made in the social sciences compared to the natural. Lavoisier’s contemporaries were excited by his advances in chemistry, and some of them thought it would be possible to make similar advances in understanding society and politics. Condorcet died certain that such breakthroughs were on the horizon – but the social harmony, equality of rights and opportunities that he envisaged have never been realised, not in France, or anywhere else.

One would think that small-r republicans would not only embrace but nourish scientists working to harness free thought for the benefit of the common person (botanists alone, one would also think), but apparently the Sans-culottes harbored a (healthy?) distrust of promises of social/scientific progress. Of course, on the other hand, for as loud a statement as it could make, the guillotine didn’t speak for everyone.

The irony is that the Revolutionaries couldn’t help but to accelerate discovery; in a crumbling State, where neither agencies nor academies retain their closely guarded vaults of knowledge, suddenly anyone can be some kind of scientist. If only the scientific method itself would be prized and protected above the automatic application of its fruits in every case, as if it’s impossible to learn the workings of some previously unobserved phenomenon and not generate a new technology out of it. As Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, as a warning to the scientists who regenerated dinosaurs: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you never stopped to think about whether or not you should.”.

 

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