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I wonder whether anyone at the BBC has the least idea just how repulsively hypocritical, murderously hypocritical, they look, when at one and the same time they go all lyrical about the Paralympics and disabled achievement, and they promote the old eugenics lies of abortion and euthanasia? Isn't it great that those of the "differently able" whom we haven't managed to kill in the womb or in the hospital are now winning medals! What wonderful people we are!
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[profile] goreism, who, unlike me, knows a lot about philosophy, insists that the so-called problem of induction, which I mentioned in my last post, was not really so important as Chesterton, Popper and I made it out to be. I replied that it may not be important in the eyes of a professional philosopher at this point in time, where the matters commonly discussed and attacked among philosophers are indubitably different; but that it was certainly important in the time in which I set most of my little meditation on culture history, that is the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I have just come across an instance of why and how the notion of induction was important, and how it twisted popular thought about science. One of Chesterton’s greatest book-length essays, Eugenics and other evils, was, as the title says, an all-out, all-guns-blazing assault on the then-popular doctrine of Eugenics. This passage was addressed to one of the most popular advocates of Eugenics, one Dr.Saleeby:

It is as if Dr. Saleeby were to say, "Vanity, I find. is undoubtedly hereditary. Here is Mrs. Jones, who was very sensitive about her sonnets being criticized, and I found her little daughter in a new frock looking in the glass. The experiment is conclusive, the demonstration is complete; there in the first generation is the artistic temperament --- that is vanity; and there in the second generation is dress --- and that is vanity." We should answer, "My friend, all is vanity, vanity and vexation of spirit --- especially when one has to listen to logic of your favourite kind. Obviously all human beings must value themselves; and obviously there is in all such evaluation an element of weakness, since it is not the valuation of eternal justice. What is the use of your finding by experiment in some people a thing we know by reason must be in all of them?"

Pay attention to the use of the word “experiment”. It is a use that was quite common at the time, but that no writer would use today: not, as we would use it, “a trial under controlled conditions of a certain very specific hypothesis, expressed in clear scientific-mathematical terms”, but “any practical demonstration of a sequence of events that is observed by a specialist and taken down as evidence.” I am aware that a real scientist may read this, so, [personal profile] dreamer_marie, if you find my definition insuficient, please correct me. But the important bit is the highly specific nature of what is taken to be experimental evidence. Chesterton ascribes to Dr.Saleeby a habit of describing any piece of observational evidence as an experiment; and he so uses the term itself.

Now, I have no doubt that my definition of experiment, however amended by my scientist friend, is not only correct but original; that the power of demonstration of “natural philososophy” was based on the systematic use of experiment, in my meaning of the term, at least from Galileo onwards, and that Galileo did nothing but systematize and rationalize a habit of experimental investigation that had taken root in the universities since the Middle Ages. In other words, it is Chesterton’s and Dr.Saleeby’s use of the word that is the extension, and an illegitimate extension, of its range of meaning; and it is the modern one that represents a reversal to its original meaning or power. How did that happen, and how was it reversed?

I suggest that it happened under the all-pervading influence of “induction”. If “experiment”, in the inductive sense of the word, serves to show that certain things happen regularly and therefore are universally true, then any demonstration of a regularity under observed circumstances can be called an experiment. This meant not only the expansion of the idea of “experiment” into improper and insufficiently rigid areas, but even into improper fields of study. Dr.Saleeby was not making a statement about medicine, genetics or biology, but about sociology. We would not dare use this term in sociology or anthropology now. (I know; I am a graduate in anthropology.) Anthropological and sociological observation is carried out under strict and demanding guidelines, certainly much more systematic than in Chesterton’s and Dr.Saleeby’s time; but we would not dream of calling our controlled observations “experiments”. It is quite clear, too, that this extension of the meaning of the word "experiment" was being used to give the chrism of scientific achievement to observational evidence that was neither scientific nor even necessarily well controlled. What we have here is Chesterton's caricature of Dr.Saleeby, but I feel sure that if I investigated the eugenistic literature of the period I would find a great many instances of evidence slanted just as grossly to support illegitimate conclusions. I know that I have seen it done in the past, only without paying enough attention, because I was not sensitive to the issue at the time.

And how was this illegitimate extension of the meaning of “experiment” reversed? I suggest that it was reversed when induction went out of fashion. Scientists have a natural interest in increasing, rather than decreasing, the precision of their language, and without the impulse to induct from individual cases to universals, the meaning of “experiment” would naturally return to its old, rigorous, definite meaning. And in this, Popper’s assault on induction, read by many scientists, surely had an important part.


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