This blog post refers to Sir Paul Nurses’ anniversary speech on Trust in Science, made on 1st December 2014. Also referred to is Francis Bacon’s ‘Advancement of Learning’ (1605) using the 1954 edition (J.M.Dent &Sons Ltd: London).
Public figures often extract from history particular sayings and axioms and by doing so, often misinterpret, miscontextualise, and misuse these same sayings and axioms. Is such misuse an innocuous blunder to be passed over in silence? Who does it really concern and affect anyway that a lack of depth or delicacy in such extractions from the past occur? Perhaps no one. Yet when we inquire more broadly into how extensively history is used, we soon realise that any misuse of history is rather a serious thing. For if we are to continue using history like we do for the education, the delight and the justification of all kinds of things in the present, then we should concern ourselves with how history is being used, including any misuses we might happen to chance upon. One such (mis)use of history I recently came across was in Sir Paul Nurses’ anniversary speech to the Royal Society which centered around the theme of ‘Trust in Science‘. I wish to focus on the few words he said of Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
Firstly; Between the anniversary speech on Monday 1st December and a previous speech on 26th June 2014 Nurses’ definition of what Francis Bacon was, changes. In June he was a ‘Philosopher of Science’, in December he was a ‘courtier, statesman and philosopher’. It is perhaps wise that the June definition was amended, as this would mean that Nurse implicitly believes science to be primarily composed of ‘Astrology, Natural Magic, and Alchemy’ (Bacon, p.29), which I am sure Sir Paul Nurse would not subscribe to, nor wish to be labelled as believing.
Secondly, and much more concerning than the first point, is that Nurse believes Bacon to have ‘laid out his approach to science’ in one single sentence, which he takes from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605, p.34):
“If a man will begin with certainties he shall end in doubts, but if he will be
content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”
Nurse takes this one sentence and axiom as defining Bacon’s entire approach to science. To extract one sentence, stripped of the message it was delivered within and the structure of the message it contributed towards, is to maltreat the work of Bacon and to thoroughly mislead us as to what Bacon wanted to say about science. Lets delve deeper.
This particular sentence/axiom given above is one part of one of the twelve ‘diseases of learning’ which Bacon sub-attaches to three principal ‘diseases of learning’ which, Bacon tells us, the learned men of his age were susceptible to. Being one part of twelve sub points to the three main diseases of learning (or the errors and vanities of ‘Schoolmen’ in the language of Bacon), are we really to call this one sentence as representative of Bacon’s entire approach to science? I would think not. Not to mention this particular book is a prelude to later and more mature works such as Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) which could direct us better as to what Bacon’s approach to science was. We can say then with good assurance that this one sentence is not representative of Bacon’s approach to science, nor probably is any other sentence one would care to cherry-pick to represent the all-encompassing foundation of Bacon’s approach to science. Besides, should Nurse even equate ‘science’ with the ‘science’ Bacon perceives science to be? As hinted at earlier, when speaking about Baconian ‘science’, we are not speaking about the ‘science’ which Nurse is most probably thinking of. Indeed, there are some distinctive clashes between what science is for Bacon and Nurse if we compare their views. For instance, Bacon thinks methods suppress the increase of knowledge (p.32) whilst Nurse in his anniversary speech thinks that only through a method can knowledge be securely generated.
If we look at the context within the Advancement of Learning which this axiom and sentence above is delivered, further problems arise for how Nurse interprets it. Despite Nurse implicitly attributes the axiom to Bacon, Bacon himself tells us that this axiom is derived from a common saying of ‘the ancients’ concerning ‘action’, which Bacon then reproduces as a guide to ‘contemplation’ and adjusts its content thereto (see p.34). The axiom which apparently lays down a foundation for modern science has roots well before Bacon, and then not even in the sphere of learning, knowledge and science, but ‘action’ and a mode of being. Bacon is modest enough to acknowledge the source of his axiom, Nurse is not. Moreover, this approach which Bacon promotes is not directed towards ‘science’ (the science which Bacon speaks of that is), but towards Learning in general, and this encompasses pretty much everything that is studied by those Bacon derisively calls the ‘Schoolmen’, whether it be law, history, science, philosophy etc. So in summary, what is supposedly Bacon’s ‘approach to science’ is not about science but about Learning more generally, it is rendered from an ancient axiom about ‘action’, and it is but one small part of a sub-division of three main points about the errors (diseases) of the Learned.
Thirdly, and following on from the point above, Nurses’ conclusion from the extracted sentence above is that ‘in other words, that science was useful’. Notwithstanding the not so obvious leap here from acquisition of certain knowledge to usefulness, we should be very cautious about a conviction that ‘science was useful’? ‘Was’ denotes a certainty, an unbreakable and unquestionable link between ‘science’ and ‘use’. By putting it like this, that ‘science was useful’, Nurse seems to be insinuating that science has always been useful and still is useful. I would like to meet the person who could prove that everything science has ever done was useful! Who can know in the first instance everything science has done in order to answer this question, and even if we did know everything science has done, it is a matter of some controversy whether what is ‘useful’ can be agreed upon. When one thinks of it like this, Nurses’ claim seems somewhat fantastical and absurd. Furthermore, such a conviction could not be more anti-Baconian, if I be permitted such an expression. Bacon does say that science can be of use (p.35), but this is a conditional use, it can be useful ‘if’, it might be useful ‘if’. Importantly, the connection between ‘science’ and ‘use’ contains a message which Bacon strains to make in his work, namely, that science has not been anywhere near as useful as it should because of the ‘diseases of learning’ he lists (mentioned above in the second point). Nurses’ conclusion that ‘science was useful’ would have gone against everything Bacon was trying to shake up and revise, to illuminate as deficient during his time, an attitude he would have thought hindered science no matter what age it was uttered in. Bacon sought to humble those who thought we knew about as much as we can about the natural world, because he wanted to make Learning and the acquisition of Knowledge interesting and needed, he wanted to make God’s creation a work to be investigated and understood. This kind of conviction which Nurse displays is precisely the kind of stubbornness which Bacon was trying to melt and crack open, to humble and sometimes, humiliate.
There are many more points to be made which could show how Sir Paul Nurses’ use of Bacon is a misuse of Bacon’s thought and message. Indeed, if one cares to find them, there are even many stark differences that can be found between how Nurse and Bacon define and interpret what science is, how it works, and how to advance science. But I will stop here as I think this point has been made. I have isolated one use of history amongst other uses of history and philosophy in Sir Paul Nurses’ speech, and I do not intend to condemn the speech more generally. However, in analysing the misuse of Bacon, a larger question emerges, insinuated at the start of this short piece. Is a misuse and misinterpretation of Bacon’s thought and message harmless, does it do any harm that such a misuse is made? I would say it is harmful, despite there is a case for it being innocuous which I will not argue for now. To put it much too frankly, but to make the point, such misuse of history serves to abuse historical figures and their works for ideals of what science has done and ought to be. It perverts historical fact and the possible depths of analysis which history is very well suited for. Moreover, it is more than distasteful that historical personages are used for propounding ideals of what someone would like science to be or representing how ‘useful’ science always is. It is not worth the sacrifice of history to accomplish these aims, if these claims are real such as science is always useful, then let them stand alone on the pillars of contemporary judges and proofs and we shall soon see if they stand up to scrutiny. History can be put to many worthy uses, including expanding our understanding of what science is and how science-related activities have been practiced in the past (the list of what investigations we can devise goes on and on). Let us use history wisely as it is such a rich source of information for us. If one cannot succinctly include the history of science into speeches such as Nurses’ with a well thought out and rigorous opinion, which can be done, one should not include history at all.