The Impact of Science on Society

From Wikiquote
Jump to: navigation, search

The Impact of Science on Society (1952) is a book written by Bertrand Russell.

Quotes[edit]

To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascer­tained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities.
Some things are believed because people feel as if they must be true, and in such cases an immense weight of evi­dence is necessary to dispel the belief.
The modern power of the State began in the late fifteenth century and began as a result of gunpowder.
The opinion that snow is white must be held to show a morbid taste for eccentricity…
I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which population can be kept from increasing. There are others, which, one must suppose, opponents of birth control would prefer. … If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full. There would be nothing in this to offend the consciences of the devout or to restrain the ambitions of national­ists.
  • To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascer­tained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.
    • Ch. 1 : Science and Tradition
  • Some things are believed because people feel as if they must be true, and in such cases an immense weight of evi­dence is necessary to dispel the belief.
    • Ch. 1 : Science and Tradition
  • It is not by prayer and humility that you cause things to go as you wish, but by acquiring a knowledge of natural laws.
    • Ch. 1 : Science and Tradition
  • Science, ever since the time of the Arabs, has had two functions: (1) to enable us to know things, and (2) to enable us to do things.
    • Ch. 2 : General Effects of Scientific Technique
  • The modern power of the State began in the late fifteenth century and began as a result of gunpowder. From that day to this, the authority of States has increased, and throughout it has been mainly improvement in weapons of war that has made the increase possible. This development was begun by Henry VII, Louis XI, and Ferdinand and Isabella. It was artillery that enabled them to succeed.
    • Ch. 2 : General Effects of Scientific Technique
  • I think the subject which will be of most importance polit­ically is mass psychology. Mass psychology is, scientifically speaking, not a very advanced study, and so far its professors have not been in universities: they have been advertisers, politicians, and, above all, dictators. This study is immensely useful to practical men, whether they wish to become rich or to acquire the government. It is, of course, as a science, founded upon individual psychology, but hitherto it has employed rule-of-thumb methods which were based upon a kind of intuitive common sense. Its importance has been enormously increased by the growth of modern methods of propaganda. Of these the most influential is what is called "education." Religion plays a part, though a diminishing one; the press, the cinema, and the radio play an increasing part. What is essential in mass psychology is the art of per­suasion. If you compare a speech of Hitler's with a speech of (say) Edmund Burke, you will see what strides have been made in the art since the eighteenth century. What went wrong formerly was that people had read in books that man is a rational animal, and framed their arguments on this hypothesis. We now know that limelight and a brass band do more to persuade than can be done by the most elegant train of syllogisms. It may be hoped that in time anybody will be able to persuade anybody of anything if he can catch the patient young and is provided by the State with money and equipment.
    This subject will make great strides when it is taken up by scientists under a scientific dictatorship. Anaxagoras maintained that snow is black, but no one believed him. The social psychologists of the future will have a number of classes of school children on whom they will try different methods of producing an unshakable conviction that snow is black. Various results will soon be arrived at. First, that the influence of home is obstructive. Second, that not much can be done unless indoctrination begins before the age of ten. Third, that verses set to music and repeatedly intoned are very effective. Fourth, that the opinion that snow is white must be held to show a morbid taste for eccentricity. But I anticipate. It is for future scientists to make these maxims precise and discover exactly how much it costs per head to make children believe that snow is black, and how much less it would cost to make them believe it is dark gray. Although this science will be diligently studied, it will be rigidly confined to the governing class. The populace will not be allowed to know how its convictions were generated. When the technique has been perfected, every government that has been in charge of education for a generation will be able to control its subjects securely without the need of armies or policemen. As yet there is only one country which has succeeded in creating this politician's paradise.
    • Ch. 2 : General Effects of Scientific Technique
  • I mean by "oligarchy" any system in which ultimate power is confined to a section of the community: the rich to the exclusion of the poor, Protestants to the exclusion of Catholics, aristocrats to the exclusion of plebeians, white men to the exclusion of colored men, males to the exclusion of females, or members of one political party to the exclusion of the rest. A system may be more oligarchic or less so, according to the percentage of the population that is excluded; absolute monarchy is the extreme of oligarchy.
    • Ch. 3 : Scientific Technique in an Oligarchy
  • It is to be expected that advances in physiology and psychology will give governments much more control over individual mentality than they now have even in totalitarian countries. Fichte laid it down that education should aim at destroying free will, so that, after pupils have left school, they shall be incapable, throughout the rest of their lives, of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished. But in his day this was an unattainable ideal: what he regarded as the best system in existence produced Karl Marx. In future such failures are not likely to occur where there is dictatorship. Diet, injections, and injunctions will combine, from a very early age, to produce the sort of character and the sort of beliefs that the authorities consider desirable, and any serious criticism of the powers that be will become psychologically impossible. Even if all are miserable, all will believe themselves happy, because the government will tell them that they are so.
    A totalitarian government with a scientific bent might do things that to us would seem horrifying. The Nazis were more scientific than the present rulers of Russia, and were more inclined towards the sort of atrocities that I have in mind.
    • Ch. 3: Scientific Technique in an Oligarchy
  • So long as the old Liberal freedoms survive, you can engage in propaganda for whatever excites you. Such activities suffice to satisfy most men's combative instincts. Creative impulses which are not combative, such as those of the artist and the writer, cannot be satisfied in this way, and for them the only solution, in a socialist State, is liberty to employ your leisure as you like. This is the only solution, because such activities are sometimes extremely valuable, but the community has no way of judging, in a given case, whether the artist's or writer's work is worthless or shows immortal genius. Such activities, therefore, must not be systematized or controlled. Some part of life — perhaps the most important part— must be left to the spontaneous action of individual impulse, for where all is system there will be mental and spiritual death.
    • Ch. 4: Democracy and Scientific Technique
  • There are certain things that our age needs, and certain things that it should avoid. It needs compassion and a wish that mankind should be happy; it needs the desire for knowledge and the determination to eschew pleasant myths; it needs above all, courageous hope and the impulse to creativeness. The things that it must avoid, and that have brought it to the brink of catastrophe, are cruelty, envy, greed, competitiveness, search for irrational subjective certainty, and what Freudians call the death wish.
    The root of the matter (if we want a stable world) is a very simple and old-fashioned thing, a thing so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it, for fear of the derisive smile with which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean — please forgive me for mentioning it — is love, Christian love, or compassion. If you feel this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty. If you feel this, you have all that anybody should need in the way of religion. Although you may not find happiness, you will never know the despair of those whose life is aimless and void of purpose, for there is always something that you can do to diminish the awful sum of human misery.
    • Ch. 6 : Science and Values.
  • What I do want to stress is that the kind of lethargic despair which is now not uncommon, is irrational. Mankind is in the position of a man climbing a difficult and dangerous precipice, at the summit of which there is a plateau of delicious mountain meadows. With every step that he climbs, his fall, if he does fall, becomes more terrible; with every step his weariness increases and the ascent grows more difficult. At last there is only one more step to be taken, but the climber does not know this, because he cannot see beyond the jutting rocks at his head. His exhaustion is so complete that he wants nothing but rest. If he lets go he will find rest in death. Hope calls: "One more effort-perhaps it will be the last effort needed." Irony retorts: "Silly fellow! Haven't you been listening to hope all this time, and see where it has landed you." Optimism says: "While there is life there is hope." Pessimism growls: "While there is life there is pain." Does the exhausted climber make one more effort, or does he let himself sink into the abyss? In a few years those of us who are still alive will know the answer.
    • Ch. 6 : Science and Values.
  • Science offers the possibility of far greater well-being for the human race than has ever been known before. It offers this on certain conditions: abolition of war, even distribution of ultimate power, and limitation of the growth of population. All these are much nearer to being possible than they ever were before. In Western industrial countries, the growth of population is almost nil; the same causes will have the same effect in other countries as they become modernized, unless dictators and missionaries interfere. The even distribution of ultimate power, economic as well as political, has been nearly achieved in Britain, and other democratic countries are rapidly moving towards it. The prevention of war? It may seem a paradox to say that we are nearer to achieving this than ever before, but I am persuaded that it is true.
    • Ch. 6 : Science and Values.
  • The chief causes of large-scale violence are: love of power, competition, hate and fear. Love of power will have no national outlet when all serious military force is concentrated in the international army. Competition will be effectively regulated by law, and mitigated by governmental controls. Fear — in the acute form in which we know it — will disappear when war is no longer to be expected. There remains hate and malevolence. This has a deep hold on human nature. We all believe at once any gossip discreditable to our neighbors, however slender the evidence may be. … I am persuaded that it can be lessened, and very quickly. If peace becomes secure there will be a very rapid increase of material prosperity, and this tends more than anything else to provide a mood of kindly feeling. Consider the immense diminution of cruelty in Britain during the Victorian Age; this was mainly due to rapidly increasing wealth in all classes. I think we may confidently expect a similar effect throughout the world owing to the increased wealth that will result from the elimination of war.
    • Ch. 6 : Science and Values.
  • What stands in the way? Not physical or technical obstacles, but only the evil passions in human minds: sus­picion, fear, lust for power, hatred, intolerance. … The human race could, here and now, begin a rapid approach to a vastly better world, given one single condition: the removal of mutual distrust between East and West. I do not know what can be done to fulfill this condition. Most of the suggestions that I have seen have struck me as silly. Mean­while the only thing to do is to prevent an explosion some­how, and to hope that time may bring wisdom. The near future must either be much better or much worse than the past; which it is to be will be decided within the next few years.
  • The nations which at present increase rapidly should be encouraged to adopt the methods by which, in the West, the increase of population has been checked. Educational propaganda, with government help, could achieve this result in a generation. There are, however, two powerful forces opposed to such a policy: one is religion, the other is nationalism. I think it is the duty of all who are capable of facing facts to realize, and to proclaim, that opposition to the spread of birth con­trol, if successful, must inflict upon mankind the most ap­palling depth of misery and degradation, and that within another fifty years or so.
    I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which population can be kept from increasing. There are others, which, one must suppose, opponents of birth control would prefer. War, as I remarked a moment ago, has hitherto been disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full. There would be nothing in this to offend the consciences of the devout or to restrain the ambitions of national­ists. The state of affairs might be somewhat unpleasant, but what of that? Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness, especially other people's.
    • Ch.. 7 : Can a Scientific Society Be Stable?, first delivered as a lecture (29 November 1949); portions of this statement on bacteriological warfare are sometimes quoted by critics of Russell as if they were a serious proposal, rather than sardonic sarcasm.
  • My conclusion is that a scientific society can be stable given certain conditions. The first of these is a single government of the whole world, possessing a monopoly of armed force and therefore able to enforce peace. The second condition is a general diffusion of prosperity, so that there is no occasion for envy of one part of the world by another. The third condition (which supposes the second fulfilled) is a low birth rate everywhere, so that the population of the world becomes stationary, or nearly so. The fourth condition is the provision for individual initiative both in work and in play, and the greatest diffusion of power compatible with maintaining the necessary political and economic framework.
    The world is a long way from realizing these conditions, and therefore we must expect vast upheavals and appalling suffering before stability is attained. But, while upheavals and suffering have hitherto been the lot of man, we can now see, however dimly and uncertainly, a possible future culmination in which poverty and war will have been overcome, and fear, where it survives, will have become pathological. The road, I fear, is long, but that is no reason for losing sight of the ultimate hope.
    • Conclusions