Is Science Evil?

Prophecy is never a comfortable activity, but sometimes, as witness the Bible, it is a popular one. Today is one of those times when there is a flourishing market for predictions of doom. It is as significant that the Book-of-the-Month Club has selected Lewis Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power as that its author has written it. More so, indeed, for Mumford has been developing his message for two generations. It has varied less than the size and attention of his audiences.

Essentially it is not a new message. Through Mumford’s teacher, Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), it unites two traditions of nineteenth-century thought, one critical primarily of science, the other of society, though the confidence with which Victorian capitalism appealed to “science” to back up its conviction of superiority sometimes linked the two trends. As it happens, their fortunes have diverged. The sort of argument by which the society of private enterprise and profit was shown to create the best of all possible worlds a century ago has long ceased to carry conviction. Even the much more sophisticated apologists of the 1950s are on the defensive or have changed their minds. The inability of Western society to create or even maintain an environment—human and natural—fit for any living things, including men, has recently become so obvious that the most minor and fragmentary thinkers of the past are listened to with attention, provided they showed some insight into this characteristic of the modern world.

On the other hand, the mathematical, mechanist, and positivist approach to the sciences is as influential as ever; or, rather, it has been reinvigorated in the past generation by the remarkable theoretical and practical achievements secured by means of it. This does not apply so much to the social sciences, where mathematical methods never had comparable results to show—not even, except among economists, in economics.

In the natural sciences the theoretical opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies consists at present of little more than guerrilla sniping, though recently a much more serious practical challenge has appeared, as growing numbers of students in most developed countries have boycotted the natural sciences as a subject for study. The success of the challenge to the social orthodoxies of the nineteenth century and the failure of the challenge to its scientific ones in themselves prove neither the rightness of one nor the wrongness of the other. They do, however, complicate the problem of writers like Mumford who fight, as it were, simultaneously on both fronts. The force necessary to swim with one intellectual tide is not adequate to swim against another. Mumford has not, it seems to me, recognized this clearly enough.

His message, though not fundamentally original or complex, is elaborated in ways which are often very interesting, and contains insights which, I ought immediately to add, are convincing. Since most of what I shall say is critical, it is also worth stating plainly that, though often exasperating, his book is welcome and worth reading. The trouble is …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.