Empiricism in Latter-day Behavioral Science

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Science  31 Jul 1964:
Vol. 145, Issue 3631, pp. 464-467
DOI: 10.1126/science.145.3631.464


Let me recapitulate. I am not happy with developments in the behavioral sciences. I wonder whether science does actually stand divorced from the intention, motive, and character of the scientist. I suspect that some of our current philosophies in science, whether so conceived or not, encourage and abet a science of the trivial. I believe we should recognize that, as epistemology, the empirical rule cannot stand alone. The great advances in science are associated with its grand conceptions even more than with its discoveries.

We often mistakenly assume that the rule of objectivity has traditionally divided the character of science from that of the scientist. This is far from true. The objectivity of 18th- and 19th- century science was believed to be a function not so much of methodology and procedure as of the honesty and integrity of the scientist. Michael Faraday had this to say about the matter (3, p. 233):

It puzzles me greatly to know what makes the successful philosopher [scientist]. Is it industry and perseverance, with a moderate proportion of good sense and intelligence? Is not a modest assurance or earnestness a requisite? Do not many fail because they look rather to the renown to be acquired than to the pure acquisition of knowledge, and the delight which the contented mind has in acquiring it for its own sake? I am sure I have seen many who would have been good and successful pursuers of science, and have gained themselves a high name, but that it was the name and the reward they were always looking forward to—the reward of the world's praise. In such there is always a shade of envy or regret over their minds, and I cannot imagine a man making discoveries in science under these feelings. As to Genius and its Power, there may be cases; I suppose there are. I have looked long and often for a genius for our own laboratory, but I have never found one. But I have seen many who would, I think, if they submitted themselves to a sound self-applied discipline of mind, have become successful experimental philosophers.

Are these issues native only to behavioral science? Earlier, I laid at Skinner's door much of the blame for an unreasonable complacency regarding the disposition of modern behavioral science. In all fairness to Skinner, however, it is only correct to acknowledge that the same problem is evident in other areas of science. Skinner appears to be a spokesman, in the behavioral sciences, for one of those famous "Zeitgeists." Let me quote a series of observations by Paul Weiss, a biologist at the Rockefeller Institute, New York City, from a paper entitled "Experience and experiment in biology" (5):

Without imagination one can contrive infinite variations of experimental set-ups, all of them novel, yet utterly uninteresting, inconsequential, insignificant. The mere fact that something has not been done or tried before is not sufficient reason for doing or trying it. . . .

But is not scientific history full of instances of accidental discovery of the unexpected? True again, but he who does expect something will be on the alert even for the unexpected, while he who just ambles, looking for nothing in particular, is prone to miss even the obvious. . . .

We see instruments turning from servants into tyrants, forcing the captive scientist to mass-produce and market senseless data beyond the point of conceivable usefulness—a modern version of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. . . .

Finally, I recommend study of N. W. Storer's article "The coming changes in American science" (6). Storer, a sociologist at Harvard University, feels that prior to 1940 the basic currency in science was professional recognition.

This in turn reinforced certain fundamental values—a high emphasis on communication; dedication of the individual and a tendency to work in small, select groups; a spurning of worldly gain and a proclivity for basic research. Today, professional recognition is being replaced by more common currencies—money, power, and worldly prestige. The result is a shift of values in science: numbers are no longer small or groups select; communication and professional recognition are viewed as means to gain money, power, and prestige rather than as ends in themselves; basic research is giving way to a kind of imposter with a thinly disguised commercial goal.

I do not know how to resolve the issues in modern science. It seems to me we may be troubled by the embarrassments of too much success. Will we continue to succeed if we do not change our ways? Maybe, but not as magnificently I am sure as we could if we did change them. We cannot do anything about our numbers—nor would I want us to forswear all worldly possessions. We can examine critically and revise certain of our guiding philosophies. We can follow a suggestion of P. H. Abelson (7) and alter granting procedures so that institutions, as well as individuals, are given support. In the end, however, the major force for change resides in the minds and hearts of scientists who share a concern about science.