Notes on the word ‘scientist’

 

The term ‘scientist’ was invented only in 1833, by the polymath William Whewell, who gave it a faintly pejorative odour, drawing analogies to ‘journalist’, ‘sciolist’, ‘atheist’, and ‘tobacconist’. ‘Better die … than bestialise our tongue by such barbarisms,’ scowled the geologist Adam Sedgwick. ‘To anyone who respects the English language,’ said T H Huxley, ‘I think “Scientist” must be about as pleasing a word as “Electrocution”.’ These men preferred to call themselves ‘natural philosophers’ and there was a real distinction. Scientists were narrowly focused utilitarian data-grubbers; natural philosophers thought deeply and wrote elegantly about the moral, cosmological and metaphysical implications of their work…

Charles Babbage, in designing his ‘difference engine’, anticipated all the basic principles of the modern computer – including ‘garbage in, garbage out’. InReflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830) he accused his fellow scientists of routinely suppressing, concocting or cooking data. Such corruption (he confidently insisted) could be cleaned up if the government generously subsidised scientific research…

After his sketches of these forgotten bestsellers, Secord concludes with the literary bomb that blew them all up. In Sartor Resartus Thomas Carlyle fiercely deconstructed everything the popular scientists stood for. Where they were cool, rational, optimistic and supremely organised, he was frenzied, mystical, apocalyptic and deliberately nonsensical. They assumed that big data represented reality; he saw that it might be all pretence, fabrication, image – in a word, ‘clothes’. A century and a half before Microsoft’s emergence, Carlyle grasped the horror of universal digitisation: ‘Shall your Science proceed in the small chink-lighted, or even oil-lighted, underground workshop of Logic alone; and man’s mind become an Arithmetical Mill?’ That was a dig at the clockwork utilitarianism of both John Stuart Mill and Babbage: the latter called his central processing unit a ‘mill’.

Diffusers of useful knowledge. A review by Jonathan Rose on an excellent-sounding book, Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.

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One thought on “Notes on the word ‘scientist’

  1. Pingback: A search for the science of the mind | neuroecology

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