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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

Revisiting Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful—Economics As If People Mattered

Part II. In Defense of Science

On one point I have to disagree with Schumacher. He reacted to Sir Charles Lord Snow 's cry for education in science in order to avoid the split between scientists and literary intellectuals. The trend then was toward over-specialization. Also, the defense of science as neutral apparently enraged Schumacher, in the face of nuclear weapons development.



He argued that scientific know-how was meaningless, that education should concentrate on "ideas of value" that "produce more wisdom." He focused on systematic thinking about sets of facts, forgetting that the very definition of science is the accumulation of information by the testing and re-testing of information and the continual gathering of evidence so as "not to be fooled," as Richard Feynman suggested.

Schumacher seemed to contradict himself when he said, "...the word 'prejudice' is generally applied to ideas that are patently erroneous and recognisable as such by anyone except the prejudiced man." Perhaps he was thrown off by the then-current views of the meaningless, accidental universe of Bertrand Russell. He asks how can "the knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics help us?" Herman Daly has answered that in pointing out that it confirms the very economic limits Schumacher worried about.

Schumacher said, "Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live. Even the greatest ideas of science are nothing more than working hypotheses...completely inapplicable to the conduct of our lives or the interpretation of the world." In conctrast, Jerome Stone pointed out in a course at Meadville Seminary that we live in a "heteronomy," a culture dependent on science and technology that we don't fully understand, thus adding to our feelings of alienation.

Schumacher goes on to suggest six ideas that the humanists have produced that are more important than science—evolution, natural selection, religion and philosophy, the subconsious, relativism and positivism (knowledge based on observable facts ) which "denies the possibility of objective knowledge about meaning and purpose of any kind." He concludes that science "...deals only with ideas of know-how...in any case too specific and specialized for our wider purposes. Oddly, his list includes the basis of much science.

In any case, now we know better. The ever more awesome details we learn about how everything works and the unpredictable nature of its complexity—from our genes to the universe itself—gives us a perspective nothing else can. We learn who we are, children of a creation made of elements produced in supernovae—a miracle in itself, a blessing that we can learn such things. In addition, we know love and can appreciate the gift of beauty. From the scientific observation of simple systems we have learned that nothing we do is inconsequential, to paraphrase Ilya Prigogine. Though we cannot predict the impact we might have, we know from studying complexity that it could be amplified. It gives our lives built-in meaning.

I grieve for our current science illiteracy, when we have learned so much since Schumacher's time. To miss the awesome new information that floods our literature, a gift of experts to us laymen in many excellent books, articles, and web sites, is to throw away a valuable chance at new perspectives that can enrich and save our lives.

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