Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/June 1872/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 June 1872  (1872) 
Editor's Table
 
EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
LOOSE AND ACCURATE KNOWLEDGE.

IN explaining what we understand by science, in the first number of this monthly, it was stated to consist in accurate as contrasted with lax and careless thinking. We had not then space to show how a great deal of the knowledge that is truly recognized as scientific may be still so loose and imperfect as to be misleading. Let us, therefore, briefly consider this aspect of the case.

There are two stages in the history of science, and two states of mind among so-called educated people, which correspond to them. The first stage of all science consisted simply in recognizing the properties of bodies so as to identify them. The characters were made out which distinguished this thing from that, and one kind of effect from another. The first thing was to determine the qualities of objects, and this was the work in the early or qualitative stage in the progress of each science. But, qualities being ascertained, the next and inevitable step was to bring them under the operation of mathematics, which deals with the laws of quantity. First, it was asked, What are the properties or effects? and next, What are their degrees, or what quantities are involved in given results? This implies exact measurement, and is known as the quantitative stage of science.

For example, bodies, which burn and produce heat, have the property of combustibility; but the next question is, How much heat will different bodies produce in burning? It is a quality of vinegar to unite with soda, and this was ascertained in the qualitative infancy of chemistry, but how much vinegar will combine with a given amount of soda was only determined with the development of quantitative chemistry. It is a quality of animals that they exhale carbonic-acid gas in respiration, but, when this was known, it became necessary to know the rates of exhalation in the different tribes, and the variations of these rates in sex, age, activity, sleep, and disease. It is a quality of ideas that they cohere with each other, forming groups and trains by which thinking becomes a connected and orderly process; but it is also a fact that these cohesions are of unequal degrees of strength, and this gives rise to a kind of quantitative psychology, which is only imperfect because we lack the means of exact measurement.

Now, qualitative information is the first indispensable step in the growth of knowledge, and is just as truly “science” as the knowledge of quantities; but it is not the whole of science. Qualitative chemistry must precede and underlie quantitative chemistry, and so with other departments. But, to suppose that a mere knowledge of qualities may pass for science is an error leading to the worst practical consequences. Current scientific knowledge, however, is very much of this qualitative sort. As it was first in the order of development, because it is simplest, it is also most widely diffused for the same reason. This is one of the things that is meant in saying that people think vaguely and loosely, and reason wildly, upon subjects in which science is involved. For every thing in practical and applied science turns at last on the question, How much? It is not enough to know that a given substance will produce a given effect; we must know the degree or amount of effect before we can build upon it. It is this scientific smattering with qualitative notions that exposes people to all forms of plausible imposture. The skilful knave, with his new process and patent-right, practises on this half-knowledge of the community, and enriches himself at the expense of his victims. He is very candid, and would have them take nothing on trust. He will bring his idea to the test of experiment. They shall see for themselves, and need take nobody's word. “This arrangement will produce such an effect. I don't ask you to accept my statement, I will demonstrate it;” and with an impressive parade of fixtures, and much scientific talk, the alleged wonderful things are done. With those who have not thoroughly learned that every thing depends not upon effects produced, but upon their quantities, the next step of the unscrupulous patent-agent is easy. Having established himself in his customer's confidence, he does the rest by profuse asseveration and persistent lying. “The facts are proved; it is a new discovery; it will revolutionize the business, and somebody is going to make enormous profits you had better have some of the stock.” But the skilful speculator may go still further. If sharply met by the question of economy, or exactly how much is gained by his process, he may proceed to prove his claim on the spot. He may demonstrate experimentally and completely that his operation has the advantage by many per-cent. over those in use, while the project is still a worthless fraud: for it is possible in a small way, and with careful experiments, to produce quantitative results which cannot be realized on the manufacturing scale.

There is no end to the schemes that are palmed off upon the public in this way. A morning paper that has just come to hand has the following item:

"Will water burn? And, if so, can burning water be used at a moderate cost for fuel? The public mind of Peoria, Ill., has been of late much exercised upon these questions. A stranger and a Yankee came to the city and claimed that, by burning mixed water and oil in it, he could heat a common cooking-stove red-hot in five minutes. The proportions were four gallons of oil to five gallons of water, and with this quantity the inventor declared that he could run a steam-engine for thirty days, heat twelve furnaces, or light a whole city with gas. The oil was worth 50 cents a barrel, and cooking, heating, and lighting, were thus to cost almost nothing. A stock company was started to push the enterprise, and it was found that ‘by the aid of twelve gallons of oil two gallons of water could be evaporated.’ It didn't promise overwhelming dividends. The corporation disembodied itself as fast as possible, and the inventor, packing up his gas-pipes and oil-cans, left Peoria, to enlighten and warm some other region."

How true this statement may happen to be, we do not know; but we do know that analogous cases are abundant.

These consequences are a natural result of superficial scientific teaching. A little science is now dispensed in all schools; but it is generally the qualitative rudiments that are easiest taught, and which serve only to make pedants of the pupils. A mass of the simpler facts are memorized as mere sensational acquisition, and there is very little training in principles, or scientific method. It is not to be expected that in general education students will possess themselves of all the higher qualitative data of science, so as to be able to meet any emergency with ready and accurate information. But, for protection from such impositions as we have here noticed, there should be such a cultivation of the scientific judgment as will guard against the grosser fallacies put forth by unscrupulous projectors.

 
THE QUESTION OF STIMULATION.

The article in our present number, on the physiological position of alcohol, by Dr. Richardson, an eminent physician of London, is the freshest exposition of the subject yet offered. Its author has made narcotics and anaesthetics a matter of special scientific study and physiological experiment; and, although his hypothesis of a “nervous ether” is regarded as fanciful, yet his statement of the way alcohol influences the system is independent of that speculation, and will be found instructive.

The evils that arise to individuals and to society, through the agency of alcoholic drinks, are universally admitted, but the question what is to be done to remedy them proves most difficult. It has been asked in this country and in England, for half a century, without eliciting any satisfactory reply, and the same question is being now very seriously proposed by the French. There seems to have been an enormous increase in the consumption of spirits in France, a great reduction of cost, and a deterioration of quality. In 1820, there were consumed 7,700,000 gallons of alcoholic drink; in 1869, it had risen to 21,500,000 gallons. In 1850, nine-tenths came from the distillation of the products of the vine, while in 1869 the vine furnished only three-tenths of it—the remainder coming from beet-root and grain. So a gallon of liquor, which in 1850 cost nine francs, sells to-day for two and a half francs. It is alleged that suicides and insanity have increased during this period in a rapid ratio.

To arrest this tendency of things, the French are fertile in projects. They would tax cheap liquors, they would extirpate the vine, they would make public drunkenness criminal, they would pledge men to total abstinence from—ever setting foot in a café.

But, what is more to the purpose, a society has been organized in Paris, embracing a large number of physicians and scientists, who propose to instruct the people by the press and lectures as to the evils which flow from the habitual use of alcoholic drinks. They will not insist on teetotalism or prohibition, but urge the substitution for the stronger liquors of such beverages as coffee, native wines, cider, and beer.

It is not to be disguised that the problem here proposed, and with which civilization is now confronted, is one of the most refractory that philanthropy has yet encountered. Slavery was a local and anomalous institution, based upon legislation, and, when the turf of moral suasion failed to dislodge it, the stones of war proved effectual. But the evil of intemperance cannot be terminated by burning gunpowder. The craving for stimulation and for stimulants, in one or another of their innumerable forms, is not a local, unusual, arbitrary, or statutory thing, but a rooted and universal passion of human nature. It is not confined to special communities, but pervades alike the civilized and uncivilized races all over the world; varying in different types of humanity, but common to all. Some races take to opium, others to hashish, others to alcohol. It is this deep basis of the propensity in human nature that gives to the subject its mystery and its perplexity.

The rationale of stimulation is indeed not so puzzling. Food builds up and maintains the vital activity of the whole animate creation in its working state, but that is not enough for man. He leads a life of high and complex feeling, subject to wide fluctuations, while his intellect furnishes him with the means of influencing his emotional states. He therefore seeks those agencies which act to arouse pleasurable emotion, and these are stimulants. Capable of appreciating the immediate pleasure, but incapable of realizing adequately the distant pain, the habit is formed, and use runs into abuse.

What, then, is to be done? Here logic is soon at fault, for the headlong reformer, who fixes his attention upon some special phase of the evil, and would eradicate it root and branch, is soon found to be himself involved in something not very unlike what he so zealously condemns—he, too, is an object of reformatory solicitude. One thunders against the whole tribe of alcoholic stimulants, from ethereal wine to acrid whiskey, and never touches, tastes, or handles them—the pipe will do for him. Another counter-blasts tobacco—content with abundance of strong coffee. Another decries all these together, inspired by the stimulus of concentrated potions of tea. Still another ingests perhaps only vegetables and water, and fulminates from the pulpit or platform against all these gross material indulgences, yet is lifted into the seventh heaven of enjoyment by the stimulating incense of flattery and applause which comes up from admiring auditors, and without which life would be "flat, stale, and unprofitable." Others get from music, pictures, theatres, fashion, novels, newspapers, or travel, a quieter form of excitement, which, though often running into dissipation, is less harmful than ordinary narcotic stimulation. How far the ballroom, the political campaign, or the religious revival, may be the equivalent of a drinking spree, we will not pretend to say, but that they are all marked by a common character stimulation of pleasurable feeling carried to a pitch of excitement which ends in reaction more or less exhausting—is not to be denied.

As regards relief from the mischiefs of over-stimulation, alcoholic or otherwise, we have no reformatory nostrum to propose. And, when they are proposed, we shall do well to remember that the evil does not exist alone; it is part of the general imperfection of our nature, and the social state which accompanies it. Nor is it to be remedied alone; the evils that result from the craving for stimulants, and the gratification of it by dangerous drugs, will probably only be removed with the slow and general improvement of character and amelioration of social conditions. As soon as people know better their own nature and the true conditions of its unfolding, and begin to regard the subject with a more sacred respect, in proportion, we will venture to say, to the growth of a scientific conscience, will man become a higher law to himself, and the grosser vices of conduct may be expected gradually to disappear.