Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/October 1872/The Study of Sociology IV

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IV.—Difficulties of the Social Science

FROM the intrinsic natures of its facts, from our own natures as observers of its facts, and from the peculiar relation in which we stand toward the facts to he observed, there arise impediments in the way of Sociology greater than those standing in the way of any other science.

The phenomena to be generalized are not of a directly-perceptible kind—cannot be noted by telescope and clock, like those of Astronomy; cannot be measured by dynamometer and thermometer, like those of Physics; cannot be elucidated by scales and test-papers, like those of Chemistry; are not to be got at by scalpel and microscope, like the less-obvious biological phenomena; nor are to be recognized by introspection, like the phenomena Psychology deals with. They have severally to be established by the putting together of many details, no one of which is simple, and which are dispersed both in Space and Time, in ways that make them difficult of access. Hence the reason that some of its cardinal truths, such as the division of labor, remain long unrecognized. That in advanced societies men follow different occupations, was indeed a generalization easy to make; but that this form of social arrangement had neither been specially created, nor enacted by a king, but had grown up without forethought of any one, was a conclusion that could be reached only after many transactions of many kinds between men had been noted, remembered, and accounted for, and only after comparisons had been made between those transactions and these taking place between men in simpler societies, and in earlier times. And when it is remembered that the data from which only there can be drawn the inference that labor comes specialized, are far more accessible than the data for most other sociological inferences, it will he seen how greatly the advance of Sociology is hindered by the nature of its subject-matter.

The characters of men as observers, add to this first difficulty a second that is perhaps equally great. Necessarily men carry with them into sociological inquiries, the modes of observation and reasoning which they have been accustomed to in other inquiries those of them, at least, who make any inquiries worthy to be so called. Passing over the great majority of the educated, and limiting ourselves to the very few who consciously collect data, compare them, and deliberately draw conclusions; we may see that even these have to struggle with the difficulty that the habits of thought generated by converse with relatively simple phenomena, partially unfit them for converse with these highly-complex phenomena. Faculty of every kind tends always to adjust itself to its work; special adjustment to one kind of work involves more or less non-adjustment to other kinds; and hence, intellects disciplined in dealing with less-involved classes of facts, cannot successfully deal with this most-involved class of facts without partially unlearning the methods they have learned.

From the emotional nature, too, there arise great obstacles. Scarcely any one can contemplate social arrangements and actions with the unconcern felt when contemplating arrangements and actions of other kinds. For correct observation and correct drawing of inferences, there needs the calmness that is ready to recognize or to infer one truth as readily as another. But it is next to impossible thus to deal with the truths of Sociology. In the search for them, each carries with him feelings, more or less strong, which make him eager to find this evidence, oblivious of that which is at variance with it, reluctant to draw any conclusion but that already drawn. And though perhaps one in ten among those who think, is conscious that his judgment is being warped by prejudice, yet even in him the warp is not adequately allowed for. It is true that in nearly every field of inquiry emotion is a perturbing intruder: mostly there is some preconception, and some amour propre that resists disproof of it. But the peculiarity of Sociology is, that the emotions with which its facts and conclusions are regarded, have unusual strength. The personal interests are directly affected, or there is gratification or offence to sentiments that have grown out of them; or else other sentiments which have relation to the existing form of society, are excited, agreeably or disagreeably.

And here we are introduced to the third kind of difficulty—that caused by the position occupied in respect to the phenomena to be generalized. In no other case has the inquirer to investigate the properties of an aggregate in which he is himself included. His relation toward the facts he here studies, we may figure to ourselves by comparing it to the relation between a single cell forming part of a living body, and the facts which that living body presents as a whole. There is, indeed, nothing like so close a dependence of the unit upon the aggregate; hut still there is a very decided dependence. Speaking generally, the citizen's life is made possible only by due performance of his function in the place he fills; and he cannot wholly free himself from the beliefs and sentiments generated by the vital connections hence arising between himself and his society. Here, then, is a difficulty to which no other science presents anything analogous. To cut himself off in thought from all his relationships of race, and country, and citizenship—to get rid of all those interests, prejudices, likings, superstitions, generated in him by the life of his own society and his own time—to look on all the changes societies have undergone and are undergoing, without reference to nationality, or creed, or personal welfare; is what the average man cannot do at all, and what the exceptional can do very imperfectly.

The difficulties of the Social Science, thus indicated in vague outline, have now to be described and illustrated in detail.


V.—Objective Difficulties.

Along with much that has of late years been done toward changing primitive history into myth, and along with much that has been done toward changing once unquestioned estimates of persons and events of past ages, much has been said about the untrustworthiness of historical evidence. Hence there will be ready acceptance of the statement that one of the impediments to sociological generalization, is the uncertainty of our data. When we bear in mind that from early stories such as those about the Amazons, their practices, the particular battles with them, and particular events in those battles, all of which are recorded and sculptured as circumstantially as they might be were the persons and events historic—when we bear in mind, I say, that from such early stories down to accounts of a well-known people like the New-Zealanders, who, "by some .... are said to be intelligent, cruel, and brave; by others, weak, kindly, and cowardly,"[1] we have to deal with an enormous accumulation of conflicting statements; we cannot but feel that the task of collecting facts from which to draw conclusions, is in this case a more arduous one than in any other case. Passing over remote illustrations, let us take an immediate one:

Last year advertisements announced the "Two-headed Nightingale;" and the walls of London were placarded with a figure in which one pair of shoulders was shown to bear two heads looking the same way (I do not refer to the later placards, which partially differed from the earlier). To some, this descriptive name and answering diagram seemed sufficiently exact; for in my hearing a lady, who had been to see this compound being, referred to the placards and handbills as giving a good representation. If we suppose this lady to have repeated in a letter that which I heard her say, and if we ask what would appear the character of the evidence to one who, some fifty years hence, had "before him the advertisement, the representation, and the letter, we shall see that the alleged fact would be thought by him incontestable. Only if, after weary search through all the papers and periodicals of the time, he happened to come upon a certain number of the Lancet, would he discover that this combination was not that of two heads on one body, but that of two individuals united back to back, with heads facing opposite ways, and severally complete in all respects, except where the parts were so fused as to form a double pelvis, containing certain pelvic viscera common to the two. If, then, respecting facts of so simple and so easily-verifiable a kind, where no obvious motive for misrepresentations exists, we cannot count on true representations, how shall we count on true representations of social facts, which, being so diffused and so complex, are so difficult to observe, and in respect of which the perceptions are so much perverted by interests, and prepossessions, and party feelings?

In exemplifying this difficulty, let us limit ourselves to cases supplied by the life of our own time; leaving it to be inferred that if, in a comparatively calm and critical age, sociological evidence is vitiated by various influences, much more must there have been vitiation of such evidence in the past, when passions ran higher and credulity was greater.

Those who have lately become conscious of certain facts are apt to suppose those facts have lately arisen. After a changed state of mind has made us observant of occurrences we were before indifferent to, there often results the belief that such occurrences have become more common. It happens so even with accidents and diseases. Having lamed himself, a man is surprised to find how many lame people there are; and, becoming dyspeptic, he discovers that dyspepsia is much more frequent than he supposed when he was young. For a kindred reason he is prone to think that servants do not behave nearly so well as they did during his boyhood—not remembering that in Shakespeare's day the service obtainable was similarly reprobated in comparison with "the constant service of the antique world." Similarly, now that he has sons to establish in life, he fancies that the difficulty of getting places is much greater than it used to be.

As witnesses to social phenomena, men thus impressed by facts which did not before impress them, become perverters of evidence. Things they have suddenly recognized, they mistake for things that have suddenly come into existence; and so are led to regard as a growing evil or good, that which is as likely as not a diminishing evil or good. Take an example or two:

In generations not long passed away, sobriety was the exception rather than the rule: a man who had never been drunk was a rarity. Condiments were used to stimulate drinking; glasses were so shaped that they would not stand, hut must he held till emptied; and a man's worth was in part measured by the number of bottles he could take in. After a reaction had already greatly diminished the evil among the upper and middle ranks, there came an open recognition of the evil; resulting in Temperance Societies, which did their share toward further diminishing it. Then came the Teetotal Societies, more thoroughgoing in their views and more energetic in their actions, which have been making the evil still less; the accumulated effect of these causes "being, that for a long time past among the upper classes, the drinking which was once creditable has become a disgrace; while among the lower classes it has greatly decreased, and come to he generally reprobated. Those, however, who, carrying on the agitations against it, have had their eyes more and more widely opened to the vice, assert or imply in their speeches and petitions that the vice is not only great but growing. Having in the course of a generation much mitigated it by their voluntary efforts, they now make themselves believe, and make others believe, that it is too gigantic to be dealt with otherwise than by repressive enactments—Maine Laws and Permissive-Prohibitory Bills. And, if we are to be guided by a Select Committee which has just reported, fines and imprisonments for drunkenness must be made far more severe than now, and reformatories must be established in which inebriates shall be dealt with much as criminals are dealt with.

Take, again, the case of education. Go back far enough, and you find nobles not only incapable of reading and writing, but treating these accomplishments with contempt. Go back not quite so far, and you find, along with a slight encouragement by authority of such learning as referred to Theology, a positive discouragement of all other learning;[2] joined with the belief that only for the clergy is learning of any kind proper. Go back a much smaller distance, and you find in the highest classes inability to spell tolerably, joined with more or less of the feeling that good spelling was a pedantry improper for ladies—a feeling akin to that named by Shakespeare as shown by those who counted it "a meanness to write fair." Down even to quite modern times, well-to-do farmers and others of their rank were by no means all of them able to read and write. Education, spreading thus slowly during so many centuries, has during the last century spread with comparative rapidity. Since Raikes commenced Sunday-schools in 1771; since Lancaster, the Quaker, in 1796 set up the first of the schools that afterward went by his name; since 1811, when the Church had to cease its opposition and become a competitor in educating poor children; the strides have been enormous: a degree of ignorance which had continued the ride during so many centuries was made in the course of half a century the exception. And then in 1834, after this unobtrusive but speedy diffusion of knowledge, there came, along with a growing consciousness of the still-remaining deficiency, the system of State-subsidies; which, beginning with £20,000, grew, in less than thirty years, to more than a million. Yet now, after this vast progress at an ever-increasing rate, there has come the outcry that the nation is perishing for lack of knowledge. Any one not knowing the past, and judging from the statements of those who have been urging on educational organizations, would suppose that strenuous efforts are imperative to save the people from some gulf of demoralization and crime, into which ignorance is sweeping them.

How testimonies respecting objective facts are thus perverted by the subjective states of the witnesses, and how we have to be ever on our guard against this cause of vitiation in sociological evidence, may indeed be inferred from, the illusions that daily mislead men in their comparisons of past with present. Returning after many years to the place of his boyhood, and finding how insignificant are the buildings he remembered as so imposing, every one discovers that in this case it was not that the past was so grand, but that his impressibility was so great and his power of criticism so small. He does not perceive, however, that the like holds generally; and that the apparent decline in various things is really due to the widening of his experiences and the growth of a judgment no longer so easily satisfied. Hence the mass of witnesses may be under the impression that there is going on a change just the reverse of that which is really going on; as we see, for example, in the notion current in every age, that the size and strength of the race have been decreasing, when, as proved by bones, by mummies, and by armor, and by the experiences of travellers in contact with aboriginal races, they have been on the average increasing.

Most testimony, then, on which we have to form ideas of sociological states, past and present, has to be discounted to meet this cause of error; and the rate of discount has to be varied according to the epoch, and the subject, and the witness.


Beyond this vitiation of sociological evidence by general subjective states of the witnesses, there are vitiations due to more special subjective states. Of these, the first to be noted are those which foregone conclusions produce.

Extreme cases are furnished by fanatical agitators, such as members of the Anti-Tobacco Society, in the account of whose late meeting we read that "statistics of heart-disease, of insanity, of paralysis, and the diminished bulk and stature of the population of both sexes proved, according to the report, that these diseases were attributable to the use of tobacco." But without making much of instances so glaring as this, we may find abundant proof that evidence is in most cases unconsciously distorted by the pet theories of those who give it.

Early in the history of our sanitary legislation, a leading officer of health, wishing to show the need for those measures he advocated, drew a comparison between the rate of mortality in some most salubrious village (in Cumberland, I think it was), and the rate of mortality in London; and then, pointing out the marked difference, alleged that this difference was due to "preventible causes"—to causes, that is, which good sanitary administration would exclude. Ignoring the fact that the carbonic acid exhaled by nearly three millions of people and by their fires, caused in the one case a vitiation of the air which in the other case did not exist—ignoring the fact that most city-occupations are of necessity in-door, and many of them sedentary, while the occupations of village life are out-of-door and active—ignoring the fact that in many of the Londoners the activities are cerebral in a degree beyond that to which the constitution of the race is adapted, while in the villagers the activities are bodily, in a degree appropriate to the constitution of the race; he set down the whole difference in the death-rate to causes of the kind which laws and officials might get rid of.

A still more marked example of this effect of a cherished hypothesis in vitiating the evidence given by an inquirer, was once unconsciously yielded to me by another enthusiast for sanitary regulation. Producing his papers, he pointed out a statistical contrast he had been drawing between the number of deaths per annum in the small town near London where he lived, and the number of deaths per annum, in a low district of London—Bermondsey, or Lambeth, or some region on the Surrey side. On this great contrast he triumphantly dilated as proving how much could be done by good drainage, ventilation, etc. On the one hand, he passed over the fact that this small suburban town was, in large measure, inhabited by a picked population—people of means, well fed and clothed, able to secure all appliances of comfort, leading regular and quiet lives, free from overwork and anxiety. On the other hand, he passed over the fact that this low region of London was, by virtue of its lowness, one out of which all citizens pecuniarily able to take care of themselves escaped if they could, and into which were thrust an unusual number of those whose poverty excluded them from better regions—the ill-fed, the drunken, the dissolute, and others on the highway to death. Though, in the first case, the healthiness of the locality obviously drew to it an excess of persons otherwise likely to live long; and though, in the second case, the unhealthiness of the locality made it one in which an excess of those not likely to live long were left to dwell or brought to die; yet the whole difference was put down to direct physical effects of pure air and impure air respectively.

Statements proceeding from witnesses whose judgments are thus warped—statements republished by careless sub-editors, and readily accepted by the uncritical who believe all they see in print, diffuse erroneous prepossessions; which, again, tend to justify themselves by drawing the attention to confirmatory facts and away from facts that are adverse. Throughout all past time vitiation of evidence by influences of this nature has been going on to a degree varying with each people and each age; and hence arises an additional obstacle to the obtainment of fit data.

Yet another, and perhaps stronger, distorting influence existing in the medium through which facts reach us, results from the self-seeking, pecuniary or other, of those who testify. We require constantly to bear in mind that personal interests affect most of the statements on which sociological conclusions are based, and on which legislation proceeds.

Every one knows this to be so where the evidence concerns mercantile affairs. That railway enterprise, at first prompted by pressing needs for communication, presently came to be prompted by speculators, professional and financial; and that the estimates of cost, of traffic, of profits, etc., set forth in prospectuses, were grossly misleading; many readers have been taught by bitter experience. That the gains secured by schemers who float companies have fostered an organized system which has made the falsification of evidence a business, and which, in the case of bubble insurance companies, has been worked so methodically that it has become the function of a journal to expose the frauds continually repeated, are also familiar facts; reminding us how in these directions it is needful to look very skeptically on the allegations put before us. But there is not so distinct a consciousness that in other than business enterprises, self-seeking is an active cause of misrepresentation.

Like the getting up of companies, the getting up of agitations and of societies has become, to a considerable extent, a means of advancement. As in the United States politics has become a profession, into which a man enters to get an income, so here there has grown up, though happily to a smaller extent, a professional philanthropy, pursued with a view either to position, or to profit, or to both. Much as the young clergyman in want of a benefice, feeling deeply the spiritual destitution of a suburb that has grown beyond churches, busies himself in raising funds to build a church, and probably does not, during his canvass, understate the evils to be remedied; so every here and there an educated man with plenty of leisure and small income, greatly impressed with some social evil to be remedied or benefit to be achieved, becomes the nucleus to an institution, or the spur to a movement. And since his success depends mainly on the strength of the case he makes out, it is not to be expected that the evils to be dealt with will be faintly pictured, or that he will insist very strongly upon facts adverse to his plan. As I can personally testify, there are those who, having been active in getting up schemes for alleged beneficial public ends, consider themselves aggrieved when not afterward appointed salaried officials. The recent exposure of the "Free Dormitory Association," which, as stated at a meeting of the Charity-Organization Society, was but one of a class, shows what this process may end in. And the vitiation of evidence is an inevitable concomitant. One whom I have known during his thirty years' experience of Leagues, Alliances, Unions, etc., for various purposes, writes: "Like religious bodies, they (Associations) form creeds, and every adherent is expected to cry up the shibboleth of his party. ... All facts are distorted to the aid of their own views, and such as cannot be distorted are suppressed. ... In every association with which I have had any connection, this fraud has been practised."

The like holds in political agitations. Unfortunately, agencies established to get remedies for crying evils, are liable to become agencies maintained and worked in a considerable degree, and sometimes chiefly, for the benefit of those who reap incomes from them. An amusing instance of this was furnished, not many years ago, to a Member of Parliament who took an active part in advocating a certain radical measure which had for some years been making way, and which then seemed not unlikely to be carried. Being a member of the Association that had pushed forward this measure, he happened to step into its offices just before a debate which was expected to end in a majority for the bill, and he found the secretary and his subs in a state of consternation at the prospect of their success: feeling, as they obviously did, that their occupation was in danger.

Clearly, then, where personal interests come into play, there must be, even in men intending to be truthful, a great readiness to see the facts which it is convenient to see, and such reluctance to see opposite facts as will prevent much activity in seeking for them. Hence a large discount has mostly to be made from the evidence furnished by institutions and societies in justification of the policies they pursue or advocate. And since much of the evidence respecting both past and present social phenomena comes to us through agencies calculated thus to pervert it, there is here a further impediment to clear vision of facts.

That the reader may fully appreciate the difficulties which these distorting influences, when combined, put in the way of getting good materials for generalization, let him contemplate a case:

All who are acquainted with such matters know that, up to some ten years since, it was habitually asserted by lecturers when addressing students, and by writers in medical journals, that, in our day, syphilis is a far less serious evil than it was in days gone by. Until quite recently this was a commonplace statement, called in question by no one in the profession. But just as, while a gradual decrease of drunkenness has been going on, Temperance-fanatics have raised an increasing outcry for strenuous measures to put down drunkenness; so, while venereal disease has been diminishing in frequency and severity, certain instrumentalities and agencies have created a belief that rigorous measures are required to check its progress. This incongruity would by itself be a sufficient proof of the extent to which, on the one side or the other, evidence must have been vitiated. What, then, shall we say of the incongruity on finding that the first of these statements has recently been repeated by many of the highest medical authorities, as one verified by their experience? Here are some of their testimonies:

The Chairman of the late Government Commission for inquiring into the treatment and prevention of syphilis, Mr. Skey, Consulting-Surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, gave evidence before a House of Lords Committee. Referring to an article expressing the views of the Association for promoting the extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, he said it was—

"largely overcharged," and "colored too highly.... The disease is by no means so common or universal, I may say, as is represented in that article, .... and I have had an opportunity, since I had the summons to appear here to-day, of communicating with several leading members in the profession at the College of Surgeons, and we are all of the same opinion, that the evil is not so large by any means as it is represented by the Association."

Mr. John Simon, F. R. S., for thirty-five years a hospital surgeon, and now Medical Officer to the Privy Council, writes in his official capacity:

"I have not the least disposition to deny that venereal affections constitute a real and great evil for the community; though I suspect that very exaggerated opinions are current as to their diffusion and malignity."

By the late Prof. Syme it was asserted that—

"It is now fully ascertained that the poison of the present day (true syphilis) does not give rise to the dreadful consequences which have been mentioned, when treated without mercury.... None of the serious effects that used to be so much dreaded ever appear, and even the trivial ones just noticed comparatively seldom present themselves. We must, therefore, conclude either that the virulence of the poison is worn out, or that the effects formerly attributed to it depended on treatment."[3]

The British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, which stands far higher than any other medical journal, and is friendly to the Acts as applied to military and naval stations, writes thus:

"The majority of those who have undergone the disease, thus far" (including secondary manifestations), "live as long as they could otherwise have expected to live, and die of diseases with which syphilis has no more to do than the man in the moon."[4] .... "Surely 455 persons suffering from true syphilis in one form or another, in a poor population of 1,500,000" (less than one in 3,000) .... "cannot be held to be a proportion so large as to call for exceptional action on the part of any government."[5]

Mr. Holmes Coote, F. R. C. S., Surgeon and Lecturer on Surgery at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, says:

"It is a lamentable truth that the troubles which respectable, hard-working married women of the working-class undergo are more trying to the health, and detrimental to the looks, than any of the irregularities of the harlot's career."

Again, it is stated by Mr. Byrne, Surgeon to the Dublin Lock Hospital, that "there is not nearly so much syphilis as there used to be;" and, after describing some of the serious results that were once common, he adds: "You will not see such a case for years—a fact that no medical man can have failed to remark." Mr. W. Burns Thompson, F. R. C. S., for ten years head of the Edinburgh Dispensary, testifies as follows:

"I have had good opportunities of knowing the prevailing diseases, and I can only say that the representations given by the advocates of these Acts are to me perfectly unintelligible; they seem to me to be gross exaggeration."

Mr. Surgeon-Major Wyatt, of the Coldstream Guards, when examined by the Lords' Committee, stated that he quite concurred with Mr. Skey. Answering question 700, he said:

"The class of syphilitic diseases which we see are of a very mild character; and, in fact, none of the ravages which used formerly to be committed on the appearance and aspect of the men are now to be seen.... It is an undoubted fact that in this country and in France the character of the disease is much diminished in intensity.—Question: 708. I understand you to say, that in your opinion the venereal disease has generally, independent of the Act, become more mitigated, and of a milder type? Answer: Yes; that is the experience of all surgeons, both civil and military."

Dr. Druitt, President of the Association of the Medical Officers of Health for London, affirmed at one of its meetings—

"that speaking from thirty-nine years' experience, he was in a position to say that cases of syphilis in London were rare among the middle and better classes, and soon got over."

And even Mr. Acton, a specialist, to whom more than to any other man the Acts are due, admitted before the Lords' Committee that "the disease is milder than it was formerly."

Like testimony is given by Continental surgeons, among whom it was long ago said by Ambrose Paré, that the disease "is evidently becoming milder every day;" and by Auzias Turenne, that "it is on the wane all over Europe." Astruc and Diday concur in this statement. And the latest authority on syphilis, Lancereaux, whose work is so valued that it has been translated by the Sydenham Society, asserts-that—

"In these cases, which are far from being rare, syphilis is but an abortive disease; slight and benignant, it does not leave behind any troublesome trace of its passage. It is impossible to lay too much stress upon this point. At the present day especially, when syphilis still inspires exaggerated fears, it should be known that this disease becomes dissipated completely in a great number of cases after the cessation of the cutaneous eruptions, and perhaps sometimes even with the primary lesion."[6]

It will, perhaps, be remarked that these testimonies of medical men who, by their generally high position, or their lengthened experience, or their special experience, are so well qualified to judge, are selected testimonies; and against them will be set the testimonies of Sir James Paget, Sir W. Jenner, and Mr. Prescott Hewett, who regard the evil as a very grave one. To gather accurately the consensus of medical opinion would be impracticable without polling the whole body of physicians and surgeons; but we have a means of judging which view most truly meets with "the emphatic concurrence of numerous practitioners:" that, namely, of taking a local group of medical men. Out of fifty-eight physicians and surgeons residing in Nottingham and its suburbs, fifty-four have put their signatures to a public statement that syphilis is "very much diminished in frequency, and so much milder in form that we can scarcely recognize it as the disease described by our forefathers." And among these are the medical men occupying nearly all the official medical positions in the town—Senior Physician to the General Hospital, Honorary Surgeon ditto, Surgeons to the Jail, to the General Dispensary, to the Free Hospital, to the Union Hospital, to the Lock Hospital (four in number), Medical Officers to the Board of Health, to the Union, to the County Asylum, etc., etc. Even while I write there comes to me kindred evidence in the shape of a letter published in the British Medical Journal for July 20, 1872, by Dr. Carter, Honorary Physician to the Liverpool Southern Hospital, who states that, after several debates at the Liverpool Medical Institution, "a form of petition strongly condemnatory of the Acts was written out by myself, and .... in a few days one hundred and eight signatures" (of medical men) "were obtained." Meanwhile, he adds, "earnest efforts were being made by a number of gentlemen to procure medical signatures to the petition in favor of the Acts known as the 'London Memorial'—efforts which resulted in twenty-nine signatures only."

Yet notwithstanding this testimony great in quantity, and much of it of the highest quality, it has been possible so to present the evidence as to produce in the public mind, and in the Legislature, the impression that peremptory measures for dealing with a spreading pest are indispensable. As lately writes a Member of Parliament:

"We are assured, on what appeared unexceptionable testimony, that a terrible constitutional disease was undermining the health and vigor of the nation, and especially destroying innocent women and children."

And then note the startling circumstance that while so erroneous a conception of the facts may be spread abroad, there may, by the consequent alarm, be produced a blindness to facts of the most unquestionable kind, established by the ever-accumulating experiences of successive generations. Until quite recently, our forms of judicial procedure embodied the principle that some overt injury must be committed before legal instrumentalities can be brought into play; and conformity to this principle was in past times gradually brought about by efforts to avoid the terrific evils that otherwise arose. As a Professor of Jurisprudence reminds us, "the object of the whole complicated system of checks and guards provided by English law, and secured by a long train of constitutional conflicts, has been to prevent an innocent man being even momentarily treated as a thief, a murderer, or other criminal, on the mere alleged or real suspicion of a policeman." Yet now, in the state of groundless fright that has been got up, "the concern hitherto exhibited by the Legislature for the personal liberty of the meanest citizen has been needlessly and recklessly lost sight of."[7] It is an a priori inference from human nature that irresponsible power is sure, on the average of cases, to be grossly abused. The histories of all nations, through all times, teem with proofs that irresponsible power has been grossly abused. The growth of representative governments is the growth of arrangements made to prevent the gross abuse of irresponsible power. Each of our political struggles, ending in a further development of free institutions, has been made to put an encl to some particular gross abuse of irresponsible power. Yet the facts thrust upon us by our daily experiences of men, verifying the experiences of the whole human race throughout the past, are now tacitly denied and it is tacitly asserted that irresponsible power will not be grossly abused. And all because of a manufactured panic about a decreasing disease, which kills not one-fifteenth of the number killed by scarlet fever, and which takes ten years to destroy as many as diarrhæ destroys in one year.

See, then, what we have to guard against in collecting sociological data—even data concerning the present, and, still more, data concerning the past. For testimonies that come down to us respecting bygone social states, political, religious, judicial, physical, moral, etc., and respecting the actions of particular causes on those social states, have been liable to perversions not simply as great, but greater; since, while the regard for truth was less, there was more readiness to accept unproved statements.

Even where deliberate measures are taken to obtain valid evidence on any political or social question raised, by summoning witnesses of all classes and interests, there is difficulty in getting at the truth; because the circumstances of the inquiry tend of themselves to bring into sight some kinds of evidence, and to keep out of sight other kinds. In illustration may be quoted the following statement of Lord Lincoln on making his motion concerning the enclosures of commons:

"This I know, that in nineteen cases out of twenty, committees sitting in this House on private bills neglected the rights of the poor. I do not say that they wilfully neglected those right—far from it; but this I affirm, that they were neglected in consequence of the committees being permitted to remain in ignorance of the rights of the poor man, because by reason of his very poverty he is unable to come up to London to fee counsel, to procure witnesses, and to urge his claims before a committee of this House."—(Hansard, May 1, 1845.[8])

Many influences of a different order, but similarly tending to exclude particular classes of facts pertinent to an inquiry, come into play. Given a question at issue, and it will very probably happen that witnesses on the one side may, by evidence of a certain nature, endanger a system on which they depend for the whole or for part of their livelihood; and by evidence of an opposite nature may preserve it. By one kind of testimony they may offend their superiors and risk their promotion: doing the reverse by another kind. Moreover, witnesses not thus directly interested are liable to be indirectly swayed by the thought that to name certain facts they know will bring on them the ill-will of important persons in their locality—a serious consideration in a provincial town. And while such influences strongly tend to bring out evidence, say in support of some established organization, there may very possibly, and, indeed, very probably, be no organized adverse interest with abundant resources which busies itself to bring out a contrary class of facts—no occupation in danger, no promotion to be had, no applause to be gained, no odium to be escaped. Contrariwise, there may be positive sacrifices, serious in amount, to be made before such contrary class of facts can be brought to light. And thus it may happen that, perfectly open and fair as the inquiry seems, the circumstances will insure a one-sided representation.

A familiar optical illusion well illustrates the nature of these illusions which often deceive sociological inquirers: When standing by a lake-side in the moonlight, you see, stretching over the rippled surface toward the moon, a bar of light which, as shown by its nearer part, consists of flashes from the sides of separate wavelets. You walk, and the bar of light seems to go with you. There are, even among cultivated people, many who suppose that this bar of light has an objective existence, and who believe that it really moves as the observer moves—occasionally, indeed, as I can testify, expressing surprise at the fact. But, apart from the observer, there exists no such bar of light; nor when the observer moves is there any movement of this glittering line of wavelets. All over the dark part of the surface the undulations are just as bright with moonlight as those he sees; but the light reflected from them does not reach his eyes. Thus, though there seems to be a lighting of some wavelets and not of the rest, and though, as the observer moves, other wavelets seem to become lighted that were not lighted before, yet both these are utterly false seemings. The simple fact is, that his position in relation to certain wavelets brings into view their reflections of the moon's light, while it keeps out of view the like reflections from all other wavelets.

Sociological evidence is largely vitiated by illusions thus caused. Habitually the relations of observers to the facts are such as make visible the special, and exceptional, and sensational, and leave invisible the commonplace and uninteresting, which form the great body of the facts. And this, which is a general cause of deceptive appearances, is variously aided by those more special causes above indicated; which conspire to make the media, through which the facts are seen, transparent in respect of some and opaque in respect of others.

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  1. Thomson's "New Zealand," vol. i., p. 80.
  2. Hallam's "Middle Ages," chap, ix., part ii.
  3. "Principles of Surgery." Fifth edition, p. 434.
  4. British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, January, 1870, p. 103.
  5. Ibid., p. 106.
  6. "A Treatise on Syphilis," by Dr. E. Lancereaux, vol ii., p. 120. This testimony I quote from the work itself, and have similarly taken from the original sources the statements of Skey, Simon, Wyatt, Acton, and the British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review. The rest, with various others, will be found in the pamphlet of Dr. C. B. Taylor on "The Contagious Diseases Acts."
  7. Prof. Sheldon Amos. See also his late important work, "A Systematic View of the Science of Jurisprudence," pp. 119, 303, 512, 514.
  8. Quoted by Nasse, "The Agricultural Community of the Middle Ages," etc., English translation, p. 94.