On Enlightenment scientists and the forgotten role of imagination.
Headlines today pop with accusations that traditional sources of knowledge and even experts are biased, ideological, and unreliable. Accusations of “fake science” have become particularly commonplace. The Heritage Foundation think tank reports on the pervasiveness of fake science, laying the blame on scientists themselves. In their view, climate change isn’t caused by humans, and scientists are mere lackeys for a liberal political agenda. In response, practicing scientists and advocates have responded vociferously: the 2017 earth Day “March for Science” took place not only in Washington DC, but in more than 600 cities worldwide. The Union of Concerned Scientists has reached out through panels, such as the one on “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity ” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference.
As long as there has been modern science, there have been hoaxes. In 1726, Mary Toft, an illiterate English servant in Surrey, claimed to have given birth to dead animal parts and scores of rabbits, a wonder made all the more persuasive by the authorization of the royal anatomist, Nathaniel St. André. She was brought to London and revealed as a fraud. A year earlier, the physician Johann Beringer, Chair of Natural History at the University of Würzburg and chief physician to the city’s Prince Bishop, was duped into believing that 2000 pieces of limestone in the shape of animals, some engraved with the name of God, were fossils or were of divine origin fossils. They were really the prank of a jealous colleague.
And there also have always been skeptics ready to satirize bad science. Poet Samuel Butler ridiculed a natural philosopher who claimed to discover an elephant on the moon, when in fact a mouse had “mistaken its Way and got into his Telescope.” Similarly, the patriarch-scientist of Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon is fooled by painted lenses on his telescope into believing that there is a royal court on the moon. The Empress of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World faints when she sees vermin under a microscope, and later prohibits science as both useless and divisive.
Today’s reactionary attack on science is instead an attack on science as a form of knowledge in the first place.
But the current fights about real and fake science reveal a different intellectual and political problem. Hoaxes and satires are effective because of a baseline belief that science is true. Today’s reactionary attack on science is instead an attack on science as a form of knowledge in the first place. American conservative pundit and long-time activist, Austin Ruse rehearses the complaint in his Fake Science: Exposing the Left's Skewed Statistics, Fuzzy Facts, and Dodgy Data: “There’s real science, and then there’s ‘science,’ or what passes for it these days. … Real science is about data that can be measured, about facts and biological processes that can be established by observation and experiment, about results that can be replicated.” And in Ruse’s “fake-science” view? “That reputation has been hijacked by a cause that’s anything but scientific. ‘Science’ is now a cover for the leftist agenda.”
Ruse’s definition of “real science” relies on the idea of credibility, a concept that concerned early practitioners in seventeenth-century Britain. The terms “data,” “facts,” “experiment,” and “observation” are familiar to us today, but Enlightenment scientists labored to create and stabilize their modern meanings. Before the scientific revolution, for example, “experiment” meant explanation and “facts” were commonly known phenomena, generalized and universalized. By the seventeenth century, “experiment” meant discovery, and this change in meaning also raised questions about who had or didn’t have authority to make discoveries. Early scientists, such as Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, both fellows of the Royal Society, felt pressure to present their new approach to the natural world–what we now know as the scientific method–as reliable, authoritative, and true. Early scientists created the idea of objectivity by insisting that the imagination played no role in their work or their findings. In so doing, they claimed that there was a difference between a credible reality and a fanciful fiction, between a scientific truth and a subjective opinion. We have inherited that belief that the difference between fact and fiction is stable and unassailable, especially when it comes to science.
The point is this: early scientists regularly acknowledged that imaginative thinking necessarily informed what might or might not be discovered, what counted as a fact and what didn’t.
Yet early scientists also embraced their imaginations. Boyle, Hooke, and their colleagues could articulate and advocate for their new, empirical approach to the natural world only because they used their imaginations and literary and rhetorical devices. Natural philosophers used metaphors to understand and communicate their findings—Boyle described combustion, in turn, as a sponge, a bow, a piece of wool. “Facts” may have been presented as singular instances, but they were actually composites, subject to the discernment and discrimination of the scientist. Another Royal Society colleague, Henry Baker, who helped popularize the microscope, celebrated science because of the wonders it provided for the imagination. Natural philosophers themselves could be depicted metaphorically, as when Hooke converts the human body into a scientific instrument, by calling the scientist “a sincere Hand and a faithful Eye” or historian Thomas Sprat speaks of the members of the Royal Society itself as a “Union of Eyes, and Hands.” Stripping the group of any subjective qualities, he imagines a community through metonymy. The idea may have been to guarantee the group’s impartiality as dispassionate purveyors of truth. But even these instrumentalized body parts, separated from the corporate body as a whole, still require adjectival modifications (“sincere,” “faithful”) that remind us that there is a human peering through the microscope’s lens and telling us what he sees. The point is this: early scientists regularly acknowledged that imaginative thinking necessarily informed what might or might not be discovered, what counted as a fact and what didn’t. They understood that person performing the experiment was not a dry, staid instrument, but a living, creative individual.
From the beginnings of experimental science, then, the role of the imagination has been central yet obscured. This is part of the story I tell in The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment. Early scientists relied upon imaginative gestures and concepts, but their stated praxis could not accommodate imagination’s vagaries. Deeply concerned that their discoveries be treated as reliable, they often chose to ignore the constitutive role of the imagination as itself a form of knowledge and understanding. We have been heirs to that legacy, which allows for facile accusations of fakery. The politicized accusation that science is fake assumes and perpetuates a fundamentally impoverished understanding of the scientific method and its contributions. The challenge of our contemporary moment is to understand and recuperate that legacy of imaginative knowledge.