Walter P. Thompson (1949-1959) - Installation Address

Installation Address, 8 October 1949: "Science and Higher Education"


On hearing of my appointment a citizen of this province remarked that the University had allowed a minister of the gospel to leave and had replaced him by a scientist. It is, he said, a sign of the times. But there are other signs. The presidents of all three prairie universities are scientists and all three replaced humanists, two of the latter being students of English literature and the third a theologian. The presidents of five of the nine English-language universities from Vancouver to Montreal are scientists and all five replaced non-scientists. I have not heard anyone suggest that the characteristics which make a man a scientist specially fit him for the presidential chair. Apparently the chief cause of the trend has been the growing prestige of science and its increasing importance in higher education. That constitutes an appropriate subject for this inaugural address.

Prestige and Disparagement of Science

The achievements of science have been extolled so frequently and with such an abundance of examples that no statement regarding them is necessary on this occasion. In the popular mind its prestige is due to its practical applications which have transformed modern life and which have been produced in such rapid succession that the public has been led to expect almost any new thing. Science has come in fact to be regarded as the best hope of improving man's lot. Men and women like Pasteur, Curie and Bell have become romantic personalities rivalling statesmen, movie actors, or even professional baseball players. To the more discerning its importance lies rather in its basic concepts and general principles which have given us enlarged views of man and the universe.

More recently a reaction against science has set in. Criticism of the glowing picture of its role as a benefactor of mankind has become common, and disparagement of its achievements and possibilities is rather gleefully pronounced. Of course there have always been objectors to particular conclusions or activities of scientists such as the theory of evolution or vivisection. But I am referring now to really serious general criticisms.

Of these the most important is that science is responsible for the increasing horrors of war which have brought mankind to the verge of their own destruction. But there are other strictures. Scientists themselves warn that its applications are leading to the exhaustion of mineral resources, the destruction of forests, the transformation of grasslands into deserts, the extinction of whole species of plants and animals. Its medical achievements are enabling large numbers of weaklings to survive until the age of reproduction and to transmit their weaknesses to the next generation, thereby undermining the constitution of the race. It has produced technological unemployment, and industrial conditions in which labor may be exploited in the dreary tasks of mass production. It has given to some individuals and classes great advantages which they can use ruthlessly. It has given scientific nations great industrial facilities which they can use against smaller or weaker nations. Although its achievements in the field of communication facilitate democratic processes, they can also be exploited by autocratic governments to suppress opposition. It is responsible for the materialism of the age which is oppressive to many. "its symbols are noise, slums, and polluted air." Its philosophy is deterministic. Its methods have been carried over into the humanities and social studies where they are not really applicable and have thereby caused great loss. Hutchins' statement summarizes the situation neatly: "Science was the key which was to open the gates of heaven but it has only led us into a larger and more impressive prison house."

Since universities have been responsible directly or indirectly for most scientific advances, these strictures must be seriously considered by those who influence university policies with respect to both teaching and research.

The usual rejoinder of the scientists to these criticisms is to disclaim responsibility for the bad effects. They maintain that they should not be held responsible for the bad uses to which evil men put their discoveries. Those evil men are to blame. But if scientists will not accept responsibility for the evil applications of their work, they cannot claim credit for the good applications. Yet when science was being lauded for its good effects, I do not recall any scientists arguing that the credit belongs not to science but to the good men who used it to benefit mankind.

It is of course true that science itself is neither good nor evil; it is an instrument which may be put to either good or bad uses. Nevertheless most scientists have an uneasy feeling of responsibility and some are appalled at the hideous uses of their discoveries. They realize that they have a duty to help formulate decisions about how their discoveries and technical developments will be used. They wish to help their colleagues in the social studies to advance a science of society by which these uses may be controlled.

Scientific Methods

Even the severest critics of science pay at least lip service to scientific methods and agree that all students should he made acquainted with those methods and be given some practice in them. But there is nothing mysterious or profound about the methods of science. As Huxley said long ago, science is only refined common sense. It acts less casually than common sense, with more premeditation, more effort to be objective, more determination to wait till all the evidence is available, or at least sufficient evidence. It has developed techniques for handling the facts of experience so as to draw out the greatest amount of knowledge and the most reliable knowledge. Its best technique is experiment, which is only the staging of experience under varied conditions. "Experience, experiment, and expert all derive from one root."

A common misconception is that science can only accumulate facts and has nothing to do with ideas. And this misconception is frequently used to disparage science. Actually it accumulates facts in order that they may be marshalled and analyzed with a view to the development of generalizations, and to the verification of those generalizations. Basically the method is inductive, but once a generalization has been established deductions may he made. The scientist is not satisfied about his deductions, however, unless there is independent objective evidence to verify them. His distrust of unverified deductions is the chief cause of his dislike of methods other than his own.

The most important aspect of science is, then, not the accumulation of new facts but the formulation and verification of new conceptual schemes. This should be made known to two types of persons in particular: (1) the humanistic critics of the role of science in higher education. (2) those professors of scientific subjects who devote most of their time to teaching interesting or strange or even sensational facts.

Practical Applications

Another misconception is that the sole function of science is to produce practical results which may benefit mankind and that its importance lies only in those material benefits. On the one' hand this leads the ordinary man to his belief in the glories of science, and on the other hand it leads professors of the humanities to disparage science as concerned only with gadgets. From the educational standpoint its chief importance lies in its fundamental generalizations and conceptual schemes.

But even from the standpoint of practical benefits the fundamental principles are becoming increasingly important. Not so long ago little or no knowledge of science was needed for improvements in the practical arts: inventors were not scientists but artisans innocent of university training. But nowadays practical advances usually result from the application of scientific principles and may require a profound knowledge of science. It is true that in some areas, notably chemotherapy, science is still producing exceedingly important beneficial results by the method of trial and error. But in general the great need is to develop wider conceptual schemes in every area, which may then be applied in a variety of ways. Of course there are problems of such urgent practical importance that they must be attacked vigorously without waiting for the discovery of the basic principles involved. But it is probable that the solution of many of those urgent problems must actually await the wider concepts to be established, either in work on those very problems or in work which may now appear quite unrelated.

The material benefits of science are constantly emphasized rather than its general concepts, because they are more easily understood and appreciated. But in the realm of important ideas science need take second place to no other type of study. It has made great con tributions to an understanding of man and his nature as well as of the physical universe. It has freed man from superstition and from fear of natural forces which appeared mysterious and malevolent. It has immeasurably extended the horizons of the intellect. Scientific research is one of the greatest adventures of the human mind. The criticism that science is deterministic is really a denial of the scientist's belief that there is consistency, uniformity, repetition – and therefore predictability – in the behaviour 0f all things, including humans.

Science must therefore constitute a large part of a liberal education as well as the education of those entering the scientific professions. Its importance in liberal education lies not so much in inculcatinq scientific methods or in examples of its material benefits to man, but rather in its general ideas and conceptual schemes.

Scientific Research and the Universities

Too often scientific research is regarded as a praiseworthy and desirable but really unnecessary hobby to be carried on by a few specially gifted members of the faculty in spare time or in time stolen from teaching duties. It should rather be regarded as a plain and regular duty.

An agitation is being carried on in journals concerned with higher education for the recognition and training of two kinds of faculty members, one to devote his time to research with little or no teaching, and the other to teaching with little or no research. It is argued that significant success in research requires special qualities which most faculty members will never possess anyway; that it is a needless waste of time and energy for them to take the arduous training needed for research; that such training actually handicaps them for teaching; that the training period should be devoted to the techniques of teaching which most faculty members lack; that, finally, it is unfair to make success as a scholar an important factor in the selection and promotion of a teacher.

There is of course in every faculty an occasional place for the man who has a flair for teaching but lacks the originality or imagination for research or the enthusiasm to prosecute it under difficulties. But it is our general experience that with a few notable exceptions our best scholars are also our best teachers and that the qualities which make for success in the one also as a rule lead to success in the other. Moreover, the man who is an actively productive scholar brings to his teaching a freshness, enthusiasm, and familiarity with current advances, which are too often lacking in the one who confines himself to teaching, particularly after he has taught for many years.

The subject matter of some departments is of such a nature that research of the usual type is not possible, at least under our conditions, or if possible would not be worth the effort. But in every department some kind of original scholarly work, whether or not it should be designated research, is possible. An unproductive faculty member must satisfy his conscience that his success as a teacher or in some other important activity counterbalances his lack of scholarly productivity. And it is the duty of university presidents to encourage and stimulate research by all available means, including the appointment and rapid promotion of successful research men.

The quality of the research in the scientific departments of our own University is shown by the financial support which it has received from outside organizations. During the past year the members of our scientific faculty received grants-in-aid of research aggregating more than $200,000 from such bodies as the National Research Council, The Defense Research Board, The Saskatchewan Research Council, The Atomic Energy Commission, The Markle Foundation, The National Cancer Society, and from commercial companies. It should be emphasized that the faculty members do not profit personally from these grants; the money all goes into their research. Nor does it cost the University anything except to pay the salaries of men of a quality to attract such grants for work which they do while carrying a regular teaching load, and for a certain amount of overhead expense.

While the award of all these grants is very gratifying it should be realized that the University itself has a duty to provide funds of its own to its faculty for their research. It is not fair to expect faculty members to secure all their financial support from outside bodies. When a man has to apply to an outside foundation he proposes a project which is almost sure to yield quick results, because he thinks his application is more likely to be favorably considered and because he wishes to be sure of having something to show for the money received. But the fundamental results are more likely to come from projects which appear unpromising or even fantastic, or which cannot be neatly formulated on paper in advance.

The training of graduate students to be the research men of the future combines the two functions of research and teaching. This very important work can be carried on only in universities, which must stir a spirit of inquiry and inspire devotion to the life of scholarship as yell as teach the skills and habits of research.

In the sciences some provision for the support of such students is made through the scholarships of the National Research Council. Very early in its history the Council realized that Canada's greatest need with respect to scientific research was a body of able, trained scientists. The Council therefore decided to devote a portion of its funds to postgraduate scholarships in the universities. Through that very wise decision a generation of research men were trained and ready to serve Canada and the allied cause in very important scientific work during the war. The need for scientists of all types continues and any brilliant student who is promising from the research standpoint may count on reasonable support throuqh scholarships while taking his training.

While the universities may expect help from the National Research Council in supporting their graduate scientific students, no such provision has been made for the training of research scholars in the social subjects and humanities, a need which is at least equally great. It is to be hoped that the Massey Commission will be able to recommend and secure such provision. And friends of the University who are now inclined to make donations to help needy undergraduates should have in mind the postgraduate students in nonscientific subjects who might with help become our productive scholars, and have in mind also the nation's need of such scholars.

Science and Social Studies

The success of the scientific method has affected all fields of human thought. Students of the social subjects, such as economics, politics, and history pride themselves on using scientific methods in their fields and even use the term social sciences, perhaps prematurely, to designate such studies. The use of the word "sciences" in this connection may he etymologically correct, but it is confusing because to most men the word means the natural – physical and biological – sciences.


Moreover, methods in social studies are as a rule far from scientific (in the usual sense). The problems in this area which lend themselves to approved scientific methods are as yet limited. Most problems are far too complicated and involve far too many factors. Think, for example, of the complexity of the problems presented by industrialization or international relations. Experimentation which would meet the rigid demands of the physical scientist is usually out of the question. Verification by experience or by impersonal and objectively collected evidence is usually impossible. In addition emotional human relations and tensions are often involved. Social studies must therefore lack the precision and reliability of the natural sciences and in many areas may never reach the scientific level.

It is particularly in the formulation of generalizations and conceptual schemes that social studies lag, and are in fact at about the same stage as the physical sciences of a century and a half ago. No doubt this is due in part to the difficulties mentioned, but to a natural scientist it seems that those who call themselves social scientists have been too much concerned with immediate problems and plausible ideas, and not sufficiently concerned with building up a fund of objectively established fundamental principles, on the basis of which practical problems may be solved and ideas tested.

No matter how scientific students of social problems may claim or try to be, they cannot be expected to deal with important national problems in the same way as physicists deal with problems of the atomic nucleus. They cannot be assigned many questions of policy by government officials, or business or labor men, and be expected to find answers which are objectively and scientifically "right." In the absence of fundamental principles conclusions must be tentative. No one can be blamed for this provided all the evidence obtainable is assembled and utilized. But we are justified in suspecting the intelligence, or candor, or disinterestedness of those who promise sure scientific cures for most social ills.

On the other hand, much more progress is being made in applying scientific methods to social problems than most people realize. In some areas the methods have proved quite fruitful. Psychology has made such progress that our curriculum-makers engage in disputes as to whether it should be classified with the social studies or with the natural sciences. The statistical techniques of the economists are yielding valuable results. Policymakers in government, education, business, and labor will turn increasingly to those who study man and society as scientists. They will realize, however, that a true science of society will never come by "thinking things out" but only by working them out.

All those who cherish science have a duty to foster the development and spread of the scientific attitude and habits, and the promotion of a science of society. But, apart from the success of their own researches, scientists themselves have little influence in this respect. The temperament which led them to take up research and the habits formed in carrying it on unfit many of them to influence public attitudes, and to take part in the processes by which democracies reach decisions. On the other hand, outside their own fields they usually behave in the same way and are influenced by the same factors as other men. Though they may think objectively about material things. they seldom exercise scientific control of their own behaviour or of their views on non-scientific matters. Some, indeed. are inclined to pontificate about subjects of which they have no expert knowledge. Their reputation in their own specialties may bring them undeserved influence in some quarters. But the general effect is to cause a reaction against science.

Science and the Humanities

The scientific method has affected even the humanities. particularly literary studies. It is true that most writers and critics are disdainful of science and all its works, particularly if they are university professors who see students being drawn away in increasing numbers to the scientific laboratories. But some of them have begun to use the scientific method (or what they conceive to be that method). though one may suspect that it is not always from a genuine belief that the method holds promise of fruitful results in the humanities, but rather from a desire to share in the prestige of science. At any rate some of the effects have been unfortunate, in part because it has been used where it is, at least as yet, inapplicable, and in part because it has been thought of as a mere search for facts and details. When the humanities are studied in that way, standards of value and appreciation disappear, creativeness and imagination have no place.

The literary artist deals for the most part with precisely the same subject matter as the social scientistthe behaviour of human beings. He may not like the encroachment of the latter on a field which has hitherto been his, but he cannot claim exclusive rights unless he can prove that his is the only fruitful method of studying human behaviour. The writer depends on insight. which is of course important. The social scientist depends on statistics and objectively collected evidence to which he hopes to apply his own kind of insight. His methods may seem dull and plodding and unsuited to the professional writer, but are likely to be more reliable.

Until comparatively recent times the conclusions of men's best thinking about their behaviour and their relations to each other have been contained in the world's best literature. But there is a place for another kind of effort. Good writers and even brilliant ones in all ages have written about the workings of the mind. but modern psychology has shown that they did not exhaust the subject and, indeed, that their methods would not enable them even to touch the heart of many psychological problems. Everyone would surely agree that novelists have had enough to say about sex, but modern science – whether or not we include the Kinsey technique in that category – has revealed much that the most brilliant novelist or essayist could not even have imagined.

The outstanding characteristic of the great literary artist is the power of expression. But it does not make him infallible. He must of course have ideas to express. But his methods do not ensure the soundness of these ideas.

More and more phases of human behaviour may be successfully studied by scientific procedures. But literary men need not fear this as an encroachment on their preserves. It will provide them with fresh material and will leave them their supreme task of creating and criticizing the values by which a scientific society would direct its efforts.

Science and Values

However small the role which science plays as yet in social studies in general, it has a still smaller part to play in respect to value-judgments. In fact those who like to disparage science and to emphasize its limitations maintain that it can be concerned only with a lower region of material things and can never reach the level of values. These, it is maintained, are arrived at or revealed in ways quite different from and superior to those of science.

The claim that science is necessarily neutral where values are involved is, as Conant remarks, one of those three-quarter truths which may be as dangerous as half truths. Values are not things which exist in a region above or beyond human experience, but, on the contrary, may he largely determined by human experience. They are good because as experience shows they are good for us as human beings. A decision on a question of values is most likely to be sound if it is based on a full knowledge of all the scientific evidence which relates to the question.

The relationship between science and value judgment may be illustrated by reference to work on diseases. Both medical researchers and practitioners have set up a pattern of values regarding human life which greatly influences their work. It stimulates their activities, determines the nature of those activities, and places limitations upon them. That pattern has been determined more or less consciously by their scientific information, and in turn influences their actions. Medical men with different standards of values may behave quite differently, as we learned from the activities of the Nazi profession.

And other kinds of scientists have their own equivalent of the Hippocratic oath.

The present neutrality of science in most questions of values may be due either to an absolute inherent limitation of science, as most philosophers and many scientists maintain, or merely to insufficient or unsuitable evidence, as many scientists and some philosophers believe. We need not attempt to decide the point because it is obvious that in most cases the needed evidence will not be available for a long time, if ever. Where there is little evidence or where it is clear that much of the evidence is not available, scientists are trained to withhold judgment. If there is evidence it is likely to be so complicated or so evenly balanced that a choice cannot be made, or, if made, depends on factors other than scientific ones.

Whether or not science is used in setting up values it will be useful in providing objective tests of the validity of our value-judgments and in correcting them. More important, scientific ways of thinking will be tools to help us to achieve our values. For example, according to the main thesis of a recent book by Bryson science promotes at least one great value, namely freedom, at least in the sense that no one can do what he never heard of or thought of doing; in this sense the ultimate measure of freedom is reliable knowledge.

On the other hand the scientific practice of withholding judgment till all the evidence is in, may be carried too far and cause scientists to be neutral when they should take a stand. They may pride themselves too much on withholding judgment. Their neutrality with respect to material problems is carried over, by themselves and by those who admire that neutrality. to vital questions of values. But all the evidence is rarely at hand in vital problems. Must we then never take a stand in such problems? To refrain from taking a stand may be only a form of irresponsibility. A much sounder criticism of the effects of science than those mentioned earlier is that the prestige of its methods leads many non-scientists to be neutral in vital matters where neutrality may be harmful. Moreover, feelings and emotions which scientists are trained to avoid or discount may be important and desirable in relation to value judgments.

But scientists, like others, in practice have standards of values which have not been determined or tested by scientific procedure. They may have been adopted unconsciously or for quite unscientific reasons. And they may be important, for social scientists can provide the means of suppressing or intensifying some kinds of behaviour and some social patterns. The values of the totalitarians influenced even the nature of science itself. Social scientists therefore need to clarify their own minds about their value-premises, and to state them explicitly.

The importance of higher education – and of all education – in this connection lies in the fact that teachers, particularly of literature, history and philosophy consciously or unconsciously inculcate values in the wishes and attitudes of their students. And other men, such as politicians, have to fulfill those wishes.

* * *

It is unfortunate that the old antagonism between the sciences and the humanities which developed over the struggle of the sciences for admission to higher education, is now being revived and intensified. This is due in part to the fact that the sciences are overshadowing the humanities both in higher education and in the regard of the common man, and in part to a genuine fear of the evil effects of scientific applications. When some humanists denounce science as soulless and materialistic and concerned only with gadgets. some scientists reply by calling humanists "impractical dreamers, immured in some cloister of the mind."

The extreme danger to which the applications of science have brought civilization will only be increased by this antagonism and these mutual denunciations. There was never greater need for co-operation between humanists and scientists and for sympathetic understanding of each other's problems and difficulties, limitations and advantages, achievements and failures. Some fields of science cannot be left to those who are ignorant of human relations or disdainful of the efforts of their colleagues in humanities and social studies. Nor can human affairs be left entirely to those who are ignorant or disdainful of science.