As we all deal with the latest pandemic, it’s good to know that we can call on experts to help us through—and eventually out—of it. But it’s also good to know that we can also call on non-experts to help us as well. Included among them might even be a non-expert who had his suspicions about experts.
This man of suspicion and non-expertise is G.K. Chesterton who died in 1936, or well before the spread of the coronavirus, let alone the spread of scientific models to track the potential spread of the disease.
Experts, he thought, might be fine folks to have on hand if a library needed to be catalogued or a solar system was there to be discovered—or maybe even if a virus should be tracked. But for many matters of this earthly life Chesterton thought it made much more sense to adhere to the principle behind the jury system. That’s because matters of guilt or innocence were too important to be left to experts. Therefore, when it came to such a matter it made much more sense to gather together “twelve people who happened to be standing about at the moment.” If anyone should doubt the validity of this approach, Chesterton reminded his readers that essentially the same procedure was once followed by the founder of Christianity.
Experts, Chesterton worried, were the new aristocrats of his 20th century. Or at least they liked to fancy themselves as such. He much preferred the aristocrats of old, who merely thought that they knew how to live well, as opposed to the modern expert claimed to know better.
Of course, that same modern expert may very well have great command over the particulars of his chosen field of expertise. And that knowledge might come to be very valuable indeed. Then again, it might not.
In any case, scientific expertise, alleged, advertised, or actual, should never be the end of the story. This is especially so when it comes to the application of scientific knowledge or the uses to which it is put.
Let’s be clear here. G.K. Chesterton was no Luddite. He readily conceded that products of science could be “wonderful things.” At the same time, he still reminds us, no product of science is, “in any ultimate sense,” necessarily a good thing. For that matter, no product of science is, “by definition,” automatically a bad thing.
For Chesterton, what it all came down to was this: science was either a “tool or a toy.” Actually, he refined that statement just a bit more: science was “only” a tool or a toy.
Did he prefer one to the other? Most definitely. Science as a toy was science as its “highest and noblest.” After all, a toy was something of far greater “philosophical grandeur” than a mere tool. Why? Because a toy “is valued for itself,” while a tool only has value for some other purpose. In sum, a toy is an end in itself, while a tool is only a means to an end.
In his musings on science Chesterton never got around to musing about viruses and models. But he did get to the heart of the matter when it came to the role of science and scientific expertise, no matter the matter at hand: in dealing with pandemics science may not be a toy, but it can only be a tool.
In a particular essay on this general subject he asked his readers to think of a hammer (the tool) and a doll house (the toy). Of course, science had something to do with the making of each of them. But science could never be the carpenter using the tool or the child playing with the doll house. In other Chestertonian words, science should never be the thing that has “natural authority” over the tool.
That authority has to be invested in man. Chesterton’s chief concern here was that man was in the process of abdicating his authority. He worried that the modern man of his era was increasingly inclined to stand aside and permit the tool called science to dictate what should be done politically and socially, because it could be done scientifically.
Chesterton went on to clinch his standing as a non-Luddite by endorsing such “splendid” achievements as the telephone and the automobile, each of which was a tool and a toy, the splendidness of which ultimately depended upon the uses to which each was put.
And the railroad? While much more a tool than a toy, it was anything but an “awful thing,” What must be added to the equation is the railway engineer, who might be an “awful man.” Still, there was nothing wrong with “steel rods and iron wheels,” so long as the steel did not “blind the eyes” and the iron did “not enter the soul.”
For that matter, there was nothing wrong with a person traveling on wheels so long as one’s mind didn’t travel “in ruts,” especially if those ruts were the result of being “lulled to sleep by the promises of science.”
Once again, Chesterton’s worries were not quite the same as our worries. But his point still stands. Science is never the whole story. Furthermore, traveling in ruts can also occur if we are stirred into action by the promises and projections of science—and by scientists who forget that the tool that is science is just that, a tool, and that scientific expertise may or may not mean that the scientist knows better.
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The featured image is “The Physician” (1653) by Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.