The State and Science in 1893 Britain


This article reviews a 1991 article written by Beryl M. Hamilton, at that time a member of the Department of Geography at Liverpool Institute of Higher Education. His article appeared in a refereed journal published by the Royal Society.

Hamilton’s work illustrates the state’s corrupting influence on science. It is all the more persuasive because the incidents he describes occurred in a different country and time. Particularly fascinating are the press articles that tear into the cozy relation between science and state in 1893 Great Britain. I reproduce most of them in the last part of this article. They do not pull any punches in speaking of "the official ring of state-endowed science," "meditating a raid on the taxpayer," scientists who "want more money," so that they "u2018boom’ their work and reputations," and "the unscrupulous power of the official [science] syndicate which then, as now, jobbed science wherever it had a state endowment." Observations like these by the 1893 contemporary London press fully support the notion that science and the state should not be mixed.

The whole story is equally fascinating as it shows how the state’s money subtly undermines the essential modus operandi of science, which is open communication.

Hamilton’s article details a science-and-state controversy that flared up into public view in Britain in 1893. The science involved was geology. The specific issue itself is of no great moment to us today, but a minimum of certain details are needed to understand the roots of the controversy. The reader can be assured that nothing abstruse is required here. His or her knowledge of geology is at least as great as mine, which is nil.

The geologic issue

Complex geologic structures occur in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Various geologists had investigated them from 1844 onwards. Shifts in the earth’s crust had transposed the usual order of formations (by various thrusts) such that metamorphic rock (usually lower down) in some places lay above unmetamorphosed rock. But the tectonic disturbances that had caused this inversion had left few traces that made them evident. The formations seemed so normal and undisturbed that they seemed not to have been formed by thrusts from below. I oversimplify greatly, making the matter seem obvious. It was not. The region is large. The formations and types of rock are complex. Formations are not completely exposed. Fossil evidence plays a role. Different periods in history are associated with different types of rocks.

The scientific controversy

The geologists who studied these formations fell into two groups: those who got it right and those who did not. The ones who got it right came to a correct understanding of the earth’s shifts (tectonics). They did not think that it was normal for this region to have metamorphic rock on top of unmetamorphic rock. The ones who got it wrong thought the opposite.

Their controversy lasted 50 years: "The worst in-fighting occurred between two groups that were relatively disparate and fairly antagonistic. These were Official Geology, almost exclusively the Geological Survey, and Unofficial Geology, the university geologists and amateurs." The official group worked in the Geological Survey of Great Britain, a state-funded organization created in 1835. (It still exists.)

Official Geology was the group that had got it wrong. Unofficial Geology had got it right. But what was worse than its error was that Official Geology had suppressed Unofficial Geology and covered up its blunder for decades.

Official Geology numbered mainly Sir Roderick Murchison, Sir Archibald Geikie, and A. C. Ramsey. All three were, successively, Director Generals of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. Geikie was Murchison’s protégé. In Unofficial Geology, there were Charles Lapworth and James Nicol.

Nicol and Murchison worked the Highlands (even together at times) and published between 1844 and 1866. However, they reached different conclusions, Nicol’s being correct.

Murchison’s position gave him leeway to suppress Nicol’s views: "Nicol had come to different conclusions about the tectonics of the area, anticipating correctly, in essence, those of the Geological Survey and others working in the 1880s. Murchison had made sure that such contrary opinions did not receive wide publicity in the Geological Society as marginal notes in the minutes of the Council Meetings of that organization suggest. The strong statement of disagreement with and dissociation from Murchison’s opinions that Nicol wished to append to his 1861 and 1862 papers was refused publication, and Nicol’s achievements received little recognition in his lifetime."

Scientific publication and gatekeepers

To understand the importance of Murchison’s behavior, later reinforced by Geikie, we need to understand how science works. Those unacquainted with science identify it with the idea of an objective scientific method that cuts across all sciences. This is inaccurate. The methods and customs of each science vary greatly from one to the next. The sequencing and the emphases on such aspects as data collection, observation, interpretation, theory, and experimentation vary across sciences. The human role is not routinized and has several critical aspects. The actual work involves intuition, guesswork, serendipity, play, modeling, introspection, imagination, and hypothesis formation, among other things. Differences of theory, findings, and interpretation opinion abound, and there is no central body that decides who is right and wrong. One must communicate and persuade others, by publication, presentations, and conferences.

This leads into the main feature of science and scientific method: Scientists have the option to subject claims of knowledge to checking and confirmation. Even very old and established claims are checked and sometimes revised or overturned. This procedure and the ability to carry it out are what give scientific knowledge its verifiable aspect. But the motivations to carry out such checking are strictly human. They are affected by all sorts of non-noble incentives and considerations, such as whether the work will be published, whether it will bring fame and advance career, whether it will be accepted by others, and whether it will attract financial support or lead to financial gain.

If and when a science develops publication or career advancement gatekeepers who are maintained in secure and comfortable positions, such as Murchison, they can encourage publication and dissemination of their favored theories and findings and discourage those of contrary schools of thought. This undermines the motivations to (i) check and confirm knowledge, and (ii) generate new knowledge. It undermines the entire scientific enterprise. State support of some scientists and not others has this general effect of creating an establishment of gatekeepers.

Geikie supports Murchison

Between 1860 and 1883, Geikie, who was Murchison’s student and successor, took his side. He shifted as new work of Lapworth came in that confirmed Nicol’s position. Lapworth published an important paper in 1883 and continued to advance his views for years, including a Presidential Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Geikie stonewalled. He neither officially acknowledged Lapworth’s findings nor used them in his official capacity within Geological Survey.

Particularly telling is his strong language in an 1883 internal memo to his senior petrologist: "… In Sutherland and Ross I had some detailed work with Peach and Horne — the result entirely confirming Murchison’s views and demonstrating the ingenious perversities of Lapworth, Callaway and Hicks to be _______[Geikie’s own pejorative line] of their authors."

But Geikie’s hand was being forced. In light of Lapworth’s published work, he dispatched a new geological team (Peach and Horne) to the Highlands that very year. After they had looked in the wrong region, Lapworth told them where to look for the solution to the geologic problem. Following his advice, they found what he had, and rushed into print with a November 1884 article. Geikie, still ignoring Lapworth’s (and Nicol’s) earlier work, wrote a preface to this paper of Peach and Horne in which he associated himself with what he called their "brilliant mapping."

The news articles

In 1893, the split within the geological community went public. In chronological order, an apparently unrelated newspaper article appeared first, itself of interest to our topic. That article criticized the entire scientific establishment; and it may have helped catalyze the geologic issue.

On December 1, 1892, The Times published an article "A criticism of the Royal Society," then and now a state-funded science organization. The article "accused the scientific establishment of allowing personal solicitations and social influence to reinforce the claims of scientific evidence. It was suggested that political manipulation, and publications that were merely recasting other people’s work, were common." The Society was roundly criticized for its "predominant scholasticism," for encouraging pedestrian science, for failing to recognize "important investigators" like James Joule (of Joule’s Law fame), Charles Darwin, and William Robert Grove (first fuel cell developer), and for providing scientific sinecures to the "Parliamentary candidate" for Society membership. Hamilton writes: "Though this was not a long correspondence in The Times, it was well enough supported to highlight the potential, and possibly existing, corruption in science."

Next in time came the article, dated January 5, 1893 in the journal Nature, that re-opened the geologic controversy after nine years of quietude and made it public. It was an article in high praise of Geikie, penned by a close friend of his who was a geologist, M. De Lapparent. When it came to the Highlands issue, De Lapparent painted a picture of Geikie as practically resolving the geologic issue himself: "Accordingly in the years 1883 and 1884 Messrs. Peach and Horne were entrusted with a careful study of the Durness and Eriboll districts…" Furthermore, Hamilton tells us that "De Lapparent had made no allusion to the work done by geologists who investigated the North West Highlands, but what was deemed especially reprehensible was the complete lack of any mention of Lapworth’s u2018epoch-making paper of 1883.’"

The Nature article provoked a response nine days later. On January 14, 1893, a 25 column-inch article appeared in the Daily Chronicle, a London newspaper founded in 1872 that survived until 1960 when it was absorbed by the Daily Mail. It read in part: "… the whole thing is delightfully characteristic of State-endowed science in England. If you are one of the official syndicate who ‘run it’, you may blunder with impunity and make your country ridiculous at the taxpayer’s expense. Scientific men who can correct you shrink from the task. They know that the syndicate can boycott them, and by intrigue keep them out of every post of honour and profit, and that the syndicate’s satellites can write and shout down everywhere independent non-official critics." The article identified the syndicate as "Huxley, Hooker, Geikie and Co, Limited — very strictly limited — which may be said to ‘run’ science in England."

The article went on: "Murchison, not to put too fine a point on it, ‘bounced’ everybody into accepting this absurd theory and the whole forces of the Geological Survey, with its official and social influence, together with the unscrupulous power of the official syndicate which then, as now, jobbed science wherever it had a state endowment, were spent in perpetuating the blunder and blasting the scientific reputation of whoever scoffed at it."

The scientific editor of the paper found it "diverting …that all the time that he [Geikie] was wrestling in foro conscientiae [in the depths of conscience] with doubts as to the soundness of the official position, and that finally his ‘love of truth’ prompted him to order a re-survey of the whole Highland region. In plain English, the taxpayer, having had to pay for Murchison’s bungling survey, was, because of his successor’s ‘love of truth’, to enjoy the luxury of paying over again to correct it."

Well aware of the geologic history, he added: "Geikie’s surveyors, who were not sent out till Lapworth’s disclosures frightened the Geological Survey and its official chief, are credited with proving just what Lapworth previously demonstrated — namely that ‘Murchison had been deceived by the prodigious terrestrial disturbances, of which at the time nobody could have formed an idea’. Of course the Aberdeen school who first exposed the blundering of Murchison and the Geological Survey count as ‘nobody’ …"

Geikie was "conducting an investigation into his own blunders."

Finally, on February 2, 1893, after some back and forth in which Geikie defended himself, the scientific editor of the Daily Chronicle let loose a full-fledged barrage in which he accused Geikie and others of (in Hamilton’s words) "corruption, concealment and trying to obtain money as grants under false pretenses." In the editor’s own words: "Here is the real case between us. The policy of official scientists whenever they made a blunder, was to persecute, discredit, and, if possible, ‘starve out’ every man of science who corrected them. The fact is that the official ring of state-endowed science, not content with jobbing the Royal Society and its distinctions, as their critics have been showing in The Times, are meditating a raid on the taxpayer. They want more money, and as a preliminary step their official organ Nature of course begins to ‘boom’ their work and reputations …But when they begin to do this by coolly confiscating the achievements of private and independent workers … we thought it time to protest …The letters that have been appearing in The Times make some funny revelations about the way the Royal Society is ‘worked’. Sir Archibald’s defence suggests that if The Times only followed up the game it scented it would show its readers plenty of sport."

I doubt if we can find a clearer indictment of science and the state than the above.

One of these days in our contemporary land, an investigative reporter will lift the lid on the major research universities of this land, on their major financial support from government organs, on their costs to the taxpayers, on the distortions induced in the sciences, on the waste, on the pedestrian science that results, on the scientific biases such a system produces, on the system of science gatekeepers that state money produces, on the benefits to the state’s power and select interest groups from science subsidies, and on the effects of the research focus on student education. Discrediting the science that supposedly supports the notion of man-made global warming would be a good start.

These kinds of effects of the state on science are relatively more subtle than some others, like foreign wars and agricultural subsidies. They are also hidden behind a façade of respect for science. But they are no less important.