State Aid to Science (1887)

by Gertrude B. Kelly (1862-1934)

SAS.1 If what I say to you today should seem to you out of place, you must blame the chairman of your executive committee and not me; for, when she asked me to contribute something for this meeting, she assured me that anything which affected the relation of medical women to society, anything which related to the advancement of science, was a proper subject of discussion at the annual meeting of the Alumnae Association.
SAS.2 Herbert Spencer closes the second volume of his “Principles of Sociology” with these words:

“The acceptance which guides conduct will always be of such theories, no matter how logically indefensible, as are consistent with the average modes of action, public and private. All that can be done, by diffusing a doctrine much in advance of the time, is to facilitate the action of forces tending to cause advance. The forces themselves can be but in small degrees increased, but something may be done by preventing misdirection of them. Of the sentiment at any time enlisted on behalf of a higher social state there is always some (and at the present time a great deal) which, having the broad, vague form of sympathy with the masses, spends itself in efforts for their relief by multiplication of political agencies of one or other kind. Led by the hope of immediate beneficial results, those swayed by this sympathy are unconscious that they are helping further to elaborate a social organization at variance with that required for a higher form of social life, and are by so doing increasing the obstacles to attainment of that higher form. On a portion of such the foregoing chapters may have some effect by leading them to consider whether the arrangements they are advocating involve increase of that public regulation characterizing the militant type, or whether they tend to produce that greater individuality and more extended voluntary cooperation characterizing the industrial type. To deter here and there one from doing mischief by imprudent zeal is the chief proximate effect to be hoped for.”
SAS.3 In these times of ours, when all classes in society, from the Bowery Socialists to the highest professors of science, seem to vie with one another in demanding State interference, State protection, and State regulation, when the ideal State to the workingman is that proposed by the authoritarian Marx, or the scarcely less authoritarian George, and the ideal State to the scientist is the Germany of today, where the scientists are under the government’s special protection, it would seem idle to hope that the voices of those who prize liberty above an things, who would fain call attention to the false direction in which it is desired to make the world move, should be other than “voices crying in the wilderness.” But, nevertheless, it is not by accident that we who hold the ideas that what is necessary to progress is not the increase, but the decrease, of governmental interference have come to be possessed of these ideas. We, too, are “heirs of all the ages,” and it is our duty to that society of which we form a part to give our reasons for the “faith that is in us.”
SAS.4 My endeavor today will be to prove to you two propositions: first, that progress in medical or any other science is lessened, and ultimately destroyed, by State interference; and, secondly, that even if, through State aid, progress in science could be promoted, the promotion would be at too great an expense, at the expense of the best interests of the race. That I shall succeed in convincing you of the truth of these propositions is too much to hope for, but at least I shall cause you to re-examine the grounds for the contrary opinions that you entertain, and for this you should thank me, as it is always important that the position of devil’s advocate should be well filled.
SAS.5 It seems strange that it should become necessary to urge upon Americans, with their country’s traditions, that the first condition necessary to mental and moral growth is freedom. It seems strange in these times, – when all the unconscious movements of society are towards the diminution of restraint, whether it be that of men over women, of parents and teachers over children, of keepers over criminals and the insane; when it is being unconsciously felt and acted upon, on all sides, that responsibility is the parent of morality, – that all the conscious efforts of individuals and groups should be towards the increase of restraint.
SAS.6 A knowledge of the fact that all the ideas prevalent at a given time in a given society must have a certain congruity should make us very careful in accepting ideas, especially as regards politics, from such a despotic country as Germany, instead of receiving them with open arms as containing all the wisdom in the world, which now seems to be the fashion. As Spencer pointed out some time since, the reformers of Germany, while seeking a destruction of the old order, are really but rebuilding the old machine under a new name. They are so accustomed to seeing every thing done by the State that they can form no conception of its being done in any other way. All they propose is a State in which the people (that is, a majority of the people) shall hold the places now held by the usurping few. That English-speaking workmen should seek to wholly replace themselves under the yoke of a tyranny from which they have taken ages to partially escape, is only to be explained by the vagueness of the forms in which this paradise is usually pictured, and by that lack of power of bringing before the mind's eye word-painted pictures.
SAS.7 Again, in Germany – and it is that with which we are more nearly concerned today – it is said that scientific men under the protection of the government do better work than other men who are not under the protection of their governments. That this apparently flourishing condition of science under the patronage of the German government is no more real than was the condition of literature under Louis XIV., and that it cannot continue, I think a little examination will enable us to see. As Leslie Stephen has demonstrated, to suppress one truth is to suppress all truth, for truth is a coherent whole. You may by force suppress a falsehood, and prevent its ever again rising to the surface; but, when you attempt to suppress a truth, you can only do so by suppressing all truth, for, with investigation untrammelled, some one else is bound in time to come to the same point again. Do you think that a country, one of whose most distinguished professors, Virchow, is afraid of giving voice to the doctrine of evolution, because he sees that it inevitably leads to Socialism (and Socialism the government has decided is wrong, and must be crushed out), is in the way of long maintaining its supremacy as a scientific light, when the question which its scientific men are called upon to decide is not what is true, but what the government will allow to be said? I say nothing for or against the doctrine of evolution; I say nothing for or against its leading to Socialism; but I do say that the society whose scientific men owe devotion, not to truth, but to the Hohenzollerns, is not in a progressive state. As Buckle has shown, the patronage of Louis XIV killed French literature. Not a single man rose to European fame under his patronage, and those whose fame was the cause of their obtaining the monarch's favor sank under its baneful influence to mere mediocrity.
SAS.8 It seems to be generally forgotten by those who favor State aid to science that aid so given is not and cannot be aid to science, but to particular doctrines or dogmas, and that, where this aid is given, it requires almost a revolution to introduce a new idea. With the ordinary conservatism of mankind, every new idea which comes forward meets with sufficient questioning as to its truth, utility, etc.; but, when we have added to this natural conservatism, which is sufficient to protect society against the introduction of new error, the whole force of an army of paid officials whose interest it is to resist any idea which would deprive, or tend to deprive, them of their salaries, you will readily see that, of the two forces which tend to keep society in equilibrium, the conservative and the progressive, the conservative will be very much strengthened at the expense of the progressive, and that the society is doomed to decay. Of the tendency which State-aided institutions have shown up to the present to resist progress, excellent evidence is furnished by one, at least, of those very men, Huxley, who now clamors so loudly for State aid to science. When we consider that we have now reached but the very outposts of science; that all our energies are required for storming its citadel; that human nature, if placed in the same conditions, is apt to be very much the same; that those persons who have the power and the positions will endeavor to maintain them, – do you think it wise to put into the hands of any set of men the power of staying our onward movements? That which we feel pretty sure of being true today may contain, and in all probability does contain, a great deal of error, and it is our duty to truth to cultivate the spirit which questions all things, which spirit would be destroyed by our having high-priests of science. Hear Huxley in testimony thereof in his article on the “Scientific Aspects of Positivism”:

“All the great steps in the advancement of science have been made just by those men who have not hesitated to doubt the ‘principles established in the science by competent persons,’ and the great teaching of science, the great use of it as an instrument of mental discipline, is its constant inculcation of the maxim that the sole ground on which any statement has a right to be believed is the impossibility of refuting it.”
SAS.9 Is the State, then, to reward all those who oppose a statement as well as all those who support it, or is it only to reward certain of the questioners, and, if so, which, and who is to decide what statements have not been refuted? Are some persons to be aided in bringing their opinions, with their reasons for holding them, before the world, and others to be denied this privilege? Are the scientific men to be placed in power so different in nature from all those who have preceded them that they will be willing to cede the places and the salaries to those who show more reason than they? Here is Huxley's testimony in regard to the manner in which the State-aided classical schools promoted the introduction of physical science into those schools:

“From the time that the first suggestion to introduce physical science was timidly whispered until now, the advocates of scientific education have met with opposition of two kinds. On the one hand they have been pooh-poohed by the men of business, who pride themselves on being the representatives of practicality; while on the other hand they have been excommunicated by the classical scholars, in their capacity of Levites in charge of the arts of culture and monopolists of liberal education,”
– Science and Culture.
SAS.10 And again, the State, or the State-aided institutions have never been able, even with the most Chinese system of civil-service examinations, to sift the worthy from the unworthy with half the efficiency which private individuals or corporations have done. But let us hear Huxley upon this subject:

“Great schemes for the endowment of research have been proposed. It has been suggested that laboratories for all branches of physical science, provided with every apparatus needed by the investigator, shall be established by the State; and shall be accessible under due conditions and regulations to all properly qualified persons. I see no objection to the principle of such a proposal. If it be legitimate to spend great sums of money upon public collections of painting and sculpture, in aid of the man of letters, or the artist, or for the mere sake of affording pleasure to the general public, I apprehend that it cannot be illegitimate to do as much for the promotion of scientific investigation. To take the lowest ground as a mere investment of money the latter is likely to be much more immediately profitable. To my mind the difficulty in the way of such a scheme is not theoretical, but practical. Given the laboratories, how are the investigators to be maintained? What career is open to those who have been encouraged to leave bread-winning pursuits? If they are to be provided for by endowment, we come back to the College Fellowship System, the results of which for literature have not been so brilliant that one would wish to see it extended to science, unless some much better securities than at present exist can be taken that it will foster real work. You know that among the bees it depends upon the kind of a cell in which the egg is deposited, and the quantity and quality of food which is supplied to the grub, whether it shall turn out a busy little worker or a big idle queen. And in the human hive the cells of the endowed larvae are always tending to enlarge, and their food to improve, until we get queens beautiful to behold, but which gather no honey and build no court,”
– Universities, Actual and Ideal.
SAS.11 One of my chief objections to State-aid to anything is that it tends to develop a great many big idle queens at the expense of the workers. There is no longer any direct responsibility on the part of those employed to those who employ them, as there is where private contract enters into play. In fact, the agents determine how and for what the principals shall spend their money, and they usually decide in favor of their own pockets. I cannot furnish you with a better illustration than that supplied by my own experience. Before I studied medicine I taught school for a couple of years in an almshouse. The waste there was perfectly enormous. The officials, when remonstrated with, made answer: “It was all on the county.” The freeholders came once a week, and ate sumptuous dinners – at the expense of the county. At the close of my college course it was my good fortune to enter the Infirmary, where I saw everything ordered with the economy of a private household. No waste there! Those who furnished the funds were directly interested in seeing that they were used as economically as possible. I never heard of the trustees of the Infirmary proposing to have a dinner at the expense of the Infirmary.
SAS.12 Even were the government perfectly honest, which it is practically impossible for it ever to be (being divorced from all the conditions which promote honesty), not bearing the cost, it is always inclined to make experiments on too large a scale, even when those experiments are in the right direction. When we bear the expenses ourselves, we are apt to make our experiments slowly and cautiously, to invest very little until we see some hope of return (by return I do not mean necessarily a material return), but when we can draw upon an inexhaustible treasury – farewell to prudence!
SAS.13 Of course, I do not mean to deny that under any state of society, until men and women are perfect, there always will be persons who are inclined to become big idle queens, but what I do object to is that we ourselves should voluntarily make the conditions which favor the development of these queens “who gather no honey and build no court.”
SAS.14 Of the tendency of governments to crystallize and fossilize any institutions or ideas upon which they lay their protecting hands no better example can be furnished than that of the effect of the English government on the village communities of India, as reported by Maine (“Village Communities”). Where the institutions were undergoing a natural decay, the English government stepped in and, by its official recognition of them in some quarters, gave them, says Maine, a fixedness which they never before possessed.
SAS.15 There is another point to which I wish to draw the attention of those of our brethren who clamor for State aid. Who is to decide what ideas are to be aided? The majority of the people? or a select few? The majority of the people have never in any age been the party of progress; and, if it were put to a popular vote tomorrow as to which should be aided, – Anna Kingsford in her anti-vivisection crusade, or Mary Putnam Jacobi in her physiological investigations I am perfectly sure that the populace would decide in favor of Anna Kingsford. Carlyle says:

“If, of ten men, nine are fools, which is a common calculation, how in the name of wonder will you ever get a ballot-box to grind you out a wisdom from the votes of these ten men? ... I tell you a million blockheads looking authoritatively into one man of what you call genius, or noble sense, will make nothing but nonsense out of him and his qualities, and his virtues and defects, if they look till the end of time.”
SAS.16 If, of ten men, nine are believers in the old, I say, how can you in the name of wonder get a ballot-box to grind you out support of the new from the votes of these ten men? They will support the old and established, and the outcome of your aid to science is that you or I, who may be in favor of the new, and willing to contribute our mite towards its propagation, are forced by majority rule to give up that mite to support that which already has only too many supporters. But perhaps you will say that not the populace, but the select few, are to decide what scientific investigations are to be rewarded. Which select few, and how are they to be selected? Of all the minorities which separate themselves from the current of public opinion, who is to decide which minority has the truth? And, allowing that it is possible to determine which minority has the truth on a special occasion, have you any means by which to prove that this minority will be in favor of the next new truth? Is there not danger that, having accomplished its ends, it in turn will become conservative, and wish to prevent further advance? A priesthood of science would differ in no manner from any other priesthood the world has yet seen, and the evil effect which such a priesthood would have upon science no one has more clearly seen or more clearly demonstrated than Huxley in his “Scientific Aspects of Positivism.” Again, admitting that great men endowed with supreme power could remain impartial, we still have no evidence on record to prove that great men are endowed with more than the ordinary share of common sense, which is so necessary in conducting the ordinary affairs of life. Indeed, if the gossip of history is to be in any way trusted, great men have usually obtained less than the ordinary share of this commodity. Frederick the Great is reported to have said that, if he wished to ruin one of his provinces, he would hand its government over to the philosophers. Is it into the hands of a Bacon, who had no more sense than to expose himself (for the sake of a little experiment which could have been made just as well without the exposure), a Newton who ordered the grate to be removed when the fire became too hot for him, a Clifford, who worked himself to death, that the direction of the affairs of a people is to be given, with the assurance that they will be carried on better than now?
SAS.17 Without multiplying evidence further, I think I have given sufficient to prove to you that there is no means by which State aid can be given to science, without causing the death of science, that we can make no patent machine for selecting the worthiest and the wisest; and I now desire to show you that, even if it were possible to select the worthiest and the wisest, and to aid none but the deserving, still aid so given would be immoral, and opposed to the best interests of society at large.
SAS.18 Of course I take it for granted that I am appealing to a civilized people, who recognize that there are certain rights which we are bound to respect, and certain duties which we in society owe to one another. We have passed that stage, or, at least, we do not often wish to acknowledge to ourselves that we have not passed it, in which “he may take who has the power, and he may keep who can.” Next to the right to life (and indeed as part of that same right) the most sacred right is the right to property, the right of each to hold inviolable all that he earns. Now, to tax a man to support something that he does not wish for is to invade his right to property, and to that extent to curtail his life, is to take away from him his power of obtaining what he desires, in order to supply him with something which he does not desire. If we once admit that the State, the majority, the minority (be it ever so wise), has a right to do this in the smallest degree, no limit can be set to its interference, and we may have every action, aye, every thought, of a man’s arranged for him from on high. Where shall we draw the line as to how much the State is to spend for him, and how much he is to spend for himself? Are grown men to be again put into swaddling clothes? You may say that you desire to increase his happiness, his knowledge, etc., but I maintain that you have no right to decide what is happiness or knowledge for him, any more than you have to decide what religion he must give adherence to. You have no right to take away a single cent's worth of his property without his consent. Woe to the nation that would strive to increase knowledge or happiness at the expense of justice. It will end by not having morality, or happiness, or knowledge. Do you think that the citizens of a State, who constantly see their rights violated by that State, who constantly see their property confiscated without their ever being consulted, are very likely to entertain a very high respect for their neighbors' rights of property or of person, do you think that they are very likely to be very moral in any way, any more than children, whose rights are constantly invaded by their parents, are likely to show an appreciation of one another's rights? To suppose that public life may be conducted in one way, and private life in another, is to ignore all the teaching of history, which shows that these lives are always interlaced.
SAS.19 The first step in immorality taken, the State having confiscated the property of its citizens, preventing them from expending it in the way they desire, to spend it for them in a way they do not desire, ends by starving their bodies and cramping their minds. Witness the case of modern Germany. Again the testimony is not mine. I always wish the advocates of Statism to furnish the evidence that kills them. Some little time since, – probably our new alumnae will remember the circumstance, – one of our professors who never wearies of telling us of the glories of German science, while speaking of the sebaceous horns which appear on the faces of German peasants, and describing a case which once came to his clinic, incidentally remarked of this case: “You understand he had never seen the growth himself, as these peasants have no looking-glasses.” The thought at once occurred to me: “Is this what Germany gives to its people, to the vast majority of its population, on whom it lays its enormous burden of taxation?” Is not the advance of science of great importance to the German peasant who never sees a looking-glass? Would it be any wonder that in wild rage he should sometimes seek to destroy this whole German science and culture which end only by crushing him still farther into the earth? Of what use is science unless it increase the happiness and the comfort of the people? Is it a new fetich upon whose altar millions must be sacrificed? No, the science which would seek to entrench itself upon class-domination is a false one, and inevitably doomed to perish. Have we, the outcome of English civilization, determined to lower the standard raised by Bacon, that the object of the “new philosophy is to increase human happiness and diminish human suffering”? Are we willing to assist in dividing the people of this country into two classes, one of which is to have all the luxuries which science and art can afford, and the other to have no looking-glasses? Now is the time for us to decide.
SAS.20 How then is science to be advanced, you may inquire, if the majority cannot decide that which is true, and the select few also cannot decide? In the way in which up to the present it has been advanced, – by individuals contributing their small shares; and with ever increasing force will it advance, as the general culture becomes greater and broader. It will advance by having no opinion protected from discussion and agitation, by having the greatest possible freedom of thought, of speech, and of the press. That the unaided efforts of a people are capable of causing advance belongs fortunately no longer to the domain of opinion, but of fact. They have already caused all the progress that has been made, not only without the aid of the State, but in opposition to the State and the Church, and all the other conservative and retrogressive forces in society. They have already, as Spencer says, evolved a language greater in complexity and beauty than could be conceived of in any other way. They have, as Whately says, succeeded in supplying large cities with food with scarcely any apparent waste or friction, while no government in the world, with all the machinery at its command, has ever yet succeeded in properly supplying an army.
SAS.21 Yes, freedom, hampered as it has been, has done and is doing all these things, and all that it is capable of doing in the future none but the prophets may see.
We have the morning star,
O foolish people! O kings!
With us the day-springs are,
Even all the fresh day-springs.
For us, and with us, all the multitudes of things.

[Delivered at the Alumnae Association of the New York Infirmary Woman’s Medical College, 1 June 1887]

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