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Conant Urges Skepticism Before Blind Faith in Scientific Experts


People making scientific decisions should develop a healthy skepticism when listening to a science expert, particularly an enthusiastic one, President Conant told his Columbia University listeners in New York last night.

Delivering the third of his quartet of Bampton lectures, Conant suggested that "among the highly significant but dangerous results of the development of modern science is the fact that scientific experts now occupy a peculiarly exalted and isolated position."

The President urged that there is a need for balancing the biases of these experts when their opinions count in making decisions. He even recommended that the Department of Defense introduce a quasi-judicial system of review which would provide forced opposition to new projects. "The taxpayers' money would be more wisely spent," Conant said.

Turning to consideration of infant sciences, such as the social sciences, Conant said scientific commentators err when they expect pioneers in these fields to apply the same rigorous methods used in physics.

Early investigators in these fields usually must start with common sense notions which are bound to be hazy and uncertain," he noted.

Conant compared the state of the social sciences with that of biological sciences 100 or 150 years ago. "In attempting to appraise the advance of the social sciences as sciences," he explained, "we are always in the same difficulty as with medicine. It is difficult to separate the purely empirical from the scientific."

The President's formula for the fastest possible progress in this field was: "Support the uncommitted investigator who has ideas, irrelevant as they may seem to practical problems."

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