Saturday, July 12, 2008

C.E. Ayres--maverick intellectual

C.E. Ayres, a wide-ranging public intellectual, was a man who seldom shied away from controversy. Perhaps as a result of this tendency, in 1951, the Texas house voted 130-1 to fire him from his post at the University of Texas for questioning the capitalist system. (During the vote, the atmosphere became so hostile that one young left-leaning legislator hid in the bathroom in order to avoid having to support Ayres publicly.) The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and Ayres kept his job.

Ayres was an avowed disciple of Dewey, and he consulted with Dewey when he was writing his first book, Science: the False Messiah (1927). The main point of the book is to question the public’s faith in science, and Ayres’ aggressive, punchy style makes for a captivating read. He makes a number of points that still ring true today--for example, in a chapter entitled “Science Will Provide,” Ayres points out that scientific discoveries don’t occur simply because we want them to happen:

It is very doubtful if any major discovery of science was ever made as the result of a generally expressed need for that discovery, or invention in answer to universal demand. Inventions come because they are possible, not because they are wanted, and scientific inventions come in precisely the same fashion, and in the case of every invention its ulterior effects are what nobody has wanted and most people would acutely dread. Science as a whole will surely go on to the discovery of things we little dream of…to bring about one of these inventions in answer to our prayers is only just short of impossible. (Science, the False Messiah, 262-263)

In another part of the chapter, Ayres cites some specific examples, most notably that of cancer. He notes that although we have wanted to cure cancer for a long time, it has largely resisted our wishes.

In the quote above, Ayres overstates the case to some extent. If more research dollars are allocated to an area, discoveries are arguably more likely. Still, Ayres is pointing to a kind of thinking that is still prevalent. Frequently, we expect science to provide the results we want, and to provide these results quickly. John McCain has recently proposed a $300 million prize for a more efficient battery, which may be an example of the kind of thinking that Ayres was criticizing. We may want and need a more efficient car battery or a cure for cancer, but we should not assume that “science will provide” if only we demand these things strongly enough.

Some links to learn more about C.E. Ayres:

Handbook of Texas Online

1 comment:

leonard waks said...

Thank you, David, for bringing this neglected figure to our atteention.