A Husbandman's Place

Read Time:
6m 34sec


‘manager’ or the would-be objective scientist, belongs inherently to the complexity and the mystery that is to be husbanded, and so the husbanding mind is both careful and humble. Husbandry originates precautionary sayings like ‘Don’t put all your eggs into one basket’.... It does not boast of technological feats that will ‘feed the world.’ "

Agricultural science ignores farming’s larger context. The sympathy for "creatures, animate and inanimate," has been lost. Other casualties are local adaptation to the particular farm and field and coherence of form. "The farm is limited by its topography, its clipolitical violence, by chemical pollution, by increasing energy costs, by depleted soils, aquifers, and streams, and by the spread of exotic weeds, pests, and diseases. We are going to have to return to the old questions about local nature, local carrying capacities, and local needs."

Husbandry can be learned anew in colleges of agriculture, Berry concludes, but only if many agricultural scientists become farmers themselves and learn to accept the practical limitations and the element of mystery that inhere in husbandry.

mate, its ecosystem, its EXCERPT human neighborhood and local economy, and of course by the larger

Satanic Design?

economies, and by the


The War Against Error

THE SOURCE: "Scientific Error and the Ethos of Belief " by Lorraine Daston, in Social Research, Spring 2005.

Few boundaries are as fluid as the one between established knowledge and conjectural belief in the modern sciences, where new research can fundamentally revise, or even sweep away, the received wisdom of a particular discipline. "The price of scientific progress is the obsolescence

of scientific knowledge," writes Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and an honorary professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.

The modern sciences

preferences and abilities of Many who accept the fact of evolution cannot, were born in the 16th and
the farmer. The true hus however, on religious grounds, accept the operation 17th centuries, and the prob
bandman shapes the farm of blind chance and the absence of divine purpose lem of reaching an accom
within an assured sense of implicit in natural selection. They support the modation between knowl
what it cannot be and alternative explanation of intelligent design. The rea edge and belief was born
what it should not be." soning they offer is not based on evidence but on the right along with them. Dur-
The sense of limitless lack of it. The formulation of intelligent design is a ing those centuries, Coperni
ness—of fuel, water, and default argument advanced in support of a non can astronomy and other
soil—that gave rise to the sequitur. It is in essence the following: There are discoveries overturned "a
recent focus on some phenomena that have not yet been explained whole range of explanatory
productivity, genetic and and that (and most importantly) the critics systems and empirical
technological uniformity, personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore claims that had been
and global trade has there must be a supernatural designer at work. The accepted as eternal truths."
proven illusory, according designer is seldom specified, but in the canon of Thinkers responded to the
to Berry. Massive single intelligent design it is most certainly not Satan and stunning exposure of error
crop fields and factory his angels, nor any god or gods conspicuously differ by devising philosophical
farms are unsustainable, ent from those accepted in the believer’s faith. systems that insisted that
and the necessity of local beliefs have explicit,
adaptation "will be forced —EDWARD O. WILSON, emeritus professor at reasoned justification.
upon us again by terror- Harvard University, in Harvard Magazine (Nov.–Dec. 2005) The branch of philoso
ism and other kinds of phy that concerns itself

82 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Winter 2006


with the justification of belief—with how we know what we know, and how well belief matches up with the evidence for it—is epistemology. After the shocks of the 16th and 17th centuries, "worries about the possibility and reliability of scientific knowledge" inspired philosophers "from Descartes to Kant to Husserl and beyond" to plunge into epistemology. And being on guard against errors took on a moral as well as an intellectual dimension, in that the will was to have no less a role than reason in granting "assent only to those claims that, after thorough epistemological vetting, deserve to be credited."

Daston posits three models of scientific error that arose within the distinctive historical circumstances of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but that persist to this day as "a repertoire of epistemological diagnoses": "idolatry," "seduction," and "projection." All three are, in effect, errors of substitution, which allow false beliefs to take the place of true knowledge. Idolaters, for example, so worship fallacious theories that they abandon the search for genuine enlightenment. Seduction, the second model of error, is a disease of the imagination, "the good-time girl of the mind." The imagination can cause the mind to seal itself off from the real world and indulge in fantasy, "replacing real impressions derived from memory and sensation with fanciful but alluring systems." These imaginary systems become "a refuge from the hard work of empiricism."

Projection, the third category of error, is, in fact, an ancient human foible, but it became especially troublesome for scientists in the middle of the 19th century with the formulation of new philosophical conceptions of the objective and the subjective. The fear was that researchers might project too much of themselves and their preconceived ideas onto the evidence of nature rather than simply absorb the evidence passively, objectively. "Only a heroic act of self-discipline and self-denial can rein in these projections," Daston says.

Criticism of these three models of error came to take on an insistent moral tone, making it "a matter of rectitude as well as prudence to withhold credence from suspect propositions." We withhold belief, then, not just because we’re fearful of making a mistake but because we’ve been told it’s our duty to do so. And we take refuge in the safe haven of skepticism, trusting nothing "until shown the evidence, bushels of it."

Still, notes Daston, "minatory epistemology" has not gained the upper hand over science, which "has historically been risk-seeking with respect to belief": "Successful science has historically erred on the side of maximizing knowledge, rather than on that of minimizing error—even at the cost of believing too much."


Chelsea Mourning

THE SOURCE: "Formalism and Its Discontents" by Jed Perl, in The New Republic, Sept. 12, 2005.

Everyone who thinks that

the art world has been, for decades, about as toxic and debased a locale as the fashion world can take a certain measure of satisfaction in recent developments: "Knocking the art world has become the latest art world fashion," says New Republic art critic Jed Perl. In other words, the very folks who’ve corrupted the scene have now come to recognize the corruption, and that has put a pall on their celebratory parties and dinners and receptions.

What especially troubles Perl is how little the general distress has to do with the quality of the art. The concern is mostly with "the social mechanisms of art: fairs, auctions, prices, publicity. Art itself hardly enters into the discussion; and when it does, the works of art are interchangeable, impersonal, of as little value in and of themselves as a pile of plastic poker chips. Everything is merely product; the art is in the deal."

Perl contends that what has occurred is a failure of aesthetic judgment so profound that people are afraid to confront it. "How does taste go so bad? That is the real question." For him, the problem begins with the collapse of formalism, "a belief in the primacy of line and color and shape" that was "one of the greatest of all artistic faiths." Formalism, which

Winter 2006 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 83

More From This Issue