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The Activist Legacy of Comte's Positivism

Despite Comte’s excesses, there were three fundamental ideas in his brand of positivism that captured the imagination of many scholars in the 19th century and continue to motivate many social scientists, including me. The first is the idea that the scientific method is the surest way to produce knowledge about the natural world. The second is that scientifically produced knowledge is effective—it lets us control nature, whether we’re talking about the weather, or disease, or our own fears, or buying habits. And the third is that effective knowledge can be used to improve human lives. As far as I’m concerned, those ideas haven’t lost any of their luster.

Some people are very uncomfortable with this ‘‘mastery over nature’’ metaphor. When all is said and done, though, few people—not even the most outspoken critics of science— would give up the material benefits of science. For example, one of science’s great triumphs over nature is antibiotics. We know that overprescription of those drugs eventually sets the stage for new strains of drug-resistant bacteria, but we also know perfectly well that we’re not going to stop using antibiotics. We’ll rely (we hope) on more science to come up with better bacteria fighters.

Air conditioning is another of science’s triumphs over nature. In Florida, where I live, there is constant criticism of overdevelopment. But try getting middle-class people in my state to give up air conditioning for even a day in the summer and you’ll find out in a hurry about the weakness of ideology compared to the power of creature comforts. If running air conditioners pollutes the air or uses up fossil fuel, we’ll rely (we hope) on more science to solve those problems, too.

 
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