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The Impact of Science on Society (1952)

de Bertrand Russell

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First published in 1985. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

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Bertrand Russell

The Impact of Science on Society

Routledge, Paperback, 2003.

12mo. 127 pp. Prefatory note by Bertrand Russell, 1952 [p. 7].

First published, 1952.
First published in paperback, 1968.
First published by Routledge, 1994
Reprinted, 1998 and 2003.


1. Science and Tradition
2. General Effects of Scientific Technique
3. Scientific Technique in Oligarchy
4. Democracy and Scientific Technique
5. Science and War
6. Science and Values
7. Can a Scientific Society be Stable?


It’s amusing to see how even today, almost half a century after his death, Bertrand Russell still has the power to make his reviewers quite batty. This is admittedly not one of his best books. Then again, it’s not one of his worst either, and it has aged better than most non-fiction published 65 years ago. Most of it still lies in the future. Let us hope it will remain there.

There are, basically, two problems with this book. Let’s have a look at them and see what they amount to.

One, Russell covered much the same ground better 21 years earlier in The Scientific Outlook (1931). The later book is quite a bit shorter, probably because it was originally a series of lectures*, and nowhere near as comprehensive or convincing. On the other hand, it is entirely self-sufficient, beautifully written with Russell’s inimitable combination of clarity and wit, and somewhat more up-to-date (he was, for example, on surer ground about air warfare, genetics, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). Moreover, and more important, the book contains essentially the same argument which remains disturbingly relevant to the present day. With the possible exception of China, to some extent at least, there are no scientific societies today. But that doesn’t mean the future won’t produce some monstrosities, either democratic or oligarchic (i.e. totalitarian), in which scientific technique is worshipped at the expense of elementary humanity. If or when that happens, Russell’s reflections would be invaluable – unless it’s too late to use them.

Two, Russell’s style here is, for the most part, dangerously impersonal. So much so that some readers, more nice than wise to borrow an immortal phrase from Hazlitt, are taken in this dystopian world of freaking scientific control is the one Russell advocated. It is true that he is more pessimistic and less personal than he was 21 years earlier. But that’s a poor reason to misrepresent him. Russell tried to describe the human world as it was then and likely to become in the future, not as he wanted it to be in his dreams (he mentions something about this one in the last two chapters). For those who can read, there is nothing unclear about his position:

First I shall recount [science’s] purely intellectual effect as a solvent of unfounded traditional beliefs, such as witchcraft. Next, I shall consider scientific technique, especially since the industrial revolution. Last, I shall set forth the philosophy which is being suggested by the triumphs of science, and shall contend that this philosophy, if unchecked, may inspire a form of unwisdom from which disastrous consequences may result.

After we have considered science as technique I shall return to the philosophy of human power that it has seemed to suggest. I cannot accept this philosophy, which I believe to be very dangerous.

A scientific oligarchy, accordingly, is bound to become what is called “totalitarian”, that is to say, all important forms of power will become a monopoly of the State. This monolithic system has sufficient merits to be attractive to many people, but to my mind its demerits are far greater than its merits.

To prevent these scientific horrors, democracy is necessary but not sufficient. There must be also that kind of respect for the individual that inspired the doctrine of the Rights of Man.

It is quite possible, of course, that here Russell lied his head off while secretly dedicating most of his life to the realisation of the most dreadful Brave New World imaginable. If you believe this, there is no reason to suppose that anything Russell ever wrote, with the possible exception of his work in logic and mathematics, has any truth in it. Ergo, there is no reason to read Russell at all.

If you think otherwise, this little book would make a rewarding read. I do recommend The Scientific Outlook as a better overview of Russell’s position, but The Impact of Science on Society exhibits the same fearless intellectual honesty and is by no means a bad choice – whatever some demented reviewers might tell you. To be sure, some of Russell’s ideas about birth control and individual liberties would not sit well with the sentimental and the faint-hearted. Nor should his ideas about Socialism and World State remain unchallenged by readers unafraid to use their brains. Yet the Brave New World Russell dreams about, as opposed to the one he fears, is not exclusively Huxleyan, much less Orwellian. It’s a great improvement on both. It remains to be seen whether it’s possible.

*I suspect it was the (updated) second edition of The Scientific Outlook in 1949 that prompted Russell to revisit the problem of the scientific society in a series of lectures and, ultimately, a new book. ( )
  Waldstein | Mar 31, 2017 |

Five stars because everybody needs to be familiar with the disturbing contents of the book, NOT because I support the content.

Bertrand Russell was a gifted mathematician and logician of the late 1800's and early 1900's. His "Principa Mathematica" paper developing formal systems in mathematics continues to be cited today 100 years after its publication (although it has since been proven to be an incomplete theorum). There. Let it never be said I didn't give him his due.

Sadly, he goes off the rails at that point. Instead of living an honorable life contributing to society by developing his mathematical theories, Russell instead elected for riches and accolades under the aegis of eugenicist robberbarons J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller (among others). At their behest, Russell turned from math and logic to advance degenerate philosophies and social engineering schemes. Chief among these were his contributions to the ongoing Morgan/Rockefeller plan to unify the world into a hegemonic totalitarian oligarchy. Where Napoleon and others failed, Rockefeller intended to succeed using the new sciences of psychology (propaganda), genetics (eugenics), and emerging engineering fields. Russell calls this the "scientific dictatorship" (p.32)

The Impact of Science on Society is broken into three speeches Bertrand Russell gave at Columbia University in the early days of the Cold War. These lectures sell his scientific dictatorship as the only reasonable (!!) alternative to certain worldwide nuclear catastrophe. In these speeches, he brazenly details (in glowing, enthusiastic terms) just a few programs this new world order is cooking up for us, including:

1) Mass indoctrination (p.32), which he brags will be capable of "producing an unshakable conviction that snow is black", if that is what rulers wish the public to think. To achieve this, he advocates development of psychology as a tool for controlling masses, noting (p.31): "This study is immensely useful to practical men, whether they wish to become rich or to acquire the government."

2) War against the family: (p.32) "the influence of the home is destructive". After all, Russell opines, to be effective, "not much can be done unless indoctrination begins before the age of ten".

3)And global mass depopulation, which seems like an idea that needs a LOT more elaboration, but none is forthcoming. (what does this mean? "one child policy" like China? forced sterilization? genocide? ...come on, Bertrand! What's on your mind?)

Rockefellers and their ilk continue to wield untold influence through their ownership or dominance of the member banks of the Federal Reserve, the "seven sisters" oil cabal, many universities, and a constellation of tax-free foundations and policy-influencing "think tanks", including the Council on Foreign Relations. Close examination of these institutions reveals a concerted and unified effort towards developing a "vertically integrated" world political/economic system -essentially the scientific dictatorship Russell advocates in this book. The players pushing us down this road include: the European Union, NAFTA, CAFTA, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Court, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations. There is little to suggest these banking Elites have wavered from the vision outlined in this book. ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 6, 2013 |
Really interesting to take a look back and see what it was like looking post WWII at the impact of science on society. Some things are still applicable, others not so much. Some predictions were on target, others wildly off track. Many assumptions wildly off base or have subsequently proved false. But interesting reading nonetheless! ( )
  GoofyOcean110 | Dec 18, 2011 |
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