In Science in Action, Bruno Latour talks of the birth of the modern science of geology, triumphed by Charles Lyell. He discusses Lyell’s attempt to professionalise and win respect for geology, and the need to find funds to support research in the new discipline. One solution to the need for funds it to appeal directly to the public, in Lyell’s case by writing a book that the landed gentry might read and so be convinced to donate to the cause of Geology:

If geology is successful in reshaping the earth’s history, size, composition and age, by the same token, it is also extremely shocking and unusual. You start the book in a world created by God’s will 6000 years ago, and you end it with a few poor Englishmen lost in the eons of time, preceded by hundreds of Floods and hundreds of thousands of different species. The shock might be so violent that the whole of England would be up in arms against geologists, bringing the whole discipline into disrepute. On the other hand, if Lyell softens the blow too much, then the book is not about new facts, but is a careful compromise between commonsense and the geologists’ opinion. This negotiation is all the more difficult if the new discipline runs not only against the Church’s teachings but also against Lyell’s own beliefs, as is the case with the advent of humanity into earth history which Lyell preferred to keep recent and miraculous despite his other theories. How is it possible to say simultaneously that it is useful for everyone, but runs against everyone’s beliefs? How is it possible to convince the gentry and at the same time to destroy the authority of common sense? How is it possible to assert that it is morally necessary to develop geology while agonising in private in the meantime on the position of humanity in Nature?


Replace 19th century geology with ‘cognitive sciences’, and gentry with ‘public’, and the essential tension is still there. The new brain science seeks attention and kudos, and in doing this must reach an uncomfortable accommodation with the ‘authority of common sense’. Psychologists and neuroscientists want to be heard in the public domain, but they will get so much more attention if they flatter received wisdom rather than attempt to overturn strongly held intuitions about human freedom, reasoning and morality.