Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Art of the Soluble: The Ignorant Are Still Getting Medawar Wrong

Just the other day I saw some ignoramus sounding off in a blog that Medawar was, by his labelling science (and the title of one of his books) as The Art of the Soluble, advising scientists to find problems that were easy to solve.

It never seems to have crossed the minds of those authors who get Medawar so wrong that the real meaning is: Science is the art of making things soluble; in other words that good scientists find solutions to difficult problems.

Sir Peter Medawar (1915-1987) in his lifetime attacked the misinterpretation of his work in the introduction to Pluto’s Republic (1982):

One or two rather malicious people whose reading of that earlier book could have gone no further than the title (“I never  seem to get any time for reading nowadays”) took it for granted that I was advocating the study of easy problems which would yield quick returns from the scientists’ investment of time. What I meant, of course, was that the art of research was the art of making difficult problems soluble by devising means of getting at them…

The same possible misinterpretation applies to the title of the British politician, R.A. Butler’s book, The Art of the Possible (1971). Politics is the art of the possible was apparently first coined in some form by Bismarck. The idea has gained currency that Bismarck and Butler were advocating the notion that politicians should only concentrate on easy (i.e. possible to enact) problems. I have no idea what point Bismarck was making but the accepted interpretation of Butler’s use of the dictum at the time his autobiography was published was that politics is the art of making things possible, otherwise it would not be an art, rather than the meaning promulgated in present times that politicians should only concern themselves with easy measures that are known to be possible. Butler’s Education Act (1944) that changed Britain completely in terms of equality of opportunity was not easy politically but he made it possible.


The elision of long phrases into aphorisms is, or was, common in British English. Those who do not understand the way the British speak or write to each other, where the emphasis is on irony, elision and allusion rather than direct statements, really have difficulty in understanding what we are saying. However, Medawar did make it completely clear what he meant—both at the time and later. There really is no excuse for getting it wrong.