George Orwell's "What Is Science"

by Matt Gerrard

George Orwell, in addition to being a respected novelist, was also a prolific essayist on topics as diverse as politics, race, nature and philosophy. In his essay "What Is Science?," first published in 1945, he responds to a letter published in a newspaper about the need for greater scientific education.


Orwell starts by addressing the actual definition of science. Does it refer to the traditional definition: chemistry, physics and biology? Or is it a method of logical thought that can be applied to any field? Orwell states that no one would think of applying the term "man of science" to "a statesman, a poet, a journalist or even a philosopher." But he argues that these people are just as likely use the same logical, rational approach to thought as a physicist or astronomer.

Education vs Inclination

Throughout the article, Orwell continues to pose the question: Is science the memorization of an empirical body of knowledge? Or is it a method of thought -- "a way of looking at the world"? He argues that it refers to a rational, logical approach to problem-solving, and that this type of mindset is just as likely to be possessed by a lawyer or poet, and that scientists, according to the traditional definition, do not necessarily share this open-mindedness.

Role in Politics

Unsurprisingly for an essay written in 1945, there is a mention of the Nazi party. Orwell uses "the ability to withstand nationalism" as a kind of test for scientistific objectivity. While countless poets, philosophers and journalists were victims of the regime, many scientists were able to continue their work, as it benefited the military. Orwell argues that it is difficult to consider scientists objective, logical and without nationality if they are ready to line up and work for such a regime, knowing what their designs and inventions will be used for.

Orwell's Conclusions

At the end of the article, Orwell again refers to international politics. He references a group of British and American scientists who refused to work on the atomic bomb project, due to moral concerns about its eventual use. Though he has no further information about the specific people, he speculates that such people would likely have had "some kind of general cultural background, some acquaintance with history or literature or the arts." He suggests that an understanding of the world can be gained through sources other than concrete facts, and this particular variety of intelligence is what should be valued and taught as widely as possible, rather than the simple memorization of facts.

About the Author

Matt Gerrard began writing in 2002, initially contributing articles about college student culture to "The Gateway" magazine, many of which were republished on the now-defunct Plinth blog. Since then, Gerrard has worked as a technician for musicians, educators, chemists and engineers. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in music technology from DeMontfort University.