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Science and the Human Factor

May 24, 1924 — Conference on Science and Labor, British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, London, England


The subject for discussion this morning is Science and the Human Factor. I am personally extremely glad that this human factor is being given a special session all to itself. There are a great many people in industry to-day who are inclined to fear the march of science in industry because the only manifestation they have seen of it is a tendency to a great regimentation of human beings, and they are naturally in revolt if that is all they see of it. The object of this Conference, I take it, is to endeavor to widen the scope not merely of observation and knowledge, but of the sympathies, particularly of the workers concerned, in the difficulties of any experimental period. I am reminded of one incident that happened in  factory where the Taylor system, for example, was put into operation with great enthusiasm by the management without any sort of previous explanation to the workers concerned, and at the end of five or six months’ experiment they abandoned it altogether because the workers objected to being gold to stop work for precisely fifteen minutes. They did not feel that they wanted to stop work precisely for fifteen minutes at precisely the moment the management said they had to, and, above all, they did not want to sit still as the management insisted they should. In all possible ways that sort of stereotyping is to be avoided. It is not necessarily involved in the scientific method, and it is important to understand exactly how these things which appear so splendid to the scientific mind may appear to the unfortunate unscientific individual who is being experimented upon.

But the points in connection with the immediate programme of the application of science and its effect upon human life are so obvious, that I am quite sure there will be no difference of opinion here this morning with regard to them. Take, for example, this question of the importance of personal responsibility in matters of physical health. You may make the most perfect laws in the world; you may have the most perfect administrative machinery; but unless you also get the intelligent cooperation of the individuals, while much can be one by legal enactment and administration, you will not get the complete effect of the advanced knowledge. Therefore, how to enlist the understanding and sympathy of the individual worker or citizen is a part of the problem which the scientific initiator has constantly to bear in mind. This is an age of collectivism. As a Collectivist myself with a profound belief in the desirability of a change in the direction of a cooperative  commonwealth, I am equally impressed with the importance of not decreasing but of increasing personal responsibility. Without that steady rise of personal obligation coincident with the improvement of our conditions, both in regard to industry and in regard to government and local administration, you have an incomplete machine, and the human factor will spoil your most beautiful paper schemes.

There is another point upon which I think public opinion is getting very rapidly ripe: that is the importance to this particular island of more light, in every way, but particularly more sunlight. That, of course, raises the whole problem of the smoke nuisance. I sometimes feel ashamed when I go to other industrial countries where they have applied electrical power, for instance, where they have abolished the smoke fiend, where they can keep their houses clean, and the housewife has not to bother about changing the curtains every day in order that the windows may look decent. I come back to some of our Lancashire towns and in some of our oldest industries where I find a condition of things which is a disgrace to the controllers of those great industrial concerns and to the general body of citizens. It is a disgrace because in the long run it would pay them, even from the point of view of industrial returns, to take active steps to decrease the smoke nuisance by scientific methods which are now very well known, and above all by a very great development of the use of electrical power. We are only beginning to understand how great an effect our smoke has upon the physical well-being of large masses of our people. In that respect also I think a very great advance is within the realm of practical politics if only public opinion will insist upon this matter being attended to.

There is the question also of industrial fatigue. Some large employers of labor have already realized what it means to the output if the men and women employed in their factories start fresh in the morning, instead of with the remains of the last day’s fatigue still heavy upon them. Relief from fatigue is going to be a very great factor which will have a commercial value, and from that point of view probably will receive more and more attention as the days go on. Scientists regard it not so much from the standpoint of pounds, shillings, and pence in a particular business, but form the point of view of the value to the nation as a whole of having a people who are physically fit and capable of making the necessary effort that will have to be made, intellectually as well as physically, if we are to hold our own amongst the nations of the world. This country has, I think, come to a very serious stage in its history, and it will depend largely upon the way in which it applies science to its industries as to whether it is still going up the hill, and whether it is still going to be a leading industrial nation in the world, or whether we shall have to see our industries steadily taking second or even third place in the markets of the world.

These matters are matters of vital concern, not merely to those engaged in industry, not merely in the wage-earner and the employer, but to every section of the community. We, therefore, ought to welcome wholeheartedly the efforts which scientific people are making at the present time to give us the necessary information which will guide us in our industrial development, and we ought to allow no prejudices and no old-fashioned conservatism of mind to stand in the way of making such advances as are necessary in this connection. There is the type of mind which says, “My father always did it this way; it was good enough for him, and it is good enough for me.” That attitude of mind is fatal to the development of this country. We cannot afford to rest upon the methods of our fathers when science has shown us finer and better and newer methods for doing the same kind of work and doing it in larger measure.

There is another point which I am sure will be dealt with in the discussion this morning; that is, with the tendency of industry to develop by means of mass-production, methods, specialization, the differentiation of processes, and so on, so that masses of work-people are confined to the manufacture of a thirtieth or even a sixtieth part of the completed article. Some change of occupation is necessary in order to maintain a level of mental activity amongst the workers in connection with their work. Those who are in the position of organizing work in the factories will be required, I think, so to arrange their staffs that no one is kept upon a particular automatic process for too long a period at a time, and that there should be a possibility of changing over to new work. I know some employers say that is uneconomic; that the great thing is speed, and if a particular girl reaches her maximum speech on a particular process, they keep her at it. But in the long run I am sure that is wrong. It is wrong because you have to consider not merely the point of speed at a particular moment of time; you must surely consider what its effect will be upon that particular human being, and if the system turns out automata instead of live men and women, then it is a system which must be condemned. There may be some process of manufacture where changes are impossible. In that case I hold that the hours of labor should be reduced to a very small number and that efforts should be made to enable that particular human being to widen and develop the faculties he or she possesses in other forms of recreation or study or social endeavor. In any case, with the development of speed and mass-production, there is more and more necessity to ay attention to the development of the human factor. Our Lord said, “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” Industry is made for man and not man for industry, and if Industry is not serving mankind there is something wrong with industry. I am aware that these ideas are not widely met with so far in industrial circles; it is necessary by means of a broad minded and educated public opinion to secure the application of science to industry not only from the point of view of production, but mainly from the point of view of its effect upon human life.



Source: Modern Eloquence, Vol. IV, ed. Ashley H. Thorndike, (New York: Modern Eloquence Corp.) 1928,  pp. 74-78.