The Roots of Progress

The Baconian program

March 30, 2017

Another thing I learned from A Culture of Growth is the importance and influence of Francis Bacon, who plays a key role in Mokyr’s story.

Bacon championed a number of key ideas. One was the importance of experimental science vs. rationalism or arbitrary hypotheses: “Bacon’s legacy was a concrete and materialistic science based on data and experiments, sharply rejecting what the age called ‘hypotheses’ but which in our lingo would be thought of as speculation.” At the same time, though, he advocated for a methodical approach, vs. the more haphazard trial-and-error approach some investigators were taking at the time.

Another was the idea of “useful knowledge”—that scientific knowledge would be applicable to the problems of life in practical ways, captured by his famous dictum that “knowledge is power.” Indeed, Mokyr refers multiple times to “the Baconian program”: a grand vision in which scientists would find patterns in nature and apply those to the benefit of industry.

Essentially, Bacon predicted and advocated the Industrial Revolution, two hundred years before it actually began. And what is even more remarkable than his foresight is that his vision took hold among the European intellectual elite and that they stuck with it, even though tangible progress came far slower than any of them expected.