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Friday, August 03, 2012

Off with their (Whig) Heads

Posted by Michal Meyer on 08/03 at 07:39 PM

The Renaissance Mathematicus blog has a wonderful rant about one of my pet peeves, Whig history. Reading history as progress is long past its use by date. The post is about how we separate those who have done science in the past into two categories: those whom we now deem as having done “correct” science (e.g. Darwin) and those deluded souls who merely believed they were doing science (e.g. Lamarck). 

Perhaps this is true among scientists, but I’ve found something quite different in my admittedly few collaborations with people creating popular history of science to background science programming. These people are refreshingly free of arrogance but do suffer from the big man picture of science, which is not surprising because it’s such an easy and popular way to tell the history of science. So Lavoisier is the big man of chemistry and Priestley, his English fellow chemist, only the man who haphazardly discovered some gases whose significance could only be properly understood by the Frenchman. Part of it, I think, is giving theory a higher standing than practice; the other part is the amount of work required to shove Priestley into the narrative of increasingly sophisticated instrumentation and quantification associated with Lavoisier. Priestly is an adjunct to that story. Where I work (Chemical Heritage Foundation), the museum has a recreation of Priestley’s experimental apparatus. When compared to Lavoisier’s it is Stone Age to Space Age, the kind of equipment typically found in any moderately prosperous kitchen of that time. Of course it helps the big man narrative that Lavoisier died tragically by guillotine during the French Revolution; Priestley was merely burned out of home and laboratory, and survived to immigrate to the United States.

So, you may think, just as well I was there to put the program makers back on the straight and narrow. Not exactly. I tried to tone down the big man approach, but I made no attempt to eliminate it. The expected audience is high-school students studying science. I think Whig history does have a role to play with this kind of audience: it exists to make the science more digestible. And who knows, the students may enjoy the history enough to go in search of more. One day, they may even condemn Whig history. Now that is a story I’d like to see come true.

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