Thursday, August 13, 2009

Should the History of Science refocus on “science”?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 08/13 at 10:23 AM

In July’s History of Science Society Newsletter (available on line here and as a pdf here) outgoing President Jane Maienschein claims that during her tenure as president she had hoped to improve three areas of the profession: refocusing the profession on its core, public outreach by members of the profession, and moving the profession beyond history departments. Here I am interested only in thinking about her first area.1

The first, and presumably therefore most significant issue for Maienschein was a loss of some professional core. She says:

First, I worried that the profession had become so diverse and diffuse that it lacked the energy to carry the field forward. In particular, I saw too much of a swing toward a version of the social history of science that seemed to forget the science. I imagined I might help bring back a balance of interests – science at the core, along with plenty of room for social history, economic history, political history, environmental history, and so many other histories. This is especially true since history of science benefits from connections with philosophy, with the sciences, and with other fields; for history of science to remain a focused field that warrants positions and a professional society it must remember its subject matter – science.2

Among other unstated goals, by refocusing on science she “ hoped to bring back scholars who had become disaffected with our swing toward the social and away from the science.” Maienschein’s goal has found supporters. Will Thomas has already expressed his approval, while at the same time finding Maienschein too timid in placing blame for the drift from the core science. I want to take the other side of the issue and express some concerns (worries?) about what such a disciplinary retrenchment might imply.

What exactly “science at the core” or “its subject matter — science” might mean remains vague, but it’s hard not too see these statements as exclusionary. Although I don’t think that Maienschein is encouraging a retreat into the positivist ideas about science that dominated the profession in its early years, her own position in a science division and her invocation of history of science’s connection with “the sciences” seems to exclude a number of activities we might now consider acceptable (even proper) subjects for the history of science but fail to be considered part of “the sciences.” Both Maienschein and Will Thomas benefit from working on subjects that continue to elicit respect from practicing scientists, whereas scholars working on, e.g., witchcraft, magic, alchemy, astrology, or demonology are less likely to enjoy the respect of today’s science community.3 In principle I am perfectly happy thinking about what it is that distinguishes the history of science from other “history of ________”s (fill in the blank), but I would like to have a more thorough-going discussion what constitutes that distinction. Simple claims to “science” seem to be more problematic than helpful.

If Maienschein and Thomas are not advocating some form of segregation, protecting the valid subjects, i.e,. the sciences, from stain through debasement with inappropriate fields, are they perhaps encouraging some sort of disciplinary sublimation?4 Will Thomas claims that scholars interested in scientific systematics, argumentation, and heuristics have suffered insult because their work has been labeled archaic and internalist, “no matter how often they cover their rears by professing that they fully embrace science’s close connections with the political and the cultural.” This echoes Maienschein’s claim that the profession has swung “toward the social.” Both statements assume that science is somehow distinct and distinguishable from the social, the cultural, and the political. It is precisely this assumption that I find problematic, and one that risks reviving the internalist-externalist debates of the 1970s and 1980s. How, exactly, can we distinguish science from non-science? For Thomas a key issue seems to be “technical material.”5 In response to a comment, Thomas reiterates the importance of technical content, claiming that “even if they [published articles] do contain some limited technical content, are not connected to technical concerns elsewhere in science.”6 He seems either to reintroduce the segregations mentioned in the previous paragraph or simply to recast the question of “What is science?” as “What constitutes technical material?”, leaving us no closer to a definition of appropriate objects of study.

Whatever science might be, it is not the social, the political, or the cultural. These extraneous, if interesting (though Thomas never claims these contexts are even interesting), issues are relegated to the status of platitudinous window dressing. According to Thomas such contexts are distinct from and presumably contribute nothing to “actual intellectual content of science.” For Thomas, the context in which science occurs is extraneous to its intellectual content, and to provide some account of that context is something of a burden, only to be undertaken once you have provided a proper account of the science and to cover your rear.7

I don’t agree with Maienschein’s or Thomas’s sentiment (as expressed) that we need to refocus on science and its intellectual content. Not only does this move seem to relegate numerous subjects to the dustbin of antiquarianism, it risks reifying science and extracting it from the actual humans who practiced that science. And until somebody can point to a human who lives in an a-social, a-political, a-cultural world, for me understanding that human activity called science will always be embedded in the social, the political, the cultural, as well as the intellectual.

1My earlier post, “PACHS and Public Opinions on Science,” has raised some of the public outreach issues as they pertain to PACHS. I will certainly return to those issues.
2It might be worth thinking about whether or not this worry of hers is in tension with the third goal she identifies: “moving history of science beyond history departments” and into such institutional homes as law schools, science departments and schools, environmental and sustainability programs, museums, “and so many other places.” Perhaps it is precisely this wish to move historians of science beyond history departments that prompts her desire to retrench and to focus on some identifiable and distinct core: “science.”
3While Maienschein is a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and Thomas has a position at The American Institute of Physics History Center, it is difficult to see a historian of 16th-century alchemy securing a position in a chemistry department, or a scholar of medieval astrology finding a home in an astronomy or astrophysics department, or somebody who studies witchcraft ending up in a law school or policy studies program.
4From this point, I will be engaging largely with Will’s post because it represents how a person can read Maienschein’s message and because Will raises some good points. However, I respectfully disagree with some of what he says, or at least how he says it. Will’s post raises a number of issues that I will ignore in this post—including, inter alia, problems with Isis, outreach to popular audiences, and an “epistemic-imperative shell”—not because they don’t merit further discussion, but in the interest of staying focused on one issue.
I will continue to refer to Will Thomas as “Thomas” in part because I don’t know him and in part to continue my practice of referring to Jane Maienschein as “Maienschein.”
5One of his critiques of Isis is the lack of technical material: “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything even approaching technical material in its pages.”
6At this point, Thomas raises another issue: the tendency for articles to exist within their own solipsistic subfields. He contrasts his own article in the British Journal for the History of Science makes the effort to “engage others’ work.” His paper does, indeed, engage with other scholars’ work. For Thomas, engaging with other literature might have been facilitated (even necessitated) by the “vast” historiography on Operations Research (as he notes in the second footnote). Scholars who don’t have a ready body of literature in which to situate their own work have to look further afield to find common ground with other scholars in the profession. This might explain why, to use uncritically Thomas’s slur (without, in fact, embracing it), scholars “address an [epistemic-] imperative that no one really seems to care deeply about.” If the metric for publication was a vast historiography on a topic, many scholars would be excluded.
7Toward the end of his post Thomas dismisses the context for science as superfluous when he claims that the problems facing the profession could be overcome if we “could engage more closely with questions of the actual intellectual content of the science (while not neglecting society, etc. etc.) [sic].” It’s difficult not to see “while not neglecting society, etc. etc.” as disdainful.

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