Thursday, March 24, 2011

Who cares about the history of science?

Posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 03/24 at 11:18 PM

I want to start what I hope will be not only a series of posts but also a discussion about the value of the history of science. We don’t often stop to think about—let alone systematically formulate a set of justifications for—our field. But it matters for things that affect our daily lives. Why do we teach? Why should the NSF, NEH, NIH, or other foundation give us a grant—or our university pay our salary? Who should publish our book? On what basis should we recruit graduate students?

Imagine you are a Dean. The university president is expecting your budget and he demands that you cut $10M from it. Painful decisions have to be made. Well-intentioned but unproductive junior faculty are going to be denied tenure. Maybe some of those interdisciplinary programs that were so trendy ten years ago can be cut. Who really takes Classics any more? And what about that program for the history of science? Can’t that be trimmed? Let’s float a proposal to axe it and see what happens.

Okay, now imagine you direct that history of science program. How do you respond to the letter? Why should your program not be sacrificed?

I absolutely think our field deserves a place in the curriculum and on the bookshelves--indeed, a more prominent one than it now has. And to get there, we have to do some soul-searching and to be honest with ourselves.

We have, I fear, painted ourselves into a corner in the last few decades. The history of science, of course, used to be done mainly by retired scientists. Then Thomas Kuhn came along and turned the whole enterprise on its head, and then the Edinburgh School and the Strong Programme turned Kuhn on his head and then we had tea. The history of science differentiated itself from the field it studied, it fledged, rebelled against its parent—in a word, professionalized.

But it got carried away. In the 1990s, the “science wars” pitted us against the scientists, and Alan Sokal’s brilliant—yes, brilliant— hoax exposed the pose of much scholarly science studies, making meticulously articulated arguments mockable. Science scholars’ strategy of dismantling its own subject in order to demonstrate its own sophistication backfired; society backed the scientists. It was the scholars who came off seeming ridiculous.

In the past decade, where there ought to have been a pendulum swing there has been inertia. For the most part, the history of science and science studies has become irrelevant to wider social discussions. There are important exceptions to this—most recently, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’sMerchants of Doubt”> Merchants of Doubt has engaged serious, important contemporary scientific issues with serious scholarship. This stuff can be done, people.

This is just a hint of one of the reasons that science scholarship—a term I’ll use to refer to the history of science, sociology of science, philosophy of science, and science studies—matters. And there are, I think, really only a few fundamental justifications for it. We need to think pragmatically, but we can’t lose sight of aesthetics and principles, either.

I want to explore these reasons in an occasional series of posts. Let’s begin.

Tags: science scholarship, science studies, science wars, strong programme, thomas kuhn


Comment posted by Thomas Soderqvist on 03/25 at 07:31 AM

Agree! See also my post here:

Comment posted by beckyfh on 03/25 at 07:39 AM

I should await the following posts, but I find the statement that “for the most part, the history of science and science studies has become irrelevant to wider social discussions” a bit depressing and not altogether true. For a start all academics justifying grants have to make statements about ‘Impact’ and argue for the social relevance of their work. Maybe it’s all so much made-up nonsense, but it does make people think harder about these things.

I work in a museum, so I have to think about audiences and communication and what I think is important in my subject. I think that the scholarship of the 1970s and 19890s has had an important impact, even if what has been taken up, and taken forward, is a less strong version of the original programme. Even if it’s true to say that “society backed the scientists” after the Science Wars (and I’m not fully convinced of that) the historians and sociologists of science have made an impact. TV programmes and museum exhibitions, at least in the UK, are now prepared to present more subtle stories and to challenge the old myths and narratives.

I am currently planning a HoS-based exhibition and it will certainly be aiming to present the idea that science and technology is socially constructed. If this point of view can be displayed in a major exhibition at a national museum is it fair to say that it is irrelevant?

Comment posted by beckyfh on 03/25 at 08:52 AM

From Thomas’s comment, and perhaps the post, it would look like we’re talking specifically about the relationship between HPS and science. But let’s remember that this is not the only important audience for our work. Talking to other historians and to a wider public is, for me, more important than trying to convince scientists of the importance of our work.

Comment posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 03/25 at 10:11 AM

I am talking about scientists, but not only about scientists. One powerful lesson from the Science Wars was that if scientists think what we do is useless, then many of us are dead in the water. No, the field did not become *totally* irrelevant, but on a macro scale we lost a lot of credibility by going with a hig-falutin’ academic relativism that struck a lot of people as just plain silly. So arguments like Thomas’s are very important to this discussion.

Personally, though, I am more interested in the kinds of wider public discussions Becky is talking about. As I hope to detail in future posts, I think we need to think about science in aesthetic terms and also in practical terms--in what ways is it just plain cool to know about, and it what ways is it *useful*?

I agree that science journalism and museum exhibitions are better now than 20 years ago, and I agree that it’s partly because of nuance added by historians. I’m delighted that my provocative statement prompted these nice examples!

I would love to hear more about that museum exhibit. How are you translating social constructionism in visual terms to a lay audience? And what’s your message about why they should care?

Comment posted by beckyfh on 03/26 at 04:12 AM

Well, it’s very early days for the development of the exhibition (we’re working to 2014) but I think it will be an advantage that it is in a Museum that is focused on history rather than science. This means that stories about people, social groups, governments and institutions will find a natural place in explaining the development of science and technology. We will not be attempting to make audiences come away with a certain methodology in the history of science, but we hope to show both that science and technology are an integral part of understanding the past and that the development of science can’t be understood without attention to the society in which it is produced. Will we succeed? Who knows!

Comment posted by Thony C. on 03/27 at 03:29 AM

We have, I fear, painted ourselves into a corner in the last few decades. The history of science, of course, used to be done mainly by retired scientists. Then Thomas Kuhn came along and turned the whole enterprise on its head, and then the Edinburgh School and the Strong Programme turned Kuhn on his head and then we had tea. The history of science differentiated itself from the field it studied, it fledged, rebelled against its parent—in a word, professionalized.

Nathaniel, I realise that your main concern in your post is what happened to HoS in the 1990s and later but the historian in me can’t let the paragraph quoted above stand without comment.

The professionalisation of HoS started much earlier and took much longer than your comment would imply.

Already the work of William Whewell in the 19th century is a large step along the road to professionalisation and many of the 19th century historians of science such as Duhem and Tannery were totally professional in their approach and output.

The real professionalisation takes off in the 1930s with the work of George Sarton and the founding of Isis, Thomas Kuhn is himself a product of this development and is by no means the only professional historians of science working and publishing in the 1950s; I. B. Cohen and A. C. Crombie are just two examples of this generation. By the 1960s history of science departments had been established in many European and American universities.

Whether or not developments in the ‘science wars’ caused a breach between HoS and science as you claim is not a subject on which I feel qualified to comment but I hope to learn more in your further posts on the subject.

Comment posted by Babak Ashrafi on 03/27 at 10:36 AM

Nathaniel’s important and interesting provocation resonates on three registers, the history of history of science in the American context, the plight of the humanities in the university, and the changing role of education. 


The history of history of science in the American context:  While it is true that professionalization in the discipline started earlier than Kuhn, as pointed out by Thony C. above, the post-Kuhn trajectory has severed the previous claim to the relevance.  The received view had been that the study of history of science would produce better scientists and a society that would better support scientists.  But the philosophical underpinnings of the received view were attacked by Quine and Goodman.  Kuhn added that even if the received view could be repaired, it would not describe how scientists actually work.  Them was fighin’ words, unlike Quine’s and Goodman’s work, which have not caused much commotion outside of academic philosophy.  So the trajectory of this discipline includes a perceived loss of previous relevance, a perception which only heightens our anxiety.  There are (at least) three ways to respond:  (1) No, history of science is now more empirically sound and can thereby prevent mistakes we might have otherwise made; (2) Yes, history of science has lost its previous relevance but gained new kinds of relevance for other audiences; and (3) So?  The field is intrinsically interesting and important.  Now our problem is to articulate which ever of these views one holds. 

The plight of the humanities in the university:  Except for the perceived loss, questions of relevance for history of science are similar to those for other fields in the humanities.  It would be interesting to survey responses from, say, scholars of ancient Assyrian or art historians.  I have not made such a survey, but I imagine that each of these fields could point to distinctive empirical and theoretical resources they use to uncover distinctive insights that in turn have broader interest.  So, what are our distinctive empirical and theoretical resources and how are the insights we offer more broadly interesting?

The changing role of education:  That fields in the humanities have to make such arguments reflects an important difference from the professional and technical fields.  Physicists could for generations point to the atomic bomb and the transistor as justification as examples of their contribution to our power and wealth.  That kind of argument has worked well for a broad range of scientific, engineering and professional fields.  A great bulk of what counts as education is now simply vocational training, the development of skills and aptitudes for producing and consuming.  In such a context, the humanities are reduced to a luxury that increases refinement and provides a respite from work for those who can afford it.  That diminished role for the humanities is, I think, the most important challenge we have to address.

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