Looking twice at the history of science

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer update

Alert readers will have noticed that not much has happened on this blog over the last couple of months. One of my excuses is that it is summer. Another is that I have been contributing to the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog, which I encourage you to read if you do not already do so. But the real reason is that in October I will begin a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and I am busy tying up loose ends in Cambridge before I head east.

When regular blogging resumes in autumn, the following topics will be high on the agenda:

-- remarks on my paper that appeared in the June issue of Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. There are some big issues that didn't make it into the paper and that I would like to highlight in a blog post.

-- a response to the interesting discussion about the internal/external distinction that Darin Hayton has summarised here.

-- a continutation of my series of posts on the symmetry principle in the history of science. There is more to say about this principle, and I promise I will say it more succinctly than I did here or here.

-- a continuation of a series of posts on Thomas Kuhn's legacy for historians.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Critical thoughts on Hasok Chang's ICHSTM keynote address

Yesterday morning nearly 2000 historians of science gathered in a vertiginous lecture hall at the University of Manchester, UK. Hasok Chang, the keynote speaker, told them that they could benefit from studying the technical content of science. Not a very controversial claim, you might think. After all, science does have technical content, just as it has journals, military contracts, and priority disputes. The fact that the talk was controversial—and the initial reaction on twitter suggests that it was—shows just how sensitive historians of science still are to what was once called the internal/external debate. Having written about this debate before on this blog, I can’t help commenting on the talk. I agreed with much of Chang's talk, but not all of it. I think that in some respects he went too far in defending internal history of science, and that in other respects he did not go far enough. Expand post.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How (not) to bring STS to the masses

This post is a response to reflections that Lee Vinsel posted on Saturday on the AmericanScience blog. His post was about science and politics rather than about the symmetry principle, and it is the latter that I am scrutinising in my current series of posts. But I take issue with Lee's post for the same reasons I take issue with Vanessa Heggie's earlier one on the symmetry principle. It seems to me that the effect of both posts (though perhaps not the intention) is to endorse one side of a confusing and controversial issue, present the opposing view as a vulgar error, and use the wisdom of STS to confound the distinctions that could have prevented the confusion from arising in the first place. Expand post.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Saving the symmetry principle, IIIb: truth in the history of science

This post continues my effort to understand the symmetry principle by distinguishing different senses of the claim “people do not believe things because they are true.” As you can see, this is not an easy job: this post adds 5 readings to the 6 discussed in my previous post. But nor is it an exercise in hair-splitting or nit-picking. I'm not suggesting that we need to make these distinctions explicit whenever we discuss the symmetry principle, the nature of scientific truth, or the role of evidence in settling scientific debates. But our discussions of all those topics would be improved if we kept these distinctions in mind when we formulate our claims and when we assess the claims of non-historians. (Readers who are pressed for time may want to skip to the end of this post, where I summarise my 11 readings and draw some morals from them.) Expand post.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saving the symmetry principle, IIIa: truth in the history of science

This post continues my series on the symmetry principle, with apologies to anyone who has been holding their breath since my last post five weeks ago. That was a piece of conceptual ground-clearing in which I argued that esoteric-seeming distinctions can make a big difference to the answers we give to important questions. In this post and the next I want to illustrate the point by distinguishing between different senses of the claim—which historians sometimes equate with the symmetry principle—that “people don't believe things just because they are true.” Expand post.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Saving the symmetry principle, II: why distinctions matter

The flurry of tweets that followed my last post made it clear that there are quite a few interpretations of the sentence “people believe things just because they are true.” One question that came up was whether or not the distinction between truth and evidence is any use in understanding that sentence. I think it is. But even if it is not, I want to make the broader point that esoteric-seeming distinctions can make a big difference to the success of our interactions with the general public. Expand post.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Saving the symmetry principle, I: two fallacies

Vanessa Heggie has posted a clear, visible summary of what she rightly calls a “core principle” for historians of science, namely the “symmetry principle.” So this is a great opportunity for me to explain why I disagree with much that my fellow historians of science have written on this topic. Behind the symmetry principle there is an insight that is true, important and worth keeping. But we need to save this insight from the ideas that are often associated with it, many of which I think we should reject. Expand post.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

13 things Gopnik got right about Galileo

Since you are reading this, you have probably read Adam Gopnik's recent essay-review about Galileo Galilei in The New Yorker. You might also have seen some reactions from unimpressed historians, one of whom calls the article “extremely pernicious.” I think that some of Gopnik's errors have been exaggerated, and that most of his felicities have gone unnoticed. The moral is that us historians should be as alert to what popular writers get right as we are to what they get wrong. After all, we can hardly criticise Gopnik for imbalance in his treatment of Galileo if we are imbalanced in our treatment of Gopnik. Expand post.