Looking twice at the history of science

Friday, January 25, 2013

The constructivist straw man

What does “constructivism” mean these days for historians of science? As near as I can tell, it is simply the idea that each scientific claim has a complex causal history that involves people. But there is nothing new about this idea, as we see once we drop straw-mannish views about old-fashioned internalist historians of science. The real novelty is not constructivism but social constructivism, or something like it. Nor is this the only way that old-fashioned historians are short-changed by the way "constructivism" is sometimes portrayed nowadays. Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take to solve these problems. Let me explain. Expand post.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Correctives to #overlyhonestmethods

What lessons can we learn from the current flood of methodological confessions from scientists on Twitter? Most commentaries so far—and there have been a few from historians as well as scientists—assume that the #overlyhonestmethods meme shows that the methods of scientists are not what they are cracked up to be. I agree that the tweets are revealing, but I also think we need to be careful when deciding what they reveal. Here's why. Expand post.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Other Men Laboured

Whatever this vision, it is not a child's. It is what a child's vision can become. (Geoffrey Hill: The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy).

In the opening pages of his fine recent book The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett spends rather a long time describing what it lacks: 'there is not a single cetacean of any sort in these pages. You knew that, of course, since even the smallest dolphin needs much more room than the largest trim size of the most voluminous scholarly tome. And though they breathe air, cetaceans basically like being in the water, while books are mostly written on paper, a substance that fares poorly when submerged.' The lugubrious comedy here is doing a certain sort of scholarly work: it is reminding us about materiality, the difference between the traces which books can contain and the living creatures which they can't. And it is drawing a quite standard boundary around the practice of academic history; Burnett is not gesturing romantically to rhetorical evocations of a whale. Books and whales are different. Expand post.