Looking twice at the history of science

Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to end the science wars: a review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture? A Conversation About Science, part I/II

The science wars were a series of skirmishes that took place between scientists and sociologists (loosely speaking) in the 1990s. Sociologists of science were accused of using bad arguments and shoddy scholarship to undermine science; scientists were accused of misunderstanding the sociologists, idealising science, and conspiring to shut down legitimate debate. In 1997 some of the protagonists met at a ‘Science Peace Workshop’ in the hope of finding common ground and clarifying the issues at stake. The result was The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (2001), edited by the sociologist Harry Collins and the chemist Jay Labinger. It has been said, not without justice, that the book spelled the end of the science wars. But the book has its flaws, including several irritants and two serious omissions. This post and the next one are a guide to the 'science peace process.' These remarks are cobbled together from insights I found in the book and from my own reflections on such things as the symmetry principle and the internal/external distinction. Expand post.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Barry Barnes' Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory, 40 years on

2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Kuhns’ influential and controversial book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2014 is the anniversary of a book that was nearly as influential and nearly as controversial as Kuhn's, at least among historians and sociologists of science. Barry Barnes’ Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory was the first full-length exposition of what soon became known as the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge. The programme was ‘strong’ in the sense that it used sociology to explain established scientific theories, as opposed to explaining scientific institutions or explaining discredited beliefs. When I read the book last week I found it surprisingly radical and surprisingly prescient. I also found what I think are the roots of a gross error that persists to this day. Expand post.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to save the symmetry principle in six simple steps

I began posting on the symmetry principle in March 2013, in response to a post by Vanessa Heggie on the H Word. After eight posts and nearly eighteen months, it is time to bring this desultory marathon to an end. In the interests of brevity and coherence, here is a six-step guide to saving the symmetry principle. Each step corresponds to one or two posts in the series. Expand post.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle VI: symmetry without short-cuts

Last month I tried to show that historians can honour the symmetry principle without becoming skeptics about current scientific theories. We do not need to "forget" that the earth moves in order to see that there was once good reason to believe that it is stationary. But even if we do not need to forget this, perhaps we should try to forget it anyway just to be on the safe side? The aim of this short post is to explain why this kind of methodological relativism is not a good idea. Put simply, if we need to resort to this psychological trick in order to do good history then we have not understood the symmetry principle. Expand post.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Should the history of science have relevance? Notes on the BSHS conference session

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS). Aside from the overall bubbliness and smooth organisation of the conference, the highlights for me were the opening session on recycling in early modern chymistry, Richard Serjeantson's talk on seventeenth-century student notebooks, and the spinach-and-mozarella pastry that was served up for lunch on day one. I was also impressed by the well-attended closing session with the curious title "Should the history of science have relevance?" Rebekah Higgitt, one of the four panellists in this session, said that someone should blog about it. Hence this post, which reconstructs the discussion with the help of other people's tweets and my hasty notes. Feel free to use the comments section of this post to complete or clarify what I have written. At the end of the post I offer three comments of my own: facts matter, there's a place for the deficit model in the humanities, and we should take reflexivity seriously. Expand post.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle V: symmetry without skepticism

To save the symmetry principle it is not enough to separate that principle from its false companions, as I have tried to do so far in this series. It is also necessary to show that adherents of the principle are likely to write better histories of science than those who flout it. In the previous post I defined the Symmetry Principle as the view that we should not reason from the truth or falsity of a belief to the goodness or badness of the believer's reasons for holding the belief. The best defense of this principle is simply to observe that sometimes past scientists have been right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. But there's a problem with this defense: it seems to lead to radical skepticism about present-day science. In this post I want to show how we can accept the Symmetry Principle without abandoning present-day science or erecting artificial barriers between scientists and historians. Expand post.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Critical thoughts on Howard Hotson's Scientiae keynote

What is intellectual history and how can we justify this sub-field to our peers and pay-masters? Those were the questions that Howard Hoston tackled in a rousing keynote address at the Scientiae conference held at the University of Vienna in the last week of April. Hotson's questions were bracing because the Scientiae conferences--this year's event was the third in an ongoing series--are founded on the idea that intellectual history is a coherent and important field of study. Hotson's answers included a provocative argument against managerial meddling in the humanities, namely that past actors (and especially early moderns) achieved great things in the absence of such meddling. I'll summarise Hoston's talk before explaining why I think this argument fails. Expand post.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle IV: from symmetry to asymmetry

The symmetry principle has been a central tenet of the history of science since at least the 1970s, and in my view it is a sound and valuable principle. However it is often confused with principles that are neither sound nor valuable, some of which are positively harmful for the study of past science. For example, the symmetry principle is sometimes expressed as the view that “truth” cannot explain the beliefs of past scientists. My main aim in this series so far has been to show that this view is hopelessly vague, and that on many readings it is false. In this post I will say the same about another aspect of the symmetry principle, namely the claim that historians should explain true and false beliefs “in the same way.” I’ll run through five readings of this claim, only the first of which deserves to be called the symmetry principle. Expand post.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spring revival

Many months have passed since I blithely announced that regular blogging would resume in autumn. Summer is nearly upon us, and I have no good excuses for this long hibernation except that my day job as a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute has been busy and stimulating.* It is still busy and stimulating, but I now have a little more time on my hands and intend to roll out the posts that I promised way back in August. That is to say, I will finish off my series on the symmetry principle, extend my series on Thomas Kuhn’s legacy for historians, and deal with some methodological issues that came up in the course of writing a paper I published last year.

After tying up those loose ends, I intend to take the blog in a new direction. So far my stance has been critical of some aspects of current practice in the history of science--fair and constructive, I hope, but critical nonetheless. In this respect I have followed the example of Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda, whose picture of the discipline I reviewed in my first few posts on this blog. But there is also a positive side to Will's picture, one that is concerned with creating navigable archives, attending to chronological questions, and describing mesoscopie traditions of practice. One way to promote these goals is to review books that achieve them. Another way is to choose a period or theme and synthesise the work on that period or theme as it appears in the pages of relevant journals. I hope to experiment with both of these methods over summer and into autumn.

*For those who are interested, my main business in Berlin has been to start a new project on early modern gemology in France, a project that has led to talks that are summarised here (see the first two talks on the list). Along the way I have expanded on my PhD dissertation with papers on the relationship between science and the rococo in eighteenth-century Paris and on the analysis of mineral waters in the early Académie Royale des Sciences.