Looking twice at the history of science

Monday, August 3, 2015

Are scientists who do history like tourists? Thoughts on Steven Weinberg's analogy

A couple of months ago Will Thomas posted his thoughts on the Shapin-Weinberg episode. You may have read Steven Shapin's unflinching review of Steven Weinberg's new book To Explain the World. The theme of the review, and of the replies and reflections that followed, including my own, was the quality of history written by scientists. One view that Will outlines is that scientists' history serves only to propagate self-serving myths about science. Will's own view is that this is itself a myth, and that historians should treat scientists as tourists whose well-meaning forays into past science are a net gain for the discipline. I like the tourist analogy, but I think it can be modified to better explain that net gain. Expand post.


  1. This is spot on. (I will do some nitpicking in a moment, but I wanted to lead with that, because this post is so good.)

    Developing your analogy a bit, geographical and cultural distance matches up with distance in time. As you say, life in Washington may afford few insights into life in Aleppo.

    Now for Weinberg, we have a Great Divide: before the Scientific Revolution (a term quite acceptable to Weinberg), science in the modern sense didn't exist, except for astronomy. That peculiar vantage point halfway between deduction and observation constitutes, for Weinberg, the essence of science; it is what he means when he says that Aristotle had never seen science done, and so should acquire no blame for not doing it. But it also means that Weinberg lacks all interest in a sympathetic understanding of what Aristotle *was* about, and views him almost purely as a hindrance.

    OK, some complications and nitpicks. Weinberg is a theoretical physicist; while I'm sure he must have absorbed a lot from his experimental collegues, I did add an asterisk when I read the sentence comparing the tacit knowledge of silversmiths and lab scientists.

    I had to laugh at the comment that "[t]he Iowan will have no ... prejudice [about life in big cities]." The tension between "flyover country" and "snotty coastals" is legendary in the US, and especially on display these days as the new election cycle heats up. But perhaps this can be put to use in the analogy: the Iowan railing against "those idiots in Washington" provides a serviceable model for Shapin's review of Weinberg.

    Finally, isn't the professional life of someone living on a farm in Iowa, being a farmer? Make him a blogger living in a small town in Iowa.

    1. Thanks Michael for your jaunty and judicious comment. There's only only thing I disagree about, which is that theoretical physicists differ from silversmiths when it comes to tacit knowledge. True, the tacit knowledge of the former does not take the same form as the tacit knowledge of the latter. One is to do with muscle memory and the other is to do with mental habits and intuitions bred of long but inarticulate experience. But they are both tacit knowledge. At least, that's what a Thomas Kuhn or a Steven Shapin or an Andy Pickering would say. And that it's not completely implausible thing to say.

      As a New Zealander, I would also add that although cultural distance does match up with time, geographical distance does not always do so. London has much more in common with Auckland than it does with Algiers (for example).

    2. I'm having my once-in-a-blue-moon trail around the blogs, and wish I'd seen all this earlier. Apologies, Michael, for not keeping up! Interesting discussion, and I especially like the Iowa/Washington analogy, even though I've never been to the USA so I don't know where Iowa is, but I obviously get the point.

      The Weinberg book featured on "The H Word" a few months back, and I contributed to that - to save repeating what I said then, here is a link which may take you somewhere near my comment (sorry if you have to scroll down a long way - I'm always late with these things):

      You may also be interested in my summing up of Harry Collins and tacit knowledge - maybe slightly tongue-in-cheek, but at least it was good to get it off my chest!

      Finally - I don't know who first thought of the term "science wars", but I wish they hadn't. Apart from the fact that a war is a horrible thing which simply can't be compared to an academic disagreement (and "wars" plurally so), the term suggests a pugnaciousness that only the extremists on either "side" actually display - and I think all of us on here would agree that there is a lot of middle ground between the two.

    3. Hi Jim!

      Iowa is in the midwest, which has a rather different culture from the two coasts. It comes into special prominence every presidential election cycle because its nominating caucuses (Republican and Democratic, one each) are the first in the country.

      The "war" metaphor has been a staple of the political lexicon in the US for I don't know how long: the war on poverty, the war on Christmas, the war on women ...