Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Critical Second Look: Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985)

Overinflated? The second (2011) edition of LAP
There are many books that polarise their readership, causing some readers to swoon and others to spew (so to speak). There are not many books that polarise individual readers, causing them to swoon and spew simultaneously. I place Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (LAP), the classic 1985 work on the history of science by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, in the latter category. When I read this book for the first time, as a Masters student in History and Philosophy of Science, I was doubly impressed—firstly by the scope and subtlety of the argument, secondly by the conviction that said argument was seriously flawed. Time has not dulled these impressions, as I discovered when I reread the book a few months ago. The latest number of Isis carries ten essays on the book, none of which mention the deep problems that account for the negative part of my reaction—a reaction I have not just to this book but to many of the works that have been, and continue to be, influenced by it. Expand post.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Science studies and post-truth politics: a thought experiment on the Trump inauguration

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer
What can science studies do to solve the problem of post-truth politics? What can be done by historians, sociologists and anthropologists of science to stop the proliferation of 'circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief', quote Oxford Dictionaries' definition of 'post-truth'? Two answers suggest themselves. On the one hand, science studies is perfectly placed to address this problem because concepts such as 'fact' and 'objectivity', not to mention 'trust' and 'expertise,' are the bread and butter of the discipline. On the other hand, the discipline has such a complicated relationship with those concepts that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is part of the problem rather than the solution. To stimulate discussion on this question, I propose a thought experiment. Imagine we are in the year 2050, and we are looking back at media frenzy surrounding the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump's inauguration last Friday. What would science studies have to say about this episode? Would the discipline help in any way to promote reasoned debate over rhetoric and obfuscation? Expand post.