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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Words of wisdom from the positivist Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach (1838-1916), positivist
Suppose we have always been constructivists, as I suggested in the last post. And suppose we have too many big pictures, not too few, as I argued in the last post but one. What then? What consequences does this have for the way we do the history of science? Here is one consequence: we should pay more attention to dead historians of science. If they were wise enough to be constructivists, perhaps they were wise in other ways. And if we have not discarded their big pictures, perhaps there were some grains of truth in those big pictures. Consider Ernst Mach’s The Science of Mechanics (1883; mine is the 1960 English edition). Mach was nothing if not a positivist. Some would say he was the original (logical) positivist. But there are many passages in his book that defy the present-day caricature of positivists. Here is a collection of the choicer passages of this kind. Expand post.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Barry Barnes and the origin of the constructivist myth

Barry Barnes, Scientific Knowledge
and Sociological Theory
Science is a human construction. The theories of science, to say nothing of its instruments and institutions, are the outcome of (among other things) a long series of complicated human actions. Many of my fellow historians of science believe this, as do I. But many also believe that we have only recently treated science as a human construction. I believe that this is a myth, and that Barry Barnes’ Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory (1974) is one source of the myth. Last year I gave some evidence for this reading of Barnes. Last week Darrin Durant questioned that evidence. In this post I give more evidence for my reading of Barnes, and hence for my claim that there is something seriously wrong with the self-image of constructivist historians of science. Expand post.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Historians of science have too many big pictures, not too few

This is not a good metaphor
for the historiography of science.
There has long been talk in the history of science about our alleged failure to write big picture histories. This talk goes back to at least 1993, when the British Journal for the History of Science published a special issue that was supposed to address the problem. The latest round of rumination on the topic is in July’s number of Isis, which featured several essays on the theme of the “longue durée.” The worry is that, for the last forty years or so, historians of science have been spending too much time writing exquisitely rendered accounts of particular people or episodes, and too little time stitching these episodes together to make some sort of coherent narrative. There is something to be said for this view, but there is much to be said for the opposite view, which is that we have too many big pictures, not too few. The challenge is not to stitch together our case studies to make new big pictures, but to merge the big pictures we already have. Expand post.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Unified Theory of the Second Scientific Revolution, Part 2: a Solution

Haüy's crystallography-what did it have in common with Coulomb's physics and Cuvier's zoology?
As I wrote last week, there are at least seven theories about the second scientific revolution (SSR), all of them claiming that science changed dramatically in the three decades on either side of 1800, none of them explaining how its assertions can be reconciled with those of the other six theories. Let’s assume for the moment that a reconciliation is possible and desirable. How might it be realised? How can we unite, in a single theory, the insights that are scattered across these seven different theories? Here is my proposal. It proceeds in three steps. Expand post.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Unified Theory of the Second Scientific Revolution, Part 1: the Problem

Gaston Bachelard (1882-1962) forming the scientific mind.
There are two kinds of conference paper: the ones we give, and the ones we would have given if only we had been able to do enough research to back up our seductive hunches and our bold conjectures. At the 3 Societies conference in Edmonton in July, I gave a modest talk about an experimenter in 1730s France who had a notion of ‘exactitude’ that applied equally well to qualitative and quantitative research. The talk I would have given is much more sweeping and provocative. Frankly I would have preferred to listen to the ambitious talk, and not the modest and sensible one, but academic caution got the better of me. Here then is the sweeping and provocative talk, in summary form, safely packaged as a speculative blog post (or two). Expand post.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Scientists and the symmetry principle: an email exchange with Steven Weinberg

Earlier this week I received an email from Steven Weinberg, the physicist whose book To Explain the World was critically reviewed by Steven Shapin earlier this year. I commented on Shapin’s review in this essay, and in the process I attributed errors to Weinberg that he disclaimed in his email. Weinberg asked that I publish his email, and my reply, on this blog. I was happy to oblige. As I point out in my reply, Weinberg’s reaction to my essay is an additional reason to adopt the symmetry principle that I defended in earlier posts. Expand post.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Is it post-modern to be present-centred? Thoughts prompted by Nick Tosh

Lorraine Daston says that historians who write with the present in mind are misguided and old-fashioned. By contrast, Nick Tosh says they are post-modern. He compares them to contemporary novelists who draw attention to themselves, and to the process of writing novels, in the course of their novels. Against Daston, I said that it is not what you know about present-day science that matters, but how you use that knowledge. Against Tosh, I say that present-centredness is not post-modern because it does not leap from the fictional world to the real world but only from the present and the past. And very often it does not even do that. Expand post.