|Frederic L. Holmes(1932-2003)|
“Despite the slogan that science advances through experiments, virtually the entire literature of the history of science concerns theory” (Peter Galison, 1987) “Experiment is a respected but neglected activity ... the process of experimentation is taken to be either unproblematic or uninteresting” (David Gooding, Trevor Pinch and Simon Schaffer, 1989) “...little attention has been directed at how experiments are actually done, and how they come to be regarded as meaningful” (Jan Golinski, 1990)Holmes then gives a list of counter-examples to these generalisations. For example, Henry Guerlac declared in 1959 that it was “fallacious to make an arbitrary distinction between ideas and experience, between thought and action, and to treat ideas as if they had a totally independent life of their own, divorced from material reality.” Other historians practised what Guerlac preached. I. Bernard Cohen published a book in 1956 called Franklin and Newton: An Inquiry Into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's Work in Electricity as an Examble Thereof. Soon afterwards, Guerlac himself wrote a book called Lavoisier--the Crucial Year: The Background and Origin of his First Experiments on Combustion in 1772. The authors of both books made a point of focusing on experiments as much as, or more than, theoretical speculation. The next generation, partly inspired by Guerlac and Cohen, went one step further by studying the drafts and lab notes of past scientists rather than their published articles. Others studied long-term changes in scientific domains, with an emphasis on instruments and institutions. Holmes discusses the following books, all published before the three quotes at the beginning of this post:
L. Pearce Williams, Michael Faraday (1966) Mirko Grmek, Raisonnement expérimental et recherches toxicologiques chez Claude Bernard (1973) Holmes, Claude Bernard and Animal Chemistry (1974) Gerald Geison, Michael Foster and the Cambridge School of Physiology (1978) John Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (1979)  Robert Frank, Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists (1980)  John Lesch, Science and Medicine in France (1984) A number of articles picked more or less at random from the journal Isis between 1957 and 1966.Holmes could have gone on. He could have discussed books by Mauric Daumas on the cabinets de physique of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or those by William Middleton on the histories of the thermometer and barometer. Nor should we forget the Harvard Case Studies in Experimental Science, which whatever their flaws certainly contain descriptions of experiments. There is also Stillman Drake's work on Galileo's experimental apparatus, Alistair Crombie's Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100-1700, and Holmes' own Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life: an Exploration of Scientific Creativity—all of which predate the three quotes at the start of this post. Many more examples can be found under “Scientific Instruments and Special Techniques” in the Isis Critical Bibliographies from 1955 onwards. But that's not all. If Heilbron's Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries counts as a study of experiment rather than theory, then so do a large proportion of the histories of science written before 1900. Take the first book-length history of electricity, Joseph's Priestley's History and Present State of Electricity, the first edition of which appeared in 1767. The contents page of the third edition can be viewed here, and anyone who glances at it will note that for each figure in his history Priestley promises to describe their “experiments and discoveries.” And indeed, in the body of the book he describes both. As a work of history, Heilbron's book is greatly superior to Priestley's. But the difference between them is certainly not that Priestley focuses on theory whereas Heilbron focuses on experiment. Granted, Heilbron goes into more detail than Priestley for each major eighteenth-century electrical experiment; but Heilbron also goes into more detail than Priestley for each major theory of that period. Heilbron himself has written that the “experimental turn” is overrated. Here is the first paragraph of his review of two books from 1989, The Uses of Experiment and The Development of the Laboratory .
During the last few years, a few historians and sociologists of science have made the discovery that experiment and measurement are important and problematic parts of the scientific enterprise. The dazzle of this illumination carried conviction of its novelty; and the editors of The uses of experiment open their preface with the astonishing claim that “experiment is a respected but neglected activity.” A few lines later they specify not experiment, but “the process of experimentation" as the neglected subject, only to return immediately to their gambit: “the neglect of experiment is symptomatic of a prejudice against practical activity in favour of speech acts.” Being editors, however, they are condemned to commit speech acts. These include calling attention to rhetorical devices by which scientists put forward arguments based on experiments and emphasising the logical and epistemological difficulties of confirmation and corroboration of results of experiments and instrumental tests. These themes are important; they receive incisive treatment; but they do not have the freshness advertised.*** Holmes suggests in passing two explanations for the false advertising that Heilbron describes. One is that the self-proclaimed innovators are studying new aspects of experiment rather than newly studying experiment itself. This becomes apparent in the second part of Holmes' article where he contrasts his own approach to experiment with the “newer” approach as represented by that of Leviathan and the Air Pump, a book that many subsequent historians of experiment have taken as a guide. Holmes draws the contrast with respect to Robert Boyle, the man whose air pump features in the title of the book in question:
Shapin and Schaffer portray an assertive Boyle, mobilizing literary resources to secure assent for matters of fact he has produced through a material technology [ie. the air pump]. I portray a playful, exploratory Boyle, performing experiments that seek answers to questions he poses, often tentative and uncertain... (133)In other words, the new historians of experiment focus on how experimental knowledge is disseminated rather than how it is acquired. Holmes is interested in the latter, as per the title of the paper under discussion. Holmes seems to say that the former approach is genuinely new, and he rightly admires Schaffer and Shapin's book. But he denies that it represents an increased emphasis on experiment. At most it is an increased emphasis on a particular aspect of experiment, an emphasis that complements traditional accounts but in no way replaces them. The new approach has its own dangers, he says, such as focusing on a small sample of a scientist's experiments and thereby tearing them from “a rich tapestry of intermingled experimentation and reasoning” (126). Another of Holmes' suggestions is that often it seems to be philosophers rather than historians who are accused of neglecting experiment. At the same time, Holmes would not have written the article if he did not think that historians were among the targets of the accusation. Two possibilities arise, although Holmes does not discuss them in this particular article. One is that philosophers really have neglected experiment, but that the so-called innovators have unjustly tarred past historians with the idealistic brush. Another possibility is that the new historians of experiment are writing a kind of meta-history of experiment: one which considers experiment at a more abstract level than historians usually do, and therefore has new things to say about experiment even though it differs little from traditional accounts at the level of basic description. *** There are grains of truth in all of these suggestions. But another explanation, and perhaps a more far-reaching one, is that much of the talk about a neglect of experiment is directed at a small but influential group of recent historians and philosophers of science. This group can indeed be said to have neglected experiment (although they should also be credited with showing just how much experiment depends on theory). The claim that experiment is a new topic—whether that claim is made in 1983 or 2013—is often an error based on an unwarranted extrapolation from this group of recent idealists to all historians and philosophers of science who preceded them. A glance at two pieces, one by a historian and one by a philosopher, can help to substantiate this thesis. The first is an influential chapter by Roy Porter, a wonderful and much-mourned historian of medicine, Britain, and the eighteenth century. His “The Scientific Revolution: A Spoke in the Wheel?” appeared in 1986 in Porter and Teich, eds., Revolution in History (CUP). The title of the chapter says that it is about the idea of the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, but it is also about how that idea shaped the discipline of the history of science between about 1940 and 1970. The Scientific Revolution, Porter writes, was
...initially the brain-child and shibboleth of a specific cluster of scholars emerging during the 1940s, including the Russian émigré Alexandre Koyré, [the Cambridge historian Herbert] Butterfield, whose outline history popularized Koyré's work, Rupert Hall, who was Butterfield's pupil, and, a little later, Marie Boas [Hall]. Their scrupulous scholarship and prolific works of synthesis animated an emerging discipline, and laid down a coherent framework for future research (295). For these historians, science was essentially thought – profound, bold, logical, abstract...Thus idealism has been pervasive, and its implications run even to the interpretation of detailed episodes [such as Alexander Koyré's claim that Galileo didn't perform many of the experiments he described] (296).The first passage answers the “who” question clearly enough, and the second gives an idea of what sort of “idealism” they had in common. It is precisely the kind of idealism that could justly be accused of neglecting experiment, as the example of Koyré suggests. Granted, Porter's article does not make any bold claims for a turn towards experiment; and he explicitly acknowledges that the idealism of Koyré and his English counterparts was a recent and local phenomenon. But by focusing on those idealists and saying little about their predecessors he sets them up as the chief foil to revisionist accounts of the Scientific Revolution, and by extension to revisionist histories of science in general. Compare Porter's targets with those in an influential book in philosophy, Ian Hacking's Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Science (CUP, 1983). A fair summary of the book is that “representing” is a problematic activity that philosophers have written too much about, and that “intervening” is a promising activity that they have written too little about. Hacking makes some bold claims at the beginning of his discussion of “intervening”:
History of the natural sciences is almost always written as a history of theory. Philosophy of science has so much become philosophy of theory that the very existence of pre-theoretical observations or experiments has been denied. I hope the following chapters might initiate a Back-to-Bacon movement, in which we attend more seriously to experimental science. Experimentation has a life of its own.This is one of the most cited passages—by historians and sociologists as well as by philosophers—in the “new” literature on experimentation. For example, the first two sentences are quoted near the beginning of Leviathan and the Air Pump to show that “even philosophers are beginning to admit the anti-practice and pro-theory prejudices of their discipline” (17). Having read a fair chunk of the recent literature on experimentation, I am confident that a citation analysis would reveal many more examples. However on reading Hacking's ideas about “intervening” it becomes clear that his main targets are not philosophers of science per se but Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Imré Lakatos. He criticises Popper for thinking that observations are usually made to confirm or refute pre-conceived hypothesis (155); he criticises Kuhn for preferring a theoretician over an experimenter in a book that Kuhn was editing (151-152); he criticises Feyerabend for saying that all observation is theory-laden (173); and he criticises Lakatos for implying that there is no such thing as a crucial experiment (254-261). Hacking's chief conclusion—that there is such a thing as “pre-theoretical observations or experiments”—is novel with respect to this sequence of recent idealists. But with respect to many earlier philosophers of science, from Robert Boyle to John Stuart Mill, it is a statement of the obvious. Encouraged by Hacking's polemical passages, like the one quoted above, historians and sociologists of science have supposed that his chief conclusion is a piece of earthquake-like novelty that will totally reform the way we do the history and sociology of science. There are some new ideas in Hacking's book, but fewer than is often supposed (and insofar as they are new they are controversial, such as the idea that active experiment furnishes powerful arguments for scientific realism that passive observation does not) . The broader lesson of this post is that historians should be clear about who they are accusing of what. The three quotes at the beginning of this post make claims about a large number of past historians of science. But the books and articles in which those quotes appear do not attempt anything like a systematic survey of the books and articles that they indict. The closest approximations that I have seen of such a survey are by those who reject the indictment, like Holmes, Heilbron, and Brian Baigrie . Among those who make the indictment, the one who supplies the most evidence seems to be a philosopher (Hacking, in Representing and Intervening) rather than any historian. If politeness is the reason for this reticence, it is laudable but misguided: better to be openly critical than to confuse the issue with unsupported insinuations.  To be fair, these two books are sometimes acknowledged as precursors of the experimental turn (eg. Leviathan and the Air Pump, 15).  Medical History, vol. 34, no. 3 (1990), 335 (paywall).  This last point generalises. I am not claiming that there is nothing new about the experimental turn, just that the novelty has been exaggerated and poorly defined and that claims to novelty have not been backed up with much historiographical evidence.  Baigrie, “Scientific Practice: The View From the Tabletop,” in Jed Buchwald, ed., Theories and Stories of Doing Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), chap. 5. Expand post.