Say what you like about the science wars, they’ve got legs. A few days after finishing a review of The One Culture, the book that was supposed to end the quarrels between scientists and sociologists/historians of science, I learned that two of the contributors to that volume have been involved in a new skirmish. The opening shot was a new book by the physicist Steven Weinberg, called To Explain The World. The riposte came from the historian of science Steven Shapin, who has reviewed the book under the uncompromising title 'Why Scientists Shouldn't Write History.' Will Thomas, who drew my attention to the review, comments that Shapin’s review is ‘unduly divisive’ and that historians ‘ought to take seriously...the objections and perspectives of scientists.’ I agree, but I would go further. The reason historians should not write scientists off is not just that the scientist's perspective is valid but also that it overlaps with the perspective of some historians. To a large extent, the division that Shapin sees between scientists and historians is better understood as a division between historians. The methodology that Shapin endorses in his review is a strong form of anti-presentism. He writes: ‘History is properly about trying to understand the world of the past in its own terms.’ Most historians would agree with some reading of that statement. Most would also agree with Shapin that the job of professional historians these days is not that of ‘judging the past by the standards of the present.’ But Shapin goes further, in two ways. Firstly, he suggests that historians cannot legitimately say that an earlier event was a precursor to a later event. The true historian will ‘thump the table’ while reading Weinberg’s book, ‘insisting that searching for anticipations and foreshadowings is both wrong and illogical—‘ahistorical’ as they’d say.’ Certainly there are historians who would say this. But many others would say that an anticipation is merely a case of a past event resembling, or having an effect upon, a later event, and that anticipations are meat and drink for any historian who aspires to narrate or analyse past events—that is, for any historian worthy of the name. Secondly, Shapin seems to say that no-one should judge the past by the standards of the present. That is, such judgements are barred not only to professional historians but also to anyone who wishes to write accurate accounts of past science. Shapin’s subtitle captures his view nicely: ‘Plato was ‘silly’. Bacon ‘overrated.’ Galileo ‘behind the times.’ The suggestion is that anyone who makes such claims has made a fundamental methodological mistake, analogous to affirming the consequent or using a telescope to prove a mathematical theorem. Again, many historians would agree with this. But what’s wrong with saying that a past theory was false or that a past scientist used an unreliable method to reach a theory? Can such statements be verified? Apparently. Do they inevitably lead the author into errors of historical fact? If you think the answer is 'yes,' I'ld like to know your reasons. Arguably, Weinberg’s error is disciplinary, not conceptual. He has used past science in a way that professional historians do not usually use it, and in doing so he has underestimated the preciousness of professional historians. Shapin’s blanket anti-presentism obscures the real error in Weinberg’s book. Here I must confess that I have not read Weinberg’s book, so I stand to be corrected. Based on Shapin’s description, however, it seems plausible that Weinberg has judged past scientists by first establishing whether their theories were true or false, and then by assuming that the true ones must be the result of sound reasoning and the false ones the result of incompetence.** Plato’s cosmology does not match our own, hence Plato was ‘silly’; Newton’s cosmology is very much like our own, so he must have been a flawless genius. The problem is not the judging, or even the judging-by-today’s-standards. The problem is judging the rationality of an individual by the truth of their theories. This common error is the reason we have the symmetry principle. In his eagerness to run rings around Weinberg, Shapin skates over the distinction between truth and reasonableness and thereby repeats Weinberg’s mistake. Shapin’s anti-presentism is tied to his defense of the autonomy and expertise of the professional historian. His target is the dogma that ‘writing history is pretty straightforward and that being a 21st-century surgeon gives you a leg up in documenting and interpreting, for example, theories of fever in the 17th century.’ There are really two dogmas here. The first is that history is a doddle. This dogma is false (though whether history is as difficult as surgery is an open question). The other dogma is that knowledge of present-day science can be useful when studying past science. This is a much more plausible dogma, and Shapin is in danger of replacing it with the opposite dogma that scientists have nothing in particular to contribute to the history of their disciplines. Shapin reaches this conclusion by analogy. ‘Modern installation artists don’t think they can produce adequate scholarly studies of Dutch Golden Age paintings, and it’s hard to find offensive linesmen parading their competence in writing the history of rugby.’ The plausibility of both analogies is due partly to the fact that installation artists, unlike historians, are not heavily involved in reading and writing argumentative prose. The analogies are suspect because scientists are heavily involved in those activities. More importantly, the analogies rely on the fact that installation art is not painting and that linesmen are not rugby players. But the question is not whether physicists can help with the history of botany, or whether ethics committees—the linesmen of biology—have something to contribute to the history of biology. The question is whether painters can help with the history of painting, rugby-players with the history of rugby-playing, and physicists with the history of physics. And it seems to me that the answer in all cases is that they can, and they do. The assumption that lies behind Shapin’s analogies is that present-day activities cannot be compared with their closest equivalents in earlier epochs. Now, we can all agree that activities have changed over time, and that the risk of anachronism is real. But how much have events changed, really? How should we weigh the threat of anachronism against the special insights that a practitioner can bring to the study of their practice? And is there really a trade-off between insight and anachronism? After all, it is possible to believe that the earth moves, or that species evolve, or anything else, without automatically attributing that belief to every past scientist. Shapin’s vision of history is skewed in other ways. On the authority of Thomas Kuhn, he reports that ‘linear and cumulative progress is a problematic notion.’ Very well – but how can Kuhn or Shapin make this claim without making judgements about whether earlier theories were better or worse than later theories, and has not Shapin foresworn all interest in making judgements about past science? Shapin is right that the notion of progress is problematic for historians of science – but is this because we have shown that science does not make progress, or because we have decided not to address the question? Shapin says that historians would ‘express bemusement at Mr. Weinberg’s insistence that science advances by rejecting teleology, even as he depicts its history as a triumphal progress from dark past to bright present.’ But is it really so absurd to find purpose in human action and not in brute nature? And is Weinberg really so wedded to ‘triumphal progress’ if he thinks that science went backwards in the Middle Ages, as Shapin reports? This historian is not bemused. I am not saying that Weinberg's book is flawless. As Shapin points out, it ignores most science apart from physics, all science after Newton, and just about everything that seventeenth-century scientists wrote about religion.** Nor am I saying that Weinberg's errors are unrelated to his eagerness to evaluate past scientists and to find anticipations in past science. What I am saying is that anticipations and evaluations do not lead inevitably to bad history, and that at least some professional historians recognise this. More generally, several of Shapin's criticisms of Weinberg reflect the fact that he is a particular type of historian, and not that he is a historian as opposed to a scientist. This conclusion raises a question that I cannot hope to answer in this post but that is too important to omit. If historians disagree about how to do history, but agree that scientists sometimes write bad history, how should historians go about improving scientists' history? One answer is that historians should set aside their internecine disputes when dealing with scientists: they should only criticise scientists for errors that the vast majority of historians would recognise as errors. The problem is that this seems to tacitly resolve those internecine disputes in favour of the more liberal historians. If Shapin stops criticising Weinberg for evaluating past scientists, will not Weinberg think that it is OK to evaluate past scientists, thereby writing history that I can accept but that Shapin cannot accept? Still, there is surely some value in identifying points on which historians agree about the historical errors of scientists. These convergences may not be the whole solution, but they are surely part of it. And in the search for historiographical common ground, I think we could do much worse than the symmetry principle that I mentioned earlier in this post and that I have discussed at length on this blog. The vast majority of historians of science would agree, I think, that we should not assume that past scientists who held true theories did so for good reasons, and that those who held false theories did so for bad reasons. Scientists who make these assumptions should be the first targets of anyone who is interested in raising the bar of popular history of science. ** These criticisms of Weinberg's book are based on the data I had at the time of writing, namely a few hints that Shapin dropped about the book in his review. Weinberg has since denied the charges. This denial does not effect the main point of this post, ie. that the division that Shapin sees between scientists and historians is better understood as a division between historians. Expand post.