Looking twice at the history of science

Friday, July 11, 2014

Should the history of science have relevance? Notes on the BSHS conference session

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS). Aside from the overall bubbliness and smooth organisation of the conference, the highlights for me were the opening session on recycling in early modern chymistry, Richard Serjeantson's talk on seventeenth-century student notebooks, and the spinach-and-mozarella pastry that was served up for lunch on day one. I was also impressed by the well-attended closing session with the curious title "Should the history of science have relevance?" Rebekah Higgitt, one of the four panellists in this session, said that someone should blog about it. Hence this post, which reconstructs the discussion with the help of other people's tweets and my hasty notes. Feel free to use the comments section of this post to complete or clarify what I have written. At the end of the post I offer three comments of my own: facts matter, there's a place for the deficit model in the humanities, and we should take reflexivity seriously. Expand post.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle V: symmetry without skepticism

To save the symmetry principle it is not enough to separate that principle from its false companions, as I have tried to do so far in this series. It is also necessary to show that adherents of the principle are likely to write better histories of science than those who flout it. In the previous post I defined the Symmetry Principle as the view that we should not reason from the truth or falsity of a belief to the goodness or badness of the believer's reasons for holding the belief. The best defense of this principle is simply to observe that sometimes past scientists have been right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. But there's a problem with this defense: it seems to lead to radical skepticism about present-day science. In this post I want to show how we can accept the Symmetry Principle without abandoning present-day science or erecting artificial barriers between scientists and historians. Expand post.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Critical thoughts on Howard Hotson's Scientiae keynote

What is intellectual history and how can we justify this sub-field to our peers and pay-masters? Those were the questions that Howard Hoston tackled in a rousing keynote address at the Scientiae conference held at the University of Vienna in the last week of April. Hotson's questions were bracing because the Scientiae conferences--this year's event was the third in an ongoing series--are founded on the idea that intellectual history is a coherent and important field of study. Hotson's answers included a provocative argument against managerial meddling in the humanities, namely that past actors (and especially early moderns) achieved great things in the absence of such meddling. I'll summarise Hoston's talk before explaining why I think this argument fails. Expand post.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle IV: from symmetry to asymmetry

The symmetry principle has been a central tenet of the history of science since at least the 1970s, and in my view it is a sound and valuable principle. However it is often confused with principles that are neither sound nor valuable, some of which are positively harmful for the study of past science. For example, the symmetry principle is sometimes expressed as the view that “truth” cannot explain the beliefs of past scientists. My main aim in this series so far has been to show that this view is hopelessly vague, and that on many readings it is false. In this post I will say the same about another aspect of the symmetry principle, namely the claim that historians should explain true and false beliefs “in the same way.” I’ll run through five readings of this claim, only the first of which deserves to be called the symmetry principle. Expand post.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spring revival

Many months have passed since I blithely announced that regular blogging would resume in autumn. Summer is nearly upon us, and I have no good excuses for this long hibernation except that my day job as a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute has been busy and stimulating.* It is still busy and stimulating, but I now have a little more time on my hands and intend to roll out the posts that I promised way back in August. That is to say, I will finish off my series on the symmetry principle, extend my series on Thomas Kuhn’s legacy for historians, and deal with some methodological issues that came up in the course of writing a paper I published last year.

After tying up those loose ends, I intend to take the blog in a new direction. So far my stance has been critical of some aspects of current practice in the history of science--fair and constructive, I hope, but critical nonetheless. In this respect I have followed the example of Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda, whose picture of the discipline I reviewed in my first few posts on this blog. But there is also a positive side to Will's picture, one that is concerned with creating navigable archives, attending to chronological questions, and describing mesoscopie traditions of practice. One way to promote these goals is to review books that achieve them. Another way is to choose a period or theme and synthesise the work on that period or theme as it appears in the pages of relevant journals. I hope to experiment with both of these methods over summer and into autumn.

*For those who are interested, my main business in Berlin has been to start a new project on early modern gemology in France, a project that has led to talks that are summarised here (see the first two talks on the list). Along the way I have expanded on my PhD dissertation with papers on the relationship between science and the rococo in eighteenth-century Paris and on the analysis of mineral waters in the early Académie Royale des Sciences.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer update

Alert readers will have noticed that not much has happened on this blog over the last couple of months. One of my excuses is that it is summer. Another is that I have been contributing to the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog, which I encourage you to read if you do not already do so. But the real reason is that in October I will begin a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and I am busy tying up loose ends in Cambridge before I head east.

When regular blogging resumes in autumn, the following topics will be high on the agenda:

-- remarks on my paper that appeared in the June issue of Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. There are some big issues that didn't make it into the paper and that I would like to highlight in a blog post.

-- a response to the interesting discussion about the internal/external distinction that Darin Hayton has summarised here.

-- a continutation of my series of posts on the symmetry principle in the history of science. There is more to say about this principle, and I promise I will say it more succinctly than I did here or here.

-- a continuation of a series of posts on Thomas Kuhn's legacy for historians.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Critical thoughts on Hasok Chang's ICHSTM keynote address

Yesterday morning nearly 2000 historians of science gathered in a vertiginous lecture hall at the University of Manchester, UK. Hasok Chang, the keynote speaker, told them that they could benefit from studying the technical content of science. Not a very controversial claim, you might think. After all, science does have technical content, just as it has journals, military contracts, and priority disputes. The fact that the talk was controversial—and the initial reaction on twitter suggests that it was—shows just how sensitive historians of science still are to what was once called the internal/external debate. Having written about this debate before on this blog, I can’t help commenting on the talk. I agreed with much of Chang's talk, but not all of it. I think that in some respects he went too far in defending internal history of science, and that in other respects he did not go far enough. Expand post.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How (not) to bring STS to the masses

This post is a response to reflections that Lee Vinsel posted on Saturday on the AmericanScience blog. His post was about science and politics rather than about the symmetry principle, and it is the latter that I am scrutinising in my current series of posts. But I take issue with Lee's post for the same reasons I take issue with Vanessa Heggie's earlier one on the symmetry principle. It seems to me that the effect of both posts (though perhaps not the intention) is to endorse one side of a confusing and controversial issue, present the opposing view as a vulgar error, and use the wisdom of STS to confound the distinctions that could have prevented the confusion from arising in the first place. Expand post.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Saving the symmetry principle, IIIb: truth in the history of science

This post continues my effort to understand the symmetry principle by distinguishing different senses of the claim “people do not believe things because they are true.” As you can see, this is not an easy job: this post adds 5 readings to the 6 discussed in my previous post. But nor is it an exercise in hair-splitting or nit-picking. I'm not suggesting that we need to make these distinctions explicit whenever we discuss the symmetry principle, the nature of scientific truth, or the role of evidence in settling scientific debates. But our discussions of all those topics would be improved if we kept these distinctions in mind when we formulate our claims and when we assess the claims of non-historians. (Readers who are pressed for time may want to skip to the end of this post, where I summarise my 11 readings and draw some morals from them.) Expand post.