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. Expand post.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
How to end the science wars: a review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture? A Conversation About Science, part II/II
This is the long-delayed second part of a two-part review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture: A Conversation About Science (2001). In the first part I argued that we—by which I mean, roughly speaking, scientists and sociologists of science—would more easily reach agreement about science if sociologists acknowledged their past relativism and if everyone was charitable in debate. It would also help if we set aside the interesting but irrelevant question of whether the truth of a belief can (partly) explain the belief. In this post I make three other recommendations: revive the internal/external distinction, or something like it; be clear about how our visions of science differ, if we think they do differ; and beware tacit philosophy of science. Revive the internal/external distinction. Gravity waves are tiny ripples in space-time created by bodies with mass. In 1970, several experts believed that the physicist Joseph Weber had detected gravity waves in his laboratory. By 1980, no experts believed this except Weber. What changed their minds? One plausible answer is that the experts made many sincere and careful attempts to replicate Weber’s results, and these replications failed. Another answer is that there was only one such failure, and that it was carried out by a physicist who happened to have more polemical skill and social prestige than Weber. The former answer says that the experts followed the evidence, and the latter answer that they followed their most powerful colleague. For want of better terms, let’s call the former an ‘internal’ answer and the latter an ‘external’ one. I don’t know which answer is the right one in the case of Weber, but we should be mindful of the difference between the two answers, because otherwise the science wars will never end. The reason is that scientists tend to play up internal explanations of true beliefs, whereas sociologists emphasise the external ones. If we do not distinguish between these two kinds of explanation, we will not even be able to characterise this disagreement. Worse, we may end up exaggerating the extent of the disagreement. Most of the contributors to The One Culture do not make any distinction along the lines of the internal/external one. More often they distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ factors, which they too often see as synonymous with ‘scientific’ and ‘social’ ones. For example, Michael Lynch takes ‘social factors’ to refer to ‘a range of personal, circumstantial, and institutional considerations,’ and ‘natural factors’ to mean ‘objective reality, nature itself, or properties of the physical world’ (271). What is missing in Lynch’s distinction is the idea that scientists’ beliefs might result from a third kind of cause, namely experiments undertaken by scientists and the deductions made by them—the meat and drink of internal historians of science. No progress can be made if one party (sociologists) does not recognise, even conceptually, the preferred explanations of the other party (scientists). When sociologists do recognise the scientists’ preferred explanations, they tend to absorb them into the category of ‘society’ or ‘culture.’ This has the effect of obscuring points of agreement between scientists and sociologists, since scientists do not think ‘experiments and deductions’ when they see the words ‘society’ and ‘culture.’ This is not due to any deep misunderstanding on the part of the scientists. It is just not how the words ‘society’ and ‘culture’ are usually used when talking about science. The point may be illustrated by a dispute between Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, on the one hand, and the physicist H. David Mermin on the other. Collins and Pinch wrote an account of early experimental tests of the theory of relativity in which they argued that those tests were inconclusive. They maintained that it was not these tests, but rather the ‘culture of life in the physics community’, that persuaded physicists to believe the theory. I leave the rest to Mermin:
What this means depends, of course, on what ‘culture’ is taken to include. If, as I now understand Collins and Pinch’s intent, ‘the culture of life in the physics community’ refers to the cumulative impact of all theoretical and experimental work bearing on relativity since 1905, then [their thesis] is correct. But their readers...are likely to conclude that the momentum was generated by nothing more than many years of growing more and more comfortable with the [two inconclusive tests].Be clear about other disagreements. In my previous post I said that the most visible disagreement in The One Culture (about whether the truth of a belief can explain the belief) is not a real disagreement. And in this post I have argued that the real disagreement (between internal and external explanations of true beliefs) is scarcely visible in the book. So, are there any disagreements in the book that are both real and visible? Collins thinks there are, but I’m not convinced. In a chapter near the end of the book, Collins says that sociologists prefer the ‘rough diamonds’ of science to the ‘crown jewels’ of science. He summarises his point by saying that sociology ‘reduces the quasilogical authority of science’, but really he draws several contrasts that need to be treated separately. None of them pick out a clear disagreement between scientists and sociologists. Process v product. One of these contrasts is that, whereas Collins studies the early, uncertain stages of scientific debates, scientists such as Weinberg (who seems to be the foil that Collins has in mind in this chapter) emphasise the polished theories that emerge from this process. This is a difference in research interests, not a disagreement. Skills v knowledge. Collins says that he stresses the ‘assiduousness, experience, skill and virtuosity’ of scientists, and the fact that they are ‘the kind of people whom it makes sense to trust’ because they have ‘the right kind of expertise.’ By contrast, scientists play up their ‘privileged access to reality’ and their ‘extensive store of knowledge about the way the world works.’ Whether this is a disagreement depends, as ever, on how the terms are defined. The disagreement vanishes if scientists say that it is precisely their ‘experience’ and ‘skill’ that gives them ‘privileged access to reality.’ Collins himself suggests that ‘the right kind of expertise’ might consist in making ‘experimentally or observationally based claims’ rather than ‘book-based claims.’ This claim is remarkable for its conventionality. It looks like all that quasi-sociological talk of ‘trust’ and ‘skill’ and ‘expertise’ is really just another way of saying that we should believe what scientists say about nature because they study it directly instead of relying on bookish authorities. In short, Nullis in verbia. Simple v complicated justifications. Collins says that ‘scientific procedures do not speak for themselves but have to be judged and interpreted’, and that ‘experiments and theories [are] less decisive in bringing scientific controversies to a close than uninvolved scientists and others generally think they are.’ His idea seems to be that the intellectual side of scientific debates are more complicated than scientists make out—he is saying that it is not just a matter of doing one or two experiments and drawing the obvious conclusion. The problem is that none of the scientists in the volume deny this, not even Weinberg. In fact, one of them (Mermin) turns the tables and accuses Collins of giving an insufficiently complex account of the early evidence for the theory of relativity. Social v scientific education. Collins says that the sociology of science ‘turns the public understanding of science into a matter of social education rather than scientific education.’ What he means is that non-scientists lack the time and expertise to carry out a thorough assessment of the evidence on either side of scientific debates over such things as global warming and genetically modified foods. We rely on the testimony of the experts, which means that we need to decide who are the experts on the debate in question. This is not a trivial problem, especially when the experts appear to disagree. Collins implies that scientists have trouble understanding these points. He should have another look at the following passage from the scientists Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal:
When confronted with experts, any individual or small group of individuals is in a difficult situation. There is no way to find the time and the means to check even a small fraction of the experts’ assertions. And yet, in many practical situations we have to decide whether or not to trust their claims. How should we proceed? This is a truly interesting and difficult question … [and one where] many sociological considerations become relevant (46).Beware of tacit philosophy of science. Michael Lynch writes that the science wars are ‘a metaphysical battle fought by conscripts who have limited training in the martial arts of philosophy’ (53). Lynch says that the debate would be improved if the participants recognised that they were arguing over questions that have challenged philosophers for centuries, if not millenia. Some of the questions are metaphysical: do causes and categories really exist in nature, or are they just tools that help us to understand nature? Other questions are epistemological: what is the best way to justify scientific theories, and are our justifications strong enough to give us confidence in the existence and nature of unobservable entities like quarks and DNA? Lynch is right that these are fraught topics, and that anyone who wants to discuss them seriously should have a least a passing acquaintance with the relevant writings of trained philosophers. However, to judge from The One Culture, Lynch is mistaken if he thinks that scientists and sociologists still see these issues as a major front in the science wars. None of those issues appear in the list of ‘open questions’ that the editors provide at the end of the book (299-300). And, as I mentioned in my previous post, the only avowed relativists in the book are methodological ones. This reticence is both encouraging and vexing. It is encouraging because it suggests that, pace Lynch, scientists and sociologists are arguing over topics that they have some special competence in, rather than ineptly reproducing the debates of professional philosophers. The reticence is vexing because it may conceal more disagreements than it resolves. Collins, with his stress on 'skill' and 'expertise', often sounds like an instrumentalist, ie. someone who thinks that scientific theories are great instruments for predicting and controlling nature but who is loath to take the next step and say that the successful ones are probably true. Steven Shapin, for all his asides about the impotence of philosophy, defends a thesis that is nothing if not philosophical, namely that there is no single method that characterises all forms of science. Several contributors imply that the sociology of science has shown that science does not achieve 'certainty', a claim that is both normative and epistemological. If we make such claims then we should be clear that we are making them and that they are, at least in part, philosophical claims. This would not solve the problem of how non-philosophers can reach agreement on philosophical questions. But it would at least clarify where the disagreements lie. *** The stated aims of The One Culture were to get scientists and sociologists talking to each-other again, and to get clear about their points of agreement and disagreement. The upshot of this review is that the book achieves the former goal but has mixed success with the latter. To sum up my criticisms:
- the editors ignore the main source of agreement between the two parties, namely the fact that sociologists have retreated from their full-blooded relativism of the 1970s and 1980s. - the editors misidentify methodological relativism as a major source of disagreement. Even Harry Collins admits that the truth can help to explain a belief, and anyway the interesting question is not whether truths can explain true beliefs but whether social factors routinely play a decisive role in the formation of true beliefs. - The One Culture barely addresses the latter question (about social factors), which is not surprising given that most contributors do not acknowledge the distinction between social and intellectual factors. - Collins identifies another persistent disagreement, concerning 'crown jewels' and 'rough diamonds,' but this distinction is overdrawn, as we see when we unpack the gemmological metaphor. - some contributors hint at more substantial disagreements over such things as instrumentalism and the unity of science, but these are philosophical questions that scientists and sociologists cannot resolve on their own.The good news is that the question about the decisiveness of social factors is a question for scientists and sociologists, and there is no reason why they should not be able to answer it together—as long as they can agree to distinguish social factors from intellectual ones. Expand post.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
How to end the science wars: a review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture? A Conversation About Science, part I/II
The science wars were a series of skirmishes that took place between scientists and sociologists (loosely speaking) in the 1990s. Sociologists of science were accused of using bad arguments and shoddy scholarship to undermine science; scientists were accused of misunderstanding the sociologists, idealising science, and conspiring to shut down legitimate debate. In 1997 some of the protagonists met at a ‘Science Peace Workshop’ in the hope of finding common ground and clarifying the issues at stake. The result was The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (2001), edited by the sociologist Harry Collins and the chemist Jay Labinger. It has been said, not without justice, that the book spelled the end of the science wars. But the book has its flaws, including several irritants and two serious omissions. This post and the next one are a guide to the 'science peace process.' These remarks are cobbled together from insights I found in the book and from my own reflections on such things as the symmetry principle and the internal/external distinction. Be charitable in debate. Of the 35 chapters in The One Culture, the one I found most enlightening was by N. David Mermin, a theoretical physicist who took on a whole squadron of sociologists in reviews and letters published in the magazine Physics Today in the mid-1990s. His targets were The Golem (1993), by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, and Scientific Knowledge: a Sociological Analysis (1996), by Barry Barnes, David Bloor and John Henry. In his contribution to The One Culture, Mermin describes the slow process by which he came to understand what his interlocutors were trying to say, and he concludes with three lessons that are as simple as they are indispensable:
Focus on the substance of what is being said and not on alleged motives for saying it. Do not expect people from remote disciplines to speak clearly in or understand the nuances of your own disciplinary language. Do not assume that it is as easy as it may appear to penetrate the disciplinary language of others (97-8).Mermin says that sociologists, not just scientists, fell foul of these rules. This is worth stressing, since the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’ of the book mention the scientists’ habit of dismissing sociologists as science-haters but do not mention the sociologists’ habit of dismissing scientists as science-worshippers (see esp. 5-6, 297). Mermin was a victim of this habit, to judge from his account of his exchanges with sociologists:
...the response was not to what I was saying, but to why I might have been saying it. Both times I was taken to be responding to a perceived violation of something I held to be sacred [ie. science], and my actual criticism--they were paying insufficient attention to the broad coherence of an extensive body of knowledge--was read as a charge that they were personally biased (against relativity, for astrology). In both cases the imagined charge was both denied and dismissed as irrelevant, and the substance of my criticism was not addressed (94).Acknowledge past relativism. Now for one of the serious omissions. Arguably, the main reason for the progress of the ‘peace talks’ between scientists and sociologists is that the latter no longer make radical claims about the limits of scientific knowledge. None of the contributors to The One Culture seem to agree with Barry Barnes and David Bloor that ‘there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.’* Nor do they deploy the arguments that were routinely invoked to support such claims before the year 2000, such as the Quine-Duhem thesis and the underdetermination of theory by the evidence. Some contributors mention these arguments, but only to attribute them to other writers (eg. 31-3, 196). If the science wars are over, this is largely because the more radical sociologists have beaten a hasty retreat. Remarkably, this retreat is scarcely mentioned in The One Culture. There is a glimmer of recognition in a footnote by Harry Collins in which he says that he changed his mind about relativism some time around 1980, abandoning ordinary relativism in favour of the methodological version (of which more below). This is an isolated case, however, and it does not sit well with the claim, repeated throughout the book, that the sociology of science has never had any consequences for our evaluation of scientific knowledge, and that those who charge sociologists with ‘undermining’ science are being precious or malicious or both. In the 1970s, Barnes and Collins both implied that there is no objective reason—and could never be an objective reason—for preferring the theories of present-day Western scientists over any other theories.** If that does not count as undermining science, what does? Be methodological relativists about reasons not truth. The full-blooded relativism of the 1970s has been replaced by the dictum that historians and sociologists should not refer to the truth or falsity of the beliefs they try to explain. This dictum is known as ‘methodological relativism’ or ‘the symmetry principle’, and The One Culture takes it very seriously indeed. The editors say, rightly, that it is the most common source of disagreement between the book's contributors (297). It is also the topic with the most entries in the book’s index, outrunning ‘relativism’, ‘Thomas Kuhn’, and even ‘science studies.’ Some contributors argue that methodological relativism is a precondition for a mature sociology of science, others that it makes for aimless and ill-formed history, and others that it leads back to the epistemological relativism that it was supposed to replace. I believe that this entire debate is red herring. The problem is that The One Culture frames methodological relativism as the thesis that the truth of a belief has no place in a sociological explanation of that belief. The scientists dispute this thesis, pointing out that many beliefs (eg. ‘it is raining today’) are caused, in part, by their truth (eg. the fact that it is raining today). The sociologists seem to concede that the truth of a belief can (partly) explain the belief, but they deny that this kind of cause is a proper subject for a sociologist. There is a genuine disagreement here, but it has little to do with the science wars, since it is possible to explain a theory in a manner that is triumphalist and rationalistic in the extreme without ever referring to its truth. All you need to do is idealise the experiments and arguments that the scientists gave for the theory, ignore the interests and prejudices of those scientists, and play up the interests and prejudices of their rivals. If the only novelty of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) was that it made no reference to the truth of theories, it would be scarcely distinguishable from the explanations that historians, scientists, and sociologists have traditionally given of scientists’ beliefs. In my view, what was really new about SSK, and what raised the ire of scientists, was that it tried to reverse the usual pattern of explanation. It drew attention to the arguments in favour of false theories and to the interests and prejudices that lay behind true theories. In other words, it explained true beliefs in terms of bad reasons and false beliefs in terms of good reasons. Its methodological relativism was directed at reasons, not at truth. The contributors to The One Culture are unable to see this because they do not distinguish clearly between reason and truth. Even the scientists are guilty of this conflation. Consider Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal. They use the ‘it is raining’ example to show that the truth of a belief can explain that belief. But later they accuse sociologists of eliminating evidence, not truth, from their explanations: ‘Could one conceivably explain scientists’ beliefs about the Earth’s climate without making any reference to the currently available evidence concerning the Earth's climate?’ (245, original emphasis). Insofar as Bricmont and Sokal do distinguish between truth and evidence, they seem to assume that they are very strongly correlated. They assume, that is, that every true theory has always had better evidence in its favour than its false rivals. The One Culture would have been more fruitful if the authors had confronted this assumption head-on instead of wrangling over the question of whether the truth of a belief can be part of the explanation of the belief. Not only is the latter question irrelevant to the science wars—it is also more easily resolved than one might infer from the intensity with which it is debated in The One Culture. Harry Collins is the pioneer of methodological relativism and one of its staunchest supporters. Yet even he concedes that the ban on truth only applies to some kinds of history and not to others (192). It seems that Collins has no in-principle objection to the idea that (for example) the moons of Jupiter are part of the explanation of Galileo’s belief in the moons of Jupiter. If this is what methodological relativism amounts to, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. *Barnes, Barry, and David Bloor, ‘Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge’, in Rationality and Relativism, ed. Martin Hollis (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), pp. 21–47, on 27. **Barnes, Barry, Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 154; Collins, Harry, and Graham Cox, ‘Recovering Relativity: Did Prophecy Fail?’, Social Studies of Science, 6 (1976), 423–44. Expand post.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Kuhns’ influential and controversial book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2014 is the anniversary of a book that was nearly as influential and nearly as controversial as Kuhn's, at least among historians and sociologists of science. Barry Barnes’ Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory was the first full-length exposition of what soon became known as the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge. The programme was ‘strong’ in the sense that it used sociology to explain established scientific theories, as opposed to explaining scientific institutions or explaining discredited beliefs. When I read the book last week I found it surprisingly radical and surprisingly prescient. I also found what I think are the roots of a gross error that persists to this day. What struck me as radical about Barnes was his fully-fledged relativism. Nowadays historians and sociologists have adopted something called ‘methodological relativism’ (see here for a critical exposition). They concede that some beliefs are objectively more rational or more true than others, but they deny that this fact should play any role in the explanations we give of the beliefs of past scientists. Proponents of this view have started to read it back into the original texts of the Strong Programme. They tend to shake their heads in dismay when anyone suggests the relativism of the Strong Programme was anything more than methodical. For example, here is Jan Golinski’s head-shake:
Since the symmetry principle is primarily motivated by a desire to set aside issues of epistemology it is unfortunate that it has regularly been attacked as a species of philosophical relativism. One can of course assert relativistic claims in a metaphysical or ontological way, saying, for example, that there is no such thing as ‘truth’, or that all beliefs about nature are equally valid, or that there is no ‘reality’ to the material world. But such statements encounter severe difficulties if defended as absolute claims....More pertinently, the constructivist outlook does not depend upon them. Barnes certainly meant his relativism to be methodologically useful. But he meant much more than that:
In arguing that all belief systems must be treated symmetrically for the purposes of sociological explanation, many traditional ways of justifying belief as knowledge were [in this book] incidentally undermined. It transpired that one perspective can only be shown to be preferable to another in expedient terms...Thus, the epistemological message could be said to be skeptical, or relativistic...It is relativistic because it suggests that belief systems cannot be objectively ranked in terms of their proximity to reality or their rationality (p. 154).The prescience in Barnes’ book lies in his account of the debate between internalists and externalists. Barnes drew a then-standard distinction between internalist historians, who focus on the ‘intellectual’ or ‘technical’ aspects of science, and externalist historians, who study the ‘socio-economic’ background to science (the terms in quotes are Barnes’). Nowadays we are inclined to reject this distinction on two grounds. Firstly, the boundary between the internal and the external has changed over time. Secondly, there are as many social phenomena inside scientific communities as there are in the societies that surround them. These are views that have not been read back into the work of Barnes and Bloor, at least not as far as I am aware. Indeed, it is common to distinguish between the Strong Programme, which focused on social factors that originate outside scientific communities, such as class interests and political movements, and later sociologists who focused on the internal politics of scientific disciplines. Golinski himself makes a distinction along these lines . In this instance, I think, there is a case for reading our own ideas into Barnes’ book. He certainly argues for a role for sociology in accounting for the internal development of disciplines and research traditions. In fact he devotes an entire chapter to this argument, entitled ‘The culture of the natural sciences.’ Barnes also gives a subtle account of the ways that scientists—as well as present-day commentators on science—disagree about what counts as ‘internal’ to science and what does not. Again, he devotes (nearly) a whole chapter to this point, entitled ‘‘Internal’ and ‘external’ factors in the history of science.’ What about the gross error that persists to this day? In the first chapter of his book, Barnes repeatedly implies that there is a widespread tendency among commentators on science—including historians of science—to suppose that true beliefs cannot be explained causally. Here are a few examples of this attribution:
Many academic theories about beliefs, whether philosophical, psychological or sociological [have the following form]. Typically, they divide beliefs about nature into ‘true’ and ‘false’ categories, treating the former as unproblematic in the sense that they derive directly from awareness of reality, whereas the latter must be accounted for by biasing and distorting factors (pp. 2-3). ...this particular perspective, treating truth as unproblematic and falsehood as needing causal explanation... (p. 3) Science is conceived [by many] as a uniquely rational process leading to present truth; that which can be set on a teleologically conceived sequence leading to the present is assumed to be naturally reasonable and not in need of causal explanation. (p. 7)These statements are grossly erroneous because it is doubtful whether any historian or philosopher (I cannot speak for sociologists) has maintained that true beliefs do not have causal explanations. Larry Laudan spoke for the philosophers in a 1984 critique of a book by David Bloor, another pioneer of the Strong Programme:
Bloor’s analysis of the philosophical tradition will not stand up to scrutiny. For as long as we know anything about the history of philosophy, epistemologists have been concerned how to discover the true and the rational. The suggestion that most philosophers have believed that true beliefs just happen, that rational behaviour is uncaused, that only ‘aberrant’ belief is part of nature’s causal nexus, is hard to take seriously.Laudan goes on:
It is true that many philosophers have suggested that true or rational beliefs are not to be attributed to sociological causes. But unless we are to imagine that sociology has a monopoly on causes, the denial that true or false beliefs have social causes is manifestly not equivalent to the assertion that true and rational beliefs are uncaused! I believe that the same can be said about historians of science. If we take even the most cursory look at eighteenth- or nineteenth-century histories of science, we find many references to human actions that gave rise to this or that theory. We do find a lack of causal explanations that are social in nature, but we do not find a lack of causal explanations. (I have given some evidence for this view here). Despite the absurdity of the claim that historians and philosophers have long believed that true beliefs are uncaused, and despite Laudan’s protests, the claim has persisted. Nowadays the claim is usually expressed as the idea that ‘science is a human activity.’ The implication is that many people used to believe that science is not a human activity. Indeed, Golinski seems to say that the inclusion of human activity in accounts of past science was a vital transformation—perhaps the vital transformation—in the historiography of science. He writes:
By a ‘constructivist’ outlook, I mean that which regards scientific knowledge primarily as a human product, made with locally situated cultural and material resources, rather than as simply the revelation of a pre-given order of nature. This view of science has attained widespread currency in recent years... (p. xvii)Barnes’ relativism may have fallen from favour, but his peculiar portrait of old-fashioned historians and philosophers of science is still with us.  Making Natural Knowledge, p. 8. I am not sure what to make of Golinski's shudder-quotes around the words ‘truth’ and ‘reality.’ If there are such things as truth and reality, as Golinski seems to be saying in this passage, why put those words in quotes?  Ibid., p. 24.  ‘The Pseudo-Science of Science,’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11 (1981): 173-198, p. 178. Expand post.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
I began posting on the symmetry principle in March 2013, in response to a post by Vanessa Heggie on the H Word. After eight posts and nearly eighteen months, it is time to bring this desultory marathon to an end. In the interests of brevity and coherence, here is a six-step guide to saving the symmetry principle. Each step corresponds to one or two posts in the series. 1. Get the fallacy right. What kind of inference does the symmetry principle forbid? Here is one kind of false inference: the earth really does move, so the motion of the earth is a sufficient explanation of Copernicus' belief that it moves. Very few historians have ever made this inference, so there is little point in fulminating against it. The real worry is inferences like this: the earth really does move, so the evidence for the earth's motion is a sufficient explanation of why Copernicus believed it to move. The difference is between explaining a belief by its truth and explaining a belief by the believer's arguments and evidence. 2. Take distinctions seriously. To get the fallacy right we need to distinguish between the truth of a belief and the evidence in favour of a belief. This may seem like an esoteric distinction, but we have no choice but to make the distinction if we want to understand the symmetry principle. The distinction is especially important if we want to communicate the symmetry principle to non-historians. If we do not make the distinction ourselves, we cannot expect non-historians to do so, and if they do not do so then we should not be surprised if they reject the symmetry principle. Another reason to make the distinction is that evidence gets a bad name if it is constantly confused with truth, since evidence usually explains more than truth. 3. Make room for truth. Truth nevertheless does explain something. The motion of the earth may not be a sufficient explanation of Copernicus' belief, but it is surely part of the explanation. There are other ways in which truth can legitimately enter into writing about past science. For example, it is philosophically respectable to say that theories are true insofar as they correspond to reality. And it is undeniable that factual evidence has played a role in the beliefs of past scientists. A blanket ban on truth does more harm than good in the history of science. 4. Be a minimalist about symmetry. Every historian of science knows that she should treat true beliefs in the same way as false ones. But what does this mean in practice? Does it mean that both sides of all past debates in science were equally reasonable? Or that historians should aim for completeness, always reporting the good reasons on the losing side and the bad reasons on the winning side? Or does it mean that we should ignore good reasons altogether and focus on social factors rather than cognitive ones? Or that, as a matter of fact, the social factors dominate in most cases? Properly understood, the symmetry principle does not imply any of these things. It simply forbids us from inferring the goodness of a believer's reasons from the truth-value of their belief. 5. Face up to the skeptical challenge. The reason this inference is forbidden is that people can be right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. But what if we apply that principle to today's science? Maybe our best theories are wrong, despite the good reasons in their favour. Historians tend to welcome this thought as an antidote to dogmatism. In fact it is a serious threat to the symmetry principle, because few people will accept a principle that implies that today's theories are no better than Aristotle's. We need to work harder to reconcile symmetry and scientific realism. For example, we can observe that the argument from realism to asymmetry only works for consensual beliefs and not for those under dispute. 6. Aim for understanding not self-delusion. Suppose that symmetry is indeed consistent with realism. Shouldn't we nevertheless suspend our realism when we do history, just to make sure that it does not distort our results? Shouldn't we forget that the earth moves when we study Ptolemaic astronomy? No, we should not. If our knowledge of our former skews our view of the latter, then we have failed to grasp some fundamental points about past science. We should try to grasp these points rather than playing evasive mind games. If we take these steps then we have a good chance of rescuing the symmetry principle from the false or irrelevant principles that are sometimes associated with it. These steps focus on what the symmetry principle is not, rather than what it is. But we need both to grasp the symmetry principle. So here is one more rendition of the minimalist, truth-friendly, and realist-friendly, version of the principle that I have defended in this series: the truth of a belief does not imply that the believer had good reasons for holding that belief, and the falsity of a belief does not imply that the believer had bad reasons for holding that belief. In short, historians should not reason from truth-value to goodness-of-reason. Expand post.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Last month I tried to show that historians can honour the symmetry principle without becoming skeptics about current scientific theories. We do not need to "forget" that the earth moves in order to see that there was once good reason to believe that it is stationary. But even if we do not need to forget this, perhaps we should try to forget it anyway just to be on the safe side? The aim of this short post is to explain why this kind of methodological relativism is not a good idea. Put simply, if we need to resort to this psychological trick in order to do good history then we have not understood the symmetry principle. My point is easily stated in the abstract. According to the symmetry principle, it is a fallacy to infer the quality of a person's reasons for holding a belief from the truth-value of their belief. In other words, the whole point of the principle is that truth-value--as judged by present-day science--tells us nothing about quality-of-reason. So if you are worried that your knowledge of present-day science will lead you astray in historical research, you have missed the point of the symmetry principle. Present-day science should not lead the historian astray because present-day science should not lead the historian anywhere. An analogy might help to get the point across. When small children are around we place the chocolate bars on a high shelf so that the children cannot reach them. The reason for this--or one of the reasons--is that small children do not grasp the fact that chocolate bars are bad for their health. If the chocolate was easy to access, children would eat it all at once and get sick. When adults are around, we place the chocolate bars wherever we like, because adults understand the link between overeating and illness. They can see chocolate, and even handle chocolate, without eating too much of it. The historian who cannot do good history in the knowledge of present-day science is like the child who cannot stay healthy within reach of chocolate. Present-day science can be dangerous in the hands of the historian, just as chocolate can be dangerous in the hands of a child. But these things are only dangerous if they are badly handled. To keep these things out of our reach is to concede that we cannot handle them properly. Once we know how to handle them properly, we should be able to store them in accessible parts of our kitchens (in the case of chocolate) or our minds (in the case of present-day science). But, you might object, it's not just children who need to store the chocolate on the top shelf or behind the muesli. Fully-grown adults can also give in to temptation, and surely they cannot be faulted if they use physical or psychological tricks to make up for the weakness of their will. After all, the important thing is to avoid getting sick, not to develop an iron will. We make use of this pragmatic principle every time we download software to block distracting websites or close the window to shut out the summery music being played outside our office. Why shouldn't historians of sciences help themselves to similar ruses? The answer is that historians who mishandle present-day science do not show a weakness of the will but a fundamental misunderstanding of the thing they are trying to understand, namely past science. The reason we should not infer quality-of-reason from truth-value is that there is such a thing as being right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. These things are possible because the state of the evidence for a theory can change over time, because scientists can make lucky guesses on flimsy evidence, and for other equally significant reasons. If we are worried about violating the symmetry principle we should try to grasp these reasons rather than taking un-illuminating short-cuts such as forgetting or rejecting the theories of current science. Expand post.
Friday, July 11, 2014
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. But first, why blog about this session? Out of all the stimulating talks at the conference, why single this one out for special attention? The obvious answer is that the session was about engaging with the public, so it makes sense to engage the public in this session, or at least make it available to the public. Another reason is that public engagement is a topic that concerns every historian of science, in a way a seventeenth-century notebook does not. But the main reason is that this kind of session, more so than the standard academic talk, is only as good as the number of people who know about it. The aim of these events is to get people talking about some of the challenges facing the profession. The more people talk about them, the better. Noble intentions are one thing; turning up on time is quite another. I have to confess that I missed the first half-hour of this session, so I did not hear the short presentations that each panellist gave before the general discussion began. However thanks to twitter (and in particular to Rebekah Higgitt, Dominic Berry, and Angela Cassidy) I can relay four key messages from the first part of the session: How much, who, how, and at what cost? No-one was seriously arguing that historians of science should never aim for relevance. Rather, the question was how often they should aim for relevance in their research and research proposals, who should aim for relevance, how this aim might be achieved, and whether relevance can be reconciled with the other pressures of academic life such as the need to produce sound scholarship. Usefulness not relevance. Usefulness is a better term than relevance to describe our aims when we engage with people outside academia. Why is it better? The answer, I gather, is that "relevance" implies topicality, ie. it suggests that our case studies should bear a superficial resemblance to events that are currently in the news. One risk of this approach is that by focusing on the big stories of the day we will ignore the more important but less visible stories (as one participant put it, we should always ask "relevant to what?"). Another risk is that we will ignore lessons that flow from the strangeness of the past rather than from the resemblance between the past and the present. Finally, it is not enough to juxtapose past episodes with analogous present-day events; to make a real difference we need to draw concrete lessons from past episodes. In short, we can be useful without being topical and topical without being useful. We have failed. Historians of science as a community have failed to get the attention of some important audiences. We have done good work, but we could do much better. In particular, we could do more to interact with social scientists and other historians as well as with scientists. Less deficit-model and more engagement. Our failures may be due in part to our condescending view of our audiences. We are guilty of the "deficit-model" that we so often attribute to scientists and naïve science communicators. What is the deficit model? This is where I need help from someone who was actually present, because there are different versions of the deficit model that have different implications for our attempts at outreach. The implication might be that we have no special expertise in the history of science; or it might be that we do have special expertise, but that it takes the form of special skills or methods rather than factual knowledge; or it might be that we do have special expertise but that we should try to learn from non-historians rather than teaching them. This brings us to the half-hour mark, which is when I discreetly entered the room. What follows is my attempt to arrange the free-flowing conversation that I witnessed into a series of discreet chunks. I've arranged the chunks roughly in the order in which they were discussed. Gender. The gender balance in the profession is much better than it was fifty years ago. (At this point one of the panellists joked that he was pleased to be the "token male" on the panel). Still, the balance is not perfect, and some sub-fields in the history of science are still dominated by men (the speaker did not name the sub-fields). Ethnic minorities. The situation is quite different for ethnic minorities, who are still badly under-represented in the history of science as in other areas of the humanities. One possible link between under-representation and usefulness is that minority groups decline study in the humanities because they feel that humanities degrees are relatively useless given their high price-tag. Hence one way to solve our under-representation problem is to show that humanities degrees are more useful than they may appear at first sight. Independent scholars. Speaking of marginalised groups, spare a thought for people who are historians by avocation but not by vocation. Much high-quality research in our field is done by people who are not employed as academics in universities. These people are sometimes slighted, and this is unwise given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs and the increasing number of people who move freely between academic and non-academic jobs in the course of their careers. Attitudes to outreach. In some university departments there is still an alarming lack of recognition of the value of activities such as policy work, museum work, and blogging. Academics should not only respect these activities but also make room for them. Outreach should not be something that academics do on top of the normal load of teaching, research and administrative work. It should either be integrated with these core activities or seen as a (partial) substitute for them. Junior scholars. Senior scholars sometimes have a tendency to delegate public engagement to PhDs and early career colleagues. There is a danger of creating an unhealthy division of labour whereby young scholars do the hard work of outreach while their supervisors get on with their own research. [Disclaimer: I have not observed this tendency in my own academic circle, though I can't speak for other circles.] Nor should the outreach activities of senior scholars be separate from those of junior scholars. Instead we should strive for "intergenerational collaboration." Translation. This buzzword refers to the process of converting academic research into something that the general public can understand and appreciate. Translation is all very well, but can we expect academics to be experts in translation--twitter and museum exhibits and all that jazz--as well as being experts in the traditional tools of scholarship? Wouldn't it be nice if we could delegate the former tasks to a dedicated team of translators? The answer from the panel was that it depends on the end product of the translation. Not every academic has the know-how to set up a museum exhibit, but every academic should be able to summarise their latest research in a readable blog post. Capacity building. In policy circles there is much talk about building the scientific capacity of developing nations. One of the panellists recalled a recent conference at which various criticisms were levelled at the concept of capacity building, but where the African participants seemed quite keen on the idea. This concerns historians because many university administrators in developing nations see the history of science as an ally in their efforts to raise the profile of science in their communities. Hence the demand for historians of medicine in these universities, a demand that may extend to historians of science and technology in the future. Methods but not facts or disciplines. Our gift to the public should not be facts about past science but a set of methods for studying past science, or perhaps a perspective from which to view past science. But we should not be too precious about defining our discipline, since we are inherently interdisciplinary, with contributions from philosophers and sociologists and scientists as well as pure-blood historians. Usefulness need not be public. There are many ways of being useful, and not all of them are public-facing in the manner of blogs, museum exhibits and newspaper articles. For example, we can make ourselves useful by talking to policy-makers and scientists on a one-to-one basis. Ethics not impact. The British government measures the usefulness of British academics in terms of the "impact" of their research. Lots of British academics object to this criterion and to the way it is currently measured. But our dissatisfaction with the impact agenda should not become an excuse for retreating into the ivory tower and drawing the blinds. On the contrary, we should think deeply about why we do research in the humanities and what we can contribute to society at large. We may shrink from the impact agenda, but we cannot shirk the ethics of research. *** In the interests of continuing the discussion, here are three comments inspired by the conversation that I have just summarised: Facts matter. I was surprised that some participants insisted on the importance of conveying methods or perspectives to the public rather than conveying facts. Haven't we been diligent, not to say militant, in correcting the factual errors made by scientists who write about past science? And aren't our perspectives (such as our emphasis on political context) based on our hard-won knowledge of the facts of key episodes (there are too many episodes to name)? Finally, aren't we obliged to refer to facts about particular fields or disciplines (such as climate science or evolutionary psychology) if we want our messages to be specific and concrete rather than vague and evangelistic? There's a place for the deficit model in the humanities. I realise that there are problems with the deficit model, but we should not be too diffident when it comes to instructing non-historians about past science. As a rule, those of us who have studied past science in detail are in a better position to speak about it than those who have studied it superficially or not at all. The same is true for scientists, but there is an important difference between the sciences and the humanities, namely that scientists use their expertise to make useful gadgets. This means that if scientists always engaged with the public and never instructed them, their expertise would not go to waste. The same cannot be said for historians. If we do not use our expertise to teach people about the past, our expertise is not much use at all. We should take reflexivity seriously. There were a couple of references to "reflexivity" in the tweets about the BSHS session on relevance. Here's my definition of this protean term: to be reflexive is to insist on consistency between our own condition as historians and the conditions we observe in past science. For example, it would be non-reflexive to say that there is a historical method but no scientific method. Yet this is what historians of science, as a group, seem to be saying: we no longer believe in the scientific method, yet we like to claim that we have a distinctive and powerful method for studying past science. If we take reflexivity seriously, we should either abandon one of these claims or explain why there is room for method in history but not in physics or chemistry. Two other examples come to mind. If we complain about the public misunderstanding of history, as many of us do, we should admit that there is such a thing as the public misunderstanding of science. And if we defend scholarship on the grounds that it is useful in the long run, we should tolerate scientists who use the same argument in favour of basic research. That's all for now. As I mentioned in the introduction, feel free to use the comments of this post (or your own blog, if you have one) to improve on my summary of this relevant and useful BSHS session. Expand post.
Friday, June 20, 2014
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. The fallacy is not always applicable The Symmetry Principle states that it is a fallacy to go from truth-value to goodness-of-reasons. Before showing that this is indeed a fallacy, let me point out that it is not always a useful fallacy. To use the fallacy for a given belief, we would need to identify that belief as either true or false. The problem is that many past beliefs are neither strictly true nor strictly false, either because they are vague or because they are precise but only partly true. To make matters worse, some beliefs are still matters of mainstream debate. Perhaps we could solve the problem of partially true beliefs by resolving them into truth and false components. Then we would infer that the true component was due to good reasons and the false component to bad reasons. This will not usually work, however. It is implausible to believe, for example, that Aristotle was guided by reason when he saw efficient causes in nature but driven by superstition or self-interest when he saw final causes. Surely those two ideas were too neatly joined in his mind to have such disparate origins. Two unsound defenses of the Symmetry Principle Nevertheless there are a fair number of historical disputes that have clear winners and losers. Kepler was right that the planets have elliptical orbits, or at least much more right than Galileo, who believed their orbits to be circular. The speed of light is finite, as Christiaan Huygens believed and as René Descartes denied. Heat is not a fluid, rock crystal is not made of frozen water, coral is not a mineral, and the moon is not translucent: most of us believe these claims even though each was hotly disputed at some point in the past. Why should we apply the Symmetry Principle to these beliefs? A common answer is that they may turn out to be false. Maybe we will one day discover that the speed of light is infinite, and if that happens we would have to revise our history books to assign good reasons to Descartes and bad reasons to Huygens. But, so the argument goes, such post-hoc revisions would be absurd. The problem with this argument is that it can be levelled against any procedure for generating beliefs about the past. Maybe we will one day discover that Descartes was the victim of a clever and mischievous type-setter who inserted his own ideas in key places in the philosopher's major works. Such a discovery would lead to a retrospective overhaul of Descartes scholarship. But the possibility of such revisions does not undermine our faith in textual analysis as a way of finding out about the past. Another common answer is that it is simply not possible for the good reasons to fall on one side of a dispute and the bad reasons to fall on the other side. On this view, every party in every scientific debate is motivated by a roughly equal mixture of sound argument and corrupting self-interest. As per my last post in this series, I do not think this a good answer. All we can say with confidence is that there is a non-zero amount of both in the causal history of most beliefs. Deciding whether or not one kind of cause dominates in any given case is a matter for empirical investigation. (I suspect that the only reason people assert otherwise is that they conflate this assertion with the Symmetry Principle). A better defense, and two diagnoses So much for the wrong answers—what about the right ones? In my view the best answer to the symmetry sceptic is simply to list cases in which a famous past scientist held a true belief for a bad reason or a false belief for a good reason. As examples of the latter one need only think of Galileo, whose belief in the motion of the earth was partly based on an explanation of the tides that seems incoherent to us and that convinced very few people at the time. As examples of false beliefs backed by good reasons, one need only think of all errors that were not due to methodological sloppiness but to the unavoidable absence of key pieces of evidence. Ptolemy did not have the benefit of Galileo's telescopic observations when he built his world system; William Thomson had no knowledge of radioactive decay when he gave his first estimates of the age of the earth; etc. Many errors are due to bad luck, not bad method. Given such examples, why would anyone want to deny the Symmetry Principle? And why do people sometimes violate the principle even though they should know better? I suspect that there are two factors at work. One is that some past beliefs agree so closely with present-day claims that the agreement cannot be due to coincidence. To continue with the speed of light example, the eighteenth-century British astronomer James Bradley (the subject of this recent blog post) gave a figure that was within 2% of the currently accepted value. Assuming that the current value is correct, it is absurd to think that Bradley made a lucky guess; he must had had good reasons for deciding on this value. The problem is that many scientific theories, including some of the historically most interesting ones, are not of this kind. Often there are only a small number of theories to choose from, and in such cases there is plenty of room for lucky guesses. Way back in the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles maintained that the speed of light is finite. The fact that he was right about this does not tell us anything about the quality of his reasons for believing so, since even with the flimsiest reasons he would still have had a 50/50 chance of getting the right answer. Overconfidence in the scientific method is the second factor that may lead to violations of the Symmetry Principle. Anyone who believes in a fail-safe method is bound to deny that false beliefs can be explained by that method. False beliefs must instead be explained by deviations from the true method, deviations brought about either by sheer carelessness or the action of self-interest, prejudice, religious convictions, etc. A serious objection to the Symmetry Principle, and two bad replies The argument from scientific method is one that historians of science are trained to dismiss out of hand. However there is no room for complacency here. There is a serious objection behind the appeal to method, an objection that we need to disarm if we want people to take the Symmetry Principle seriously. The objection goes like this:
Commonsense realism tells us that present-day scientists are a pretty good guide to the truth: if a large majority of the relevant experts say that a given theory is true, or that the theory is false, they are probably right. But the only way the experts can make these judgements is by examining the arguments for and against the theory. In other words, goodness-of-reason is a reliable guide to truth-value. It follows, as a matter of elementary logic, that the reverse is true, ie. truth-value is a reliable guide to goodness-of-reason. So far this argument applies only to present-day science. But there is nothing special about 2014, so it must hold for the past as well. Therefore historians are entitled to infer the goodness of a scientist’s reasons for a belief from the truth-value of that belief.It would not be a good idea for historians to respond to this objection with a blanket denial of commonsense realism. Maybe commonsense realism is a misguided doctrine. But the fact is that the realism debate is still a live one among the relevant experts, namely philosophers of science, and it would not be wise for historians to ground their discipline on a form of skepticism that may be false and that many people reject. This would be an especially foolish move if historians intend to use their case studies to attack commonsense realism; to do so would be to assume what they are trying to prove. Another false move is to say that commonsense realism is OK for scientists but not for historians of science (this move is sometimes called "compartmentalism" or "meta-relativism"). On this view, scientists are right to be realists and historians are right to reject realism. This will not do. If the claim is that scientific realism is true for scientists but false for historians, then the claim is guilty of an incoherent form of relativism. Perhaps the claim is instead that scientific realism is true tout court, but that it is methodologically suitable for historians to sideline this truth when they study past science. To say this is to restate the problem, not solve it. The challenge is precisely to reconcile realism with the methodological value of sidelining realism. Some better replies to the serious objection Here are some better replies to the objection that I raised in the previous section. Firstly, the objection only applies to beliefs that enjoy a wide consensus among the relevant experts. If at time t there was no consensus about a given theory, then the objection does not apply to that theory at time t. The reason the objection does not apply to disputed past theories is that commonsense realism does not apply to disputed present theories (it makes little sense to be a realist about a given theory and its rival theories). Since the objection assumes commonsense realism, it has no purchase on theories that are under dispute. This restriction is important because disputed theories are usually the ones that are of most interest to historians and sociologists of science. Consider again the question of whether the speed of light is finite or infinite. It would be no great loss to historians if they could only apply the Symmetry Principle to this question as it was answered prior to 1750, by which time most informed people were finitists about the speed of light. The second reply is that empirical study is a better guide than philosophical inference when it comes to learning about a particular past event. In other words: however good the objection might be, it is no substitute for a careful study of the documents relating to the case that interests us, whether this is the disagreement between Huygens and Descartes over the speed of light, or nineteenth-century debates about natural selection, or whatever. Here's a World Cup analogy to illustrate the point: historians can ignore scientific realism when they study a particular case for the same reason that soccer fans can ignore the predictions of the pundits when they watch a particular match. It’s always worth checking what the result actually is, even if the predictions are right most of the time. These seem to me to be the most straightforward replies. There are other replies that, though promising, are likely to be more controversial, either among philosophers or historians or both. One is to accept that the objection holds for recent science but deny that it holds for earlier periods, on the grounds that evidential standards were lower in the past than they are now. In the early modern period, even the best reasons were not that good, and as a result they did not track the truth as reliably as today’s precision instruments and randomised controlled trials. Another promising reply is to accept commonsense realism about today’s empirical laws—such as the rules of geometric optics—but reserve judgement about today’s high-level theories—such as string theory. This is a perfectly respectable move within the philosophy of science, and it would restrict the scope of the objection in question so that it only applied to past empirical laws and not to high-level past theories. That way we would be free to apply the Symmetry Principle to the eighteenth-century debate over the nature of vis viva, the nineteenth century debate over the existence of the ether, and so on. If you can think of other replies, controversial or otherwise, please feel free to post them in the comments below. For the moment, I hope to have shown that the objection is strong enough to take seriously but not strong enough to scupper the Symmetry Principle. That principle is compatible with confidence in present-day science. There remains the question of whether anti-realism is worth retaining as a heuristic device when writing about past science. In my next post I will argue that it is not worth retaining. In fact, if you need this device then you have not understood the Symmetry Principle. Expand post.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
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. Hotson began by observing that intellectual history is marginal to the discipline of history. His point was not that practitioners of intellectual history are marginal--after all, Hotson himself is a distinguished professor at a respected university. His point was instead that practitioners of intellectual history find it hard to ply their trade under that banner. Instead they attach themselves to various sub-fields--such as art history or Church history or Renaissance history--depending on the topics they happen to be researching at any given moment. Over the course of a career, an intellectual historian may join many different scholarly communities, and make a solid contribution to them all, without ever feeling truly at home in any of them. Why is this so? Why are intellectual historians "stateless citizens in the Republic of Letters"? Hotson's answer was simple. Almost by definition, intellectual historians are those who trace the histories of the disciplines that make up the present-day university. As a result, any given practitioner of intellectual history is drawn towards the present-day discipline whose past she investigates. Historians of philosophy are tugged in the direction of philosophy; historians of physics have one foot in physics departments; art historians have umbilical ties to artists; and so on. These disciplinary ties have two consequences, according to Hotson (and here I simplify his argument to the point of distortion). Firstly, they tend to lessen intellectual history in the eyes of other historians, who are suspicious of scholars who consort with the present while claiming to study the past. The other effect of disciplinary ties is that they weaken the inter-disciplinary ties that would otherwise bring together different bands of intellectual historians into a single, stable tribe. Historians of physics (for example) will not merge with historians of theology until the former have diverged from physicists and the latter from theologians. Given this diagnosis, one might think that the best remedy for the rootlessness of intellectual historians is for all of them to move into history departments. I think it is fair to say that Hotson equivocated on this point. At one point in his talk he clearly stated that intellectual historians are better off in history departments than they are in the departments of the disciplines they study. Later in the talk he appeared to reconsider this judgement in light of the great diversity of institutional arrangements that one finds across Europe and North America. In the UK, where many philosophers are stridently a-historical, a historian of philosophy is indeed better off in a history department. But the same may not be hold in France or Italy, where philosophy is already a quasi-historical discipline. So intellectual historians may not need to move out of their home departments in order to collaborate with each-other. The important point--here Hotson was unequivocal--is that such collaboration is necessary if we want to unify the field of intellectual history and thereby bring it in from the academic cold. So far Hotson had been learned and insightful but not provocative. He ended his talk with what he candidly called a "polemical twist." Why should intellectual historians collaborate with eachother, and more generally why should they be free to choose who they collaborate with? The answer that Hotson offered is that open collaboration of this kind was responsible for some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of thought, and in particular for the bursts of human creativity that are sometimes called the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. If it worked in the past, it will work again. If we want to emulate Leonardi da Vinci or René Descartes (and who doesn't?) we should start by adopting their interdisciplinary approach. I'll call this argument the optimistic induction (not to be confused with its pessimistic cousin). At this point it is worth noting that Hotson has been a vocal critic of UK higher education policy, speaking out against the government's plans to run universities along free-market lines. He is especially critical of schemes that reward academics for doing research that "meet[s] the demands of industry" or that is "tied to party-political slogans." These schemes "impoverish teaching, undermine creativity, trivialise research, and alienate teachers." Hotson intended his optimistic induction as an argument against these external influences on research agendas. He also intended it as an argument for interdisciplinary intellectual history. In my view the argument misses both of these targets. The problem with the second target is that the argument works at least as well for disciplinary collaboration as it does for interdisciplinary collaboration. Why? Because the creativity of the early moderns drew on both kinds of collaboration. It is true that early modern historians wrote books that covered (what we would call) the histories of art, politics, and science. But it is also true, for example, that advances in astronomy were due partly to re-interpretations of the history of astronomy (here I am thinking of Johannes Kepler's Defense of Tycho Against Ursus, written in 1600). Indeed, before about 1760 the history of science barely existed as an area of study independent of the sciences whose past it described. There are also two other problems with the optimistic induction. The first is simply that the present is not always like the past. The fact that open collaboration worked for Da Vinci and Descartes does not mean that it will work in the 21st century. This is a problem for any induction, of course. But it is especially sharp in this case because intellectual historians make much of the fact that the early modern disciplines were completely different from the disciplines of today's universities. Indeed, this is a common argument in favour of collaboration between historians of different disciplines, an argument that Hotson used himself in his keynote. We are asked to believe that the fruitfulness of interdisciplinary collaboration is a historical constant even though the structure of the disciplines is not. More is needed to defend this paradoxical premise. The other, related problem is that intellectual creativity did not end when the modern-day disciplines began. Indeed, historians of science can cite at least one example of intellectual ferment that was accompanied by decisive steps towards the modern disciplines. This is the episode known as the second scientific revolution, a period around 1800 which saw the creation of new disciplines such as geology and biology and the reconstitution of old ones like physics and physiology. Many leading scientists in this period worked across these new disciplines, but on the whole they were more specialised than the likes of Descartes or Boyle or Newton. The optimistic induction is even less apt for Hotson's other target, namely political and economic interference in research agendas. The optimistic induction may not support present-day interdisciplinary research, but at least there is a consensus that early modern intellectuals were an interdisciplinary bunch and that their boundary-crossing was one source of their creativity. There is no such consensus when it comes to the scale or fruitfulness of political and economic pressures in early modern intellectual life. If anything, recent research shows that these pressures were greater in the early modern period than we previously thought, and that they nourished intellectual life rather than starving it. This is surely true for historians of science, who for several decades have been arguing that the intellectual achievements of the scientific revolution were linked in one way or another to political or economic or military agendas. Galileo's discovery of the moons of jupiter was a move in a patronage game; the motion of cannonballs inspired the mechanical philosophy; Lavoisier the chemist used the same accounting methods as Lavoisier the tax farmer; and so on. If there is a lesson in these examples it is not that the humanities should resist the advances of politicians and economists and entrepreneurs but that resistance is neither possible nor desirable. Doesn't history teach us that intellectual life is always political? Don't we know that the military and the market-place are cultural resources that the greatest thinkers have used to their advantage? These questions are awkward not just for Hotson but for any historian who places past thinkers in context while trying to free herself from her own context. There are various ways around this dilemma, and probably Hotson is aware of both the dilemma and the solutions. However his optimistic induction ignores the dilemma rather than solving it. There are good arguments against current UK higher education policy, and Hotson has articulated these arguments in compelling ways in his public appearances. He is also right to urge academics to use their intellectual resources--such as their knowledge of history--to defend those resources against creeping corporatism in universities. However the optimistic induction is not the best way to do this. Expand post.