Looking twice at the history of science

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Lorraine Daston on history as fiction – critical thoughts

Nick Tosh and Lorraine Daston have, separately, made some intriguing remarks about the affinities between fiction and the history of science. Their remarks follow on nicely from my last post. Daston compares historians to readers of mystery novels who know in advance how the story ends. She means this as a criticism. By contrast, Tosh praises authors who freely acknowledge the gap between themselves and their subjects, a stance that Tosh labels ‘postmodern.’ My position is somewhere in between: it is OK for readers to know how the story ends, but this is not a particularly postmodern phenomenon. Expand post.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Histories of science as murder mysteries, or: Steven Weinberg as Henning Mankell

The conclusion of my last post was that scientists who write history are like visitors to one city who live in a different city (as opposed to historians, who study cities while living in the countryside). The point of the analogy was to show that knowledge of present-day science need not get in the way of good history-writing. There is another analogy that gets at the same point from a different direction: scientists who write history are like authors of murder mysteries who reveal the identity of the killer in the first chapter. This may sound like a criticism, but there are successful authors who actually write like this, starting with the Swedish maestro Henning Mankell.

SPOILER ALERT - crucial details of detective novel revealed below, most of them from the first chapter

Expand post.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Are scientists who do history like tourists? Thoughts on Steven Weinberg's analogy

A couple of months ago Will Thomas posted his thoughts on the Shapin-Weinberg episode. You may have read Steven Shapin's unflinching review of Steven Weinberg's new book To Explain the World. The theme of the review, and of the replies and reflections that followed, including my own, was the quality of history written by scientists. One view that Will outlines is that scientists' history serves only to propagate self-serving myths about science. Will's own view is that this is itself a myth, and that historians should treat scientists as tourists whose well-meaning forays into past science are a net gain for the discipline. I like the tourist analogy, but I think it can be modified to better explain that net gain. Expand post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why historians shouldn't write off scientists: on Steven Shapin's review of Steven Weinberg's Explain the World

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. Expand post.

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. 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. Expand post.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Barry Barnes' Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory, 40 years on

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. Expand post.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to save the symmetry principle in six simple steps

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. Expand post.