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.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
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.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
The symmetry principle has been a central tenet of the history of science since at least the 1970s, and in my view it is a sound and valuable principle. However it is often confused with principles that are neither sound nor valuable, some of which are positively harmful for the study of past science. For example, the symmetry principle is sometimes expressed as the view that “truth” cannot explain the beliefs of past scientists. My main aim in this series so far has been to show that this view is hopelessly vague, and that on many readings it is false. In this post I will say the same about another aspect of the symmetry principle, namely the claim that historians should explain true and false beliefs “in the same way.” I’ll run through five readings of this claim, only the first of which deserves to be called the symmetry principle. Truth/falsity is not good evidence for good/bad reasons (Symmetry Principle) To use an example from my first post in this series, Galileo had a true theory of the moon and a false theory of comets. It is tempting to infer that he reached the moon theory through observation, experiment, and careful reasoning, whereas he reached the comet theory through arrogance, spite, and self-interest. That is, it is tempting to infer from the truth of the moon theory that Galileo held it for good reasons, and to infer from the falsity of the comet theory that he held it for bad reasons. Most historians of science, including me, think that both of these inferences are flawed. In general, the truth-value of a belief is not a good guide to the motivations of the believer. The inference from the former to the latter is what I call The Fallacy. Let’s not worry about why it is a fallacy, a question that I intend to answer in a later post. The important point is that it is a fallacy, and that the symmetry principle properly understood is simply the assertion that this is so. Hence I will call this assertion the Symmetry Principle (note the capital letters). Some might object to the Symmetry Principle on the grounds that there is no principled way of distinguishing good reasons from bad reasons. In practice, however, historians of science seem perfectly capable of making this distinction. The evidence for this is that they often criticise other historians for violating the symmetry principle, and to do this they must be to make the distinction in question. This is true no matter which version of the symmetry principle the critics have in mind, since all of the versions that I know of rely on some variant of the distinction between good and bad reasons. The Symmetry Principle must be distinguished from the following four claims. All of these claims have masqueraded as symmetry principles at one time or another. All of them look like the Symmetry Principle on the surface, but none of them follow from the Symmetry Principle and none of them should be called symmetry principles, either because they are false or because they have more to do with asymmetry than symmetry. Truth/falsity is never aligned with good/bad reasons (Exclusion Principle) The Symmetry Principle is quite a modest, minimalist principle. All it does is ban a certain inference, namely from truth-values to kind-of-reason. Banning an inference is not the same as saying that the conclusions of that inference are always false. Historians, just like scientists, can be right for the wrong reasons. Fallacious arguments can have true conclusions. For example: dead people cannot walk; Socrates cannot walk; therefore Socrates is dead. Or: my nicotine patch company will make more money if smoking causes lung cancer; therefore smoking causes lung cancer. Yet historians often interpret the symmetry principle to mean that truth-value is never aligned with type-of-reason. On this view, it is always an error to claim, of some true theory T, that a scientist believed T for good reasons and that his critics were mislead by their political interests or religious preferences. On this view, Galileo could not possibly have had good reasons for believing his moon theory but bad reasons for believing his comet theory. That option is ruled out a priori (hence my name for this principle, the Exclusion Principle). Galileo must have either had a mixture of reasons for believing both theories, or only bad reasons for believing both, or good reasons for the comet theory and bad reasons for the moon theory. Unlike the Symmetry Principle, the Exclusion Principle is hard to defend. Granted, there is a sense in which something like bad reasons are a precondition of all scientific activity. Social relations, for example, are sometimes associated with “bad reasons” for belief, yet it is impossible to do science worthy of the name without forming social relations of some kind. Here it is important to distinguish preconditions of belief from factors that shape belief, a distinction I borrow from Steven Shapin (although he might not agree with the application I am now making of the distinction). It is a precondition of scientific activity that someone pays for it (for example). But it does not follow that funding source always shapes belief, ie. that a scientist’s funding source is always a good explanation of why they believe theory X rather than a rival theory. It is also important to distinguish between absolute claims and relative claims. Probably there are no scientific beliefs that are pure in the sense that no bad reasons enter into their causal history. However it is very plausible that good reasons sometimes dominate over bad reasons. And there is no law of history that says that the good reasons never fall on the side of the true theories. Historians should never omit the good/bad reasons for false/true theories (Completeness Principle) The Symmetry Principle and the Exclusion Principle are claims about how historians reason about past science. By contrast, the third principle on my list is about what they should include in their books and articles. The Completeness Principle—the name is my own—states that whenever a historian discusses a true belief he must discuss the bad reasons the scientist had for holding that belief, and not just the good reasons. Conversely, discussions of false theories are lamentably incomplete if they omit good reasons in favour of bad ones. In other words, it is not enough for a historian to believe that truth/falsity is rarely aligned with good/bad reasons. He must also structure his narratives around this belief. It seems to me that the Completeness Principle is a bad idea, and it would be a bad idea even if the Exclusion Principle were true. The worry that lies behind the Completeness Principle is that books and articles might give misleadingly one-sided accounts of past science. There is something in this worry—after all, what’s the point of believing the Symmetry Principle if that belief is never reflected in our written work? Nevertheless, this worry should not lead to a blanket ban on narratives that are one-sided in the way I have just described. Such a ban would be like a ban on narratives that consider French science but exclude German science, or a ban on those that discuss botany but not mineralogy. When we read books that only cover French cases, or that only cover botany, the reasonable response is usually to assume that the author has focused on these cases out of convenience, or because that is what they know. We do not usually assume that the author denies the importance of German science, or of mineralogy. Likewise, if an author writes a book about Lavoisier’s biochemistry (for example) and says nothing about the French Revolution, we should not assume that the author denies the relevance of the French Revolution to Lavoisier’s biochemistry. Perhaps the French Revolution simply has little bearing on the argument the author is trying to make about Lavoisier’s biochemistry. Or perhaps the author omitted social and political factors in order to zoom in on Lavoisier’s attitude towards measurement. Historians should systematically omit good reasons in order to focus on the others (Methodological Relativism) Whereas the Completeness Principle says that historians should report good and bad reasons equally, this principle licenses them to omit good reasons. According to this principle, it is sometimes valuable for historians of science to ignore the experiments that scientists performed, the data they collected, or the chains of reasoning they articulated in order to defend one theory against another. These omissions are valuable, I take it, because they allow the historian to hone in on the social and political reasons for the beliefs that past scientists endorsed. I have no objection to Methodological Relativism as an occasional heuristic. Just as some authors may want to ignore the French Revolution in favour of Lavoisier’s experimental practice, others may want to do the reverse. However I agree with Will Thomas that Methodological Relativism is a recipe for disaster if it is read as a general rule of historical method. And this is how it tends to be read, in my experience, especially when it is conflated with the Symmetry Principle, which is indeed a general rule of historical method. Even if Methodological Relativism were a viable general principle, it would be misleading to call it a symmetry principle. It may be symmetric with respect to true and false theories, treating both in the same way, but it is Assymmetric with respect to good and bad reasons, since it focuses on the latter at the expense of the former. Bad reasons are the dominant causes of both true and false beliefs (Social Constructivism) This claim, like the previous one, is asymmetric with respect to good and bad reasons, since it gives priority to bad reasons. Unlike the previous claim, it does not just say that our narratives of past science should be written asymmetrically. Instead it says that that past science really was asymmetric. This claim accepts that good reasons were at work in past science, but insists that they were less powerful or less decisive or less fundamental than the bad reasons. I hesitate to include this claim on my list, since people do not usually call it a symmetry principle and because the phrase “social constructivism” is such a fraught one. I include the claim anyway because it looks a bit like some of the other claims on this list, and because readers might wonder where it fits into this survey. I’ve plumped for “social constructivism” as a label for this doctrine because, for all the ambiguity of the name, it is usually applied to the claim that one kind of cause (whether we call these “social factors” or “bad reasons” or something similar) makes a larger contribution to scientific beliefs than another kind of cause (“epistemic factors” or “good reasons” or something similar) . Another reason to mention Social Constructivism here is that it is often the end of a chain of reasoning that begins with the Symmetry Principle. For example, a common gambit is to observe that there are good reasons on both sides of many scientific debates, and to infer from this that good reasons cannot explain why people take the sides they do. After all, the argument goes, how can a commonality explain a difference? Needless to say, I do not endorse this argument or any of the others that lead from a laudable symmetry to a paralysing asymmetry. To describe these arguments would require another post, and this series is already too long for that. I’ll simply conclude that there are several different claims that have been called symmetry principles in the last few decades, that several of these claims are not worthy of that name, and that we should not confuse those imposters with what I have called the Symmetry Principle. In case you missed it, the Symmetry Principle is made up of the twin claims that the truth of a belief is not good evidence that the believer had good reasons for holding it, and that the falsity of a belief is not good evidence that the believer had bad reasons for holding it. The burden of my next post is to say why the Symmetry Principle is a good principle. This task is harder than it might seem, as we shall see. Expand post.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Many months have passed since I blithely announced that regular blogging would resume in autumn. Summer is nearly upon us, and I have no good excuses for this long hibernation except that my day job as a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute has been busy and stimulating.* It is still busy and stimulating, but I now have a little more time on my hands and intend to roll out the posts that I promised way back in August. That is to say, I will finish off my series on the symmetry principle, extend my series on Thomas Kuhn’s legacy for historians, and deal with some methodological issues that came up in the course of writing a paper I published last year. After tying up those loose ends, I intend to take the blog in a new direction. So far my stance has been critical of some aspects of current practice in the history of science--fair and constructive, I hope, but critical nonetheless. In this respect I have followed the example of Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda, whose picture of the discipline I reviewed in my first few posts on this blog. But there is also a positive side to Will's picture, one that is concerned with creating navigable archives, attending to chronological questions, and describing mesoscopie traditions of practice. One way to promote these goals is to review books that achieve them. Another way is to choose a period or theme and synthesise the work on that period or theme as it appears in the pages of relevant journals. I hope to experiment with both of these methods over summer and into autumn. *For those who are interested, my main business in Berlin has been to start a new project on early modern gemology in France, a project that has led to talks that are summarised here (see the first two talks on the list). Along the way I have expanded on my PhD dissertation with papers on the relationship between science and the rococo in eighteenth-century Paris and on the analysis of mineral waters in the early Académie Royale des Sciences.
Malheureusement je ne traduis plus tous les posts que j'écrit sur ce blog. Si vous voudriez lire les posts qui ont été traduits, veuillez cliquer ici.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Alert readers will have noticed that not much has happened on this blog over the last couple of months. One of my excuses is that it is summer. Another is that I have been contributing to the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog, which I encourage you to read if you do not already do so. But the real reason is that in October I will begin a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and I am busy tying up loose ends in Cambridge before I head east. When regular blogging resumes in autumn, the following topics will be high on the agenda: -- remarks on my paper that appeared in the June issue of Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. There are some big issues that didn't make it into the paper and that I would like to highlight in a blog post. -- a response to the interesting discussion about the internal/external distinction that Darin Hayton has summarised here. -- a continutation of my series of posts on the symmetry principle in the history of science. There is more to say about this principle, and I promise I will say it more succinctly than I did here or here. -- a continuation of a series of posts on Thomas Kuhn's legacy for historians.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Yesterday morning nearly 2000 historians of science gathered in a vertiginous lecture hall at the University of Manchester, UK. Hasok Chang, the keynote speaker, told them that they could benefit from studying the technical content of science. Not a very controversial claim, you might think. After all, science does have technical content, just as it has journals, military contracts, and priority disputes. The fact that the talk was controversial—and the initial reaction on twitter suggests that it was—shows just how sensitive historians of science still are to what was once called the internal/external debate. Having written about this debate before on this blog, I can’t help commenting on the talk. I agreed with much of Chang's talk, but not all of it. I think that in some respects he went too far in defending internal history of science, and that in other respects he did not go far enough. Update: the video of Chang's talk can now be viewed for free here: http://www.ichstm2013.com/blog/audio-and-video/. In the rest of this post I've inserted (in square brackets) the time of key events in the video. Here’s what I agree with: The internal/external debate is still a live one. It may take a different from than it once did, and some of us may be repelled by the very idea that the debate continues. But there is no doubt that some historians still worry that the history of science is in danger of “losing its science,” while other historians worry that it is bad history or bad politics, or both, to separate the technical content of science from its social and political aspects. Worriers of the former kind include the historian of physics Olivier Darrigol, whom Chang quoted in his talk [2:50]. If Chang cited worriers of the latter kind, I don’t remember who they were and would be grateful to anyone who could jog my memory [I could not find any such citations when I watched the video of the talk. Update to the update: Michael Weiss, watching more carefully than I, has noted the citation of Kathryn Olesko at 4:50 and the less direct citation of Kathryn Olesko and Robert Kohler at 5:30]. The internal/external distinction is coherent and useful. Chang made free use of the terms “internal,” “external,” “internalistic,” and “externalistic.” He also asserted that the internal/external distinction is not a false dichotomy. He dismissed some other distinctions, such as those between practice and theory and between the social and intellectual (of which more below). But he had no shame in insisting on the internal/external distinction as one way of dividing up past science, and of dividing up the books and articles we write about past science. Internal history of science can be good history. One of the key slides in Chang’s presentation was a list of “reasons for doing history” that included describing, understanding, using, overcoming, and appreciating the past [42:00]. Chang’s point was that internal history of science could serve all of these aims. In other slides he argued that internal history of science could serve other aims, like teaching science in schools and advancing present-day science. But he made it clear that these extra-historical goals were not the only ones that internal history could serve. In his view, as in mine, internal history of science can be a genuinely historical enterprise. Internal history of science has a bad image among professional historians of science. This was probably one of Chang’s most controversial claims, largely because of its rhetorical effect. Like anyone who claims that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, Chang gave encouragement to those who would swing it in the opposite direction. This will alarm historians who think that the pendulum has not yet swung far enough away from internalism, or who worry that historians encouraged by Chang will swing it too far back to internalism. But as far as I can tell, Chang’s basic point is correct. Since about 1985, the best way to mark oneself as naíve and out-of-touch, at least among historians of science in the UK and US, is to write books and articles that say little or nothing about the politics, sociology, rhetoric, architecture, print culture, visual culture, etc. of science. Darrigol did not err when he complained, in a chapter that Chang cited, that internalists tend to be seen as “fossils” who cling to a discredited brand of history [2:50]. There is more to history of science than internal history. Although Chang defended internal history, he did not defend it as the exclusive mode of history of science. His point was that internal history is more worthwhile than it is often thought to be, not that no other history of science is worthwhile. Historians should be “pluralistic,” he said. “There are no enemies here, except those who are in the habit of making enemies.” (I would add that pluralism should not stop us from rejecting opinions we consider false, and that we should be able to disagree with someone without making an enemy of them). So much for my agreements. In the following, the claims in bold are the ones that I endorse and that I want to contrast with some aspects of Chang's talk. The real debate is between internalists and hybridisers. The label “externalist” is almost as widely shunned as “internalist.” I do not know any historians of science who pride themselves on ignoring the technical content of science. But I know many who pride themselves on integrating the technical content of past science with its social or political elements, and many who think that this integration is one of the main goals—perhaps the main goal—of the discipline. Consequently, the most common criticism of internal history is not that it pays attention to the technical content of science but that it does so exclusively. Far from countering this criticism, Chang appeared to endorse it. He said that the distinction between the “social” and “intellectual” factors was a false dichotomy, and invoked well-known works of hybrid history to make his point [10:00]. I don’t recall all of his examples, but they included Peter Galison’s Image and Logic and Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump. These works are (rightly) celebrated, and often they are celebrated precisely because they marry the content and context of science. I fear that the chief lesson that many people will take from Chang’s talk is that we are in dire need of more works of this kind. This would make things harder, not easier, for those who wish to emulate internalist works such as Darrigol’s magisterial Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein. Internalists should defend their work as history of science and not as history of science. There are two ways a work can fail to be good history of science. It can fail to be good history, or it can fail to be about science. It is important to keep these two criteria separate when assessing any historical genre, whether internalist, externalist, or hybrid. Obviously, the two criteria are distinct: there is good history that is not about science, and poor history that is about science. The main reason the distinction is important is that the correct answer to the question “what good is internal history of science?” may depend on which criterion one uses. For example, one might think a) that internal history of science is on a par with non-internal history as history, but that b) it is more squarely about science than external or hybrid history. b) is bound to be more controversial than a), simply because it is a claim for the superiority of internal history rather than a claim for its parity with other kinds of history of science. Chang seemed to make the latter, provocative claim. The title of his talk, “Putting science back into the history of science,” when read alongside the talk itself, suggests that Chang equated “science” with “technical content.” This would imply that, in his view, internal history of science is indeed more squarely about science than external history of science. Perhaps Chang is right about this. But in my view it would be better for internalists not to make that claim until they have established the less provocative (but still important and controversial) claim that internal history is no worse, as history, than external or hybrid history of science. It may not even be necessary for internalists to make the provocative claim just described. Personally, I am concerned about whether I am writing good history, not about whether I am writing history about science—even when I am writing about the technical content of science. Here's another way of putting it. I am puzzled, and sometimes irritated, by those who insist that internal history of science is somehow a second-rate form of history. But I’m unbothered by those who imply that internal history of science is no more “about science” than external or hybrid history. The best way to defend internal history is by the hybridiser’s own standards. Hybrid history of science tends to be surrounded in a halo of historiographical virtues. It is said of hybrid histories that they are contextual, cultural, and causal, that they respect actor's categories, honour the symmetry principle, display the contingency of science and treat science as a construction, a product of human activity. These terms of praise are not often applied to works of internal history of science. So it is easy to get the impression that the hybridiser's virtues are beyond the reach of the internalist. The challenge for the internalist, as I see it, is to show that there is no such imbalance. Chang's approach was not quite so direct. He did list certain historiographical virtues that he thought were within the reach of history. But these virtues were not, by and large, the ones that are most commonly associated with non-internal history of science. There were two notable exceptions to this rule. Chang did mention that internalist works can show the contingency of science, and that they can be “cultural.” Chang made the latter point with an intriguing remark that may be paraphrased as follows: “It is only an anti-intellectual culture that does not consider intellectual activity to be cultural activity.” Chang's point here was not that intellectual activity is always shaped and sustained by something other than its technical content. On this view, internal history of science is not yet cultural history but can always be turned into cultural history by adding in the politics, sociology, rhetoric, etc. This may be true, but it is not what Chang meant, I think. What he meant was that works of internal history are already cultural. No additives are necessary to make them into works of cultural history. Darrigol's Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein is as much a cultural history as Leviathan and the Air Pump. To think otherwise is to treat intellectual activity as a special sort of human activity, one that is not on its own cultural. There is an irony here: those who reject internal history on the grounds that it treats science as “exceptional” are thereby committing the very error they claim to save us from. Endnote. Having said all this, I had better say why I think that internal history is not a second-rate form of history. The reason is simple: the standard argument against internal history, and in favour of hybrid history, is guilty of a whopping inconsistency. The usual argument is that only hybrids do justice to the inextricability of social and epistemic factors in past science (or something along those lines). The obvious reply is that there are lots of other inextricable pairs that the historian should try to knit together—like theory and experiment, or mathematics and physics, or science in France and science in Germany—the list is endless. Given that no single work can hybridize everything, it is inconsistent to single out the science-society dyad for special attention. An example might help to make the point. As far as I know, no-one has asserted that all books and articles dealing with scientific instruments must also deal with scientific theories, and that those that fail to do so do not qualify as proper history. That would be absurd. It is equally absurd to insist, as many historians of science seem to do, that all books and articles that deal with the technical content of science must also deal with the sociology, politics, rhetoric, etc. of science. Expand post.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
This post is a response to reflections that Lee Vinsel posted on Saturday on the AmericanScience blog. His post was about science and politics rather than about the symmetry principle, and it is the latter that I am scrutinising in my current series of posts. But I take issue with Lee's post for the same reasons I take issue with Vanessa Heggie's earlier one on the symmetry principle. It seems to me that the effect of both posts (though perhaps not the intention) is to endorse one side of a confusing and controversial issue, present the opposing view as a vulgar error, and use the wisdom of STS to confound the distinctions that could have prevented the confusion from arising in the first place. The occasion for Lee's post is a bill called the “High Quality Research Act (HQRA)” that has been drafted by the Republican Congressman Lamar Smith. The Huffington Post obtained a draft copy of Smith's proposal and published this article on the topic last week. The bill concerns the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is described in the Huffington Post article as “one of the most successful scientific research promoters in history.” If passed into law the bill would require the NSF to certify to Congress that all of the work it funds is of “the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large.” The Huffington Post seemed to criticise the bill on the grounds that it would “politicize” the decisions made by the NSF. The main point of Lee's post is to discredit this line of argument. (The AmericanScience blog contains two other useful articles on other aspects of the bill). Lee gives a number of interesting objections to the “rhetoric of politicization,” as he calls it, but to make things simple I will focus on two of those objections. I agree with the first of these objections but have a dim view of the second, as you will see in a moment. Lee's first point is that democracy requires that the general public have at least some say in the “research priorities” (his term) of the scientists they fund through their taxes. Lee does not make this point explicit in the post, but it does underlie his penultimate paragraph, where he briefly considers some ways in which science could be incorporated into the democratic process. In my view this is a good objection to those who imply (through their use of the term) that “politicization” is always a bad thing. Granted, there is much room for debate about how, and to what degree, the research priorities of scientists could be brought into line with the values of the people who pay for the research. But presumably there should be at least some such democratic oversight. And even if you think (as David Colquhoun seems to) that there should be no such oversight, you must agree that the simple equation of oversight with “politicization” is a poor argument for your view. Lee's second objection is that, as he puts it, “science is always political.” To support this bold assertion he gives a number of examples of the political character of science, such as the role of the Cold War in shaping science, the imperfections of the peer review process, and the fact that scientists use their epistemic authority for political ends. But this is old news:
The consensus was established a long time ago: there's no use in trying to separate science from politics, even rhetorically, and, moreover, attempts to make that separation are themselves political. Science, like everything else, is human and screwed up.The “consensus” to which Lee refers is the alleged agreement among people working in STS that “science is always political.” Lee says that the STS consensus on the topic has existed for nearly thirty years, and wonders what we can do to get our ideas across to the general public. I believe that Lee's approach illustrates precisely what we should not do if we want to bring STS to the masses, which is to replace one simplification with the opposite simplification. This seems to be what Lee has done by rejecting the view that science is never political in favour of the equally implausible view that it is always so. Granted, there are lots of ways in which science is, has been and should be political. But surely there are also lots of ways in which science is not, has not been, and should not be political. Denying the latter claim, as Lee seems to do, is no better than denying the former. Lee writes that “[p]op writers...are still falling back on the too easy, too simple trope of politicization.” If this is fair, then it is also fair to say that Lee is falling back on the too easy, too simple trope of the inseparability of science and politics. To insist that “science is always political” is not only an error, but one that undermines Lee's more specific argument against the “rhetoric of politicization.” One reason for this is the pragmatic one that a bad argument for a position makes that position look bad, no matter how many other good arguments one can muster in favour of the position. But a more interesting reason is that Lee's specific argument relies on a distinction that we are likely to ignore if we blithely maintain that “science is always political.” This is the distinction between the use of political values to set research priorites and the use of those values as evidence for scientific theories. (I owe this distinction to my perusal of this book by the philosopher of science Heather Douglas.) An example of the former would be a policy that channelled UK public money into research on tropical diseases on the grounds that the health of poor people in the Third World is just as important as that of rich people in the West. An example of the latter would be someone who argued that women and men must be equally intelligent on the grounds that the alternative would violate the political value of gender equality. Granted, one could argue that the social consequences of believing the alternative (ie. sex-based differences in IQ) would be so bad that we should discourage research into the topic, or even that we should discourage that belief no matter what the evidence says. But I take it that very few people would argue that the harmfulness of the belief that men are more intelligent than women (or vice versa) raises the likelihood that that belief is false. Now, Lee's specific objection to the “rhetoric of politicization” is persuasive because it is explicitly restricted to political interventions in research priorities. His objection would have been much less plausible if he had dropped this restriction and claimed that political values should also be deployed as evidence for and against scientific theories. But his assertion that “science is always political” conflates the distinction between the two cases and thereby weakens the force of his specific (and in my view well-grounded) objection. That conflation also does an injustice to those who use “politicization” as a term of abuse. There is nothing naïve or wrong-headed about criticizing those who treat political values as evidence for scientific claims. Nor is there anything wrong with the related practice of criticizing those who mislead the public about the evidence for the health risks of smoking or the reality of climate change—to use two of the cases studied by Naomi Oreskes, one of the “pop writers” targeted in Lee's post. The irony is that the conflation encouraged by the claim "science is always political" is also present in the sources that Lee criticizes. One of those sources is the Huffington Post article, which is followed by a picture gallery advertising the scientific errors of US politicians. This form of ridicule, if it works at all, only works against Smith's proposal that politicians assess the technical merit of NSF-funded work. Unless I am missing something, it does not work very well against his proposal that politicians assess the social benefit of NSF-funded work. The other source that Lee quotes is a letter written to Smith by the Texan Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson. Like the author of the Huffington Post article, Johnson implies that politicians lack the technical expertise to carry out “peer review” of scientific papers. Again, this argument is far more effective against political assessment of “technical merit” than of “social significance.” What I am suggesting is that Lee's post would have been more effective if he had called out this conflation instead of perpetuating it by insisting that “science is always political.” Granted, it is not always easy to draw boundaries between instances of politics directing research agendas and instances of politics being used as evidence for theories. And I expect that those gray areas (which Douglas covers in the book cited above) are the ones that people disagree about the most. But there are fairly clear cases on either side of the gray area, and it is no use at all to insist that everything is gray or (worse) to arbitrarily decide that everything is black and then suggest that anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve. There are a number of analogies between Lee's critique of the claim “science is (or should be) apolitical” and Vanessa's critique of the claim “people believe things because they are true.” Both critics treat the respective claims as popular errors put about by unreflective authors who have not yet read enough STS scholarship. In both cases the real error of the popular authors, insofar as there is one, is not that of endorsing false claims but of conflating the plausible and implausible readings of ambiguous claims. And both critics mix valuable, specific points with general claims that serve only to perpetuate the confusion that gave rise to the popular errors in the first place. In Vanessa's case the specific point is that the truth-value of a past scientist's belief is a poor guide to the reasons they had for holding that belief—a historiographical maxim known as the symmetry principle. This point is easy to confuse with the more general and more controversial claim (or collection of claims) that truth and evidence are not much use in explaining scientist's beliefs: as I argued in my last two posts, there are lots of ways in which truth and evidence can legitimately enter historical explanations. Arguably, this confusion is one of the main reasons why non-historians fail to grasp the symmetry principle. So we need to clear up that confusion—not ignore it or encourage it—if we want to take the symmetry principle to the masses. In Lee's case, as we have have seen, the specific point is that laypeople should have a say about the direction of the research they fund through their taxes. This important observation is likely to be lost, ignored or rejected if we bundle it into the more general claim that science is always political. That claim is as misleading as the opposite claim that science is never political. More importantly, the claim obscures the point that really matters, ie. that there are defensible forms of political involvement in science that do not involve the (in general) dubious practice of treating political values as evidence for scientific theories. In this post I have homed in on the posts by Vanessa and Lee. This is not because I want to make enemies, or because I think their posts contain nothing of value. It is because it is handy to have well-defined targets, and most importantly because I think those two posts are representative of a wide swathe of opinion in STS, including in the history of science. As Will Thomas has been saying for a while now, STS scholars have a choice. We can make dramatic, controversial claims that puff up our discipline, condescend to people outside STS, and cloud the issues that need to be clarified. Or we can use our scholarship and our analytical skills to make specific, timely interventions in public debate. A reason for pessimism is that the claims that sow the most confusion in the two posts in question—like “science is always political” and “no-one believes things because of the evidence”—are precisely the claims that seem most distinctive of STS. As Lee himself writes, the claim that "science is always political" is a “basic tenant—perhaps even a dogma—of science and technology studies.” A reason for optimism is that Lee, Vanessa, and others have been making specific, timely interventions in many of their other posts on their respective blogs. This suggests that STS scholars can do good work in the public sphere without falling back on the one-sided slogans that too often appear to define the discipline. Expand post.