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. The source of the analogy is Weinberg. ‘I work and live in the country of physics,’ he said, ‘but history is the place that I love to visit as a tourist.’ A fine sentiment, but Weinberg is selling himself short. As the name suggests, history of science is about science. It follows that scientists have a relationship with the history of science that non-scientists do not have: they do the thing whose past is being described. True, they do not do exactly the thing that is being described, because that thing has changed over time. But they are doing something similar. I want to put the stress on the doing. There is a case to be made that scientists have special knowledge of past science by virtue of the fact that they do science in the present. Moreover, this is a kind of knowledge that most historians of science do not have, since most of us are not practising scientists. The case is easier to make if we suppose, as many historians of science do suppose, that much scientific knowledge is tacit in the sense that it is difficult to write down or has not yet been written down. This supposition has driven historians to replicate past experiments and to collaborate with present-day artisans in order to get behind the veil of words and understand scientific practise. Hasok Chang and Otto Sibum are examples of historians who replicate. Pamela Smith, and her Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, is an example of collaboration with artisans or ‘expert makers.’ Collaborating with a silversmith is one thing, you might say; working with a physicist on a history of physics is another thing. But what’s the difference? Are we to believe that there is more tacit knowledge in the silversmith’s workshop than there is in the physicist's laboratory? Surely not. At least, most historians of science who are skeptical about the historical abilities of scientists would deny that there is any such difference. I expect Shapin would, for instance. If scientists do have special knowledge of past science, then the relationship between scientists and historians of science is more complex than one straying into the domain of the other. It is not a case of scientists paying a casual visit to a city that they know nothing about and in which historians have always lived. We need to tweak the analogy. My version is messier than the original but, I hope, more accurate:
The historian is like a person who lives on a farm in Iowa and spends most of his professional life reading about London using whatever material he can find—internet, radio, newspapers, tourist guides, the lot. In this way he has acquired a wealth of information about London and about literature on London, but he has never lived in London or in any other city. The scientist is like a person who lives in Washington, D.C. London intrigues him because it, too, is a city. So he reads up on London in his spare time. He will never read as much about London as the Iowan, who is a dedicated professional. But he has the advantage that he has lived somewhere that is, like London, a city.In this analogy, city life corresponds to life in the sciences, and farms to life in the humanities. The US corresponds to the present, and the UK to the past. There is a big gap between the two nations, enough to baffle the tourist, but stretched across the abyss there is a rich web of resemblances. The fact that neither the Iowan nor the Washingtonian actually goes to London corresponds to the fact that neither the historian nor the scientist goes back in time and does past science. They both rely on texts and objects that survive from the past, just as the Washingtonian and the Iowan rely on pieces of London that make their way across the Atlantic. The lesson is that, when it comes to knowing London, a lifetime of reading in Iowa is no substitute for the lived experience of Washington. Likewise, when it comes to knowing past science, a lifetime of studying the remnants of past science is no substitute for the lived experience of present science. The revised analogy explains the wariness that some historians display towards scientist-historians. The Washingtonian runs the risk of seeking out everything in London that resembles Washington and ignoring the rest. The Iowan, knowing nothing of cities except what he knows of London, assumes nothing. In addition, the Washingtonian may be enamoured of big cities, in which case he will turn a blind eye to the vices and vanities of London life, and to the tense relationship between London and other parts of the UK. The Iowan will have no such prejudice. The two errors I have just described correspond roughly to the ‘present-centredness’ and ‘triumphalism’ that historians often attribute to scientist-historians. The analogy has the further merit of showing why we should be wary of these attributions. After all, it is possible for a Washingtonian to study London with an open mind. Only a fool assumes that every city is identical in all respects. We might even say that the Washingtonian is in a better position than the Iowan when it comes to comparing US life to UK life, since he is familiar with both London and Washington whereas the Iowan only knows the former. It is also possible for a Washingtonian to criticise city life. Cities, like sciences, are layered and varied and riven with factions. Washingtonians criticise each-other, so why wouldn't they criticise Londoners? They can empathise with Iowans; why not with East Anglians? The force of my analogy depends on the scope of tacit knowledge. How much can we learn about London by living there that we cannot learn by reading about London? Analogously, how much can we learn about the practice of physics (or biology, or economics, or whatever) that we cannot learn by reading about it? The force of the analogy also depends on how much science has changed over time, and which parts of past science we study. How similar is eighteenth-century chemistry to today’s chemistry? Are they as alike as Washington and London? Or are they as different as Washington is from Amsterdam, or Nairobi, or Damascus? Washington and Aleppo are both cities, but life in Washington may be little better than life in Iowa as a guide to life in Aleppo. So my analogy is not a knock-down argument in favour of scientists who dabble in history. It could easily be altered to yield a weaker conclusion. Still, it is an improvement on the image that Weinberg gives us of scientists wandering into an alien land that historians know directly from long experience. Historians do not know past science in the direct way that scientists know present science. And past science is similar to present science. So it is plausible that scientists can help us know past science more directly. Expand post.