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Zuckerman on Toulmin on Bernal May 4, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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While preparing my last post, I ran into an interesting passage in Solly Zuckerman’s (1904-1993) memoir, From Apes to Warlords (1978), where he discusses the influence of his former friend J. D. Bernal’s (1901-1971) touchstone work in science criticism, The Social Function of Science (1939). Zuckerman spends a full paragraph talking about the importance ascribed to Bernal’s book by philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009). Since it is not every day that a former chief scientific adviser to a government comments on the writing of a philosopher/historian of science, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the confluence of ideas that would allow such an event to occur.

Here’s the passage in full:

Stephen Toulmin, a scholar well-known for his writings on the philosophy and history of science, published a discerning article in the Observer Magazine of 28 November 1971,* which dealt with the dilemmas that scientists have to face when they ponder their social responsibilities, and he refers to Bernal’s book as a critical event in the evolution of our ideas about the place of science and scientists in society.  I believe that Toulmin is right when he says that Bernal’s conception of the social function of science resurrected the basic ideas that Francis Bacon advanced in Elizabethan times.  Toulmin saw Bernal as advocating, in the spirit of Bacon, the end of science as ‘a withdrawn and gentlemanly occupation whose sole aim was to create a fund of pure knowledge that privateer industrialists might then raid, and exploit, at their own pleasure and convenience.  Instead, scientific research should be financed out of the national budget: in return, the priorities of different research projects should be decided with at least half an eye on their social utility.’  And Toulmin is also right in saying that ‘Though superficially “socialist”, the resulting scheme was not uniquely so: in the event, it prefigured the administrative structure of the scientific agencies of the United States of the 1960s, at least as closely as it did those of Russia and the other socialist States.’  But as one who lived through those times, I fear that Toulmin exaggerates when he writes that Bernal’s book ‘precipitated a storm’.  It may have stimulated a few people to set up a ‘Society for Freedom in Science’ [McGucken 1978], but in general the book hardly caused a ripple, and I doubt if at the time more than a handful of scientists, and even fewer of the general public, bothered to read it.  I for one deeply regretted this.  The literature of the period that must have led Toulmin to his view does not correctly reflect the passive attitude which then characterised the vast majority of the scientific world.

Ignore, if you can, the question of whether or not this Bacon-to-Bernal narrative is defensible.  What I am interested in is the structure of the narrative.  If the contents are different, the structure, I would argue, is quite similar to the one that Toulmin first extensively developed in the early 1980s concerning the disappearance—and the need for the reappearance—of “cosmology” in science.

Toulmin, recall, argued that, traditionally, up through the Enlightenment, natural philosophers occupied themselves with totalistic inquiries into the cosmos, which generally proceeded from the presumption that the universe was divinely ordered.  Since a divine order was a moral order, questions of the physical functioning of the universe and questions of ethics and morality were necessarily tightly bound up with each other.  While Toulmin admitted that a return to the concept of the divinely ordered cosmos was infeasible, he did assert that science now had to be reunited with ethical inquiry, and, if not religion per se, then with a “theology of nature”.

Toulmin’s two narratives are not necessarily incompatible: the Bernalist argument is, effectively, a secular policy counterpart to the ethical cosmology argument.  But both arguments function by positing a history of ideas, wherein some intellectual sea-change is called for in order to create or restore a balance of knowledge and social order.  Authors employing these narratives imagine their work to clarify the nature of the change that needs to occur, thereby helping to bring it about.  

Sometimes these narratives argue for a restoration of a lost idea, and sometimes they argue there is a need for a brand new idea—periodization in these narratives can be highly variable.  What we need to pay closer attention to is what is happening at the end of the narrative.  I would argue that for the narrative to create the desired effect, it must create 1) the sense that change is needed, by pointing to various persistent problems, 2) the sense that the time is ripe for change, but also 3) the sense that whatever change may be in process is necessarily incomplete, lest the whole point of constructing the narrative be lost.

Toulmin’s cosmology narrative operated through the well-worn modernity/postmodernity distinction: “Science and natural religion parted company … for reasons that operated powerfully in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but that no longer have the same power today….  Within our own ‘postmodern’ world, the pure scientist’s traditional posture as theoros, or spectator, can no longer be maintained…” (Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology, 255)  By contrast, the Bernalist argument posits a gathering “storm” following Bernal’s crucial intellectual effort, which had yet to have its full effect on broader society.

Zuckerman viewed this narrative with suspicion, supposing that Toulmin was caught up in an intellectual enthusiasm that prevailed in the “literature of the period” circa 1970—and which presumably included the work of J. G. Crowther and Hilary and Steven Rose—but which he felt had run its course by the time he was writing in the late 1970s.  At any rate, that enthusiasm, like Bernal’s original book, failed to capture the attention of the scientific community, let alone the general public.  If Toulmin felt himself to be engaging in an enterprise of great pith and moment, Zuckerman could see that that feeling arose from the narrowness of Toulmin’s understanding of the place of his ideas in the broader worlds of science and society.

For his part, Zuckerman expressed his own “regret” over Bernal’s lack of influence and the passivity of the scientific community.  But, as we have seen, he also understood his own dining club from the 1930s and ’40s, Tots and Quots, to have already had a major influence on government and, more broadly, in helping “give substance to the concept of social responsibility in the application of science.”

In Zuckerman’s narrative (which he expands upon slightly elsewhere in his memoirs), there had been a major change that needed to be made.  But, as his book was intended to be a look back on a life well lived, he could dispense with point (3) above.  The needed change had, in fact, already come with a fleshing out of scientific advisory apparatuses within the British government (which so happened to coincide with his own rise as a scientific adviser).  Based on his own experience, to wish for anything radically beyond what had already been accomplished was, perhaps, to ask too much.

*I have not tracked this down, so I am relying on Zuckerman.  But I would be interested to see the article if anyone can easily scrounge up a copy.

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1. Michael Bycroft - May 5, 2013

I wonder whether it is a good move for you to distinguish as you do between the “content” and “structure” of Zuckerman’s narrative (and by extension between the content and structure of other “iconoclastic critiques” or “professional theodicies”).

My worry is that there is nothing distinctive, unusual, or even objectionable about the three numbered features that define Zuckerman’s narrative. Anyone who believes that major reform is needed, in any domain, is going to say that the reform is needed (your #1), and that the reform has not yet occurred (#2). If they didn’t believe those things, then they would have no motivation to propose any reform in the first place!

#3 is a bit trickier. I guess reformers could deny that the time is “ripe for change,” but go ahead and urge reform anyway. But even if the time is not ripe, it is bad strategy to advertise this fact. So I expect many reformers do exaggerate the extent of existing support for their views in order to garner the extra support necessary to bring about the desired change.

But the problem remains: isn’t this rhetorical move a natural feature of any attempt–even the most banal ones–to alter the current state of affairs? For example, I have been told that this game is familiar to anyone who has a book manuscript to pitch to publishers. On the one hand it is necessary to show that the proposed book will fill an important gap in the literature; on the other hand there must be enough existing literature on the topic to show that there is an audience for the new contribution.

The same problem arises for another structural feature of iconoclastic narratives that you have stressed elsewhere, ie. that they present the critic of the status quo as the perfect person to lead the needed reforms.

This too is a pretty common situation. It is no surprise, for example, that historians of alchemy turn out to be the best people to correct the errors in the historiography of alchemy.

I’m not suggesting that there is nothing distinctive about “iconoclastic narratives” or “professional theodicies.” But I suspect that the distinctiveness lies in the content rather than the structure of the narrative, eg. in the fact that the narrative makes false claims, or in the fact that the proposed reform is extremely ambitious, since it claims to solve military, social and even spiritual problems in the world at large.

Will Thomas - May 5, 2013

Yeah, you make a good point. Let me be a little more specific, then. What is immaterial to me is the precise contents of the story being told.

For example, there is a long tradition of linking an attitude of scientific instrumentalism to Descartes and Newton. Popper traced “historicism” through Marx and Hegel to Plato. Toulmin (evidently) traced the idea that science was a public good to Bacon. Carolyn Merchant similarly traces an invasive attitude toward Nature to Bacon. Shapin and Schaffer, followed by Latour, traced a denial that scientific knowledge relies crucially upon social conventions of trust to Boyle and other experimental philosophers. Other accounts tend to trace modernist ideas to the nineteenth century.

What is important is that there is a conception of science and its place in society that is being cast as a central characteristic of a particular block of time. So, you’re right, it is not just the bare structure of the narrative; the contents do make a difference. But, what I would argue is that once the basic conceptual diagnosis has been made—in this case, an imbalance in the science-society relationship—it makes very little difference if it is Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Kant, or whoever who is the key player. They are simply there to lend the thing you are trying to combat a sense of temporal finitude.

If indeed any critical narrative necessarily takes the form outlined here, there is clearly a heavy burden to ensure that “state of affairs” is conscientiously characterized before an effective critical diagnosis can be made. Thus Zuckerman clearly felt that Toulmin was misreading 1) the need for drastic reform, but even more, 2) the ripeness of the moment for reform circa 1970. But, it is also worth considering whether the diagnosis itself is more than just a trope or theodicy. James Schmidt’s Persistent Enlightenment blog is perhaps even more dedicated than EWP to fishing out the tradition of critiquing rationalism from the record of intellectual history.

Michael Bycroft - May 5, 2013

That makes things a bit clearer, but I’m still not sure what is distinctive about a “professional theodicy” or an “iconoclastic narrative” ie. I don’t yet see what distinguishes those narratives from the narratives presented by anyone who pushes for reform in any domain.

Take the case of the historiography of alchemy. As we know, people like Larry Principe and William Newman argue that since the late seventeenth century the dominant image of alchemy has been a false image of alchemy as it was practised prior to the late seventeenth century. They also say, naturally enough, that there is a need to reform this image. Recently they have been able to say that this reform is well under way, although they also say that more work needs to be done. Finally, they give the impression–again, naturally enough–that historians of alchemy are in a good position to make the needed renovations to our image of pre-1700 alchemy.

I gather that you would not say that Principe and Newman are engaging in professional theodicy or in an iconoclastic narrative. My question is: why not? What’s the difference between what they are doing and what Toulmin et al have been doing?

The obvious answers, it seems to me, are the ones I mentioned at the end of my first comment. But I expect there might be others. Any thoughts?

2. Will Thomas - May 5, 2013

The alchemy example is a good case of what I called “conscientious characterization,” since Newman and Principe do a good job (at least as far as I can discern) of establishing when the various gains of their historiography have been achieved, and what the current state of knowledge is. I actually discussed this in my post, “How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High,” on their Isis Focus section.

Of course, as I noted in that post, it’s true that they do flirt with iconoclastic narrative, which I believe is a fairly savvy reading of what sorts of presentations will appeal to historians outside their area, and to the media at large:

“The key reason why it is easy to see chymistry’s success as simply a product of history of science scholarship is because what has been accomplished fits quite nicely into narratives that historians tell about themselves as people who resurrect lost or maligned practices, and who lend a sense of contingency and uncertainty to the debates that produced later faits accomplis. In the Focus section, chymistry’s scholars play up exactly this aspect of their work.”

But, ultimately, if you duck in on their sessions at conferences, or read their publications, it’s clear that iconoclasm doesn’t define the historiographical preferences underlying their presentation of their work. They, as a group, seem to be mainly worried about understanding their subject matter, and, while they are eager to publicize their work, I don’t get the sense that they view that publicization as contributing to the rectification of present-day attitudes about science & society, or some similar thing. Their arguments are not “theodicies” because they do not seem to suppose that the failure to understand alchemy (or the attitude leading to such failure) is a broader cause of social evils. This helps keeps them focused on the task at hand rather than viewing their work as a kind of salubrious sublime portraiture.

Michael Bycroft - May 6, 2013

That helps a lot. So: consolidation of gains; emphasis on subject matter over drawing socio-epistemic lessons; and non-interest in broader reform and rectification.

Will Thomas - May 7, 2013

Just about, although I would qualify “non-interest,” since I wouldn’t want to be accused of aspiring to a monastic ideal. Rather, I would state that “broader reform and rectification” would have to be well substantiated.

“Substantiation” should be understood to relate to “theodicy”. I think historians often take the existence of evidence (and not even conclusive evidence) in favor of the existence of an evil to substantiate their diagnosis and remedy.

Thus, for example, finding some people extolling “science” as a solution to problems, and denigrating the infraction of “politics” into “science”—something a historian would never ever say—can be considered good evidence of the existence of a major science-society imbalance, which historians, in turn, take to be a sign that the lessons of their work have not been well heeded.

I consider this to be a weak form of substantiation. Strong substantiation would involve a thorough accounting of the depth of ideas underlying policy, as well as of the breadth with which various ideas are held in society. Historians could be instrumental in undertaking such an accounting, but are presently ill equipped for the task, and, furthermore, rest too confidently on the prospect of our present relevance.

Part of our confidence seems to be our sense of the novelty of our ideas; thus, the idea of a science-society imbalance is often taken to be “recent,” dating to the dawn of modern science studies in the ’80s, or the mid-’70s at the earliest. (To scientists, this constitutes ancient history!) Part of the motivation behind this 3-part series is to illustrate just how derivative, shallow, and unoriginal our thinking along these lines is—how pervasive the idea of a science-society imbalance was throughout the 20th century—and the degree to which we’re simply grasping onto an argumentative tactic that didn’t work before, and will not work now.

Even if we were correct that such an imbalance exists—a notion I find highly doubtful*—I think the same point Zuckerman made about Bernal and Toulmin applies to us. We just do not fathom the sheer distance that separates us from relevance, thus the apparent belief that if only we just wrote more accessibly, things might change.

*This is not to say that all is well with science and society; it is merely to say we have to be much, MUCH more specific and pointed in our analyses, and to understand the present state of affairs much, MUCH better, before we can aspire to enact meaningful reforms.

3. Michael Bycroft - May 7, 2013

Ah, I like your distinction between strong and weak substantiation. It’s an element of “Will’s picture” that I missed when I was compiling my survey of that intricate topic. I had picked up the idea that lack of substantiation was a problem in iconoclastic narratives, but I had not really registered the idea of this particular kind of failure-to-substantiate ie. the tendency to treat resistance to one’s narrative as compelling evidence in favour of the narrative (rather than just as evidence in favour of the view that the narrative has not been accepted yet, which would presumably be an unobjectionable interpretation of acts of resistance).

I also appreciate the honesty of your “derivative, shallow, and unoriginal” claim. I had been wondering what sort of evaluative conclusions you were going to draw from all of the detailed cases you have been advancing in these last few posts. “Derivative, shallow, and unoriginal” certainly clears that up!

As it happens, I am just about to put up a post where I hope to illustrate some of your themes. Like you, I want to say that our efforts at reform are (at least in some instances) likely to fail for the simple reason that our case for reform is not very good. But I also want to add two extra things.

One extra is that the inadequacy of our case is partly due to conceptual confusion (as opposed to a lack of empirical research, which is what you seem to emphasise).

The second addition–and this is the twist in the tale–is that this conceptual confusion is shared by the people we are trying to reform, and is in fact partly responsible for the popular errors (insofar as they are errors) that we are trying to reform. So in our efforts at reform we are at once mis-identifying, and then propagating, the very errors that we should be reforming.

Of course all of that needs to be hedged about with qualifications and restrictions, and it may only apply to a few kinds of reform-attempts, but that’s the basic picture.

We may part company on the first of my “extras”, since I take it that you are not overwhelmed by the potential for armchair reflection–of the sort done by philosophers–to solve any hard-edged policy problems. In particular, you have a dim view of any attempts to re-hash debates about relativism, truth, etc.

So perhaps you would say that by focusing on conceptual confusions I am diverting attention from the real problem (lack of empirical research) and thereby (to quote myself) “failing to identify, and then propagating, the very errors that I should be reforming.” The irony of that would be so delicious that I am tempted to fall on my own sword right now. However I think I’ll just put up the post and see what you make of it.

Will Thomas - May 8, 2013

No, while it’s true that I emphasize the former, I think there is room for both additional empirical research and conceptual clarity. When I refer to an accounting of the “depth of ideas underlying policy,” what I am talking about is a full working out of the concepts and ideas informing it. And this should be taken to refer not only to policy, but to scientific thought and practice as well.

In fact, to get at the depth of the ideas underlying the history of operational research and related areas, I’ve needed an entire book to do the job properly. A “shallow” approach would say that scientists tried to use “scientific method” to solve policy problems that were traditionally subject to muddled thinking. In fact (as I explain in my 2007 “Heuristics of War” paper), scientists understood how deeply dependent their work was on traditional military thinking. It was this ability of OR to resolve the division between scientific and military modes of thought that made people like Bernal point to it as exemplary of how the science & society problem could be solved. And this only begins to get at the conceptual depth of the topic.

As you say, the “people we are trying to reform” are also often as subject to conceptual confusion as we are. But their rhetoric should not be taken to accurately reflect their ideas. I take it you agree that what these people actually believe (as reflected in how they act) often shows a conceptual sophistication that their articulated rhetoric fails to express. Empirically minded historians and critics should identify and articulate this sophistication at least as much as they criticize unsophisticated rhetoric.

Now, I do think we have to distinguish this “anthropological” or “empirical” form of conceptual clarification from the “philosophical” clarification that comes from things like revisiting the symmetry principle. While I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeking philosophical clarity (indeed, it may well help in achieving empirical clarity, per my posts on philosophy-history relations), you are correct that I am less enthusiastic about this task as a way of generating better historiography.

I believe that old philosophical debates have a totemic significance in historiography: as old debates long-since-won they inspire confidence in the historiographical status quo. (This is very similar to how tales of the “defeat” of Keynesianism in the 1960s and ’70s function in economics.) While we can try to erode this confidence by revisiting those debates and showing that their closure was not so open-and-shut as usually portrayed, things with totemic significance are rarely so easily undermined. (Indeed, is this not one of the core lessons of science studies?—so easily forgotten when it is convenient to do so!)

Thus, my proposal is to articulate what the real trouble with the present historiography is (which, as nicely summed up in your Will’s Picture posts, is only obliquely related to those debates), and then figure out what we would have to do to take what is valuable from the historiography that we have, and then to move on in more productive directions. This would require a few people committed to doing that (it’s not a one-person job!), and then attract new followers by making it clear how productive and exciting it is. A hard task, but I think more practical than trying to argue our way back to historiographical and critical health.

Michael Bycroft - May 8, 2013

Thanks for enduring my repeated replies, and giving full replies to them. I agree with you that past actors were often conceptually sophisticated, that their practice was often more conceptually sophisticated than their rhetoric, that it is important for historians to describe this conceptual sophistication in both its explicit and tacit forms, that philosophical debates can be of largely totemic value to historians, and that things with totemic significance are hard to argue against (as I am discovering through my posts on the symmetry principle). I’m also glad to be reminded of these things, which are easy to forget.

However I would distinguish between philosophical debates in the philosophy of history and those in the philosophy science. Most importantly, I would say that debates of the latter kind are more likely to be relevant to historical practice than debates of the latter kind.

Indeed, one of the reasons I have fastened on the symmetry principle is that it pertains to the philosophy of history rather than the philosophy of science. One of the main aims of my recent posts on the principle is precisely to distinguish clearly between the readings of the symmetry principle that pertain to history-writing and those that pertain to philosophy of science, and to show that the former (properly understood) are independent of the latter.

Unlike philosophical principles such as the “experimenter’s regress”, the symmetry principle is something that is heartily and explicitly endorsed by working historians, even by those who have little time for the philosophy of science. Given the heartiness and explicitness of this endorsement, it is difficult to imagine that it is merely totemic. Hence there is some hope that historical practice could be improved by improving our understanding of that principle.

A further point is that even if the endorsement of the symmetry principle is merely totemic, it does not follow that that principle is irrelevant to historical practice. In fact, it seems to me that the symmetry principle, once shed of its dubious philosophical baggage, is an important and true principle that should be part of any healthy historiography of science. This baggage-shedding is just what I am trying to do in my current posts in my principle. In other words, I am trying to “take what is valuable from the historiography that we have”, in the hope that the results will help us to “move on in more productive directions.”

It might help to think of an empirical example that is analogous the conceptual case. So: you presumably agree that the significance that many historians attach to “Leviathan and the Air Pump” is merely totemic; but you also agree that there is much that is worth retaining in that work. In the same way, it is reasonable to hope that there is something worth retaining in the symmetry principle, even though historians appear to treat that principle as a symbol rather than as a guide to historical practice.

Will Thomas - May 9, 2013

Ostensibly, yes, I agree that the philosophy of history is more apt to be relevant to historians’ practices than than the philosophy of science, but I think the symmetry principle occupies a very ambiguous ground here. In fact, this is where the history of the history, sociology, and philosophy of science comes in handy.

We will recall that the symmetry principle was developed by sociologists as a means of arriving at “sociological explanation”. Bloor was ambiguous as to whether historical explanations should be purely sociological explanations. Collins, however, was explicit that symmetry (or “methodological relativism”) was intended to keep a body of purely sociological knowledge free of epistemological considerations. I don’t think Collins has ever thought seriously about historiography (nor, as a sociologist, need he).

That this principle should be considered a principle of good historiography seems accidental, and, I’m sure you’ll agree, never fully theorized. Rather, it seems to have arisen out of the idea that a theory of science should map on to the history of science. In this way, I would say, the symmetry principle was designed, from the start, to be simultaneously a philosophy of science and its history.

Interestingly, you make the move of making the symmetry principle philosophy of history and the experimenter’s regress philosophy of science. But, in fact, it is precisely the experimenter’s regress that made it even possible to think about symmetry (and with it, social constructionism) as a theory of science. If every instance of successful agreement in science could be attributed not to having successfully perceived nature, but to a historical instance of the invocation of a prior social agreement that a certain standard constitutes a successful perception of nature, then the history of science could be constituted of a series of such agreements and their various invocations.

You may recognize this as the famous Schaffer-Latour dispute. Latour, of course, found symmetry unacceptable as a means of explaining history. (“In order to act effectively between men—that is, to go to Mecca, to survive in the Congo, to bring fine, healthy children to birth, to get manly regiments—we have to ‘make room’ for microbes… To make up society with only social connections, omitting the invisibles, is to end up with general corruption, a perverse deviation of good human intentions.”) Schaffer, of course, thought this attitude led to poor history, precisely because it omitted the conditions that made agreements about knowledge possible.

Of course, Latour himself has a totemic historiographical significance. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cause historians any more dissonance to view both symmetry and Latour as embodying the virtues of present historiography, than it does to understand that symmetry was designed as a sociological rather than a historiographical tool.

If, ignoring that, we take symmetry to be a central component of history-writing, one problem is that it presupposes a historical metaphysics of 1) knowledge claims, and 2) conflict and conflict resolution concerning those claims. But symmetry is an active hindrance if you want to try explaining something like “surviving in the Congo”. True, you have to keep track of what historical actors believed and why (rather than what they failed to know), but you have to include the “reality” of the situation if you want the full picture.

Now, one might suppose that telling stories about symmetry is just a matter of “preferences,” and that, as with internal/external hybrid accounts, telling stories about conflicts surrounding knowledge claims is simply a current preoccupation, and that that doesn’t imply that people actually think of symmetry as a metaphysics of history.

I have a lot of sympathy for that idea. After all, as far as I know, nobody actually started writing history along the lines that Schaffer recommended in “Eighteenth Brumaire”. And I think it is true that symmetry is viewed as a means to an end, and that some larger set of preferences governs historians’ choices. After all, I have never seen anyone give a symmetric account of the discovery of nuclear fission.

I admit, this reply is rambling, so I’ll just leave this with two final thoughts. I surmise that for historians invoking symmetry is simply a way of removing the sense of obviousness from historical developments, which is something that everyone can get behind. But, science is often the art of making the subtle obvious; sometimes symmetry simply breaks against the shoals of obviousness.* This I think, was the crux of the argument that Alan Shapiro made against Schaffer concerning Newton’s prism experiments that you pointed me to a while ago. Historians, I think, should be permitted to parse when scientists have reasonable doubts, and when it is evident that politics or nursed grudges clouds their views—but some threshold of obvious needs to be passed before this argument can be applied asymmetrically.

The second thought is that the removal of obviousness for the sake of creating a symmetrical portrait can involve an asymmetrical application of analytical tools, so as to remove a sense of obviousness from the “winner’s” perspective, and give a sense of plausibility to the “loser’s”. This isn’t necessarily wrongheaded if we are working from the starting point of a heavily biased narrative. However, it can becomes excessive. The best example I know of this excess is Malcolm Ashmore’s take on the “N-ray controversy”. Historians should probably strive to apply rigorous analytical tools symmetrically, and if this reveals an asymmetrical picture, so be it.

*Thus the popularity of the “if you believe reality is socially consturcted, jump out of a window!” arugment. Obviousness is always the extreme position to which the symmetry argument must be pushed.

4. Michael Bycroft - May 9, 2013

I agree with most of what you say; in fact you are saying a number of things that I also want to say, though I would want to push for more conceptual clarity.

In particular I agree with your main point that “the symmetry principle was designed, from the start, to be simultaneously a philosophy of science and a its history.” The fact that I agree with this is I hope clear from my previous comment, where I said that my project was precisely to get rid of some of the philosophical baggage surrounding the symmetry principle.

I half agree with your suggestion that philosophical arguments like the experimenter’s regress “made it even possible to think about symmetry.” My agreement is only partial because I think that the reverse also occurred.

That reverse argument began as follows. Firstly, the truth-value of a past scientist’s belief is an unreliable guide to the kind of explanation we should give for that belief. Therefore the truth of Newton’s/Boyle’s/Pasteur’s beliefs does not argue against the possibility of giving a sociological account of those beliefs. Therefore the sociology of science is not just a “sociology of error,” and it can make important contributions to our understanding of many past scientific beliefs, true as well as false.

I agree wholeheartedly with all of that. The first sentence is the version of the Symmetry Principle that I am pushing (so I’m putting that version in capitals). And I agree that the second and third sentences follow from that Symmetry Priciple.

The problem with the Strong Programme was that it didn’t stop there. One of the reasons it became more radical was, as you say, because of independent developments in the philosophy of science that seemed to show that sociological accounts were even more promising than the Symmetry Principle makes out.

But part of the radicalisation, I would argue, was due to a series of extensions and re-interpretations of the Symmetry Principle that rested upon a confused understanding of that Principle.

One of those confusions was to treat the Symmetry Principle as a blanket prohibition on the appeal to the truth-value of a belief when trying to explain that belief. This is the confusion that I tried to address up in my two posts on “Truth in the history of science” (http://bit.ly/10e3u2J, http://bit.ly/18pgdmC).

Another of the confusions was to conflate explanations that appeal to truth-value with explanations that appeal to arguments/evidence/heuristics/experimental resuts, etc. This is the conflation that I highlighted in my posts on “The Constructivist Straw Man” and “Two Fallacies” (http://bit.ly/WUvVyl, http://bit.ly/YIqatz).

Together these two confusions led to the conclusion that arguments/evidence/heuristics/experimental results cannot explain past beliefs (because they are no better than appeals to truth-value).

The same conclusion was also reached in a different way, again starting with the Symmetry Principle. First the Symmetry Principle was interpreted as saying that both sides of any debate had arguments/evidence/heuristics/experimental results in their favour. The inference was then drawn that those factors could not explain why the opposing parties disagreed, because those factors were common to both parties.

So there were a number of ways in which people went from the Symmetry Principle to the principle that epistemic explanations, when used by historians, are fishy in a way that sociological ones are not. Of course, as you suggest in your comment, a better label for the latter principle would be the Asymmetry Principle.

On Harry Collins, I am persuaded by your own posts that he has been explicit in treating the symmetry principle as the claim that sociologists can profit from ignoring epistemological considerations. But I would add that his formulation of this view tends to perpetuate one of the confusions above, namely that which conflates explanations that appeal to truth-value with those that appeal to arguments/evidence/heuristics/experimental resuts.

He seems to want to set aside the latter kind of explanation, but he often expresses this as a rejection of the former kind of explanation, as if a rejection of one was automatically a rejection of the other. This occurs, for example, when he expresses his view in the form “we should study science as if it has no connection to the natural world” and “nature only speaks to scientists for a few nanoseconds a year, and the rest is social” (I’m paraphrasing and possibly exaggerating his formulations, but I don’t think these are wildly unfair paraphrases).

This whole comment should be taken with a few grains of salt, since I am suggesting that the Asymmetry Principle emerged chronologically from the Symmetry Principle in the same order, and for the same sorts of reasons, that people nowadays argue from the former to the latter. I’ld have to dive back into the early SSK literature to corroborate this narrative, but I think that there is something in it.

Michael Bycroft - May 9, 2013

I like your point that “Historians should probably strive to apply rigorous analytical tools symmetrically, and if this reveals an asymmetrical picture, so be it.”

I would add that we should also be symmetrical one level up, when we assess the explanations of our fellow historians, whether we are assessing general classes of explanation or particular instances of them. When making such assessments, we should apply the same historiographical standards to the various parties. I call this the Super-Symmetry Principle.

This Principle may be obvious, but in my view it is quite often violated in negative assessments of internal history of science. For example, a common criticism of epistemic explanations is that we have not yet managed to reduce scientific reasoning to a calculus, the suggestion being that this means that there is a residue of arbitrariness in any instance of scientific reasoning, and that we need a sociological explanation to make up the deficit. I think there is something in this particular argument. But those who advance it usually ignore the opposite and equal argument that we have not yet reduced social behaviour to a calculus and that we therefore need to make up the deficit with some epistemology. In fact, one often hears that our inability to generalise our social explanations is a virtue rather than a shortcoming, and one that illustrates the exquisite sensitivity of those explanations.

Of course, the Super-Symmetry Principle should not be read as saying that these different kinds of explanation are on a par; it just urges us to avoid double standards when assessing them, as per your point that I quoted at the beginning of this comment. However my suspicion is that many of the apparent inadequacies of both sorts of explanation (as identified by proponents of the opposite sort of explanation) will vanish if we apply the Super-Symmetry Principle with rigour.


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