Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
Tags: Allan Franklin, Augustus de Morgan, Barry Barnes, Bruno Latour, David Bloor, Gerald Geison, Gerald Holton, Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, James Watson, John Maynard Keynes, Louis Pasteur, Mary Jo Nye, Michael Bycroft, Michael Mulkay, Michael Polanyi, Nicholas Wade, Peter Medawar, R. A. Fisher, Rebekah Higgitt, Robert Merton, Robert Millikan, Simon Schaffer, Stephen Brush, Steve Fuller, Steven Shapin, Thomas Kuhn, William Bateson, William Broad
The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.
Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
Tags: Albert Einstein, David Kaiser, George Adams, Hasok Chang, Isaac Newton, John Bell, Lawrence Principe, Niels Bohr, Thomas Kuhn, William Newman
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In a nice coincidence, my look at “tactile history” winds toward its close with a discussion of historian and philosopher Hasok Chang, who, as it happens, is speaking here at Imperial on Thursday about how “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)” (details here; also see his 2009 Centaurus paper of that title).
In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work. You can read more about it on his website, “The Myth of the Boiling Point”.
Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “normal science,” Chang supposes that in the process of scientific specialization “certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted” in the day-to-day process of conducting science. However, this process is “quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent.” There are simply “limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time.” Therefore, “Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected.”
Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
Tags: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, James Joule, Lawrence Principe, Martin Rudwick, Otto Sibum, Robert Boyle, William Newman
One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.
I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.
In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.
Merton on the Reception of Watson’s The Double Helix September 15, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Augustus de Morgan, Elinore Barber, Erwin Chargaff, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Watson, Jean-Martin Charcot, Michael Mulkay, Robert K. Merton, Stephen Brush
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For many decades now, various critics have supposed that the relations between science and society suffer because of the prevalence of an unrealistic view of science as something that is abstract and dehumanized. This supposition licenses the critics to deploy therapeutically realistic images of science to deliver their audience from their false idols into a state of mature understanding.
In his paper, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” Science 183 (1974): 1164-1172, Stephen Brush supposed the history of science could play just such a “subversive” role in science education. At that same time, according to some stories, the history of science itself had to be rescued from ne’er-do-well myth-spinners working as philosophers of science, Mertonian sociologists, and, of course, American scientists justifying their work to society and Congress.
All of this overlooks the fact that our entire society had already been freed from its illusions by James Watson’s best-selling 1968 memoir, The Double Helix.
Tags: Allen Debus, Étienne-François Geoffroy, Bernard de Fontenelle, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, Bruce Moran, David Brewster, F. Sherwood Taylor, George Sarton, Herbert Butterfield, Herman Boerhaave, Isaac Newton, Joan-Baptista van Helmont, John Maynard Keynes, Kevin Chang, Lawrence Principe, Pamela Smith, Paracelsus, Richard Westfall, Walter Pagel, William Newman
I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.
I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.
Chalmers on Newman on Chalmers on Newman on Boyle May 13, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
Tags: Alan Chalmers, Ernst Mach, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, William Newman
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There is a new entry in the dispute between Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman over the legacy of Robert Boyle (1627-1691): Alan Chalmers, “Understanding Science through Its History: A Response to Newman,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011): 150-153 (free). For EWP’s previous coverage, see here and here.
Although the disagreements over Boyle stretch back further, this particular back-and-forth began as Chalmers criticized Newman’s characterization of Boyle’s contributions to chemical science as presenting a misleading portrait of progress. Newman countered that Chalmers misreads his arguments about the place of Boyle’s chemical philosophy in the history of chemistry and natural philosophy. Further, he argued that Chalmers’ portrait of Boyle’s failure to advance chemistry or an atomistic mechanical philosophy through his chemical experiments misreads the nature of Boyle’s philosophical project.
Now Newman’s portrait of Boyle’s seems secure, and there is no question that working out historical actors’ projects is a valuable line of historical inquiry. Instead, tables turned, Chalmers draws a programmatic distinction between his and Newman’s historical projects, and defends his project’s legitimacy: his “kind of history is not the only legitimate kind … it is an important and informative kind that does not” — contrary to Newman’s allegations — “involve a misguided integration of history and philosophy of science.” The central question seems to have become whether histories of scientific work can be valid when divorced from an interest in projects that actors explicitly pursued.
Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 2 March 24, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Alan Shapiro, Bruno Latour, Edme Mariotte, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Robert Hooke, Robert Koch, Simon Schaffer
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In Pt. 1 of this post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed on this blog here). Shapiro argued that deficiencies in Schaffer’s portrayal of objection to Newton’s experiments derived from Schaffer’s “constructivist” methodology, which made him pay too much mind to disputes over experimental results, and not enough to others’ apparent ability to replicate Newton’s experiments, nor to the theoretical context of those experiments. Per Shapiro, these factors actually led to a record of reasonable success in securing assent around Newton’s work, even among Newton’s intellectual competitors. I argued that taking Schaffer’s paper to constitute a fully adequate history of the reception of Newton’s work spoke past the point of Schaffer’s commentary, which was intended to elucidate historical strategies specifically surrounding instances of failure to attain assent over experimental results.
In this post, I want to expand on the key strength of Shapiro’s criticism: the importance he ascribed to synthetic accounts of history, which contrasts with the historiography of commentary espoused by Schaffer.
Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Alan Shapiro, Harry Collins, Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall, Robert Boyle, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Thomas Hobbes
This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.
“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980). It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted. Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.
Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays. (more…)
Tags: Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Isaac Newton, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Patrick Geddes, Philip Mirowski, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus
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Although historians of science have not traditionally shown a strong interest in the history of economic thought, developing such an interest would make good professional sense, in particular because epistemological issues in economics and the natural sciences have long been intertwined in less than obvious ways. Historians would do well to familiarize themselves with historical epistemological debates around economic thought, such as the Methodenstreit of the 1880s, because important ideas like “science”, “objectivity”, and “impersonality” have meanings that, in much of the historical commentary on them, were specifically associated with debates surrounding the validity of social scientific abstraction, and the important distinctions that were made between the goals of theorization and normative practice.
Aside from brushing up on the historical meanings of certain terms, historians of science also have an opportunity to lend additional clarity to the historical connections between thinking about science and thinking about politics, society, and economy. Intellectual historians and philosophers of economics, and of science more generally, have studied the more explicit historical debates surrounding political economy and its connections to the methods of science, say, in the thought of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) or Karl Marx (1818-1883). Additionally, the transfer of metaphors between domains has received good attention, particularly in the area of evolutionary theory: from the economics of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), or from evolutionary theory back into Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) social theory (on this blog, also see Chris Renwick’s discussion of Patrick Geddes).
There is further important work to be done in straight-up intellectual history, but additional opportunities may be found in the history of intellectual practices that provide the context in which ideas make sense. (more…)
Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
Tags: Charles Darwin, Francis Bacon, Friedrich Hayek, Galileo Galilei, Geoffrey Cantor, Hannah Arendt, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton, Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Priestley, Karl Popper, Lorraine Daston, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mary Douglas, Max Weber, Michael Faraday, Nicolaus Copernicus, Noam Chomsky, Peter Galison, Rene Descartes, Simon Schaffer, Stephen Toulmin, Steven Shapin, William Paley, William Whewell
In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries. (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)
In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”. To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature. For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.
Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature. Aha. Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.