Philosophy, Historiography, and "Cold War" science January 4, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: 20th-century, Cold War
In yesterday’s post I sounded a fairly philosophical note, wondering about the epistemological differences between matters of fact and insights. Ultimately, though, I don’t really want to worry too much about arriving at a correct “nature of science”; instead I want to look at what our presumptions about the nature of science mean for the act of writing history. My own area of expertise is the 20th century, where questions of science and power loom very large (though the “science and empire” issue is dominated by a similar question). A common presumption is that in the 20th century, particularly in America, science boasted a strong claim to authority based on its ability to validate knowledge as “fact”. In particular, studies of the social and policy sciences have tended to stress the notion that a generic scientific method (or, in history of technology variations, “technology”) could offer “objective” solutions to America’s various problems. Similar claims have been made about high level scientific advisers–especially on questions of nuclear policy.
I find this historiography unbearably fuzzy. We find a few scientists making recommendations in one place. We find some government policies (that we probably don’t like) in another. We find some funding connecting government to these scientific studies. Suddenly we have a very large regime of science that we tend to analyze, en masse, through a “Cold War” lens. I tend to resist labeling science post-1945 as “Cold War” era science, because historiography using that label tends to gravitate automatically to historicization within the Cold War context, even as we continue to know next to nothing about the intellectual motivations behind that same science. The Cold War was certainly important, but by no means was it everything as far as science in that period is concerned.
With this post I’ve been doing a lot of hand waving. In future posts, I’ll take a look at some more specific works, as well as elaborate on how the “matter of fact” vs. “insight” issue bears on this question.