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Us vs. Them: a vacuous revolution? March 13, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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With the last lecture of History 174 before spring break behind me, it’s time to attend to that semi-annual task here at the AIP: putting together a list of physics-related articles to appear in the past half year for the History Center newsletter. The opportunities for blog posts abound! Aside from the obvious questions about the current state of the history of physics (which I’ll argue about another time), one thing that’s popped out at me is a question I’ve been thinking about, and that is the fallout from the “science wars”. Here’s a crackpot theory: did the science wars serve to make science studies circle the wagons and start seeing the world in terms of a united “us” versus “them”?

Who are “they”? Well, anyone who commits grave historiographical errors, particularly scientist-writers. This occurs to me reading Matt Stanley’s review of three recent Einstein books in the Winter 2008 issue of the recently-renamed Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (formerly “…in the Physical and Biological Sciences”). Einstein is an incessant font of pop history, which provides trained historians with many opportunities for valid criticism. Here, Stanley criticizes attributions of Einstein’s revolutionary effect on science to Einstein’s revolutionary attitude (among other sins, such as citing the AIP website!).

But, I wonder if this isn’t like picking on the weak kid on the playground. Do we cut ourselves off from internal improvements by attacking outsiders? Is this the reason why we still think it constitutes good scholarship to give the lie to naive positions? Have the science wars morphed into a “1984”-style perpetual war against an unseen enemy? Will it continue until all the reductivist running dogs are eliminated once and for all? Shouldn’t we just let the pop historians do their thing, while we do ours? I mean, it’s not as though articles in HSNS are going to change pop historians’ bad habits.

Matt’s a great historian, and I don’t think he does this, but it still seems to me that attacking weak foes in our professional past or on the outside of the profession will not sharpen our abilities as much as attacking the much stronger scholars within the profession.

This idea is basically the same notion I was working with when discussing the justification for the production of a continual steam of narrow case studies.

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