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Scientists and Historians, Take 3 March 20, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Refining my thoughts about the relationship between scientists and historians, I think I can now make my case a bit more succinctly. The main question is: what counts as history? For historians, almost everything now counts as history: culture, epistemology, practice, physical objects, and so forth. And, going back to the historical record, historians can see that scientists have had high level (if sometimes poorly articulated) discussions about the relationship between institutions, practices, and knowledge. This is one reason why Peter Galison’s Image and Logic is one of my favorite history of science books; it’s not because of the trading zones and pidgins and creoles; it’s because in Chapters 2 through 8, while he doesn’t constrain himself to “actor’s categories”, he does let the actors work the issues out amongst themselves rather than describe the “tensions inherent in their work” or something like that. I think it’s the fact that these actors do work these issues out and develop new socio-epistemological cultures that gives the book its fairly unique optimistic tone. One of Galison’s main stylistic points is that he refuses to bemoan whatever trend there might currently be that threatens to consume science. He is not the analyst-as-enlightened-external-observer.

The unfortunate bit is that scientists have not tended to see these discussions as the really historically interesting things that they do. It’s just the petty details of institution-building, or whatever. For them, it’s still primarily about big discoveries and Nobel Prizes or hagiographies telling the “human side of the story” or whatever. And now, here we are, finally, with a pretty good grip on these issues, and we’ve gone and scared all those deep thinking scientists off. It’d make the writing of the history of 21st century science a lot easier if they had a strong interest in publicizing their debates about these deeper issues and articulating them better. So, that’s, I think, what I was trying to get at yesterday.



1. Anonymous - March 31, 2008

what is your take on the importance of history to the actual practice of science (say laboratory research)?

2. Will Thomas - April 1, 2008

I almost missed this–good thing I looked down. I don’t think there’s too much day-to-day importance, but what I think it does in the bigger picture is restore a sense of motivation to why scientists do things the way they do them.

Generally, at the time, there was a more-or-less explicit rationale (often locked away in archival files) for why certain kinds of practices rather than others came to be. But these practices are not necessarily appropriate for all people and in all times (they weren’t even necessarily the appropriate path when they came to be). Thus, when deciding how to move forward, whether in teaching a subject, or in performing a certain kind of experiment, or in presenting a certain kind of theory, it is valuable to understand just why these things were done that way in the first place, rather than just thinking of them as “they way things are”.

3. Will Thomas - April 1, 2008

I should also say that I think this perspective is valuable both in defending the status quo against attack (“well, there are very good reasons why we do things this way”) as well as in reforming it (“this may once have been appropriate, but circumstances have changed”).

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