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Historians, what are they good for? July 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems", Uncategorized.
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It’s been a good night, watching the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals on ESPN while sprawled out on the couch with the latest Isis, marinating in the humid nighttime heat of Washington, DC.  Too bad I’m out of beer.  The focus section of this issue asks the pointed question “What is the value of the history of science?”  Can we be of use outside of our own academic interests?  All in all, I’m underwhelmed, with the exception of Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes’ look at historians’ actual participation in public policy debates.  (Disclosure: Naomi is overseeing my Antarctica project that I’ve mentioned from time to time, but I really do think it’s the best of the lot).  I’m going to do a series of posts on this section, but, since none of the articles really captures my own view of the potential of our discipline, I thought I’d start by airing my perspective.

First off, I feel somewhat vindicated in my continual ragging on the case study approach, because the articles pretty uniformly take a view of history as relating to the “telling historical incident” rather than the analysis of historical traditions, which I think really narrows the potential contributions of the field (see my responses to the Locality versus Globality series on Galison’s Problems from the last Isis, and, of course, have a look at his original entries). 

My own perspective on this issue relates a lot to my understanding of how history inflects disciplines other than science, particularly creative disciplines which seem to encourage a sort of historical geekdom among participants.  Modern filmmakers, for example, know about and understand the French New Wave.  They of course know the technical bits: jump cuts, hand-held cameras, the famous freeze-zoom at the end of The 400 Blows (check it out on YouTube; I’d embed it, but it’s a 4 minute clip and the shot in question doesn’t come until the end).  But, they also know about its relationship to noir, Italian neorealism (Bicycle Thief), and Hitchcock.  They understand how New Wave incorporated those influences and innovated beyond them; and they know how others, in turn, took up those insights and did new things with them.  And many of those who understand these conversations become better filmmakers.  (We could also talk about rock’s New Wave in the wake of punk, which I find fascinating, but that’s another story for another day).

Having thus exhausted my knowledge of the French New Wave, I can’t see why a similar principle wouldn’t apply in science.  Why shouldn’t scientists become science history geeks, understanding the traditions, becoming connoisseurs of methods of argumentation?  While I don’t think it would help them directly, by drawing on a deeper historical conceptual basis wouldn’t they be able to fit themselves within traditions, to develop a more cutting criticism of scientific work, to have better conversations between specialist groups, and maybe to innovate more new approaches?  I think science gets along fine without this historical connoisseurship, but surely it would add some vibrancy to the language of scientific argumentation.

I mean, I feel I better understand what constitutes innovative scientific work the more I learn about particular scientists as part of a long and uninterrupted sequence of responses to prior approaches and as rearticulating themes over and over again.  This is definitely an approach we’ve had toward the history of science in the past (Schaffer’s early work demonstrates this nicely, actually).  If we could develop and maintain this connoisseurship of past scientific traditions, I think some scientists, at least, might take an interest.  Anyway, maybe that, too, is an underwhelming argument, but it’s worked elsewhere, and I’ll be revisiting it when I look at the articles in this section.



1. Michael Robinson - July 25, 2008

Will, this is an interesting parallel – I like the link to film. Perhaps scientists do not follow the film maker model because film makers and scientists (broadly speaking of course) have different beliefs about the stuff that they produce.

I imagine that even the most hubristic of film makers would stop short of saying that they have produced an objective statement on the nature of the universe. Scientists, however, are in the business of making just these sort of declarations, even if they recognize that they are provisional. For the film maker, aware that what he does is a deeply subjective process, I imagine that the history of film can offer inspiration at least, and a sort of apprenticeship at best. But for the scientist convinced that what he or she does is about nature, not him or herself, the power of the past is more limited: a stage of inspiring characters, novel (if outdated) techniques, dead ends and eureka moments.

For most scientists, then, I imagine that embracing STS is a much bigger epistemological leap than film makers embracing film history. No evidence for any of this, just speculating.


2. Will Thomas - July 25, 2008

I thought about this, too, actually; and I think you’re right–it is a big epistemological leap, especially given the current “uses for history” that scientists have. These are, I think, as you mention. Here at the AIP, we’re closer to the scientists than most, and all of our fund-raising and PR is geared around “preservation” and “heritage”. Which is fine, but I tend to think we could be a bit more ambitious without being alienating.

I’d guess, though, it’s more a matter of habit to see things this way than any deep-seated attitude toward the nature of their work. Even if the ends are objective, scientists are (relatively) free to choose their means (methods of experiment, kinds of theory, etc.), which are closely related to the tradition you come from. Whether or not you decide to step out of that tradition, knowing the initial motivations behind going down the road you’re on can help you make more informed choices about future work. I think that goes for us, in history, too.

In my area, physics, for instance, I think string theory would be less controversial (or at least its proponents’ motivations better appreciated) if it were viewed less in terms of right and wrong, and more in light of the historical epistemology of theory. Einstein’s general relativity, for instance, is not “accepted” as an ontological description of the universe, because it is incompatible with quantum theory–yet, no one would claim that the mathematics are wrong or specious (“not even wrong”). In other words, string theory doesn’t have to be right to be a path forward. Lorenz was not “right” about relativity, but we still have the Lorenz transformations. Physicists could pick these examples apart, I’m sure, but the point is that the historical epistemology of mathematical theory (see also John von Neumann’s exercise, “Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics”) is not on anyone’s radar.

But, yes, definitely easier (and probably more productive) for artists who are less constrained about the kinds of results they need to produce. This is not an attitude to STS that is right around the corner. Neither we nor they are prepared.

3. Michael Robinson - July 25, 2008

I’ve been writing a lot lately about this book by Roger Lewin that’s been so much fun to read, and it strikes me that your point about scientists having adopted this epistemological position out of habit rather than necessity is borne out in biological anthropology. Some of the biggest fights in 20th century hominid evolution, once settled, made some of the scientists involved realize how much theory, preconceptions, personal loyalties etc shaped their views of fossil history. I doubt whether all of them are out now reading critical books about Piltdown Man, but it does show that your point is correct: there’s no reason professionals working in the sciences can’t have a variety of epistemological views while still embracing the study of nature.

4. Beatrice - August 19, 2008

Still hosted in economic departments for the great majority but with great difficulty to be hired, historians of economics thought (HET) are periodically brainstorming about “should we stay or should we try to go (to science studies dpts)”, and if we stay, how can we get economists interested in their own past.

My opinion is that you can’t get people interested in their history against their own will, and that it is not merely out of habit that they disregard it.

Economists are not only suspicious of HET because they had included several heterodox economists willing to criticize the foundations of economics rather than write history proper in the past, but also because our focus on funding, lab struggles, relationships with the political process,impact of the military, etc. endanger their canonical history. In this canon technical, theorical and empirical development solely develops from the internal logic of the field, and such account legitimates economics as a science (economics gained its “scientific credibility” only after WWII). This is why Samuelson is a major contributor of the leading HET journal: he systematically refutes any piece of history written on him.

5. Will Thomas - August 19, 2008

Personally, I wish HET and STS were closer since I have a big interest in economics (coming off my dissertation in operations research and management science). But I also envy your in-principle closer connection to practitioners. The tensions between you and practitioners is very interesting to me. There is, of course, the (related?) parallel in the 1990s “science wars”, which turned a lot of scientists off STS, but I’m not too sure that’s a lingering sore spot here. Of course, it’s also pertinent that “science” doesn’t have much of a well-defended historical canon; only pop history, which is kind of a different world altogether.

I also think you’re right about forcing history against practitioners’ will. The best bet, in my mind, is to write more histories that are satisfying to the analytical historian, but that will also pick up an audience in science/economics. Such things exist, but I don’t think it’s a totally realized art.

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