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Historians as Methodologists (Isis, Pt. 4) July 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Jane Maienschein, Manfred Laubichler, and Andrea Loettgers, in “How Can History of Science Matter to Scientists?” offer a number of cases in which the study of past experiments or chance encounters with historians have led scientists to examine their methodology and do things like question key assumptions, leading to productive scientific research. The chance encounter is a frequent spur to innovation, whether or not it is historical. These encounters can be substantive, such as reading about research in an unrelated field, or trivial: Richard Feynman told the story about how he was inspired to new research by seeing a student toss a plate in the air in a cafeteria, which led him to think about the physics of its wobble, which led to, um, magnificent things (Feynman didn’t say).

C. West Churchman (image imported from Wikipedia)

Anyway, if inspiration can come from the chance encounter, maybe the real question is how this benefit can be systematized. The reform of methodology and the questioning of assumptions reminded me of a couple of mathematician philosophers turned operations researchers I ran into in my dissertation work: West Churchman (right) and Russell Ackoff, who were students of Edgar A. Singer, who was a student of William James and a proponent of a little-known philosophy of science called “experimentalism” (which will be the subject of a talk at HSS this year by Alan Richardson; update: he’s also on the PSA program, which is joint with HSS this year, talking about Churchman and Ackoff as well: good times).

Before their turn to OR around 1950, Churchman and Ackoff proposed establishing Institutes of Experimental Method or Methodology Departments in universities, which would train multi-disciplinary “methodologists” and subject current experimental methods to systematic scrutiny to make sure they made use of the most advanced theories and methods. They felt such extra-experimental scrutiny was necessary, because specialization threatened to cut scientists off from potentially important ways forward.

The institutes were supposed to have four sections: general methodology, mathematical statistics (which guarded against statistical fallacy), sampling techniques (which examined the validity of experimental presuppositions), and history of science. The history of science section was included bearing in mind that even though certain paths were taken over others in science, rejected paths were not necessarily invalidated and ought to be available for future work. Churchman and Ackoff turned to OR and “management science”, because they saw it as a path for generalizing their philosophy beyond scientific work to all problems of management and decision. (And they later turned away from OR out of frustration, but that’s another story–see my dissertation, or wait a couple years for the book!)

Bringing us back full-circle, clearly it is true that historians of science have the ability to inform current scientific methodology. But our ability seems to be incidental rather than systematic. More rigorous programs have been proposed in the past. In fact, Jon Agar was telling me a couple years ago that there have been other, similar attempts to create generalized disciplines of methodology. The main take-away point, it seems to me, is that it is always good for scientists to maintain a methodological vigilance, and to cultivate broader interests, whether historical or not


1. Bob Seidel - September 10, 2008

There is a historical method, and superficial analogies between it and scientific method but neither is more than a very abstract description of what historians or scientists do. The critical analysis of scientific texts is complicated by the highly stylized logic of presentation enshrined in their publication practices, while the critical analysis of scientific evidence involves insights into instruments, techniques and theory that historians seldom can muster. As Paul Forman has suggested in his article “Independence, not transcendence for the history of science”, ISIS 82 (1991) 71-86, to adapt the criteria of the scientist in valuing our work is intellectually bankrupt. While some historians believe it is necessary to “make peace” with the scientific community, I suspect that pandering to them will generate more contempt than confidence.

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