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HET and Science Studies January 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post has a couple of motivations.  I’ve been following with interest the conversations over at the History of Economics Playground about the relationship between the History of Economic Thought (HET) and the science studies disciplines (see here for instance).  I’m particularly struck by the facts that many in the HET camp view the historical analysis of the impact of context as a distraction, and that eminent economists frequently show up to scold the rogues.  This contrasts to the history of other scientific professions falling under the HSS umbrella, where intellectual interaction between historians and scientists is pretty much at a low ebb.

The second motivation is that I’m now pushing toward completion of my book manuscript on operations research and associated “policy sciences”.  While sweeping up my chapter on the rise of OR and decision theory, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything pressing on Kenneth Arrow, Tjalling Koopmans, Luce & Raiffa, or any other pertinent characters that I should be including.  While trolling around the tables of contents of that literature, I came across a piece printed in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought in March ’08 by Ivan Moscati entitled “More Economics, Please: We’re Historians of Economics” (pdf).

Moscati cast a jaundiced eye on the creeping influence of science studies on that discipline, as pushed by such scholars as Phil Mirowski, Roy Weintraub, and Wade Hands (and I’d add Mary Morgan).  I sympathized, because his main concern seemed to be that science studies sucks the internalist content clean out of histories.  That’s a fair concern.  Science studies, in its bid to reconnect science with its cultural context, has tracked political, religious, and linguistic influences (like metaphors); and it has apparently “rediscovered” the emotive qualities of science again and again.  Sometimes it seems like we have done everything except explain the intellectual appeal of historical arguments against the background of other arguments, which, one might argue, carried some weight with the actors (crazy, I know).

Moscati argues that in economics the real action really does occur in the published papers.  Again, I sympathize.  What we might call the “archival revelation” in science studies—the shock that a lot of action in science goes on behind the scenes in ways not in accord with the scrubbed up, philosophically-approved version appearing in papers—has created a certain reticence to pay much attention to the content of papers at all (beyond describing them in a very matter-of-fact way).  Would it be fair to say that historians of science have a reflexive aversion to even well-contextualized internalist arguments?  I can certainly think of good recent work with internalist aspects that has been well-recognized (Dave Kaiser’s Pfizer Prize-winning Drawing Theories Apart on Feynman diagrams, for example, is a must-read), but it isn’t exactly showcased by the profession in its journals.

The aversion to internalist history demonstrated in the science studies historiography apparently makes science studies, full stop, radioactive to historians of economics like Moscati.  In his view, not understanding the economics is a real threat to good history.  This is a contrary position to the sociological insight from the 1980s, articulated especially by Latour, and informing many subsequent studies of scientific work, that it is good to approach science as a stranger.  This sensibility is directly related to the anthropological/sociological imperative to view the practices of science independent of the analyst’s opinion of the arguments, but as I’ve pointed out, this fails to explain the persuasive power of the arguments themselves.  Latour has tried to remedy this problem in his framework through ANT.  Ultimately, though, to understand historical decisions, you need to know how the arguments themselves worked.

But a key part of understanding the arguments is understanding the cultural as well as intellectual contexts that allowed those arguments to make sense to those who made, accepted, and rejected them.  It is often the case that certain forms of argument have been regarded as unpalatable, or even incomprehensible to those with a differing cultural or intellectual perspective.  The most significant shifts in any science almost always play out across conflicting perspectives, and I find that the science studies fields do actually have the best tools for understanding the reasons why and the ways in which perspectives can conflict.

Moscati cites Mirowski’s “conspiracy ‘thick’ tales” (Machine Dreams) in support of his argument that contextual histories are less “interesting and instructive” than “insightful and well-researched ‘thin’ histories of analysis”.  Which is crazy, in my view.  I mean, say what you will about Machine Dreams.  Yeah, it very nearly is a conspiracy theory, and I wouldn’t trust the book a fifth as far as I can throw it (a curse upon whoever follows Mirowski in conflating the work of AMP with OR).  But Mirowski does spot an inordinate number of motivating problems, which extend well beyond the scale of specific economic arguments straight into the epistemological.  These deserve to be recognized, and it’s why I really am a fan of the book.

Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense to separate “thin” and “thick” description.  There are many examples of where thick and thin have been woven together with superb results, and I am adamantly against any insulation between the histories of science and economics.  Nevertheless, until we on this side of the line can control the tendencies of our historiography to corrode away internalist argumentation, I do understand the desire on the other side of the line to throw us all in quarantine.



1. (some) young historians of economics reviewed by (some) young historians of science « History of Economics Playground - January 30, 2009

[…] leave a comment » Or when Will Thomas fro the Etherwave blog is commenting on Ivan Moscati’s piece on the future of HET in the JHET : here. […]

2. Beatrice - January 30, 2009

Keeping in mind that historians of economic thought do teach and research within economics rather than specialized departments and are recruited as “economists” in most universities may help understand the debates internal to our subdiscipline and our relationships to “practising” economists.

Also, I am curious to know how you would consider/classify/read/judge Judy Klein’s HET work on operational research (some chapters from her forthcoming book “Protocols of War: Applied mathematics and the science of Economizing 1940-60” may directly touch upon the themes you are working on).

3. Will Thomas - January 30, 2009

Indeed, that makes a lot of sense – I can’t imagine historians of science being hired for similar reasons! I’m a bit jealous, but the down side is interesting, too.

I didn’t mention Judy Klein only because I’ve mentioned her previously. We were on a panel together at HSS in 2007. I’ve read some of the chapters of Protocols of War, and positively love her work, since it covers many of the details I leave out of my “theory chapter” mentioned here. I think our perspectives are both compatible and complementary. She’s already cited very prominently (or at least will be once I’m finished sweeping up the footnotes).

I would classify her work as concerned with interlocking themes of theory-building (“duality” in particular); where I stress the intellectual and institutional relationships that link abstract theory with practical policy analysis with policy. My main argument is that the legitimacy of any “policy science” cannot be understood without considering the relationships between various arms of the policy sciences. (This is why I don’t like Mirowski’s conflation of the Applied Mathematics Panel with OR, because OR provided an important legitimating link between AMP and operational planning.)

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