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Claims, Authority, and Spheres of Practice, Pt. 1 April 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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By way of Advances in the History of Psychology, I just found out that, to advertise its articles of interest to historians of North American sciences, the British Journal for the History of Science has made relevant articles available for free [ed., June 2012: these are no longer available].  Among these, it turns out, is my 2007 article, “The Heuristics of War: Scientific Method and the Founders of Operations Research”.  I had been thinking about discussing the problem of the authority of science as an issue in history of science writing, and it is actually a point I addressed in this article, so this seems like a good opportunity to talk about it.

My main point of contention in the article was that historiographical preoccupation with problems of boundary dispute and the authority of science had mischaracterized what is important and interesting about the history of wartime OR: “Whether the primary interest has been the deployment of scientific methodologies in new sorts of problems or else the cachet of scientific knowledge as key to scientists’ entry into new arenas of authority, a strong theme in the historiography is that ‘scientific’ methodology was a foreign entity introduced into the military by outsiders.”

My argument was that when OR scientists spoke of their work as an application of “scientific method” to problems of military planning, boundary questions were not really the issue.  Contrary to some historiographical playing up of frictions between OR groups and the military (by both OR scientists and subsequent historians), scientific method really entailed scientists coming to understand military planning so well that their participation in its improvement resembled their understanding of their peacetime research work—but that this augured no important substantive change in the practice of military planning or in any imagined general relationship between science and the military.

Taking this position has to do with my broader methodological concerns, because boundary questions have taken on such a prominent role in history of science writing that discussion of them has become almost trivial.  As much as the history of science profession understands itself as questioning universalist and transhistorical claims, the relationship between the scientific claim and the boundaries of authority plays a shockingly widespread role in historiography from the period prior to the Scientific Revolution straight through to contemporary science-and-society studies.  Whether one is working within a “networks of exchange” model (communities who accept each others’ input in the construction of wide bodies of knowledge) or an “authority over practice” model (those who accept external wisdom as dictating proper practice), the sociological creation of spheres of practice has become almost unavoidable.

Notably, the systematic charting of these spheres has not been a major concern.  Rooted in case study methodology, the historiography instead focuses on the elucidation of the strategies in the creation and maintenance of these spheres, without ever suggesting a definitive taxonomy—again, while the general concern is universal, particular manifestations of the concern are considered to be variable and inevitably historicized.  I like to think of the methodology as basically Aristotelian: if something like the “creation of spheres of authority” is a constant feature of epistemic practice, it can be thought of as a formal cause.  Then, historicized examples are substantiations of the general form, which display accidental characteristics concomitant with their historical context.

My main issue with the “spheres of practice” concern is that it assumes only certain characteristics of inquiry are of historical interest.  Because claims are thought of as having boasted an authority related to the method and personage of their creation, histories focusing on such claims inevitably see science as a cultural means of achieving acceptance of “facts” or “methods”,  while downplaying the generation of suggestive questions, and the destabilization or reform of beliefs, which are all points related to the heuristic benefits of the “system”.

The focus on the culture of the authoritative fact, and the downplaying of the culture of debate about the system can create peculiar views of science’s history.  Notably, in our recent book club series, we have found both Deborah Harkness and Hal Cook concentrating on the creation of spheres of practice, which leads them to some misleading claims, in spite of their impeccable research and fine writing.   For Harkness, it is her discussion of the collection and exchange of verified natural and practical facts in Elizabethan London as essentially an established form of experimental “science” avant la lettre, which motivates her to cast Francis Bacon as unoriginal and elitist.  Similarly, Cook’s insistence that the empirical collection of facts in the Dutch empire represented the basis of a scientific culture leads him to suppose that speculation was somehow marginalized in progressive scientific culture.  Both are surprising and unsatisfying portrayals, possible only in a historiography dominated by acceptance of science as simply a culture of authoritative facts.

Viewing the history of science as the creation of fluctuating spheres of practice and fluctuating collections of claims  strips science history of an intellectual dynamism.  It is necessarily the system that allows claims to make sense, and that allows one to trace different intellectual strategies for both debating and resolving this or that question or concern within a system of knowledge, whether progressively or not.  Instead, we get a sort of paint-by-numbers historiography wherein it scarcely matters what claims are being made, what the context shaping the claims is, or even what science is being studied, because almost any history, it turns out, can support a history of claims and their acceptance without bothering with an understanding of the terms of the debate.  In egregious cases, histories that consider the disciplined interplay of ideas are derided as “internalist”.

In Pt. 2, I will deal in more detail with my own paper’s take on the “sphere of practice” problem in comparison with some of the other papers on North American science that BJHS has made available.

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