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Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Hasok Chang

In a nice coincidence, my look at “tactile history” winds toward its close with a discussion of historian and philosopher Hasok Chang, who, as it happens, is speaking here at Imperial on Thursday about how “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)” (details here; also see his 2009 Centaurus paper of that title).

In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work.  You can read more about it on his website, “The Myth of the Boiling Point”.

Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “normal science,” Chang supposes that in the process of scientific specialization “certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted” in the day-to-day process of conducting science.  However, this process is “quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent.”  There are simply “limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time.”  Therefore, “Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected.”

According to Chang, “Complementary science asks scientific questions that are excluded from current specialist science.”  He believes that, working in tandem, the history and philosophy of science “can recover useful ideas and facts lost in the record of past science; address foundational questions concerning present science; and explore alternative conceptual systems and lines of experimental inquiry for future science.  If these investigations are successful, they will complement and enrich current specialist science.”

Chang’s most extensive work in complementary science stems from his historical investigations into scientific inquiry relating to the boiling point of water (which he published as part of his 2007 book, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress).  Eighteenth-century savants understood that liquids did not have a true boiling point — rather their boiling behavior changed idiosyncratically with changes in temperature, as well as changes such as the type of vessel that contained them, and whether dissolved gas was removed from the liquid.  Isaac Newton’s distinction between the temperature at which water “begins to boyle” and the temperature at which “water boyles vehemently” is recorded on the thermometer shown below (and is also on the cover of Chang’s book).

Thermometer (absent its glass stem), built by George Adams, scientific instrument-maker to King George III, located at the London Science Museum. Photo from Hasok Chang's "The Myth of the Boiling Point" website.

Remarkably, these idiosyncrasies, widely investigated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were later collapsed into a single boiling point with the development of thermodynamic theory, and apparently lost.  Chang relates that this left him with a “problem of incredulity.  Were the 18th- and 19th-century scientists right? Or was this an error like the infamous recent case of ‘cold fusion’ or the older case of ‘N-rays’? I decided there was only one way to find out: see for myself, in the lab.”

Chang undertook a number of experiments, and verified the phenomena that the historical record told him he should witness.  (He has video on his website).  He relates that

already, my preliminary study has revealed some significant gaps in the common knowledge of boiling in standard physics and chemistry, especially in the way these subjects are taught, even in higher education. These gaps exist not because science is incapable of filling them, but because science needs to set aside many questions and facts in order to allow its focus on the current cutting-edge of research.

He notes that there is, in fact, a considerable body of engineering theory, which helps to explain some of the effects that relate to the relationship between boiling behavior and the type of vessel containing the liquid: “the modern theory of nucleation (bubble-formation), … gives excellent and detailed explanations of the effect of vessel-surface quality on boiling behavior.”  However, answers to other questions remain elusive to him.  For example, it is unclear how water temperature operates in the engineering theory.  In contrast to physicists’ and chemists’ thermodynamic concepts of boiling, “in the best modern theory of boiling we have, the temperature of the water itself has no role to play!”

I think that Chang’s emphasis on the tractability of these questions to present scientific knowledge is important here.  I have often found when I’m trying to reconstruct a history from available sources (my development of the topic guide for early nuclear fission research for my AIP ACAP resource comes to mind) it was necessary to go over the secondary literature with a fine-toothed comb to figure out what was going on with respect to certain details, and I sometimes even ended up back in primary sources, which were themselves sometimes hazy on certain questions.  It is, therefore, not surprising to me that, if you ask the right questions, you would find that certain ones were never actually resolved even within scientific communities — though they might easily have been.

Chang is keen to insist that complementary science is not undertaken in a spirit of criticism of present science (though this “is not to deny that there are situations which call for a prescriptive mode of HPS, in which we question whether science is being conducted properly, and propose external intervention if the answer is negative.”)  He allows that those undertaking complementary investigations of lost or neglected questions are likely to find that “there are good reasons for specialist science to neglect those questions.”  Complementary science is “a shadow discipline, whose boundaries change exactly so as to encompass whatever gets excluded in specialist science.”

There is no reason to do complementary science, except for the fact that it is not part of contemporary science, even though it could be.  This last bit seems important, and is potentially where the philosophical aspect of complementary science comes in.  I doubt Chang would agree that complementary science licenses, say, the conduct of investigations on paranormal phenomena.

Chang’s complementary science might, then, seem to be fairly boring in character, picking up assorted answerable questions from the scrap heap of science.  Personally, I think his more ambitious characterization of complementary science as opening up “specialist” science tends (as did many 20th-century critiques of scientific specialization) to overemphasize the extent to which science naturally encloses itself within silos, thus requiring some external intervention to free it from its myopia.

I tend to think interdisciplinary, or “out-of-the-box” thinking is sufficiently common to keep the sciences well-energized.  (In fact, I think a lot of people in present day science studies would be more apt to criticize scientists for being too willing to promote their work with pie-in-the-sky promises of future gains.)  Further, I would tend to think that outsiders are ill-equipped to make constructive advances on their own without effectively becoming a part of the contemporary community — I am not optimistic about complementary science making much headway on “foundational questions”.

(The small industry dedicated to quantum foundations would, I am sure, beg to differ on this point, no doubt bringing up John Bell’s belated contributions to the Einstein-Bohr disputes, and the belated attention paid to Bell’s work, as a crucial contradictory case; see David Kaiser’s misleadingly but lucratively titled How the Hippies Saved Physics for more info).

In any event, there may well be some gains to be found in opening up past questions that could not be found from hybridizing present research programs.  Chang is fairly bullish about this possibility:

On examining certain discarded elements of past science, we may reach a judgment that their rejection was either for imperfect reasons or for reasons that are no longer valid. Such a judgment would activate the most creative aspect of complementary science. If we decide that there are avenues of knowledge that were closed off for poor reasons, then we can try exploring them again. At that point complementary science would start creating parallel traditions of scientific research that diverge from the dominant traditions that have developed in specialist science.

Chang’s “complementary science” is similar to William Newman and Lawrence Principe’s replication of experiments in alchemy and early modern “chymistry” in that the objective is to recover (or, in Chang’s case, verify) the intellectual content of past knowledge.  However, Chang’s work seems to be even further away from efforts to recover “tacit knowledge”.  Rather, his work seems to be to recover explicit past knowledge and questions.  The tactile dimension is introduced by the necessity of comparing it to present knowledge.  First, it is necessary to verify that past knowledge is, in some sense, still valid.  Also, although Chang does not seem to have initiated an active “complementary” research program as yet, say, on unanswered questions in boiling behavior, such a program would, of course, be as tactile as ordinary science.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Chang styles his website as “an experiment in a new method of scholarly publishing.”  Partially, it is to incorporate video into his presentation, but it is also a venture in trying to get in-depth discussion to the widest possible audience (a combination of the benefits of publishing in scholarly and popular periodicals).  Of course, scholarly bloggers are attempting to do something similar.  Personally I like blogging as an opportunity to learn about and think publicly about others’ work without having to actually contribute  original research in every single area I’m interested in.

Interestingly enough, Chang explains:

I have decided not to put this paper through the normal peer-review mechanism, in which it is only judged by one or two mainstream scholars who are experts in the specific subject. Instead, I am taking peer-review in a broader sense, by bringing this paper to the attention of a number of different people whose views I respect. If they find the paper interesting and valuable, they are free to pass it on very easily to others, who can do the same in turn. Therefore the method of distribution I have chosen is the traditional word-of-mouth, assisted by e-mail and the internet.

So, since this post/series is both taking a critical look at tactile history, as well as promoting it, maybe we’re putting together two pieces a new model right here.


1. 43rd edition of The Giant’s Shoulders: People, Places, and Things | The Dispersal of Darwin - January 16, 2012

[…] Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” – Ether Wave Propaganda: “In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work.” […]

2. Hugh Slaman - August 27, 2014

This article mentions research into the paranormal as something Chang would not countenance under the heading of complementary science. Let’s assume this is correct. But then, why not, exactly? Is this because there is something inherently unscientific with the idea of paranormal phenomena? Perhaps there is no evidence of such phenomena; why could not the conclusion that there is no such evidence be revisited under the heading of complementary science?
Apart from knee-jerk reactions against it from conceited ignoramuses who have never read any of the research into paranormal phenomena, why shouldn’t parapsychology be a part of complementary science?

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