Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
Tags: Allan Franklin, Augustus de Morgan, Barry Barnes, Bruno Latour, David Bloor, Gerald Geison, Gerald Holton, Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, James Watson, John Maynard Keynes, Louis Pasteur, Mary Jo Nye, Michael Bycroft, Michael Mulkay, Michael Polanyi, Nicholas Wade, Peter Medawar, R. A. Fisher, Rebekah Higgitt, Robert Merton, Robert Millikan, Simon Schaffer, Stephen Brush, Steve Fuller, Steven Shapin, Thomas Kuhn, William Bateson, William Broad
The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.
Michael Bycroft has already posted on the OverlyHonestMethods issue, discussing how the trend, far from presenting a newly accurate view of science, is actually a very partial image of how science works, and is, therefore, misleading in its own way. This point is fairly easy for our colleagues to take, because the point of highlighting the OverlyHonestMethods trend in the first place was that it serves as a corrective to some more dominant point of view, and, therefore, was never intended to be a full picture. Indeed, Bycroft’s post is itself labeled a “corrective” to what was already a corrective. The thing about debates over the value of correctives is that they are not really debates about (in this case) the nature of science at all—or, if they are, they are very bad ones—but about what sort of images of science ought to be presented to various audiences so as to do them the greatest possible service.
If we follow these conversations, it swiftly becomes clear that nobody has any firmly grounded notions about what sorts of images scientists and the public hold or need, if indeed they need any at all. Instead, it becomes apparent that commentators’ perceptions of the need for certain kinds of images depends not only on their particular view of the world and its problems, but, more importantly I would argue, upon what moral they see themselves as qualified and called upon to convey to whomever will listen.
In this post, I would like to offer a criss-crossing trail of historical bread crumbs indicating some of the avenues the tradition of offering “correctives” to a dominant conception of “science” has gone down over the past 50-odd years. The subject demands more rigorous treatment, but this post will do for now for our purposes.
The earliest clear expression of this tradition that I’ve seen is in physical-chemist-turned-sociologist Michael Polanyi’s (1891-1976) 1958 work, Personal Knowledge (based on his 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen), which stressed the role of things like craft knowledge, suspicion, and perception in scientific work. Polanyi made his iconoclastic intensions immediately clear in his preface (vii):
I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences, this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsified our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. I want to establish an alternative ideal of knowledge, quite generally.
Polanyi was a well-known opponent of the Marxist movement to “plan” science (itself a much misunderstood topic which we should discuss another time), and his conception of the importance of subjectivity in science was central to his conviction that science should not be planned. Polanyi’s book was also heavily influenced by psychological concepts, which problematized the relations between perception and belief. For more on Polanyi, have a look at Mary Jo Nye’s Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science (2011).
As Nye recommends, and as the reference to psychology demands, we can turn swiftly to Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), who made rather legendary use of Gestalt psychology in the formulation of his concept of the “paradigm”. And it so happens that on page 1 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn defined an explicitly iconoclastic “role for history”:
History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed. That image has previously been drawn, even by scientists themselves, mainly from the study of finished scientific achievements as these are recorded in the classics and, more recently, in the textbooks from which each new scientific generation learns to practice its trade.
Kuhn’s casting of himself as an exorcist of the textbook-spawned demon by which “we” are evidently “possessed” deserves notation—and it makes for a cool blog-post title—but, we can also follow his more specific “won’t somebody please think of the children” line into the smutty ’70s and Stephen Brush’s 1974 Science article, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?”1 In his piece Brush suggested that a role for science education might be to instill students with pristine ideals, but that, ultimately, it might be better to let history tell them the facts of life before they hear them from someone else.
Backtracking, Kuhn also mentioned scientific papers, which leads us directly to Peter Medawar’s 1963 BBC broadcast-turned-essay, “Is the Scientific Paper Fraudulent?” Medawar (1915-1987), a Nobel Prize-winner and a well known science writer represents a figure we used to see more often than we do now in these conversations: the renegade scientist who dares Speak the Truth. Of course, for Medawar, scientific papers weren’t really fraudulent; rather:
The scientific paper is a fraud in the sense that it does give a totally misleading narrative of the processes of thought that go into the making of scientific discoveries. The inductive format of the scientific paper should be discarded. The discussion which in the traditional scientific paper goes last should surely come at the beginning. The scientific facts and scientific acts should follow the discussion, and scientists should not be ashamed to admit, as many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their minds along uncharted by-ways of thought; that they are imaginative and inspirational in character; that they are indeed adventures of the mind.
Probably the most famous renegade scientist is James Watson (b. 1928). On this blog, I’ve already discussed the widespread media stir caused by his 1968 memoir, The Double Helix, as well as sociologist Robert Merton’s rush to declare that the “human” and competitive image of science stressed in discussions of the book were not pathologies of twentieth-century science, but rather a constant feature stemming from the sociological structure of scientific inquiry, which he reckoned has been hidden by “pious biographers” who wrote in “sapless prose” and turned scientists into—quoting mathematician and Newton biographer2 Augustus de Morgan (1806-1871)— “monsters of perfection”.
But getting back to scientific papers and the idea of fraudulent scientific presentation, we might also take our story all the way back to statistician and genetic theorist R.A. Fisher’s (1890-1962) 1936 paper in Annals of Science, “Has Mendel’s Work Been Rediscovered?” which tackled, among other things, a footnote written by genetics pioneer William Bateson (1861-1926) suggesting that Mendel rigged his reports of his experiments. Among his many intellectual peculiarities, Fisher was actually a fairly sensitive historian of scientific reasoning and practice, and his original paper is worth reading.3 One of the points he made was—this will be familiar—that data may be presented in a certain way for expository and pedagogical purposes (119):
Mendel was an experienced and successful teacher, and might well have adopted a style of presentation suitable for the lecture-room without feeling under any obligation to complicate his story by unessential details. The style of didactic presentation, with its conventional simplifications, represents, as is well known, a tradition far more ancient among scientific writers than the more literal narratives in which experiments are now habitually presented. [?] Models of the former would certainly be more readily accessible to Mendel than of the latter.
Effectively, those pesky textbooks again. Fisher ultimately exonerated Mendel, and presented the case as an example of what careful historical scrutiny can say about how scientific experimentation and reasoning works. Similar points would be made by historians Gerald Holton in 1978 and Allan Franklin in 1981 concerning Robert Millikan’s arguments and handling of data in his famous oil-drop experiments.
However, historical questions surrounding Mendel’s and Millikan’s treatment of data became case examples in journalists William Broad and Nicholas Wade’s 1982 book, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science. The book—again—sought to overturn a “flawed ideal” (the title of their first chapter) in order to present a picture of how “science really works,” as opposed to the “conventional wisdom,” which held that “science is a strictly logical process, objectivity is the essence of the scientist’s attitude to his work, and scientific claims are rigorously checked by peer scrutiny and the replication of experiments” (7). Read carefully, Broad and Wade’s treatment of their cases was somewhat more subtle than the book’s inflammatory (and, indeed, deceitful) language might suggest. Nevertheless, the idea that Mendel and Millikan committed scientific malpractice by cooking their data swiftly entered the broader lexicon of readers of popular science.
Trained historians have generally been more careful. In The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995), Gerald Geison used the “discrepancies” between the published record of Louis Pasteur’s work and the “private science” recovered from Pasteur’s notebooks as an opportunity to analyze the social and intellectual relations between the private and public in science, and explicitly denied that “private documents somehow permit direct access to the ‘real’ work of the scientist” (15). At the same time, Geison did set up the usual foils: the book would show “how much the standard Pastorian legend needs to be qualified, even transformed” (4); how great scientists like Pasteur were not great in that they were “the ‘first’ to advance concepts that look ‘right’ in the light of current knowledge, nor insofar as they adhered to the precepts of an allegedly clear-cut Scientific Method that their lessers and rivals presumably violated” (10); indeed, it would “gradually become clear that some of Pasteur’s most important work often failed to conform to ordinary notions of Scientific Method” (16).
If the iconoclastic tradition was a rhetorical maneuver that scientists, sociologists, historians, and journalists could use to provide an aura of cogency about their commentary, it was also a weapon that could be turned inward. As we have seen on this blog, in the 1970s the sociologist Michael Mulkay accused Mertonian sociology of reinforcing a rhetorical “ideology of science,” which did not resemble the actual practice of science, in order to enhance its authority. (Sociologist Steve Fuller has more recently suggested that Thomas Kuhn was engaged in a similar pursuit.)
Proponents of the sociology of scientific knowledge would make great use of the iconoclastic tradition. In Knowledge and Social Imagery (1976), David Bloor would accuse prior sociologists of lacking the iconoclastic “nerve and will” (4) to apply their tools to the domain of scientific knowledge. Meanwhile, where history had been traditionally cast as a tool used to destroy false images, in the late 1970s Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin suggested that historians’ work had itself been systematically corrupted by a false image of science, specifically a presumption of its “individualistic epistemology”. It would, instead, be the adoption of insights from SSK that would allow historians to create proper, “naturalistic” images of science henceforth.
In Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), Shapin, with historian Simon Schaffer, would identify the seventeenth-century rise of experimental philosophy as a particular historical moment when a false image of science arose, which corresponded to a denial of knowledge’s “conventional and artifactual status,” and which was only in the “late twentieth century” being “called into serious question” (344). In The Pasteurization of France (1988), Bruno Latour seized on this periodization to identify it as the moment where “we … created, in a single movement, politics on one side and science or technoscience on the other” (5). Recast as a false separation of “nature” from “culture,” in 1993 Latour would take this false image of the world to define “modern” thought, and thus his own work as tantamount to an era-defining intellectual revolution.
So, I suppose the point of all this is that we probably should be aware of a solid half-century of critical tradition weighing down upon our heads before we trust any instincts we might have that what the world genuinely needs from historians is an Honest Discussion about the nature of scientific work, and that it might be about to happen any time now. That’s what Polanyi thought.
1I always feel guilty wheeling this article out whenever the subject of the “role” of history of science comes up, because it’s the only time I ever mention Brush on this blog; I really ought to find an opportunity to talk about his work in the history of physics….
2Iconoclasm and Newton is a subject all its own, involving, among others, economist John Maynard Keynes, who in 1946 published an essay entitled “Newton the Man”. On this subject I will pass the ball off to Rebekah Higgitt’s blog post, “Newton and Alchemy: A Constant Surprise?”
3Among other interesting points in the paper, Fisher discusses the “polemical use” of the concept of “rediscovery” of genetics, which makes him sound bizarrely like a recent-vintage professional historian of science.