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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,

This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

According to Shapin, the scientific community uses a mythological view of history to attempt to control the prestige and authority of science, crowding out healthier, more sensitive, readings. In his review he writes:

What is interesting is that these different stories about the historical development of science persist, with no prospect that professional historians of science will ever own their subject as, say, art historians own the history of art. Science remains almost unique in that respect. It’s modernity’s reality-defining enterprise, a pattern of proper knowledge and of right thinking, in the same way that—though Mr. Weinberg will hate the allusion—Christian religion once defined what the world was like and what proper knowledge should be. The same circumstance that gives science its immense modern cultural prestige also ensures that there will be an audience for its idealization and celebration.

Shapin’s view here derives from the belief of some mid-twentieth-century critics that “science” had reached a point of crisis. Science’s purportedly authoritative features—its rigorous methodology, its objectivity, its commitment to free and constructive debate—had all been subjected to intense doubt. Scholarship affirmed that naive images of science simply could not withstand scrutiny.

Rather than suppose that existing ideas about the features of science required refinement, many of these critics reckoned those ideas actually described an “ideology of science” that was used rhetorically to bolster science’s social status by claiming it was removed from society. If the benefits of science were to continue to be realized, the critics asserted, this fragile ideological vision would have to be discarded, and the epistemology and sociology of the subject would have to be placed on entirely new foundations. If scientists protested, such protest only served as evidence of their adherence to, and dependence on, their crumbling ideology.

For Shapin specifically, this division between historian-critic and scientist has always manifested itself as a division between, respectively, calm, mature realists, and histrionic defenders of unjustified deference, i.e., “table thumpers.”


Because, in his view, scientists are ideologically, emotionally incapable of seeing and portraying science as it really is and has been, it is left to professional historians and sociologists of science to pick up the pieces. Note the title of Shapin’s career retrospective essay collectionNever Pure: Historical Studies of Science as If It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, and its introductory essay, “Lowering the Tone in the History of Science: A Noble Calling.”

What I think needs to be understood is that the vision of a histrionic, ideologically entrenched scientific community clinging to unjustified social authority may well itself be a myth created by historians and sociologists in an attempt to define a more heroic role for themselves. Shapin has played an important role in generating a mythology around this myth.

Shapin and Schaffer, LeviathanShapin’s 1985 book with Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump could have simply been a deeply insightful (if rather esoteric) high-level inquiry into certain features of mid-seventeeth-century philosophy. However, the famous last pages of the book assert that the history is actually nothing less than an eschatological account of how a 300-year reign of a naive understanding of experimental science came to be, and how it was bound to end:

In this book we have examined the origins of a relationship between our knowledge and our polity that has , in its fundamentals, lasted three centuries. … We have written about a period in which the nature of knowledge, the nature of polity, and the nature of the relationships between them were matters for wide-ranging and practical debate. A new social order emerged together with the rejection of an old intellectual order. In the late twentieth century that settlement is, in turn, being called into serious question. Neither our scientific knowledge, nor the constitution of our society, nor traditional statements about the connections between our society and our knowledge are taken for granted any longer. As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that it responsible for what we know.

Readers of the book, it is heavily implied, would find themselves able to understand science with a maturity and poise that others still lacked, and would thus find themselves prepared to guide the emergence of a new, more stable intellectual order. This mythology has been picked up by others, most directly by Bruno Latour, who has sought to establish himself as the purveyor of a new metaphysics of knowledge.

In rejecting such a mythology, are we thereby compelled to defer to the scientific and technological communities, and the histories they produce? Certainly not—it is the mythology that compels us to suppose that those communities demand our blind deference.

The central trouble with Shapin’s view is that it basically assumes an intellectual and ideological gap between historians and scientists, which gives rise to just such suppositions.


This gap can have historiographical consequences. It may well discourage us from assuming that past ideas that do not conform to more modern notions are unreasonable, which is certainly for the good. However, whatever the shortcomings of his own account may be, Steven Weinberg may also be justified in complaining that historians (with notable exceptions) have had little interest in exploring epistemological efficacy. It is symptomatic of the gap we have constructed that if a historian did so it might well draw suspicions that, rather than studying a real and interesting phenomenon, he or she was writing a “heroic” or “teleological” narrative, and could thus be considered beholden to the project of securing scientists’ social authority.

Beyond that, the gap has made it difficult to think of scientific culture as anything other than a blithe culture, incapable of sensitive self-reflection on the nature of science, and on its place in society, and badly requiring the intervention of a critical elite. This discourages historians from the search for, and the vigorous exploration of, traditions of critical reflection within the sciences, and also the many ways that scientific research has meshed effectively with other cultures and institutions.**

It also discourages historians from reflecting on the adequacy of their own critical tools. We are trained to regard scientific and technical cultures as pervaded by reckless hype machines. While science studies has certainly been criticized by scientists for its supposed failings, no one, to my knowledge, has seen fit to lodge the much more damaging complaint that the discipline is running a (comparatively miniature and less effective) hype machine of its own, continually boasting of the superiority of its critical tools, without those tools ever being subjected to serious independent critical analysis.

While the effects of the divide that has been established between scientists and historians should not be regarded as all-encompassing, I do believe it is real, that historians share a substantial fraction of the blame, and that its effects have been corrosive.

While I would not regard scientists as well positioned to offer reliable macro-scale histories, I believe they can play an important role in a well-functioning historiography. Such a partnership is not easy—a lot communication is needed to build a common ground of knowledge and perspective, and to reconcile intentions.

A few of us, myself very much included, are working hard to build this common ground. I value and respect many of Shapin’s scholarly insights, but our task would certainly be easier if powerful figures in the profession were more interested in cultivating that ground.*** Instead the tendency is still to nurse sectarian tendencies, tearing that ground apart—and, most corrosively, encouraging others to tear it apart—with facile and self-justificatory diagnoses of some general scientific mentality.

In my follow-up post, I will outline how an alternative, more positive vision of the historian-scientist relationship can function.

*The review if behind a paywall, but you can access it if you do a Google search such as Shapin Weinberg wsj that brings it up as a search result.

**It may be a sign of the contrarian streak running through the history of science that a great deal of attention has actually been paid to the ways that scientific and religious thought have meshed much more harmoniously than many suppose, while the modern history of “science and politics” is still routinely portrayed as turbulent and tenuous.

***Notably, in some instances, such as in his The Scientific Life (2009), Shapin has cultivated such ground, offering a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of social relations within the research and technology complex—to the point of anticipating blowback from science studies colleagues. See this post for explanation of how this sympathetic position fits within Shapin’s larger goal of establishing a mature view of science.



1. Michael Barany - April 15, 2015

You raise a lot of valuable questions here, Will. I’d be interested to hear how you would contrast the view of your last few paragraphs with what Harry Collins has been advocating as a “third wave” in science studies (for more than a decade now, seemingly with more critics than supporters). Have science/industry historians had much to do with what some have maligned as apologist or deferentialist science studies of expertise?

Will Thomas - April 18, 2015

An excellent question, Michael. I’m not sure if Harry’s position has evolved since this Q&A that I did with him and Rob Evans some years ago. I think there’s a lot to like in their work, and I think many of the criticisms of them are off-base, but I think there are some issues that they don’t address as seriously as they need to.

As I understand it, Harry’s position is essentially the fairly mainstream position that we need to defer to expertise, where that expertise can lay a legitimate claim to it. Thus, we ought to defer to scientists on the scientific aspects of policy problems, but that doesn’t mean that policy is in some sense beholden to science. If there are overriding aspects falling outside the realm of scientific expertise, then we can and should make decisions on this basis. Collins and Evans call this “elective modernism.”

One of their favorite examples is denial of the efficacy of retroviral drugs by Thabo Mbeki. On the question of efficacy, they urge that Mbeki not be regarded as having the expertise to address the question, that we should defer to the medical experts. But, if the question were whether using retroviral drugs enthralled South Africa to drug companies, we might disagree with Mbeki, but he would at least have the right to make policy on the basis of that political calculation.

That Collins could regard this position as a revelation, and that STS’s understanding of it, and pointed argument surrounding it, proved elusive and controversial, shows us how little discussions about expertise advanced in 20+ years (now more like 30+) years of STS.

Now, Collins has sometimes offered the short-hand that expertise concerning scientific knowledge is not a level playing field: scientists have more scientific knowledge than lay people, and therefore “science” does deserve deference on scientific issues.

I think this clouds the problem, and plays into critics’ hands. Collins and Evans have built up a fairly nuanced way of talking about “expertise,” revolving around the way individuals evaluate each others’ expertise, and the way that collectives of expertise form. In my opinion, this tends to obviate the need to talk about “science”. “Science” is really a collection of expertises, and, in this view, there is nothing really to distinguish specifically scientific expertises among all expertises we might want to defer to on various questions (e.g., “carpenters”, “French speakers”, etc.)

I think Collins also tends to overplay the act of deference, particularly since his own framework provides a rich vocabulary of “contributory” and “interactional” expertise. In organizations such as tech companies, managers rarely have full expertise encompassing the expertise of all the people they manage. But they often have enough expertise to make managerial-level decisions in dialogue with all those experts. This kind of action is partly deferential, but the choice of whom to trust is not made arbitrarily or on the basis of purely social considerations; there is a level of understanding there that arises through dialogue. The link to the “trading zone” concept has been made, and I think rightly so.

In polity, there is less opportunity for populations to develop a dialogue with the multitudes of experts who contribute to decisions. Even the interactions between elected representatives and experts is cursory and often, shall we say, less than satisfactory. However, I would posit that on the macro-politics and macro-society level, we are not really talking about deference to experts at all, but deference to the institutions employing experts (e.g., agencies, companies). Such deference is based on general, heavily impressionistic (largely journalistic) assessments of the effectiveness of those institutions. It is subject to revocation, such revocation likely being based at least as much on political fortunes or consumer sentiment as on things like formal program evaluations.

One thing I think Collins tends to elide is the problem of matching expertise with problems. Let’s say we have a problem to solve, and know we need to employ experts, but we face different sets of experts who do not agree, but all of them are part of groups that can converse quite fluently among themselves. How are we non-experts to determine which ones to defer to? I don’t think this is a fatal problem, but it is non-trivial and one that needs to be taken seriously.

On the role of science and industry historians, I think they are heavily concerned with instances of the abuse of expertise; the prototypical “establishment” scientist assuring the public that Chemical X is perfectly safe. They may be an expert group, but one that we should not automatically defer to.

To my mind, this is basically a classic conflict-of-interest problem, and speaks to the need for independent, and even antagonistic evaluation. There is no perfect solution to the problem, since there are not always resources for antagonistic and independent evaluations, and, even when there are, there can be affinity biases among experts. My own take on this is that it’s not really a science studies problem, since, even in the stereotypical Era of the White Labcoat (Collins’s “first wave”) it’s not clear to me that “science,” per se, enjoyed exemption from suspicion of conflicts of interest. The problem is essentially equivalent to conflicts of interest with judges, or stock brokers, or journalists, etc.

Hope all this answers the question! I’ve not taken the time to edit this carefully, so please follow up if I’m unclear on anything, or if there are additional points you’d like to talk about.

Michael Barany - April 20, 2015

Thanks for such a detailed elaboration, and for pointing to the Q&A. I suppose a contrasting way to think about where expertise sits in a well-functioning historiography is something like Hasok Chang’s pluralism, where the idea seems to be to take expert scientific claims as seriously as possible but to do so largely without deferring to or extensively partnering with working scientists. So, among other things: re-creations by historians of 19c experiments interpreted in various idioms, yes; bothering about what Weinberg thinks about Newton (or even, in some respects, what he thinks now about what near-contemporary physicists did in the past), no. Chang’s proposals have launched their own historiographical debates (see e.g. Gordin’s review in HSNS), of course.

My own experience as a historian of mathematics is probably a bit different from what historians of science/industry or other sciences tend to encounter. There have been some famously knock-down-drag-out historiographical clashes between mathematicians and historians of various stripes, but mathematicians seem like especially voracious consumers of their discipline’s history, including accounts by historians, and historians of mathematics have tended conversely to put a special premium on mathematical expertise (though what valence to give it has been fodder for much historiographical debate).

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3. scritic (@scritic) - May 10, 2015

Hi Will,

I just read this post and your link to your interview with Harry Collins in the comments. I should say that the interview helped me a lot in making the SSE perspective clearer but also to articulate my problem with it.

Like most people trained in STS, I found the original “third wave” article a bit discomforting (though I’ve found the distinction between “contributory” and “interactional” expertise very useful in my own work). C&E were saying that they, as sociologists, could come up with an ideal framework for determining the right mix of experts and the public with respect to an issue. This made me uncomfortable; it reminds me too much of Richard Rorty’s characterization of philosophy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: the way that philosophy was set up to be the ur-discipline to adjudicate knowledge claims and boundaries between disciplines, and what C&E were trying to establish for sociology here (or rather for SSE) seemed far too similar. I wouldn’t be comfortable giving sociology (or history, or anything for that matter) that kind of privileged position in the hierarchy of disciplines.

But then, on the other hand, it seemed important that STS not always take an outsider-like “critical” stance on everything, but contribute something back towards public institutions we’ve spent so much time unpacking (to understand the source of their authority). And C&E sometimes suggest — when they name their intervention after the periodic table, for instance — that their guidelines are something that policy-makers/politicians can sort of keep at hand, and dip into in times of need when they are thinking about aspects of public regulation.

But the example C&E gives in your interview, vis-a-vis the South African President’s actions on AIDS medications, does not convince me at all (I sense that you are not convinced either). The idea that President Mbeki’s actions re: anti-retroviral drugs are justifiable, but only if he gave the right reasons (i.e. political, rather than scientific) seems awfully muddled to me. If that’s a conclusion you come to using the periodic table of expertises, then it seems to be of limited practical value. On the other hand, Jasanoff’s injunction that political and scientific negotiations should be conducted simultaneously may not be as concrete as a periodic table, but it still seems like a good heuristic for a bureaucrat interested in some sort of institutional design.

Anyway, I’m curious if you have more thoughts on how C&E’s insights on expertise could be made more practical, if we do want to actually help build things rather than just break them down. (Sorry to take this post away from its original topic which was about what could be the most productive relationship between scientists and historians of science. But perhaps this is an analogous problem.)

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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View | Ether Wave Propaganda

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