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Book Review: Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers February 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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McCray, Visioneers

I have a new book review out in Technology & Culture of Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2012). Access the review here. If you can’t get by the paywall, the “excerpt” constitutes virtually the entire review.

The only section excluded is my suggestion of a number of books that complement McCray’s history. The Visioneers is a very able contribution to a growing historiography of activities and ideas that have existed at the edge of mainstream science and technology, often flitting between legitimate, even groundbreaking work, and sheer fantasy. While the book revolves around Gerard O’Neill’s prospective studies of viable space colonies, and K. Eric Drexler’s interest in the development of molecular machines, it is really about a broad, multifaceted culture of technological enthusiasm, which McCray also explores through his Leaping Robot blog. If you are not aware of the blog, please have a look.

Other entries in this historiography might include:

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006)

Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches from Another Future (2010)

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011)

Helge Kragh’s Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology (2011 – see my Centaurus review)

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011), and

Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (2012).

If you have additional suggestions, please drop them in the comments.

History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.


History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013

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Hanson, NR

Norwood Russell Hanson

In his 1962 paper, “The Irrelevance of History of Science to Philosophy of Science,” Norwood Russell Hanson referred to a longstanding concern of philosophers of science that historians of science abided by one or another deficient “Weltphilosophie“.  A Weltphilosophy was an explicit or implicit outlook adopted by a historian, which “controls his selection of salient subjects, his alignment of data, his conception of the overall objective of the scientific enterprise, and his evaluations of the heroes and villains within the history of science.”  According to Hanson, “Those who stress the silent operation of a Weltphilosophie in the studies of historians of science then suggest that without philosophical awareness and acuity, the reader must remain at the mercy of the historian’s unspoken assumptions.”

Do historians abide by unspoken philosophical assumptions today?  Critics have often asserted that historians abide by a social constructionist epistemology, and much time and effort was expended in the 1980s and ’90s contesting its validity.  According to Michael Bycroft, it is still useful to analyze and criticize social constructionism precisely because “[m]uch current research in the history of science can be seen either as an affirmation of [social constructionist] claims or as a consequence of them.”  But this is one of the few points on which he and I disagree.  In the past several years, I have come to believe that “social constructionism” is a rhetorical red herring, which confounds an appreciation of less well articulated changes in historical methodology, including the fact that most historians of science no longer abide by any Weltphilosophie at all.


Going SEESHOPping June 1, 2011

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SEE icon

When I first started EWP in 2008, I labored under the misapprehension that historians of science were not only interested in the details of arguments taking place in other areas of science studies, but that those details actually played a large part in setting historiographical priorities.  In that spirit, I did an eight-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans over their new “third wave of science studies” project, Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE).

I first encountered the early SEE papers when I was finishing up work on my dissertation.  Then and now, I have found traditional science studies models to be unhelpful in untangling the methods and sources of legitimacy in the “sciences of policy” that I study.  SEE seemed to be closer to the mark.  I would not go so far as to say that I have ever been particularly invested in the SEE program, or that I use its ideas actively.  It has a lot of components — such as debating the use of “hawk-eye” technology in tennis, or playing “imitation games”, or developing a deep well of analytical concepts — that are beyond the pale of what I do as a historian.  However, I do view SEE as compatible with my historical work, and was therefore eager to do a bit of promotion, since I still thought if historians were not very united by interlinking their research projects, they were united by conceptual concerns that informed their research and writing.

I now believe that historians’ interest in conceptual debates is not actually very deep either.  These debates seem to play a vaguely inspirational role, more a matter of footnotes and casual conversation than real engagement.  To my mind this isn’t a huge tragedy, because I believe it is a lack of synthetic work rather than a lack of conceptual resources that most constrains historical work today.  Still, I remain intrigued by the lack of any real historical component to the SEE program.  And so I am currently typing up a paper on this subject to present at the Fifth International Workshop on Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEESHOP5) in Cardiff, the weekend of June 10.


Escape’s End, or: Philosophy and the Art of Historiography Maintenance September 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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This book makes no pretense of giving the world a new theory of the intellectual operations.  Its claim to attention, if it possesses any, is grounded on the fact that it is an attempt not to supersede, but to embody and systematise, the best ideas which have been either promulgated on its subject by speculative writers, or conformed to by accurate thinkers in their scientific inquiries.

—John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 1843

While he ended up caught in a bloody tangle of barbed wire and killed, I heartily approve of Steve McQueen’s clever orchestration of a mass escape from a Nazi POW camp culminating in a heroic motorcycle chase.  It is, though, perhaps needless to say that academic life is not the film of The Great Escape, historians are not Steve McQueen, and the philosophy of science is not a POW camp (however much it may have felt like one at points in the past).  We do, however, risk a similar outcome in our own Great Escape.

The rationale underlying the Great Escape was the overbearing influence the philosophy of science apparently exercised on historians’ reconstruction of history.  These histories perhaps concentrated too strongly on contributions to a history of ideas and not enough on the actual concerns of the people who made those contributions.  They rendered certain topics of historical importance such as astrology unworthy of historians’ sustained attention, and narrated history in a language of discovery and proof that made the shape of science seem inevitable and the matter of the reception of discoveries a simple question of vision or blindness.

The vision of scientific community offered in philosophy and in philosophy-derived histories was of a sort of hive mind, which assumed that, once demonstrated, scientific ideas should and would spread freely, and that, therefore, it was appropriate to ask (more…)

The Historiographical Idea of the Automaton-Scientist August 26, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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"Go Robot: Do Science!"

For the Gallery of Practices to be productive it must be read.  For the Gallery to be created, elements, or portraits, must be selected.  The danger of the Gallery is that the same thing that is read from the Gallery will be the same ideas informing the selection of its elements.  We will take away a conclusion about the relationship between science and the Cold War because we have selected events indicative of our preconceived understanding of what the relationship between “science” and the “Cold War” was like.

However, there is also a danger that even if a reading of the Gallery manages to escape the principles of its construction—say by constructing a gallery from some broad survey—it is still possible to abstract an idea or practice from the Gallery that makes little sense removed from a system of ideas of which it was initially a part.  Instead, the idea becomes incorporated in a system imposed on the Gallery by the historian’s interpretation, much as a Whiggish narrative of history imposes present ideas on the past.

In the last few years, there have been attempts to develop a history of the morality and virtues of the sciences—the history of the “scientific self”.  In The Scientific Life (2008), Steven Shapin drew upon a gallery of historical rhetoric for evidence of changing attitudes concerning whether scientific figures have been morally equated with or separated from ordinary people.  Similarly, in their book Objectivity (2007), Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have assembled a gallery of scientific “atlases”—collections of images designed to acquaint readers with a body of scientific knowledge—and have connected representational strategies, via a history of ideas about “objectivity”, to a history of the “epistemic virtues” that have inhabited scientific personas .

By making representation a matter of moral imperative rather than a matter of intellectual choice of representational strategy based on a concordant choice of representational goals—such epistemological deliberations do not appear in histories belonging to the Great Escape historiography—Galison and Daston makes sense of perceived patterns in these representational practices by drawing on a longstanding historiographical idea: the automaton-scientist.

The thesis of this post is that the historiographical idea of the automaton-scientist functions as a way of automating history, if you will, by relieving (more…)

The Great Escape July 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Abandoning philosophy

Abandoning philosophy

This post is meant to be the first in a series concerning the relationship between the history of science and the philosophy of science, paying special attention to the influential notion within the history of science that the philosophy of science has a deleterious influence on historiography.

Philosophy, in this view, injures inquiry by removing from consideration some of science’s most important non-scientific contexts; by causing historians to attempt to investigate incoherent questions rooted in philosophically defined problems (such as those relating to moments of discovery, confirmation, falsification, and proof); and by concentrating narratives on histories of disembodied ideas (vacuum versus plenum, atoms versus continuum, myth/confusion versus reason, determinism versus vitalism/free will, mind-body questions) and on the Whiggish pedigrees of disembodied theories (the theory of natural selection, the periodicity of elements, etc…), instead of on the actions and debates of scientists themselves, which the archives reveal did not turn on these preoccupations.

Sociology played a big role in “the great escape” (as I am calling it) from philosophy.  If philosophy has to do with the interaction between ideas and experience, it then has only a very narrowly defined role in the history of scientific practice.  The sensibility, I think, is captured nicely by sociologist Harry Collins in his recent overview of his career-long research program on the practice of gravitational wave physics, Gravity’s Shadow (2004).  Here he defends a “relativist” versus a “realist” (one might say sociological versus philosophical) perspective: (more…)

Watch your language, Pt. 2: Galison vs. Staley June 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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In Pt. 1, I discussed the historiographical problem of under what circumstances it is useful to criticize someone else’s characterization of history, highlighting Peter Galison’s rebuke in Image and Logic to Andy Pickering’s account of the discovery of the J/ψ particle from Constructing Quarks.  I noted that Galison took exception to Pickering’s idea of “tuning” experiment to theory on the count of its adherence to an antipositivist understanding of the history of experiment as proceeding in some sort of theoretical relationship to theory rather than on its own terms.  This independence of experimental tradition from theoretical concerns is part of a useful view of history Galison calls “intercalation”.  I noted that the issue of theory-dependence can have political overtones, but that the issue is also important to understanding how knowledge-production works, and to constructing coherent and accurately-worded historical accounts.

But just how important is accuracy in wording?  When is one making a point and when is one just nitpicking?  To address this question I want to skip ahead a couple of years to a special issue of Perspectives on Science dedicated to Image and Logic in which philosopher of science Kent Staley disputed Galison’s division of modern particle detection into epistemologically distinct “image” and “logic” traditions.  Galison responded in the same issue entirely confident that he was being visited by some easily vanquished ghost out of the historiographical past.  Yet, to my mind, this is a dispute that Staley won.  I’ll explain why, and then get on to the ultimate question of whether it matters.

First off, I should say that I’m predisposed to Staley’s argument.  When I first thoroughly read Image and Logic in (more…)

Watch your language, Pt. 1 June 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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Or, a notion concerning when, how, and why to nitpick historical writing.

I know it must seem obsequious to praise one’s advisor’s work to high heaven on a blog, but I have to be honest: Peter Galison’s 1997 book Image and Logic on the history of particle detectors is, in my mind, one of the finest works of historiographical craftsmanship I can think of.  The book is well-known in the theory community for the idea of the “trading zone”, and is thus attached to the whole fashion of studying “boundary objects” and things with multiple meanings to different people, etc., etc.  If that’s all you take away from the book, you, like most of its readers, are a “Chapters 1 and 9 person”.  I like to think of myself as a “Chapters 2 through 8 person”, which is to say, someone who is interested in the history of particle detectors, and the way Galison presents it.  MIT prof Dave Kaiser (who was a Galison student in the ’90s and assisted in the assembly of the book and knows it in intimate detail) likes to kid me for citing “chapter and verse”.

(I was discussing the “trading zone” versus “history of particle detectors” issue with my boss, Greg Good, who related to me how he once went to a talk given by Thomas Kuhn, which began with him saying the word “paradigm” and then informing his massive audience that that was the last they would hear of it, and then proceeded to discuss the history of black body radiation theory in loving detail.)

In considering the book; and the relationship between philosophy, sociology, and history; I like to think of Chapters 1 and 9 as laying out useful ideas or principles for coherent historical writing.  Galison joins the sociologists in their rejection of histories written as a succession of theories, or as playing out according to some dialectic between theory and experiment.  However, he has been known to chide sociologists for adhering to their own theoretical (more…)

SEE Q&A (1): Why is this a new wave? September 25, 2008

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Ether Wave Propaganda is pleased to present as a special serialized feature this Q&A session with Cardiff sociologists Harry Collins and Rob Evans regarding their Sociology of Expertise and Experience (SEE) program.  As a special feature, it will not adhere to the usual length restrictions we try to keep on posts, and, therefore, will run unusually long. Also note that this post does not represent a spontaneous exchange.  Collins and Evans have asked for clarifications on the original questions, and have carefully crafted joint responses.  They have also asked me to ask them to modify their responses if I deemed them inadequate or wrong, so as to make the Q&A as useful as possible.  I saw no need to do so for the first question.

Will Thomas: SEE is an attempt to move beyond the sociology of knowledge into a sociology of expertise, and is explicitly formulated as a “third wave” in the sociology of science.  What is it that most distinguishes SEE from other attempts to move beyond the initial insights of SSK, such as the Actor-Network Theory, or Pickering’s “mangle”?

Asked to clarify what I had in mind as the proposed novelty in ANT and the Mangle, I replied: (more…)