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Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.

Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.

Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.


Philosophy, Sociology, and History: A Pocket History January 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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To understand the history of the history of science profession, it is very important to understand its contentious and evolving relationship with the philosophy and sociology of science, not to mention the history of philosophy.  Here I’d like to outline a quick “pocket” history of the relationship between history, philosophy and sociology, and beg the tolerance of connoisseurs for boiling the points down so recklessly.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

Traditionally, the history of science has been of interest on account of its ability to reveal and demonstrate ideas about epistemology.  William Whewell’s The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840) followed quickly on his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837).  Epistemology-oriented philosophers before and since have deployed cases from the history of science as illustrations of their theories about the progression of knowledge, and contain a normative element about how reliable knowledge can best be achieved.

In the 20th century, positivist philosophers and Karl Popper’s anti-positivist theory of the progress of science suggested clear demarcations between proper application of method and straying away from that method.  History could illuminate these debates.  According to a Popperian history of science, we don’t start from basic truths and build up; we start from a sort of primeval error and confusion (such as with the Aristotelian philosophy, which had been thoroughly trashed by Enlightenment philosophers) and, eliminating false beliefs, proceed toward truth.  What is interesting in any progressive history is the origins and acceptance of accepted ideas.  So, let’s say we read William Herschel, we easily pick out the discovery of Uranus (more…)