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Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been.  Part 2 explains how it does so.

As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good.  Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world.  The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so?  Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse?  A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?

No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy.  Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil.  Skepticism can prevent that evil.  Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail.  This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell).  Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument.  Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.

What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an  important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness.  Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.


Globality vs. Semi-Globality June 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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These are not very descriptive terms, but they make the case well enough. I think we have to admit that we’ve never really given up on Conant’s project to explain science via historical case study. Even if we no longer pursue a philosophy of scientific knowledge, the search for theories thereof has not ceased. All the big historians still are very eager to make some kind of contributions to the big questions. Look at the scope of Galison’s questions–locality, globality, ethics, context. These are not questions about what is within the history of science, but questions that the history of science might address. They are not a path out of case study–they are a recipe for more.

The other pieces in this Isis focus section venture even further in this direction. They are permeated by trying to address the nature of reality, the nature of observation, and so forth. They are historicized, but not around scientific practice, but the philosophers who have explicitly addressed these questions: count the number of times pre-Kantian, Kantian, post-Kantian, and neo-Kantian appear… as if Kant or any other philosopher (let’s not get into the Heidegger fascination) were actually standard bearers who affected directions in scientific practice. It’s true many influential scientists (especially Germans) were influenced by these philosophical discussions. But we study them at the expense of understanding less articulated, more ingrained traditions of practice. Are we even playing a dangerous and somewhat illegitimate game by trying to read global philosophical debates (and historical epochs) onto localized practice?

If we want to be intellectual historians, are we even very good ones? Why, when we talk about the Enlightenment, is there such a fixation on Kant, even though he was a fairly marginal figure in his time? Even a cursory examination of Enlightenment science and philosophy reveals that it was not particularly Kantian. What about Hume? What about the scores of other thinkers that usually don’t make the canon, but were quite influential in their day?

But, big “global” questions aside, why aren’t key “semi-global” questions more hotly debated? The older historiography is extremely useful on certain semi-global problems. Buchwald’s book on the wave nature of light (1989) will surely go in my canon, but the topic would be considered parochial today, since it is not addressed to externalist links or the nature of observation. It would, I imagine, receive a politely glowing review in Isis (and elsewhere) and then be promptly ignored. And there are whole hosts of untapped semi-global issues–the rise of methods of argumentation in economics, the intertwining of science and engineering in the 20th century, the evolution of the concept of radiation and the proliferation of physical-chemical radiation studies, the professionalization of the 19th century laboratory (there’s got to be something on this that I’m not aware of).

All of these are extremely important, key “semi-global” issues that could use penetrating historical treatments, but I simply can’t imagine them being hot topics of conversation in colloquia, seminars, HSS meetings, and so forth. They’re too historical, too internalist, too detail-oriented, and not philosophically/sociologically global, and most definitely not capable of being treated via case study.

PS. When we get around to canon-building in a couple of weeks, I suspect we’ll find that the early modernists and maybe the history of medicine people are way ahead of everyone in addressing the semi-global, but that’s a topic for another day.

Where did all the scientists go? March 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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A bedtime story.

Once upon a time, most historians of scientists were Scientists who took an interest in history. They had a close relationship to the Philosophers. In fact, the origins of the field are usually traced to Harvard President James B. Conant’s desire to find out How Science Works. They did some pretty good work, but took too many things to be Obvious that were actually quite Problematic. So, some Analysts became involved, and made some Notable Contributions. Soon the Analysts only wanted to talk amongst themselves, and eventually the Science Wars broke out, and this made the Scientists go away, and thus the Analysts had the history of science all to themselves. The End.

I think most everyone now agrees that the science wars were absurd; but I haven’t heard much talk of rebuilding from the rubble. Frankly, I miss the scientists (yes, of course, there are plenty who are still around, but we’re painting in broad strokes here). Sure, they weren’t the best historians in the world, and most of them weren’t willing to follow the rest of us into some really interesting questions, but there are a lot of deep thinkers out there among their ranks. Here at the AIP, we are actually closer to them than to academic science studies. But much of the talk seems to be “heritage this” and “preservation that” (commensurate with the fact that the History Center is basically a co-entity with the fabulous Niels Bohr Library and Archives). Going back to square one, there’s a reason why there was so much enthusiasm for the history of science after World War II, and it wasn’t all about justifying public expenditure. I’ll compact the way I see it into a pithy sentence: history makes us more aware of the assumptions underlying practices (whether in history or today).

I think we need to put more effort into putting out the kinds of studies that scientists actually find professionally interesting. Personally, I know Dave Kaiser’s work on Feynman diagrams, which is read in the physics community, and also managed to receive the HSS Pfizer Prize. Hopefully if we do good enough work and practice good enough outreach, we might see some more interesting discussions about practice in the scientific communities as well. Then maybe the philosophers can come in from the cold, too. That’s not really my field, though. I just don’t want scientists to think of what I do as an antiquarian enterprise.