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Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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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.


Is it idol-smashing time again already?



Tacit Knowledge and Tactile History: Otto Sibum and “Gestural Knowledge” December 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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An 1869 illustration of James Joule's simple, but difficult-to-replicate experiment demonstrating the mechanical equivalent of heat.

This post is the first in a short series on what I call “tactile history”: the practice of historical research that extends beyond examining documents to examining the objects of science and the locations they inhabited, and to the actual reenactment of historical scientific research.  The objective of tactile history is to recover aspects of historical work that would not have survived in the form of a written report.  In this vein, tactile history could be seen as a step beyond “notebook studies” — say, Gerald Holton on Robert Millikan’s oil drop experiments,* or Gerald Geison’s The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995) — which look beyond scientific publication to recover the messier day-to-day practices of scientific life.

Where laboratory notebooks merely recover otherwise hidden practices, tactile history attempts to recover something that was never expressed in any form, and is often referred to as “tacit knowledge”.  This could be an inexpressible Fingerspitzengefühl (a fine-tuned hands-on knowledge), a lack of understanding of why an experiment works, pattern recognition, or an unreasoned premonition about what new scientific knowledge will look like.  In the 1980s, tacit knowledge became a crucial part of the “controversy studies” literature, because it was understood to be elemental in successfully replicating an experiment.  By studying controversies surrounding replication, one could uncover the many tacit preconditions underlying successful replication. (more…)

Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 2 March 24, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Alan Shapiro (hssonline.org)

In Pt. 1 of this post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed on this blog here).  Shapiro argued that deficiencies in Schaffer’s portrayal of objection to Newton’s experiments derived from Schaffer’s “constructivist” methodology, which made him pay too much mind to disputes over experimental results, and not enough to others’ apparent ability to replicate Newton’s experiments, nor to the theoretical context of those experiments.  Per Shapiro, these factors actually led to a record of reasonable success in securing assent around Newton’s work, even among Newton’s intellectual competitors.  I argued that taking Schaffer’s paper to constitute a fully adequate history of the reception of Newton’s work spoke past the point of Schaffer’s commentary, which was intended to elucidate historical strategies specifically surrounding instances of failure to attain assent over experimental results.

In this post, I want to expand on the key strength of Shapiro’s criticism: the importance he ascribed to synthetic accounts of history, which contrasts with the historiography of commentary espoused by Schaffer.


Preliminary Survey: Literature on Agricultural Research to 1945 November 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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The importance of agricultural research in the intellectual history of science should be self-evident.  Justus Liebig (1803-1873) was a key figure in both the development of laboratory methodology and agricultural science.  Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) famous experiments were in plant breeding.  Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) most celebrated work was on the cattle disease, anthrax.  William Bateson (1861-1926), who coined the term genetics, was the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, 1910-1926.  Statistician, geneticist, and eugenics proponent R. A. Fisher (1890-1962) was employed by the Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919 to 1933 (and temporarily relocated there from 1939 to 1943).  Interwar and postwar virologists and molecular biologists did a great deal of work on the economically destructive tobacco mosaic virus.

In these examples, problems of agriculture form a motivating context for contributions to biology, statistics, and other fields.  The history of agricultural research itself remains somewhat difficult to discern, even though it apparently constitutes a long, sizable tradition.  We do have some enumeration of accomplishments in research and technique, written in retrospect by practitioners.  For the case of the UK, the following resources are available:

Schaffer on Latour December 7, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Some of Simon Schaffer’s more interesting pieces are his essay reviews, which we ought to discuss more often in this series.  The most important, though, is the confrontational “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 22 (1991): 174-192, a review of The Pasteurization of France.  Schaffer discusses Latour and this piece in this video (approx. from 28:15 to 35:30):

The discussion in the video, and the one it segues into about the characteristics of science studies/history of science, provide an unusually explicit discussion about what scholarship should be like, and it’s useful to have it, because I disagree with it.  Schaffer cites Latour’s arrival with a bottle of his family’s best wine to work out their positions as a testament to Latour’s personal qualities as a scholar: Latour takes the time and effort to reconcile differences rather than engage in petty infighting.  Nevertheless, the tensions brought up in “Eighteenth Brumaire” are extremely interesting, and I view it as unfortunate that the dispute was apparently resolved socially in private, rather than intellectually in public.  (If I’m missing some crucial source, as usual please correct me in comments; to my knowledge Jan Golinski comes closest.)

Schaffer acknowledges that their positions were never fully resolved, comparing the product of the tensions between their points of view to the interference fringes produced by overlapping light sources.  He goes on to discuss how our field is highly unusual in its ability to support perspectives arising from different disciplinary backgrounds.

Yet, I tend to view the persistence of unresolved perspectives as a weakness.  It is important to note that the products of unresolved intellectual tensions can exist only in the minds of those scholars who resolve the differences between perspectives on their own.  Such individuals constitute a fairly narrow group that Chris Donohue has called a “court of understanding” (see also my discussion of “perspective layering” last February). (more…)

Latour and the Semiotic Phenomenology of Science and Society July 26, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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No discussion of historiography and the Great Escape from the philosophy of science can long exclude Bruno Latour, though it is important to remember that Latour urges: “I cannot claim [the honor] of being a historian….  I use history as a brain scientist uses a rat, cutting through it in order to follow the mechanisms that may allow me to understand at once the content of a science and its context” (Pasteurization of France, p. 12).

In a move typical of the Great Escape, though, Latour relies on historiographical coherence to deny philosophy its place.  It is significant that Latour begins his work The Pasteurization of France (1988, a translation and revision of 1984’s Les Microbes: Guerre et Paix) by drawing a parallel with Tolstoy’s historical debunking of the Napoleonic Wars as playing out according to the design of genius military architects.  History, in all its contingency, can know no architecture, despite those who would impose one retrospectively: “Even if few people still believe in the naive view, courageously defended by epistemologists, that sets science apart from noise and disorder, others would still like to provide a rational version of scientific strategy, to offer clear-cut explanations (more…)