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Merton, the DSB, and the Failed Digital Humanities of the 1960s April 15, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Following up on a reference in Gieryn 1982, I’ve been reading over Robert K. Merton’s long essay, “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir,” in The Sociology of Science in Europe (1977), pp. 3-141.  I’ll post more on it soon in the context of other recent posts on this blog.  For the moment, I’ll just say that the essay is thin on “norms”, “counter-norms”, “ambivalence”, etc.  It is mainly about the intellectual influences on the sociology of science that developed in the 1960s and ’70s.  It is also about the methods, ambitions, and projects of what Merton still regarded as a nascent discipline. It turns out these projects are well worth a tangential post, or two.

In this post, I want to focus on Merton’s account of his involvement with the planning of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), and the computerized “data bank” that didn’t accompany it.



Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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There was no such thing as the historiographic revolution and this is a (too-long) post about it.

Historiographical totem?

In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations.  This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded.  Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims.  This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?

The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way.  A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology.  The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent.  In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.

The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change.  In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick).  However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted.  The idea took years to successfully engineer. (more…)

Philosophy of Science, Normativity, and Whig History August 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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Karl Popper, 1902-1994One of the things left behind by the historians of science who undertook the Great Escape from the philosophy of science was a claim to normative judgment.  The philosophy of science could look at scientific arguments and, using the epistemological tools at its disposal, come to a judgment concerning whether or not current or historical claims were worthy of the name “science”.  Through epistemology, science could consolidate and build upon its gains, which was not the case with something more subjective, like art, or (possibly) politics.

If we may say that science is, therefore, progressive, it stands to reason that, with the benefit of philosophy, we can look back on history and identify scientific works that were either progressive or regressive.  This is why Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) did not feel it was appropriate to apply his notion of “whig history” to science.  The notion is also central to the thought of Karl Popper (1902-1994), who thought that it was possible for epistemology to legitimize the assertion of those claims that stood because they had not been falsified, while delegitimizing those claims that were held as certainly true on account of illegitimate (i.e., social or political) prejudice, an action that necessarily falsified other claims prematurely.  The Church’s suppression of Galileo, the suppression of relativity and quantum mechanics to the benefit of deutsche Physik, or the enshrinement of Lysenko’s genetics as the official state policy of the Soviet Union all constituted sure signs of the illegitimacy of the socio-political system that made these events possible in the face of an epistemologically overwhelming challenge.

Setting Popper aside, in this general philosophical point of view, scientific progress is made possible only through proper epistemology.  The interference of society or politics represents an illegitimate interference with proper epistemology.  The philosopher of science therefore is in a position to make normative judgments of current science and upon science’s historical development, as well as upon the political systems that either allowed science its autonomy or that interfered with its freedom.

For much of the 20th century, this point of view was opposed mainly by a Marxist philosophy of science, which held (more…)