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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?


Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science October 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Today we have the second guest post by Chris Renwick, who starting in January will be a lecturer in modern British history at the University of York.

In one way or another, most approaches to history of science share a common intellectual assumption: that science can be related to the contexts in which it is produced, even if historians can’t agree about what’s important when talking about those contexts. Indeed, such is the importance of this contextualist point that it is often seen as a crucial moment in moving history of science away from the wholly discredited study of great men and their ideas. When, though, did this shift take place and who was responsible for it?

Ever since I started out as graduate student, I’d assumed, like many others, that the effort to relate science and its contexts was originally the gift of Karl Marx and Marxism. After all, who doesn’t know the story of the letter in which Marx explained how Charles Darwin had transplanted Victorian society onto the natural world (though, for the record, the letter we always attribute to Marx was actually written by Engels) or the legend of Russian physicist Borris Hessen’s presentation on Isaac Newton to the Second International Congress of the History of Science at the Science Museum in London in 1931? However, in considering this issue recently I’ve come to the conclusion that something is missing from our understanding of the history of history of science and that it tells us something important about the intellectual trajectory of the field.

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Part of what sparked my interest in this issue was a 1952 book, entitled Darwinism: Competition and Cooperation, by the British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who played a leading role in the production of the famous 1950 UNESCO statement on race. In that book, Montagu argued that it wasn’t Marx or Marxists who first grasped how to relate science to its socioeconomic contexts but Patrick Geddes—the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner whom I’ve spent a great deal of time studying (see pages 29 to 31 in particular). To illustrate his point, Montagu picked out a passage from Geddes’ late 1880s article on “Biology” for Chamber’s Encyclopaedia:

The substitution of Darwin for Paley as the chief interpreter of the order of nature is currently regarded as the displacement of an anthropomorphic view by a purely scientific one: a little reflection, however, will show that what has actually happened has been merely the replacement of the anthropomorphism of the eighteenth century by that of the nineteenth. For the place vacated by Paley’s theological and metaphysical explanation has simply been occupied by that suggested to Darwin and Wallace by Malthus in terms of the (more…)

Primer: Patrick Geddes September 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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About a month ago, we spotlighted University of Leeds history research student Chris Renwick’s recent Isis article on the Spencerian influence on Patrick Geddes as a piece of writing that both nicely situates itself in the literature and in historical context, and highlights the importance of the history of ideas in science history.  Word got back to Chris, and he has graciously agreed to do a couple of guest posts for us.  The first kicks off the return of our “Primer” (formerly “hump-day history”) series.

Guest post by Chris Renwick

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Encompassing natural and social sciences, as well as social reform projects that left their mark on cities including Edinburgh and Bombay, Patrick Geddes’ career was wide-ranging, long, and—some might say—characterised by a failure to make the most of his ability to unify seemingly disparate fields with evolutionary theorising.

After leaving Scotland to train as a biologist under “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, in the mid-1870s, Geddes first made his name with a series of experiments, conducted in France, Italy, and England in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Like many biologists of his generation, Geddes was unconvinced by the case Darwin had made for natural selection as the prime mover in evolution.  Instead, Geddes—inspired by a range of thinkers, including the much-maligned Herbert Spencer—emphasised the importance of cooperation and mutually dependent relationships in evolutionary development.  To support these views, Geddes examined relationships in the natural world that biologists  often called parasitic. On separating “parasites” from their hosts—in particular, algae that lived in the tissue of flatworms—Geddes found that neither was able to live as effectively as they could together. He therefore (more…)

A Message from the President July 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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HSS members have just been alerted that the new e-newsletter is out.  First off, I think it’s good the newsletter is only online, but their new floating table of contents is not working for me, because it obscures the text on my computer at work even when the window is fully expanded.  You can shrink the screen contents by hitting Ctrl-minus, and that clears it up.  Or you can just access the pdf version.  This year’s HSS preliminary program is included (look for my session Saturday morning!)

Jane Maienschein

Jane Maienschein

What I want to post about real quick before I take off to Colorado on vacation until next week is Jane Maienschein’s message as outgoing president of HSS.  First off, a tip of the hat for the following: “We have to embrace a range of scholarly products, including well-crafted blogs that have more impact and reach a larger audience than the typical academic book, public presentations, and collaborations with scientists.”  Quite true, although I would emphasize the possibility for having real-time, open scholarly conversations rather than audience reach.

Second, an important and possibly controversial point: Maienschein observes that a major priority for her was getting the history of science to reconnect with…. the history of science!  “I worried that the profession had become so diverse and diffuse that it lacked the energy to carry the field forward. In particular, I saw too much of a swing toward a version of the social history of science that seemed to forget the science. I imagined I might help bring back a balance of interests – science at the core, along with plenty (more…)

Why we should all read Phil Mirowski March 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I don’t want things to get too cynical here at the History of Science Blog, so today I want to talk about an author on my top 5 most exciting historians list, Philip Mirowski of Notre Dame (an arch cynic himself). Mirowski does history of economics, and also has a training in economics. Operations research, my speciality, is an area that Mirowski’s done quite a bit of work in, so I’ve had some decent exposure to his work.

Nobody writes like Mirowski. He’s not at all disciplined as a writer (to his detriment) and is extraordinarily sarcastic, especially toward historical actors. He has a strong agenda; namely to demonstrate how economics lost its epistemological soul, which means his work gives off strong whiffs of Whiggism (Steve Fuller points to him as an exemplar of “Tory” history). The place to start with him is unquestionably his compilation, The Effortless Economy of Science? which leads off with his autobiographical reflections, “Confessions of an Aging Enfant Terrible”.

I pretty adamantly disagree with most of Mirowski’s conclusions; I don’t think he takes the epistemology of economic theory seriously on its own terms (we could get into this, but that would take a full-on essay; in short, he feels these terms were borrowed from other fields along with their analytical techniques). But this also reflects why I think Mirowski is so exciting–his arguments are ones that can be disagreed with. No “I write only to highlight a discourse”; no “science is not context-independent” here. His argument runs along the lines of: let me show you, step by arduous step, how the context of economics robbed it of a soul independent from physics and information theory. Stringing piece after piece of evidence together he puts together such a strong narrative that it bleeds into the genre of conspiracy theory.

Mirowski is also an author with an oeuvre–his work is much richer if you read it as part of an ongoing project. As one of only several authors in the history of economics to move beyond the march-of-theories paradigm of writing, he probably waves the sociology of science magic wand a little too strenuously, but he seems to see his primary battle as being with the philosophers of science (again, see Effortless Economy, especially his broadside on Kitcher), and I think the sociologists see themselves as an antidote to the idea that science has a coherent philosophy (he likes his Feyerabend).

As I’ve said, I tend to see the sociologists and philosophers as all of a kind, but unlike a lot of the sociology school, Mirowski functions incredibly well as an historian, too. To get books like More Heat Than Light, and Machine Dreams, close reading is rewarded. History is not merely window dressing on a basic Latourian sociological point. In the case of the latter book, you need to do a lot of brushing up on material behind his narrative to even have a chance of getting what’s going on, because he makes no effort to explain his historical references. But history should hinge on the details, and if an author at least shows how you have to really understand the ins and outs of the history to see what’s going on, that author has done their job. Nobody writing seriously on the history of OR or economic theory can afford to ignore Mirowski’s narratives. I’ll probably say more about the goals of his oeuvre at a later date.

Inverted Whiggism January 17, 2008

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I guess I’d better fess up at this point and admit to a strong David Edgerton influence, before it becomes too obvious from repeated reference. David seems to be mostly known for challenging “declinist” views of 20th century British history, and for his more recent insistence, in his new book Shock of the Old, that historians of technology need to look at technology in history as much as, if not more than, the historical ramifications (or the process of establishment) of new technologies. What I think is less well appreciated is David’s perspective on the art of historiography that informs his better-known views.

Today I’d like to talk about David’s concept of “inverted Whiggism”. Any historian worth their salt tries to avoid Whiggism, in which they read history as a process leading up to later (or present) developments. What David claims is that many critical histories, which vigorously challenge optimistic narratives, repeat contemporary critiques. These unchallenged critiques are then, themselves, repeated by subsequent historians to the extent that they become historiographical clichés that become accepted as representative of the actual historical situation.

David usually works within the British case where the idea has persisted that institutional leaders and administrators, schooled in the humanities, did not take science seriously (C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” argument is key to this tradition), and so did not harness science and technology properly (this was at least related to the view of Bernal and those influenced by him–see Monday’s post). To back up these claims, historical actors and, in turn, historians unfurl a tremendous pile of examples of resultant failure, to the extent that it became difficult to evaluate the place of science in British society based on academic science commentary and history of science literature (though “historiography from below”–to be discussed later–often tells a different tale).

Intriguingly, compare David’s disdain for “inverted Whiggism” with Steve Fuller’s call for “Tory” history (see the link to his book on Kuhn in Monday’s post), which essentially calls for more critique of past science. Fuller claims that because Kuhn’s influential paradigm-oriented view of science validates all past science as simply operating within a different paradigm, it is therefore often given a pass from rigorous critique (I’m not at all sure about how on earth he came to see this as an historiographical trend, but it clearly has something to do with a “Cold War” insistence that military-funded science was OK! See how it all fits together?).

Anyway, Edgerton’s “inverted Whiggism” seems to be close to what Fuller means by “Tory” history, but Fuller wants more, and Edgerton wants less. Fuller wants history to be an activist exercise; Edgerton, I think, would say that we can partake in better activism if we actually try and understand the past in a more rigorous way (Shock of the Old, for instance, makes a point of showing that technology in poor countries is too often ignored because it is not new). In the end, I find Edgerton’s perspective more constructive.

What happens when historians stop being polite… January 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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…and start getting REAL! It’s a nice question, and a theoretical one, since historians of science, at least, tend to be a very polite lot who rarely question one another’s approach. Instead, we throw around words like “fascinating” and “suggestive”, and then go do our own thing. This is the great thing about the history of science, in that it’s a sort of meeting ground for a lot of different fields, and it’s very easy to choose what group you want to engage with. So it’s also sort of like a high school lunchroom (or MTV’s The Real World), I guess. Of course, the history of science isn’t a huge field to begin with, so further fracturing can make your intellectual circle very small indeed, and that bothers me.

The reason for this situation seems to be, go figure, deeply embedded in the history of the field (the quirks of which are well explored in John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, which should really be required reading for science studies grad students). I was a history major as an undergrad, and so I basically expected the history of science to be similar. False presumption. The history of science is a field stemming from the philosophy and sociology of science, and has not typically reflected a traditional historical methodology. History, rather, has been a tool that has been used to get at the nature of science–which is a line of thought stemming from the work of the Vienna Circle and other positivists (see Zammito).

Now, motivations for getting at the nature of science have been varied. The British history of science school back in the ’60s was heavily influenced by Marxist thought filtered through the communist crystallographer J. D. Bernal, and his circle. They saw the progress of science as inevitably tied to social priorities, and wanted to reform scientific institutions to suit their Marxist agenda. Followers of this school were appalled by the rise of the Edinburgh School and SSK, which sought a more detached perspective on how science is done, without the political concerns of the Marxists. However, fresher generations of critical theorists saw tight links between the “social constructionism” preached by the SSK’ers and the critiques of French theorists like Foucault. They used the history of science to demonstrate how science as a font of legitimizing authority reinforced dominant social notions. (This clearly links to my earlier point about the Cold War historiography, and I would be remiss at least not to mention Paul Edwards’ The Closed World at some point–we can talk about that later, though).

Learning about this history has made it much easier for me to understand the books that I am reading, and reinforces why it is so important to go back to the originals to see what they have to say–because their point of view is usually a lot more nuanced than they are in the straw man form given to them by later critics. I always feel bad for Tom Kuhn, because the guy had some good insights on the development of ideas, but his original motivations have not been so important to the people who implicate him in some of these other agendas. (I link to Steve Fuller here, but one should also mention Al Gore, whose PR work on climate change is admirable–but the inspiration he draws from Kuhn is pretty bizarre).