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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

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Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post (at long last) concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483. To refresh yourself on the history of the electric planetarium experiment, see here; for further discussion of Schaffer’s interest in the role of manual technique in that history, see here.

electric-planetariumAn important feature of Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Granville Wheler’s (1701-1770) electric planetarium experiment was the claim that the revolution of a small, electrically charged object around a larger sphere might well illuminate the nature of the force that drives the planets in circular orbits around the sun. One obvious question—but one which Schaffer does not directly address—is how such a rudimentary and solitary experiment could credibly purport, even speculatively, to offer insight into such a grand and seemingly remote problem as planetary motion.

This, I think, is a question that forces us to think about the fundamental nature of early eighteenth-century natural philosophical inquiry.  It is especially necessary to examine the distinctions and relations between experimental and speculative philosophy.  On this distinction, also see the Otago philosophy of science group’s blog; but, where the Otago group tends to view experimentalism and speculation as different strands of philosophy, I would view them more as different facets of the same philosophical enterprise.

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Schaffer on Gestural Knowledge and Philosophical Ideologies, and Their Historiographical Ramifications October 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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In “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium” (1997), Simon Schaffer makes a set of ambitious arguments concerning how 18th-century natural philosophy regarded knowledge that is dependent upon, and sometimes tacit within, manual labor. His entryway into this problem is the frequently ineffable manual skill required in early electrical experimentation, and the intriguing coincidence that two of the most prominent early 18th-century electrical experimenters, Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Charles Dufay (1698-1739), were, respectively, a former Canterbury cloth dyer and overseer of the Gobelins dye works in Paris.

dying silk

From Hellot, Macquer, and Le Pileur d’Apligny, The Art of Dying Wool, Silk, and Cotton, 1789 English edition

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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.

iconoclasts

Is it idol-smashing time again already?

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The Search for a Mature View of Industrial Research July 8, 2012

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At the moment there is an interesting — if scattered — set of arguments about, proffered by senior historians, concerning what an appropriately mature handling of industrial research might look like.

In his essay “Time, Money, and History” (pdf, free) in the latest Isis, my colleague David Edgerton refers to the influence of the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists,” which unduly privileges discussions of the importance of university-based research amid the much wider world of R&D, while also fixating on a more longstanding concern with how patronage might influence the course of research work (“filthy lucre”).  Most of the concerns still regularly expressed about the funding, independence, and broader importance of academic research were, by the 1960s, already widely circulated by purveyors of this spontaneous economics.

Amid particular ’60s-era concerns that science was being perverted by tighter connections to national defense and the economy, and stifled by more structured administration, some historians and sociologists of science were eager to dispel oft-voiced beliefs that science’s strange, new institutional situation represented a fundamental change in how science was done.  On this blog we have seen how Robert Merton was eager to argue that the competitive behaviors chronicled in James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) were a longstanding feature of science, and not some twentieth-century pathology.  Similarly, in their 2007 essay, “The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS,”1 Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent detect a nothing-new-to-see-here attitude as early as a 1960 commentary by Thomas Kuhn highlighting the history of the science-technology relation.

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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.

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Collins and Tacit Knowledge December 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Before proceeding further in my discussion of “tactile history”, I’d like to take a slight detour back through my discussion of Harry Collins’ “methodological relativism” to his earliest articles, in order to get at some of the ideas underlying his interest in tacit knowledge, which was highly influential in the historiography of science, and continues to play a key role in his current work on the sociology of expertise:

1) H. M. Collins, “The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 165-186

2) H. M. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or The Replication of Experiments in Physics,” Sociology 9, (1975): 205-224

Throughout the history of social constructionism in the history of science, there was never any agreement as to what the relationship between sociology and history was supposed to be.  Some proponents evidently sought to reduce the history of science to a sociological process, effectively replacing philosophical accounts (see especially David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” [paywall]).  Collins attempted to come to purely sociological accounts of scientific knowledge without resorting to philosophical appraisals, but not necessarily replacing philosophy or supposing that sociology should be able to account for the history of science.  Tacit knowledge was crucial to his analysis of how and where sociological factors operate in science.

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Norms, “Ideology”, and the Move against “Functionalist” Sociology September 4, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) critique of the Mertonian program to define a “normative structure of science” centered around the complaint that, by focusing on the social conditions that fostered scientific rationality, nothing was said about the sociology of knowledge-producing processes in everyday scientific work. It seems to me that SSK strategies like “methodological relativism”, and Steven Shapin’s embrace of “middle-range” historico-sociological theories, might ultimately have resulted in additions to, and a reconciliation with, the original Mertonian framework.

However, at the same time, another critique questioned the basic validity of that framework. This critique shared the SSK critique’s interest in describing actual scientific work, but, like Mertonian sociology, it focused on scientists’ and others’ sense of the essence of scientific culture without directly addressing knowledge-production processes. This critique held that, because “functionalist” ideal-type systems of scientific behavior could not actually be found in their pure form, such systems did not meaningfully exist. Legitimate sociology had to be obtained inductively from the empirical record, as studied by historians and ethnologists.

A key work here is: Michael Mulkay, “Norms and Ideology in Science,” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637-656.

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Sociology and History: Shapin on the Merton Thesis August 28, 2011

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This post will mainly focus on Steven Shapin’s “Understanding the Merton Thesis” Isis 79 (1988): 594-605, which may be my favorite work by him.

Robert K. Merton’s “functionalist” sociology viewed “science” as a kind of Weberian ideal type — a form of thought that is identifiable by its peculiar, philosophically-defined characteristics. Merton’s sociology of science held that this thought could also be identified with social behaviors, characterized by a set of “norms”, which made the thought possible.

The Merton Thesis (which slightly predates Merton’s enumeration of science’s norms) holds that the rise of science in early-modern England could be linked to the social behaviors valued by the Puritanism of that milieu. This was the subject of Merton’s PhD thesis and his 1938 book Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England.

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 2 August 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my previous post on Harry Collins’ ideas about “methodological relativism”, I discussed how in the early 1980s Collins began explicitly using relativism as a “natural attitude” that could be used to produce “sociological explanations” of scientists’ behavior.  Methodological relativism was premised on a clear delineation of tasks, which makes it appropriate for the sociologist, but not for scientists.

However, this delineation of tasks remained incomplete: in particular, the relationship between sociology, philosophy, and history of science remained confusingly unresolved.  Further, it was unclear what sociological fruits would actually be obtained via methodological relativism.  Finally, it left unclear what the relationship was supposed to be between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the more general sociology of knowledge, upon which STS appears to be based.

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