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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?



Sketch: UK Agricultural Research and Education January 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901)

It is difficult to trace the lineage of agricultural research in Britain without the bottom falling out from underneath your feet, putting you in freefall until you land with a thud in the eighteenth century.  Since this is well outside the scope of my project, I will just note a few reference points before scrambling back toward the twentieth century: the growth of experimental farming by “improvement”-minded landowners (good ol’ Turnip Townshend and co.), the 1791 foundation of the Veterinary College of London (later the Royal Veterinary College), and the 1796 foundation of the Sibthorpian Chair of Rural Economy at Oxford through the benefaction of John Sibthorp (1758-1796), who was Sherrardian Professor of Botany there from 1784 until his death (having replaced his father, Humphrey, who held the post from 1747 to 1783).

A Board of Agriculture existed in England from 1793 until it was wound up in 1820.  The Royal Agricultural Society of England was founded in 1838, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was founded in 1844.  For reference, the Board of Longitude was wound up in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820, the British Medical Association was founded in 1832, and the Chemical Society of London was founded in 1841.


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: