History of science is history and not science.

Recent days has seen a bit of a cyberspace ding-dong about the function of the history of science. Martin Rundquist set the whole thing in motion with a blog post in which he requested historians of science to specify in a given historical context, who was right, viewed from the standpoint of actual modern science. Darin Hayton was, correctly in my opinion, more than somewhat upset by this suggestion and posted a virulent anti-polemic on his own blog. As Darin’s blog does not allow comments he allowed Martin to post a rejoinder there instead. This was followed in fairly short order by another rebuttal from Darin. The sequence closed, at least for the time being, with a final post by Martin on his own blog. While this was all going on a spirited debate on the subject developed on Twitter involving at least seven participants, which I will make no attempt to recapitulate here. I withdrew from the Twitter debate because I felt that I could not do justice to my own opinions on the debate in a sequence of 140 character bites and so I’m going to attempt to express some of the thoughts that I have had on the subject in this post.

For me it is obvious that Martin’s standpoint is based on a decidedly Whiggish attitude to the history of science and that his concept of the history of science is essentially an internalist one. That is he is basically only interested in the results of science and not in the contexts in which those results were created. For me his attitude leads to all sorts of problems. Let us consider for a moment the theory of gravity. In modern terms this means Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century and we have a famous dispute between Newton and Leibniz about the former’s theory of gravity.  Martin wants us to tell him who was right in this dispute with respect to the general theory of relativity. The answer varies according to which aspect of the dispute one views. From one viewpoint Leibniz was right from another Newton, from yet another both of them were wrong. So what does one do? In order to explain what’s going on, one ends up analysing the whole Leibniz-Newton debate in terms of the general theory of relativity and not in its own right. What we now have is not history of science but presentism. We only extract from the past that which is still relevant in the present and end up ignoring the rest.

This is not the only problem with Martin’s approach to the history of science. He draws attention to another problem himself without, I think, being aware what he’s doing. At the end of his last post on the subject he writes the following:

Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.

Here again Martin is operating from a presentist position; his definition of knowledge is the one that he uses in his normal activities here and now but it is not one that can be used when doing historical analysis. As I have already commented in earlier post on this blog for most people, including most of those that Martin would anachronistically call scientists, in the early modern period, that both Darin and I study, astrology was an epistemic discipline, that is a system of knowledge not a belief. One of the interesting questions for historians of this period is when and why did astrology cease to be regarded as knowledge and become downgraded, so to speak, to the status of a mere belief? Now Martin might answer that for the purposes of modern science the answer to this question is irrelevant. In one sense he would be right in another he wouldn’t. The demise of astrology as a science indicated a major change in the forces driving astronomical research and a change in the questions being put by that research.

The sense in which Martin would be right returns us to the central problem of his standpoint for the history of science. A very large amount of that which constituted science in the past has no direct connection to or relevance for the science of the twenty-first century so if I study it I can’t possibly tell Martin who was right in the sense that he wishes. This raises a very obvious question, why bother to study it then? If, as Martin wishes, history of science were the property of scientists then it would appear that such research is indeed superfluous. But, for me at least, the real question is, does history of science really belong to science and the scientist? To be honest I don’t think it does.

The histories of science, technology, engineering and medicine (and the boundaries between these disciplines were much more fluid in the past than the are now making it oft difficult to decide what belongs where) are actually a very integral part of a much wider cultural history and history of science does not belong to the scientists but to the historians.

Let us return to the example of astrology. Astrology was a major driving force in the study of astronomy in the early modern period and almost all of the leading astronomers living and working in Europe between 1400 and 1650 CE were practicing astrologers. [The first person in the comments to claim “they only did it for the money” will get fifty cubic metres of ready mix concrete pumped through their letterbox at three o’clock in the morning. You have been warned!] There can be no doubt that the study of the history of astrology is a legitimate part of the history of science. On the other hand astrology has absolutely no relevance for modern astronomy so why bother? The answer to this question lies is the role that astrology played in early modern society. Astrology was a central part of the social, cultural and medical life of early modern European society. It permeated all aspect of this society. Court astrologers were important political advisors to the rulers of states both large and small. There was hardly a potentate in the whole of Europe who didn’t employ or at least consult an astrologer. Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Rheticus, Tycho and Kepler, amongst others, all fulfilled this function in their lives. The dominant direction in school medicine was astro-medicine, or iatro-mathematics as it was called, meaning that medical practitioners were required to be skilled astrologers or at least to work in close conjunction with one. The central role of astrology in the social structure of the period in reflected in its art and literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare and beyond the literature overflows with astrological references. The pictures of all the leading artists likewise are full of astrological symbols. To try and understand and interpret the history of the early modern period if one were to exclude the history of astrology would be like trying to play darts wearing a blindfold. In this period the history of astrology is part of the mainstream general history and therefore belongs to the historians.

Now Martin could respond and say astrology is not scientific so the historians are welcome to it. I chose astrology as an example because Martin was so dismissive of it in the paragraph I quoted above however I could have and can make the same or similar argument for all aspects of the histories of science, technology, engineering and medicine for all periods of human existence since human being began to develop these activities. The sciences do not exist outside of society or outside of culture but are an integral part of all human activity. If we study their history it should because they are an important part of the social and cultural histories of humanity and are thus a legitimate part of the activity of historians and belong to their realm and not to that of the modern scientist.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

27 responses to “History of science is history and not science.

  1. I remember hearing Geoffrey Elton – an empiricist if ever ther was one – talking about astrology, saying that we might think today that astrology was foolish, but Shakespeare believed in astrology, and Shakespeare was no fool! Wholeheartedly agree with your argument.

  2. I found Martin Rundkvist’s position a little baffling. Suppose Darin Hayton decided to accomodate his wishes. How would he do this? If I follow Martin correctly, Darin would include a disclaimer on each of his papers saying, “Astronomers no longer regard astrology as scientific.” That one sentence would do it. Easy enough, but what’s the point?

    There’s context and there’s context. Take the Newton-Leibniz controvery over gravitation. E.J. Aiton’s definitive work, The Vortex Theory of Planetary Motions, fully enters into the viewpoints of all the participants (many more than just Newton and Leibniz). Aiton places the various vortex theories in the context of contemporary thought, but also in the context of the subsequent history. (And the earlier history, as well.)

  3. Even for the scientists “real” history of science is much more valuable than mythology. Although the myths are interesting to study the underlying culture of present science, they are still myths. From a scientist point of view the Whiggish history of science does not help in understanding how actually science has been done and is currently done. M. Runquist is regressing the debate back to “Should the history of science be rated “X”?” Brush, S. (1974). Basically, I think that Runquist is asking to base the authority of science on its current mythology that may be called scientism.

  4. In Darin Hayton’s second post in the series, Resigning from the Enlightenment Project, Darin approvingly cites Andrew Cunningham’s paper “How the Principia got its name”. I think it’s worth noting that one of the foremost experts on medieval natural philosophy, Edward Grant, severely criticized this paper. Cunningham responded, Grant replied to that, and Cunningham got a brief last word. Talk about ding-dongs!

    The whole series is fascinating and well-worth reading to anyone interested in whiggism/presentism or context-vs-text. The references:

    [1] Andrew Cunningham, “How the Principia got its name; or, taking natural philosophy seriously” History of Science 24 (1991) 377–392.

    [2] Edward Grant, “God, Science, and Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages,” in Between Demonstration and Imagination. Essays in the History of Science and Philosophy Presented to John D. North.

    [3] Andrew Cunningham, “The Identity of Natural Philosophy. A Response to Edward Grant”, Early Science and Medicine, 5:3 (2000) 259-278.

    [4] Edward Grant, “God and Natural Philosophy: The Late Middle Ages and Sir Isaac Newton”, op.cit. 279-298.

    [5] Andrew Cunningham, “A Last Word”, op.cit. 299-300.

  5. Bravo! Bravo!

    As a scientist, I need the history of science to at least try to be honest history. We can learn from history, including those parts of historical science that today we may see as mistaken.

  6. Will Thomas

    I dislike these conversations. I generally don’t agree with the scientists who make the point, of course, but historians invariably come off as smug and unsympathetic in their replies.

    For example, any scientists who happen to find “relativism”* distasteful are invariably dismissed as silly in the same way that a scientist might dismiss Renaissance astrology as silly. But mightn’t they have some sort of point, which we would be conscientious to acknowledge? Now, I happen to agree that to ask about who was right in 17th, or even 20th-century science, is not especially productive for the reasons that you mention. But, there are many historians who do offer analyses of who made the better arguments given the evidence available at the time. You yourself, Thony, have done this many times with respect to Galileo and the heliocentric hypothesis, concluding that the geocentrists actually had the better arguments.

    Now, if we look to Martin’s complaint, we’ll find that his frustration is with historians who just act like it was a big sociological scrum. As a historian, I will testify that there are indeed many such histories. Martin may indeed be asking us to be too ahistorical in his desire to adjudicate the past debate from the perspective of today’s science, but why castigate him for demanding adjudication? We might instead point him to a book like Jed Buchwald’s Rise of the Wave Theory of Light, which definitely adjudicates arguments, albeit not from a presentist standpoint, to see what he thinks of that approach. And I think we’d all find that Buchwald is certainly himself a major critic of the “sociological scrum” school of history craftsmanship. There’s a lot of legitimate dissent among historians on these issues, and we shouldn’t paper that over in our dealings with outsiders.

    We really guarantee that these arguments repeat themselves ad infinitum without getting anywhere if we insist on circling the historians’ wagons every time this subject comes up.

    *Relativism is a frequently cited bugbear. It look my YEARS of blogging before I managed to establish to my satisfaction that complaining about relativism is a red herring, and that more warranted complaints deal with historiographical issues that are scarcely articulated. I don’t expect others to have come to this same realization.

  7. Will Thomas

    I almost forgot — on the point of to whom the history of science “belongs,” while I obviously believe historians have a duty to uncover why historical actors’ actions made sense to them, I agree with historian Richard Staley that “forgetting” and otherwise using the history of science in a deeply instrumental fashion is integral to undertaking productive science in anything like an efficient manner.

  8. Will —
    Actually, Martin doesn’t (apparently) dismiss the study of Renaissance astrology as silly. On the contrary, he trusts that progress has been made in this field, and that historians today know more about Renaissance astrology than they did, say, 50 years ago. And this he approves of (part of the “Enlightenment Project”).

    Part of the issue between Martin and Darin seems to be cross-talk. Martin certainly thinks that any current believers in astrology are silly or deluded. When Darin refers to astrology as a “system of knowledge” instead of a “belief system”, Martin takes this as suggesting that Darin might believe in astral influences. As Thony points out, that’s not at all what was intended.

    I have to say, it’s not that easy to tell from Darin’s posts what he believes about astrology. Maybe he casts horoscopes regularly. Maybe he has an agnostic, “more things in heaven and earth” attitude. Maybe he’s a total skeptic.

    I’m guessing that’s by design. For historians, the present-day value of astrology should not affect studies of Renaissance astrology — neither the interest in the subject, nor the methods used to study it.

    Or am I wrong about that?

    • Will Thomas

      Thanks for those observations. I guess I didn’t mean Martin specifically, when I talked about “scientists” above, but it’s good to have clarification on his position.

      It’s characteristic of these debates that when historians disagree with scientists, they tend to assume not that they’re in disagreement over minor points (e.g., should past science be judged by *today’s* standard), but that they’re coming from totally different points of view. Some of this is surely on the scientists’ inability to articulate their objections clearly. My inclination is to cut them slack on this point, because it’s not their day job to work out what we think. (And as you point out, we don’t take great pains to make our positions clear — more on this in a sec.)

      However, I think there are historical reasons why we tend to ascribe maximum naiveté, or even scientistic maliciousness, to scientists’ points of view. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Steven Shapin and likeminded others, insisted (with very little justification, in my opinion) that they way they were doing sociology and history worked actively against a widespread mythology of science (as adhering to reliable “method”, as *cleanly* progressive, etc.), which scientists had a strong incentive to protect. I like Steven, and think he has made many good points, but I believe that historians’ subsequent cocooning of themselves in that particular narrative has done really just enormous damage. Note Martin’s continued appeals that historians should at least throw a bone to the scientists, to try and maintain better relations with them. To many scientists (probably including Martin), this would mean, say, dealing seriously with the capacity of science to progress (by some widely acceptable standard). To many historians, though, evidently including Darin, it seems to entail ascribing to an ideologically abhorrent point of view about the nature of science and its history.

      You note historians’ almost calculated failure to clarify what their position is. Are they radical relativists? methodological relativists? historical relativists? Do they believe that the public should freely choose between different kinds of (e.g., medical) expertise in a libertarian market? Do they believe all kinds of expertise should receive state funding? Or do they merely mean that expertise should not be hunted down and suppressed through the power of the state? I believe this ambiguity actively serves historian by allowing them to make really very banal positions seem profound. Do historians really believe in the profundity of their positions? I would say, yes, because they believe in the aforementioned (and self-justifying) myth that society is pervaded by myths about scientists and scientists’ politics. If we question that pervasiveness, they can always point to your nearest hyper-atheistic-Darwin-worshipping ideologue spouting about in some newspaper as evidence that we really are very necessary to have around.

      Several months ago, I had a good conversation with Michael Bycroft, in which he pointed out that because of this professional narrative in which we’ve cocooned ourselves, we take resistance to its terms not as evidence of resistance to its terms, but as evidence of the narrative’s validity, because scientists’ resistance to our narrative is actually itself part of the narrative!

      • Will Thomas

        Oops, I’m not sure what word I was going for in that last sentence of the long middle paragraph, but instead of “ascribing to” I mean “signing on to”

      • Will, I love your historical and historiographical blogging. But asking historians to declare (and presumably, work within) a philosophically consistent position is fundamentally anathema to many of us who are epistemological pragmatists and methodological eclectics.

        We chose this inconsistency deliberately, at least some of us do, precisely because of the difficulty of making present categories fit past realities, combined with the challenge of achieving certainty with regard to historical narratives or systems.

      • Jonathan —
        Do historians really hope to achieve certainty? (Ok, maybe, on somebody’s date of death, but on the big questions…)

      • Will Thomas

        Jonathan – I wouldn’t want to conflate a distaste for ambiguity with a desire for consistency. If anything, my concern is that historians’ position is too consistent, routinely attributing a kind of cultural naiveté to scientific figures. In any event, for the sake of maintaining the clarity of our critical positions, I do think it is important—both as a matter of principle and to minimize the opportunity for pointless conflict—to try and be clear, on a case by case basis, how naive/dogmatic/determinist/etc. the thing we are scrutinizing is, and how radical or prosaic our own position is.

        On the question of what posture to strike when trying to achieve certainty — and, to mention Michael’s point, I think Jonathan means this more heuristically than as a clearly achievable goal — our better bet is to argue in a provisional register than an ambiguous one.

      • Michael Weiss

        Jonathan and Will–
        This is intriguing. I mean: “[historical] certainty … more heuristically than as a clearly achievable goal”

        Ever since Kuhn, the question of scientific truth has been a flash point between historians and scientists. I suspect that most scientists still adhere to the notion so forcefully expressed by Steven Weinberg: scientific certainty may be unachievable in principle, but it’s still a desirable goal. Also, our theories approach ever closer to this ideal. Many (most?) historians regard this as an extremely naive attitude, or so it seems to me.

        Do historians really find the notion of historical certainty so unproblematic?

      • Will Thomas

        I think we’re probably dealing with somewhat differing notions here. All I’m really saying is that historians seek to develop accounts with more accurate facts, and more apt (i.e., more coherent, better supported) interpretations and arguments. I take this to mean we get closer to, rather than farther away from, “certainty”. But I guess you could say that certainty has nothing to do with it.

        I regard this situation as analogous to ones faced in science. History is epistemologically akin to–and genealogically related to—geology, where “certainty” about things like the paleontological configuration of the earth is inaccessible, but where you can make claims both about specific facts and broad interpretations.

        As to Kuhn, I’ve never viewed paradigms, insofar as they exist, as strictly incomparable. Although there may not be any immediate criteria for choosing one rather than another, I’ve always reckoned that over time one or another proves more effective, which I suppose puts me vaguely in league with Lakatos.

  9. Jeb

    As a non-pro historian I find Martin Rundquist comments rather helpful as I am dealing with this issue in the raw and notice at the moment as I am looking at the early part of the debate that my inflection is all over the place.

    The materials I am having to deal with are part of an early 20th century science investigation as part of that its engaged in a really rather impressive look back over past history of the subject. But it is filled with statements that look from the outside as some what whig like.

    Surprise is expressed when a well known scientists for example is found on the wrong side of a debate.

    Rather than viewing it as historical ignorance it seems to me more fruitful to think that scientists have a need to inflect these points in an argument and draw attention to them.

    I think the inflection needs changed but in a way that reflects the need of readers rather than a simple rejection as non-historical. Its a mis- reading I think to view it as an affront to history or that scientists are by default engaged in some triumphalist fairy tale however satisfying and tempting such opinions may be.

  10. Jeb

    I can see why scientists would want a full contextual history of site. Being sad with archeology site reports I always want to skip past the boring bits listing the golf t’s and modern bits of pot found in order to get to the interesting part. I am not an archeologist.

  11. Regardless of what anyone believes, astrology is a system of knowledge in that it socially functions as such among those who believe in them, and even among those who don’t. So we can distinguish between different senses of knowledge: the knowledge of the epistemologist, and the knowledge of the sociologist of knowledge. Both are coherent, and they have a relation to one another. I don’t believe in astrology but I know enough to interact with those who do believe in it. I can understand and interface with their discourses in an adequate manner of communicative praxis even though I believe them to be scientifically wrong, and epistemically unwarranted. I may partake in the sociological knowledge stock of astrological belief while believing those stocks of knowledge do not form parts of the stocks of true epistemically sound belief systems. It is worthwhile to recall the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image drawn by the philosopher Wilfred Sellars. Astrology forms part of a manifest image. It is a set of concepts used to situate the human being and it’s relation to the wider world. It may be factually wrong or archaic or out of date or whatever, but in this sense it is knowledge. It is probably better than image at all. It renders things meaninful, and serves the function of sense-making for people. Here we mean knowledge in the sociological sense not in the epistemological sense. There is no difference between true or false knowledge in the sociological sense. Astrology isn’t used to build trains or aircraft so it never confronts any kind of stark adaptive vicissitudes when confronting the immutable veridiciality of things in themselves (as Pyrrho’s belief that there was no knowledge confronted the adaptive viscitude of fatal veridiciality when he fell off a cliff to his death while blindfolded after claiming there was no knowledge that there was a cliff in front of his walking path).

  12. Jeb

    I think you should be asking some more far more basic questions as many of you folks also have a class room role as teacher and educators.

    A role where you have to offer an eduction to diverse groups of people who may need to digest information in very different ways.

    • Jeb

      Sometimes I get left with the feeling that opponents in these debates would actually find themselves in agreement at this level. Which is a somewhat scary thought.

      • Jeb

        Colin states his objections stem from issues he has with an “Archaeology 101 textbook” and identifies the issues he has with it as stemming from relativism.

        It points to differing teaching methods.

        I don’t know the text but I can understand why an educational professional writing a class text book would use such a method. Turned a far more basic set of questions and issues into something else.

  13. To come back to Thony’s excellent example of Newton theory of gravity, just try to start the debate when can we consider Newton being right beyond any reasonable doubt, for how long was he “right” and who can know with fair certainty Newton was right, when can they know and for how long?
    Supposing we can conclude, for those who like the neo-positivist view of science, the dominant philosophy (ideology?) for scientists today, they may not like the answer because my feeling is that strictly speaking from current knowledge, Newton was “righ”t quite late and for a quite short time. What a silly guy this Newton after all…

  14. Jeb

    The motivation for writing the original post was not flagged it appears in later comments. The article was written with a lack of clarity that did not point to the original objection and issue, which certainly gives the impression it may be based on teacher confusion over the intention and form of instruction intended for use with a standard class room text.

    If that is the case it raises serious issues.

    • Jeb

      I think if you reduced these debates in how H.O.S should be taught to diverse bodies and differing groups of students alongside wider debates about the media to a more basic level concerning effective teaching strategies it would take a lot of heat and light out of these debates although I suspect they would not generate the same mount of web site hits.

      I find it surprising that with all the appeals to expertise and professionalism that these underlying issues have not been flagged as a possible source of confusion and underlying difference in these debates.

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