Let the debate begin!

David Wootton, whose new book The Invention of Science I featured recently on my list of books I have to, and want to, find time to read, was on the BBC’s flagship news magazine, Today, this morning talking about his book (starts at about 49.20 mins). Wootton started off his short slot by denying the ancient Greeks any form of scientific status and joining the, in the mean time fashionable, chorus of those slagging off Aristotle. Another notable member of this particular chorus being Steven Weinberg in his recent To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. He then went on to claim that the medieval scholars only discussed problems without end but didn’t achieve any resolution or progress; a claim that certainly had Pierre Duhem, Alistair Crombie and David C. Lindberg all rotating violently in their graves. Wootton thinks that science only starts after Columbus discovered America, thereby introducing the concept of discovery into intellectual discourse and according to the flyleaf of his book, the first discovery or change introducing the scientific age was Tycho’s observation of the nova in 1572.

Wootton’s book is a highly explosive grenade lobbed into the middle of the revolution contra gradualism debate at a time when the gradualists are very much in ascendance, within the history of science community. Those on the revolution side will eagerly clutch his good points, and I’m sure they are there in abundance, in order to shore up their sagging positions, whilst the gradualists will be forced to sharpen up their arguments to refute Wootton’s thesis of a reinstated Scientific Revolution.

I for one, a declared gradualist, welcome the conflict as it can only serve to bolster the history of science as a discipline. As I quoted Frank McDonough in a recent edition of Whewell’s Gazette, “The role of the historian is to move the debate forward, no more, no less”. So, let the debate begin.


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17 responses to “Let the debate begin!

  1. I don’t think of you as a gradualist, declared or otherwise, because you are usually very keen to insist that it’s an anachronism to call people scientists before the 19th Century. You normally exhibit what I think of as a historicist turn of mind, by which I mean you figure that something happens in history that goes beyond one damned thing after another. It isn’t just that Aristotle had different answers to the same questions than Max Planck. They had fundamentally different questions and weren’t asking them in the same way. Of course emphasizing continuity or discontinuity in scientific or any other kind of history is always a matter of degree. Even Wootton presumably admits that Aristotle is somehow comparable with Planck because otherwise it wouldn’t even make sense to dismiss him as a would-be scientist. Hard to come up with a simple way of making the necessary conceptual distinctions.

  2. guthrie

    Having read a bit of aristotle, in translation of course, I don’t see any need to slag him off; as a man 2,500 years ago trying to make sense of the world and how it worked he did a reasonable job.

    • I agree but the new turn is to view him as a man who hindered the progress of science for 2000 years.

      • guthrie

        That’s a bit stupid. MInd you a fight could be fun ( I play with swords and stuff at the weekend), but I bet the media give them all the publicity they want.
        Just yesterday I slapped down someone who was saying the same old guff about no advances in science after Rome until post-medieval times stuff. Oddly enough they haven’t replied yet.

  3. I would like to suggest an idea that I have already suggested in response to a posting by Athene Donald on dealing with what C P Snow called “the two cultures”, which still bedevils education in the UK. That is, we should be teaching History of Science in History. So rather than teaching about the Tudor monarchs, we might teach about Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler and Galileo and how they changed our view of the world. Obviously, what I have said about astronomy could be applied to physics, chemistry, biology and geology for example.

    What do the HistSci experts think? Is the field sufficiently developed to produce the necessary textbooks written for children of different ages and abilities? Will training of non-science teachers be a problem? Is there enough will and power in the HistSci community to get this on to the curriculum?

    • guthrie

      I would say yes. OF course there are already history of science textbooks written for schools and suchlike, I have a few myself, but they are usually of the old discredited school of thought from 40 years ago.
      I have thought for about 13 years now that science teaching should include some history and philosophy of science, in order to get across why scientists do what they do. Quite a lot of old textbooks from the early 20th century did, including such basic obvious experiments as prove the conservation of mass.

  4. Dan S

    I just ordered the book (from UK. Not available in US until Dec). Read first pages on the book site. Will be popping corn for the debate. I hope to be better equipped to argue both positions (and more importantly anywhere in between) when all is said and done. Of course, it’s never done done.

  5. Will Thomas

    As is often the case with poorly framed questions, I guess I can see both sides of the coin. I would lean toward gradualism, as the pre-early modern developments are, of course, important, and while what we get after 1680 is certainly more recognizable as scientific inquiry, there were still a lot of features of the thought that don’t map onto that category, such as a lot of the speculative cosmology that one gets in the 1700s and even later. Nevertheless, I’m not one to blithely toss aside the idea of the “Scientific Revolution”—not because it represented the advent of a single idea, like “knowledge from experience,” (I tend not to date the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus as is customary; that’s too early) but because a lot of different trends did in fact come together and evolve very rapidly at that time, and the people at the time recognized that ferment and were motivated by it.

    I’m now a good way through Weinberg’s new book. Although the experienced scholar probably won’t get a lot out of it, and may disagree, perhaps strenuously, on certain claims, I think Weinberg does take the interpretive dilemmas seriously. For example, while he doesn’t have high regard for Aristotle, he is fully conscious that there was much more to the classical sciences, and has a high regard for the “Hellenistic” thinkers at Alexandria and elsewhere, whom he discusses at some length, as well as many other classical and medieval figures. In that respect, although he explicitly argues for a Scientific Revolution, he could be classified as a gradualist.

    • I agree with almost everything you say Will. I view it as there being an acceleration in the evolution of science starting sometime in the seventeenth century. Although I haven’t actually read Weinberg, what I object too is his seeming to reject anything that is not maths based as being science. That is at least the impression I have gained from his interviews and articles together with reviews of the book. A, in my opinion, limited and rather redundant definition of science.

      • Phillip Helbig

        I have read Weinberg and, no, he doesn’t believe that science must be based only on maths. Not even natural science (as opposed to social science). Darwin is one of his heroes, and I don’t remember seeing any equations in the Origin.

      • In his articles and interviews to the book he explicitly rejected large chunks of early scientific thought because it was not mathematical.

      • Phillip Helbig

        Yes, but this is not the same as saying “no maths, no science”. Rather, his decision is based on whether something actually worked. Aristotle’s science doesn’t work, for the most part. (It’s not just maths here. How can someone of his “stature” write that women have fewer teeth than men?) There was little if any science in the modern sense of the term before there was mathematical science.

        Even concerning those who got some aspects right, like Thales, Democritus, and so on, he points out, I think correctly, that their writings are actually more like poetry, even if some things are superficially correct. (And Weinberg does read a lot of other poetry as well. He values it, but not as science, because it isn’t.) Of course, just because it is mathematical doesn’t mean it is right, as Kepler’s Platonic solids demonstrate.

        I’ve just read another book by Weinberg, Lake Views, a collection of essays. He is actually a good writer as well. (I had read a couple of other books years ago: The First Three Minutes and Dreams of a Final Theory. With respect to the latter, those here who speak both English and German can probably get a chuckle out of the review in Physikalische Blätter (organ of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, something like the UK Institute of Physics) (now renamed Physik Journal which recommended the book but not the German translation, where “the light-element abundances” became “eine Fülle von Lichtelementen”. No, there was no Google Translate back then, just plain old incompetence on the part of the translator and plain old greed on the part of the German publisher.

      • @thony:

        I’d be interested in which articles and interviews you have in mind. I did find this passage in an interview in Quanta:

        [Interviewer:] Why did you focus on the history of physics and astronomy?

        [Weinberg:] Well, that’s what I know about; that’s where I have some competence. But there’s another reason: It’s in physics and astronomy that science first became “modern.” Actually, it’s physics as applied to astronomy. Newton gave us the modern approach to physics in the late 17th century. Other branches of science became modern only more recently: chemistry in the early 19th century; biology in the mid-19th century, or perhaps the early 20th century. So if you want to understand the discovery of modern science — which is the subtitle of my book — that discovery was made in the context of physics, especially as applied to astronomy.

        Not clear what he means by “became modern”. Personally, I think trying to determine when a branch of science “became modern” is usually a pointless task.

        I also searched To Explain… for all occurrences of “Aristotle”, and reread a couple of chapters. He does say some nice things about the Stagyrite that didn’t really register with me the first time. E.g., anent the rediscovery of Aristotle in the middle ages, “Aristotle’s writings were naturalistic in a way that Plato’s were not, and his vision of a cosmos governed by laws, even laws as ill-developed as his were, presented an image of God’s hands in chains, the same image that had so disturbed al-Ghazali.”

        I don’t think Weinberg rejects all non-mathematical science as not really science. Rather he makes the more defensible claim that when looking for the historical foundations of modern theoretical physics, the pre-mathematical ideas of the ancients have a much weaker claim than the mathematical approach that emerged in the 14th C.

  6. Wooton sure isn’t out to make any friends when he writes his history of science books! Bad Medicine was a broadside directed directly at the history of medicine community and this one seems to be another round of grapeshot at the history of science community in general…

  7. Chris Mannering

    Phillip on Weinberg “Rather, his decision is based on whether something actually worked. Aristotle’s science doesn’t work, for the most part.”

    There is no fundamental difference between coming up with science that does work, and science that doesn’t work.

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