Month: September 2012

On Whigs and Whig History

Whig history, whiggish history, whigs, and even Whigs seem to be enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. Thony over at The Renaissance Mathematicus had a go at Whig history of science, Michal Meyer at PACHS offered something of a defense of whig history, and William Cronon offered a nice analysis of Herbert Butterfield’s own use of the terms in his Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History.

As Cronon pointed out, the terms Whig, whig, and whig history can be confusing even to historians, largely because Butterfield used the terms broadly. Butterfield offered something of a definition in his preface. Whig histories, he tells us, typically “praise revolutions provided they have been successful, emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” It might be helpful to think about how whig history is different from triumphalism or how triumphalism is a particular subset of whiggish history. In “We Have Never Been Whiggish About Phlogiston” Hasok Chang argued that the two are distinct forms of bad history. Triumphalism in particular, he claims, bedevils historians of science and, as both Thony and Michal pointed out, especially scientists who try their hand at history.

Consequently, it is not terribly surprising to see Razib Kahn misuse the term “Whig” in his recent post on Neil Armstrong and to misunderstand (or to have only glanced at) the wikipedia page on whig history. While admitting that he does not think we live in an era of decline, he considers highpoint of space exploration Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The moon landing was, Kahn suggests, was “high point in the spirit of the West.” Our failure to return to the moon somehow signals the end of the “whig conceit.”

Ignoring the controversial nature his claim, I don’t see how the “whig conceit” is related to the moon landing. Moreover, I don’t understand why he invoked the “whig conceit” (or his analogy to Hellenistic Greece). His preference for a space program that, presumably, includes sending humans to moons and planets is not helped by his historical and historiographic claims. A paraphrase of Sokal’s comment might apply here: sloppy history and historiography, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counter productive.

What Killed King Tut, Another Guess

A new article claims yet again to have discovered the disease that killed King Tutankhamun: Familial Epilepsy in the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty (probably behind a paywall, so see this report or this one). Diagnosing King Tut’s illness is a favorite pasttime amongst scientists and physicians, see these claims and more here.

This latest effort combines a naive reading of historical sources with hypothetical identification of mummies and a comfortable dismissal of non-scientific expertise. Further, the author seems all to ready to see what he wants to see (much like the various physians who have studied Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel). The rejection of historical methods vitiates the articles conlcusions. Regrettably, the popular press has already picked up on this article and reported its conclusions as if they were defensible.

The publication of this article raises a broader questions: Why do science and medical journals, in this case the no doubt expensive Epilepsy & Behavior, publish such articles? Is their arrogance such that they deny other forms of expertise or such that they believe their expertise extends to all domains?

Everybody has a “Paradigm”

I recently reread Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I had first read Kuhn’s book in my first year of graduate school. Perhaps because I was reading Structure I seemed to hear the term paradigm frequently, in contexts ranging from a strange conversation in a cafe, to an attorney discussing evidence in a trial, to investment officers in a financial firm referring to investment strategies. The man in the cafe recalled fondly his reading of Kuhn’s book as an undergraduate. The attorney could not identify the source. The investment officers remembered that it was from a book about science but admitted to never having read it. Kuhn’s lasting legacy is the widespread use of the term paradigm well beyond, and perhaps more commonly beyond the history of science.

I began to wonder how often Kuhn used the term “paradigm” in Structure. Excluding the 1969 Postscript, I counted 446 occcurences of paradigm, pre-paradigm, and post-paradigm, spread throughout the book. Then, as an exercise in gratiutous graphing, I plotted the occurence of these words and then overlaid a bargraph showing the number of times these words were used in each chapter.

A graph showing how often Kuhn used the term paradigm. Each bar represents a chapter. Numbers in bars indicate mentions in that chapter (click for larger image).

The width of the bars is proportional to the number of pages, the height to the number of mentions (the actual number is shown in each bar). The graph doesn’t really illustrate much beyond the fact that once Kuhn began using the term paradigm in chapter two, he used it consistently. He used the term most frequently in chapters three and twelve, “The Nature of Normal Science” and “The Resolution of Revolutions.”

As it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kuhn’s book, essays on it can be found all over. See, for example, Hamish Johnston’s short piece in Physics Today or John Naughton’s piece in The Guardian or Rebekah Higgit’s piece in The Guardian. Or purchase fiftieth anniversary edition from the University of Chicago Press, which contains an introductory essay by Ian Hacking.