What Relevance does History (of Science) Have?

A recent exchange raised once again the question: what relevance does the history of science have in broader discussions about science and, I would add, about history, culture, society, etc.?

A recent conversation on Twitter about including historians of science in conversations about science.

A recent conversation on Twitter about including historians of science in conversations about science.

The conclusion seems to be: history of science contributes something to conversations about science communication and public engagement in science.[1] I would like to think there are more compelling reasons to include history of science in broader conversations. Just as I would like to think there are more compelling reasons to study history, the humanities, and liberal arts in general. But, as Tenured Radical has recently pointed out,[2] we too readily assume that the liberal arts are inherently valuable:

The song goes like this: liberal arts BAs are valuable in and of themselves. They don’t need to be justified in concrete, practical terms — and in fact, those of us who work in private education may think it is beneath us to explain why centuries of art, literature and culture are critical to an education. Sound familiar? Well, it’s a losing argument, not because the liberal arts don’t have transcendent value, but because we have been unable to make a case that is compelling enough to stop the loss of full-time jobs, much less get back the positions that have been lost since the 1970s.

These arguments are unconvincing because they fail to make a concrete case for studying the liberal arts. Indeed, they fail to make any case for studying the liberal arts. When we do identify skills studying the liberal arts encourages and develops, such as the ability to reason, analyze and debate, we pick skills that are not unique to the liberal arts. She encourages us to develop a set of arguments grounded in practical, real-world applications (she even suggests a topical course in history of medicine).

I want to ask how would we make real-world, practical arguments about the relevance of history of science. Rather than fall back on the “public engagement” and “science communications” arguments, which are different from history of science.[3] Moreover, both “public engagement” and “science communication” are too readily reduced to tasks that scientists can do and can do after they have done the real work, the science. I would like to think we can make a real case for the history of science as an integral part of doing science, not just communicating the results of having done that science.[4]

UPDATE: I was remiss in not mentioning philosophy of science (particularly since I was trained in a History and Philosophy of Science program): Similar questions could be raised about the relationship between philosophy of science and doing science.

  1. We might usefully interrogate both terms “science communication” and “public engagement.” Too often these seem to be platitudes that, while almost certainly true, are not terribly useful because they are unconvincing to people who don’t already accept them as true. Moreover, they too easily relegate history of science to an intellectual hobby, to be engaged in once the real work has been done.  ↩

  2. While Tenured Radical writes specifically about curricular reform in light of the media frenzy around MOOCs, her real goal seems to be a broader one about making the liberal arts relevant in a compelling way. ↩

  3. Let me stress, “public engagement” and “science communication” are incredibly important issues, and there are people out there expert in those domains. ↩

  4. For example, in a recent Scientific American post, “Science Communication Both an Opportunity and an Obligation,” scientists are encouraged to communicate their results to the broader public that funded their science in order to “report back to them [the public] when we [the scientists] uncover something they should know about.” ↩

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