Month: August 2013

A Modified “Godwin’s Law”

The OED defines Godwin’s Law:

A facetious aphorism maintaining that as an online debate increases in length, it becomes inevitable that someone will eventually compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

See the Wikipedia entry on Godwin’s Law for interesting variations, details, and links to further discussion. For a smart adaptation of Godwin’s Law for science communication, see Peter Broks’s “Wrong Kind of Snwow.”

A version of Godwin’s Law seems to apply to online discussions about the nature of science:

Godwin’s Law adapted for online discussions about the nature of science.
Godwin’s Law adapted for online discussions about the nature of science.

Another version of this would substitute “climate change denial or [fill in your favorite climate-change-denying politician]” for “vaccine denial or Jenny McCarthy.” But it’s so hard to pick just one climate-change-denying politician, whereas Jenny McCarthy seems to have become the face of vaccine denial.

Resigning from the Enlightenment Project

In his response, Dr. Rundvist restates his original claim and enlists me in the project: history of science ([deleted because I over stated the case]) must show how past scientific debates have been resolved the in present, thereby contributing to an overall increase in human knowledge.

Dr. Rundkvist characterizes knowledge in a way that I reject. He asserts an “Enlightenment project” characterized by progress—we are gaining not only more knowledge but better and more accurate knowledge. In such a project, only those activities that contribute to this progress are worthwhile. The way to assess progress, quality, and accuracy of knowledge is to assume that the relevant categories of any scientific debate, the evidence used to evaluate and assess those categories, the arguments used to justify those assessments, and the motivations for engaging in the debate, are timeless and unproblematic. Importantly, those categories, the evidence, assessment, arguments, and motivations are defined by scientists in the present who are engaged in the activity they think is a continuation of the historical debates. History, insofar as it plays any role in this model, merely lists the names of dead people who, present scientists think, contributed to the current debate.

But this is precisely what I don’t accept. The categories, the evidence, the criteria, the arguments, and the motivations are not transcendent. To use Dr. Rundkvist’s example: What Newton was doing in the 1680s, how he divided up the world, what he considered relevant evidence, how he judged that evidence, why he bothered investigating the natural world (how he even identified the “natural world”) share little with what scientists were doing in the 1930s. As Andrew Cunningham has argued convincingly, Newton was engaged in a project called “natural philosophy,” which included a wide range of activities that we might call, inter alia, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, Biblical exegesis, chronology, history, mathematics, optics, and theology.[1] The goal of this project was to understand God by investigating of His creation. Newton signaled his intentions in the title of his most famous work: Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica. However modern and familiar this text might look to scientists today (though I suspect many have not even read it), it answered the questions Newton was asking in the late 17th century. God was at the center of those questions. I doubt many scientists in the 1930s were investigating God’s creation.

To excise God from Newton’s work requires ignoring considerable evidence to the contrary. The resulting account misunderstands and misrepresents what Newton was doing, and what his work meant to him and to his contemporaries. In other words, to sanitize Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable bits is to stop doing history.

For scholars who search through the archives, lauding those who got it “right” and condemning those who got it “wrong”—Butterfield’s Whig historians—the historical record becomes fodder for their teleological narratives. Evidence that doesn’t serve their goals is ignored or explained away. Kepler’s interest in astrology, for example, is dismissed as “how he paid the bills.”

Such an approach is antithetical to what I am trying to do with my own research. Consequently, I feel like sending a telegram, paraphrasing Groucho: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any Enlightenment Project club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Telegram resigning from Enlightenment Project
The telegram I would send resigning from the Enlightenment Project.

I cannot see how the princes and astrologers I study have any relevance to today’s scientific debates. Scientists are no longer engaged in debates about astrology. Today’s astronomers no longer consider the astrological implications of their work. And while Ronald Reagan (who as early as the 1960s relied on the astrologer Ralph Kraum) and François Mitterrand purportedly consulted astrologers, most rulers today rely on other systems of knowledge.

Far from trying to illustrate how scientific knowledge is timeless, I hope to show how knowledge is inextricably tangled up with the context that calls that knowledge into existence. I neither praise historical actors for getting it right nor rebuke them for getting it wrong. Finally, while I would like people to read and learn from my research, I am unwilling to violate the standards and norms that guide my work and make it identifiable as history just to attract and perhaps appease a wider audience.


  1. Andrew Cunningham, “How the Principia got its name; or, taking natural philosophy seriously,” History of Science 24 (1991): 377–392. Cunningham’s earlier article is also relevant here: Andrew Cunningham, “Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 19 (1988): 365–89.  ↩

Martin Rundkvist’s Enlightenment Project

The following is essentially a guest post by Martin Rundkvist. He is responding to my comments a few days ago about “Scientific Progress and the History of Science,” which was a response to his “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science.” Dr. Rundkvist was polite and invited me to respond to his comments. Although I have not yet had time to think through his comments and to respond, I did not want to delay any longer posting his reply. In the next day or so I will collect and post my thoughts (I have now posted my thoughts. See “Resigning from the Enlightenment Project”).

I am a participant in the Enlightenment project. Based on the evidence I see around me, I believe that science (in the wider German sense of Wissenschaft) adds cumulatively to our knowledge about the world, past and present.

For instance, I believe that Darin Hayton’s work to date on Renaissance astrology means that we have better, more extensive, more detailed, more accurate knowledge about Renaissance astrology than if he had not performed that work. Dr. Hayton has not just produced more text or additional contingent perspectives on his subject. He has investigated it in a scholarly rigorous manner, illuminating a part of the world that we might want to know about. He has made certain interpretations of the subject impossible in the future by showing them to be factually incorrect. Willingly or not, he too participates in Enlightenment.

In fact (and I know that many scholars in aesthetic disciplines wouldn’t agree here) it is my opinion that a scholar or discipline that doesn’t add to cumulative knowledge like Dr. Hayton does should not be funded.

I agree with Dr. Hayton that his discipline should investigate scientific debates of the past in a fair and historically contextualised manner. That is the central part of the job. But in my field (prehistoric archaeology) we still routinely enter into dialogue with the writings of 19th century colleagues. I see the debates that Dr. Hayton studies as a still on-going concern. Therefore I think there is a second important part of his job: to put the investigated debates into the context of how they were later resolved – or not. It needn’t take more than a sentence or two:

  • “By the 1930s, this debate had been resolved in Newton’s favour thanks to the discovery of XXX (Smith 1938, pp. 123–124)”, or
  • “Though the terminology has changed, this issue has still not been settled, over 300 years later (Smith 2013, pp. 123–124)”, or
  • “The discovery in the 1960s of XXX laid this debate to rest as scientists abandoned the assumptions that propelled it (Smith 1975, pp. 123–124)”.

My field of study is abstruse and is followed by few outside academe, and I trust that Dr. Hayton would agree that his field is similar to mine in this sense. I submit that neither of us can afford to alienate large groups of potential interested readers. In Dr. Hayton’s case, I’m thinking of scientists such as myself, working in a cumulative Enlightenment framework today. I care a lot about the history of science. But I do not enjoy the suggestion that my generation of scholars knows as little about our part of the world as our predecessors did in 1750. And I would also object strongly to anyone who said that historians of science know as little today as they did in 1750.

UPDATE: See Resigning from the Enlightenment Project for my response.

Scientific Progress and the History of Science

In “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science” Martin Rundkvist rants about those annoying “knowledge relativist historian[s] of science.” Those degenerates are ignorant and lazy, and mock the hard intellectual work and real accomplishments of science. They are also hypocritical. They don’t really believe all that relativist claptrap.

Rundkvist wants, instead, a history of science that begins and ends in today’s scientific concerns. He wants histories that trace issues scientists are still debating, and he wants those histories to judge people in the past by the criteria, evidence, and standards scientists know today to be true, “because we have learned so much since then.” Rundkvist doesn’t want history. He wants triumphalist genealogy.

Rundkvist has every right to prefer one genre over another, but let’s be clear that what he is asking for is not history in any rigorous sense. Like other disciplines, history is grounded in evidence, a subset of possibly relevant phenomena. Possibly relevant phenomena include artifacts of all sorts from the past, inter alia: letters, diaries and notebooks, texts (published or not), paintings and drawings, instruments, buildings, gardens, fountains. Historians need to be able to justify why they have privileged some artifacts and dismissed others. Historians also need to be able to justify the meaning they ascribe to that evidence.

Here is where Rundkvist (and like-minded consumers of history of science) and historians part ways. Rundkvist assumes that “scientific debates” exist outside of time. Or rather, whatever scientific debates mean today is what they have always meant. Such an assumption can only be justified by ignoring numerous artifacts that don’t fit neatly into our current worldview. It takes very little effort to show that most historical actors were not (and could not have been) concerned in the least with our worldview. It takes only marginally more effort to show that today’s science differs in profound ways from natural philosophy, that historical activity we often call “science” (the same holds true for most specific activities: astronomy today is not the same as astronomy in 1500 because the people involved understood their activity in different terms and intended it to answer different questions — the research program has changed).

Rundkvist’s position is analogous to contemporary scientists today ignoring uncomfortable evidence and other aberrant data that doesn’t support the conclusions they intend to demonstrate. Such a position is intellectually parochial and conservative. It is antithetical to the intellectual rigor and the habits of mind (that “scientific method” bantered about so casually) that scientists like to claim for themselves and on which they build their castles of intellectual and moral superiority (see, for example, Steven Pinker’s recent essay).

History of science should not be a tool to bolster today’s ideologies. Instead, it can give us the tools to examine those ideologies, cf. Peter Broks comments about science communication and Peter Dear’s argument about the purpose of the history of science (behind paywall). The history of science does not serve some triumphalist genealogy. If that makes some readers uncomfortable or annoys them, so be it.

Social Newtonianism again

Social Newtonianism seems to be on the rise. Recently Newton’s three laws of motion were used to describe traffic in Manila and before that Newton’s third law of motion was used to assess risk in banking investments, which I wrote about here.

Now we see an executive coach applying Newton’s “three laws of motion to people and organizations.” While it seems unlikely that social systems can be understood through such reductive simplification, if you are going to invoke Newton’s laws of motion, at least get the laws right. The executive coach bungles Newton’s second law into “Newton said that the amount of force multiplied by the amount of acceleration must be equal to the mass for movement to occur.”

I suppose it is less important for an “credentialed executive coach” to get the science correct than it is to sound science-y.