Historical Expertise

Historians of Science—A Call to Action

[Reposted from A Manifesto at PACHS.]

Recently I have had the opportunity to reflect formally on the functions and uses of the history of science, both in my scholarly activities and in general public discourse. I think historians should more frequently and openly consider such broad questions. I am happy to see a number of recent posts grappling with related questions, e.g., Jacques Revel’s Public Uses of History (and the other essays posted at Transformations of the Public Sphere); Rebekah Higgitt’s On this day: the role of anniversaries; Paul Lockhart’s History: The Everyman Discipline?; the exchange between Helen King and Don Shelton in the latest issue of Social History of Medicine (Thanks to Michael Barton’s tweet for drawing this to my attention).

For me, history of science poses a number of historiographic and philosophical challenges. While some of these challenges affect all forms of history, I think they are particularly acute in the history of science. These include: What is science and in what sense does science have a history? How do we tell that history and why should we bother telling it? These broad questions hint at some deeper intellectual challenges:

  • How do we analyze critically an activity that we depend on for such undeniable improvements as contemporary technological conveniences or modern medicine?
  • How can we avoid telling triumphalist, teleological histories about an activity inextricably linked to the development of the modern, Western world?
  • How can we reorient our understanding of science from one that assumes science asymptotically approaches truth to an understanding of it as a human activity? And what do we gain when we think of science in this way?

History is only superficially about the past. It is, in the end, a profoundly political activity that structures our understanding of the present, justifies current policy choices, and guides our future decisions. The history of science is even more laden with political significance, linked as science often is to traditions of Liberal Democracy and narratives about the triumph of the Western World. Science and past scientific achievements are frequently invoked to defend present ideologies and reassert contemporary hierarchies. Think of how the Galileo Affair is a metonym for our conflicts between science and religion or how the Scientific Revolution is taken evidence for the superiority of our Modern, Western world. My goal in studying the history of science is to disrupt these easy, comfortable assumptions about science and its relationship to society, culture, truth, and nature.

Historians of science need to take a more active role in shaping how the public invokes past science. This was the central issue that animated the recent PACHS event: “What Matters about History of Science and What Do We Do About It?.” We have relinquished too much control to non-historians, people whose training and vested interests ensure that they will do violence to the past in the service of the present.

Paul Lockhart confronts the problem of the non-historian in his recent post, History: The Everyman Discipline?. In a subsequent post I will return to his central question: Do historians possess or acquire a unique expertise? Here I want to focus on his distinction between historians and antiquarians. The antiquarian doesn’t seek to understand the past but, instead, merely to arrange the facts into a story is. By contrast “historians endeavor (not always successfully) to wring some meaning or greater significance from their study of the past.” As a means of distinguishing antiquarians from historians, this seems reasonable. It does not, to my mind, help distinguish historians from other people who might “wring some meaning or greater significance from their study of the past.”

Another non-historian challenge comes in the form of anniversaries, which are rarely chosen by historians and for historically interesting reasons. Becky Higgit’s thoughts in her post on anniversaries, On this day: the role of anniversaries, are echoed by or echo some of the points Jacques Revel makes in his post, Public Uses of History. As both point out, commemorative events continue to assume larger roles in the general public’s understanding and structuring of the past. These anniversaries are chosen because they represent historical precedents that confirm and reinforce present convictions and beliefs. Perhaps more worrisome, these commemorative events exercise considerable influence over the questions and research that historians can pursue because they attract audiences and funding, and find publishers.

Commemorative events are not the only place where non-historians search the past to find support for their current convictions. In a recent post on open access journals, The Future of Science Pubishing, Kevin Bonham depicted 17th-century England and its Royal Society as a sort of postlapsarian, open access paradise. In his characterization, “early scientists mostly communicated amongst themselves in person or in letters or in books. They shared discoveries freely and it was possible for an individual human to be aware of almost the entire sum of human knowledge. Leeuwenhoek’s description of the wee beasties was sent to the Royal Society of London, and quickly disseminated to all interested parties in Britain and the rest of Europe.” Not only were these people not “early scientists,” they did not share their ideas freely. Books cost money, then as they do now. And who was entitled to see these discoveries was itself controlled in all sorts of ways and regulated by codes and norms. Even the participants, as he remarks in passing, were a self-selecting and elite group: “Natural philosophy was pastime for nobility or at least those with considerable disposable income.” For Bonham, the past reinforces his contemporary agenda. Open access journals might or might not be a good thing, but the past is a poor justification them.

What unites these and other non-historian uses of past science is the way they reinforce familiar and comfortable assumptions about our own world and about our own superiority. These uses of the past are like innumerable medieval genealogies that were populated with mythical and historical and even Biblical ancestors. These genealogies served to establish a prince’s authority by constructing a “history” that reinforced the family’s superiority.

In my research, in my courses, and in my broader academic and public life I seek to elevate the level of discourse as it relates to contemporary understandings of science and to challenge our familiar yet deeply problematic assumptions about science and its relationship to society. These are perennial issues, to be sure, but they are particularly acute at the moment. At least in the U.S. we have seen an intensification of the public and political uses of past science. As a historian of science, I feel a moral and ethical obligation to participate in those public and political discussions that invoke the history of science.

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