Edward Shorter Derides Today’s History of Science

In a recently published interview, How Depression Went Mainstream over at The History News Network, historian of medicine Edward Shorter talks about his newest book, criticizes historians of science, and bemoans trends in the history of science.[1]

Shorter is an accomplished historian of medicine. He graduated from Harvard in 1968 and has spent the bulk of his career at the University of Toronto. While at Toronto he completed two years of medical school and “gained the basic knowledge of medical sciences that any physician would have.” He has written a number of books on various topics in the history of medicine, as well as a couple shorter (no pun intended) pieces on sex, music, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Edward Shorter has no patience for current historians or their intellectually bankrupt work. When asked about how different audiences have responded to his work, he says of historians: “Historians aren’t as interested [in my work] because they aren’t intellectually equipped to study that kind of thing.” Lacking a scientific background, historians can’t understand the science. Instead, they study non-science questions like “psychiatry’s attitudes toward women or how knowledge is diffused in medicine.” Such marginal questions, Shorter laments, “animate the discipline.” According to Shorter, only historians who have the training in the sciences they study can ask and answer “really interesting questions,” the scientific questions. While Shorter names historians of psychiatry, he is speaking more broadly about history of science in general.

Shorter goes on to deplore what he considers general trends in the history of science. When asked about the possibility of more dialog between historians and “those who study science and medicine” (would that be scientists and physicians?), he sees little reason to be hopeful:

The trend is not toward the study of science but “scientism” or pseudo-science, and to see how famous discoveries were really accomplished by sexist and ageist ways of thinking, and the whole line of investigation is of no interest at all to anyone outside the narrow corridors of the history of science departments, and almost certainly will not survive the test of time.

For Shorter, the only proper history of science, is internalist history of science that answers the really interesting questions. This namby-pamby history of science produced by current historians of science contributes little or nothing to our understanding of, for example, real illnesses or real science. There is no room in Shorter’s world for a history of science that might ask about meaning or use, or might see scientific practice as a form of culture (see Angela Muir’s useful post Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?). However much I might agree that historians of science could benefit from greater technical knowledge of the sciences they study, I disagree that only historians of science with that technical knowledge can ask interesting questions. Further, I would argue that such historians need to guard against letting their technical expertise give rise to a teleology that naturalizes scientific knowledge and severs it from the very people and societies that produced and used that scientific knowledge.

  1. It might be interesting to think about how this interview would have been different if conducted by a historian rather than an attorney with “a particular interest in the history of medicine.”  ↩

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