Historical Expertise

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.

3 replies on “Scientific Progress and the History of Science”