February 2, 2016

How to Write the History of Science?

Metallurgist testing a new alloy from New Frontiers in Science (1964), a vintage textbook I bought from a retired science teacher in Austin, TX a few years ago. 
Is the history of science fundamentally different from other kinds of history? The composition of PhD programs would seem to suggest that academia believes the answer to this is yes, because many of the world's leading universities have carved out separate, standalone departments devoted to the field. And I suspect most scientists would agree as well - after all, the desire to become  a scientist is often powerfully linked to a belief in science as an historical force, as something which has shaped our present and will improve our future. 

However, the question of why the history of science is different is a difficult one to agree on. Scientists themselves hold widely divergent views on the history and future of their own discipline - not just on a big-picture level, but also in regards to concrete details relating to the authorship and nature of scientific discoveries. Virtually everyone agrees that the CRISPR gene-editing technique is a breakthrough, quite possibly one destined to win a Nobel prize. But as we saw last month with the dueling articles "Heroes of CRISPR" and "The Villain of CRISPR," even some of the principal figures involved can't agree about who exactly is responsible for it, let alone what its effects and legacy will be. 

Which brings me to an exchange I recently had with the historian of science David Wootton, who recently published a widely-reviewed, epic history of the Scientific Revolution called The Invention of Science. I reviewed the book alongside the physicist Steven Weinberg's To Explain the World last month for The Chronicle Review, which you can read in full here

Although I found much to admire in both books, I also questioned some of the approaches to writing and thinking about scientific discovery on display in them. I won't rehash the review here, but I did think it would be worthwhile to link to David Wootton's lengthy and highly erudite response to my review, available here on his book's website:

"A Reply to Benjamin Breen."

 ...and to post what I wrote in reply to Professor Wootton (see below, lightly edited for length). Wootton and Weinberg's books have prompted an interesting and ongoing debate among historians of science in the past few months (see here, here, here, and here), and I hope that making my own thoughts public will be of interest. It is admittedly a bit inside-baseball, but I think that implicit beliefs about the history and trajectory of science in our larger culture are both more deep-seated and more influential than many realize, and that it's worth talking more about what we actually think about them.

Hugo Gernsback "Isolator" helmet, designed to allow scientists, writers and tinkerers to concentrate on their work, featured on the cover of a 1925 issue of Science and Invention magazine.

Dear David,

I appreciate you taking the time to write such a lengthy and thoughtful response. To undertake the task of writing about two 600+ page books in 2,000 words is to accept a certain level of defeat before you even begin, and I was painfully aware of how much was being glossed over as I wrote about a book that was so clearly the result of years painstaking research and careful thought. One (to me) important sentence in the review that was cut by the Chronicle's editors was something along the lines of this: “Wootton’s beliefs may not be so very different from those held by most historians of science today.”

I suspect this to be the case, and hence I agree with your closing remark about the need to make distinctions to clarify exactly "where we agree and where we disagree." To that end, I thought I'd begin by mentioning the numerous other things that I suspect we agree about:

  • We agree that scientific and medical progress exists and that this can and should be studied by historians.
  •  We agree that the term "Whig" is showing its age and has come to mean several different things.
  •  We agree that the history of science and medicine is in a state of flux, and that no clear consensus seems to exist among practitioners in the field.
  •  We agree that something which (leaving aside debates about terminology) may be reasonably called the Scientific Revolution took place between the 16th and 18th centuries, and that this was a transformative epoch in human history.
  •  We agree that the innovations from this period bettered the human condition in many important respects and expanded the scope of human knowledge.
  •  We agree that there should be more "big" histories of science, medicine and technology which take a temporally and thematically ambitious approach, and that more people should read them both inside and outside the academy.
  •  We agree that “Hobbes was right,” though cute, was perhaps an overly flippant and simplistic way to end Leviathan and the Air Pump.
  •  We agree that The Invention of Science is an impressive achievement that deserves to be widely read (in fact I just put it on my class syllabus for next year).

 My core disagreement with Invention centers on the question of where (and how deeply) we draw the line between between different perspectives on the history of science. Like Patricia Fara, I believe that the historiographic sections of the book construct an unnecessarily rigid binary between a host of purported relativists/Strong Programme advocates/postmodernists on one side and David Wootton on the other. This tendency toward binaries is apparent throughout your response to my review, where I found myself being lumped in with Shapin’s “side” and also taken the task for not pursuing total ideological conformity with Herbert Butterfield even though I’m “on Butterfield’s side,” while ultimately discovering that I was unwittingly “on [your] side of the divide, not Shapin’s” all along. This sort of thing is exactly what I objected to in the book. It’s possible to share some views with another thinker and yet to be capable of disagreeing with them in other respects. This does not make you irrational or confused; it does not mean you automatically lose an argument.

Many of the historiographic portions of Invention seemed to me to show an unwillingness to read supposedly opposing arguments in good faith. The most jarring example to me was the way that Shapin and Schaffer were repeatedly trotted out as exemplars of points of view that I rather strongly suspect they don’t actually adhere to. The most unfair example is on pg. 584 where Shapin is made to “insist” that “there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution,” full stop. Of course, there’s a famous second half to this sentence that completely changes the meaning (and, in my reading at least, basically announces it to be a witticism rather than a statement to be inveighed against at great length).

To me it typified the major flaw of the book’s rhetorical style: a tendency to declare victory in battles which it was by no means clear to me that the other side was even trying to wage. Hence why I mentioned Shapin’s line about the reality of medical progress. It certainly seemed to me that he both acknowledges medical and scientific progress and considers it open to historical inquiry, but that he took issue with the particular form of historical inquiry on display in Bad Medicine.

But I don’t know the man and can’t speak for him (and rather than trying to perform an exegesis on his texts, I think it would make more sense to just ask him what he thinks). For my own part, I do think that one of the tasks of the history of science and medicine is to chart the trajectory of progress (however we choose to define it) in an open-minded and expansive way that tries as far as possible to avoid writing a history that celebrates the “winners” and elides the “losers,” even as it acknowledges that some concepts and methods have a basis in reality and others don’t. In part because being too quick to distribute laurels and dunce caps can lead us into unjustified and overly hasty binaries. Not all pre-1800 physicians were astrologers or quacks; not all who quote Shapin or Butterfield are ardent proponents of the Strong Programme. 

 I make no excuses for mistrusting celebratory narratives in history, and I also maintain that Invention is largely written in a celebratory mode.  Now, as I said above, I think we actually agree that science has on the whole been a good thing for the human species. It’s hard to be an historian of medicine and not acknowledge that, deep down – more than once I myself have been frustrated by historians who espouse a kneejerk distrust of the concept of medical progress, yet who surely would prefer the doctor’s prescription of amoxicillin for their strep throat rather than bleeding until syncope. Especially in respect to epidemiology and sanitation, it’s undeniable (to me, at least) that the past three centuries have witnessed nothing less than a triumphant advance on the past, something that we really should applaud. We’re literally talking about ideas and methods that have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of lives by this point.

As you rightly pointed out, of course, not all aspects of scientific and medical innovation have been good things. The atom bomb tends to be the perennial example here. I think that Invention repeatedly avoided another that was a bit closer at hand, namely the slave trade. As a number of recent studies have shown, the Atlantic slave trade was closely entangled with the Scientific Revolution, not just in terms of economics (Boyle and Locke holding share in the Royal Africa Company, etc) but at a far more visceral level – the testing of poisons on slave’s bodies, the dissection of slaves, the use of slave labor to produce medical drugs and other objects of scientific inquiry. This is not incidental to the stories in Invention, particularly the passages dealing with Columbus and voyages of discovery– it’s central to them. 

Perhaps it’s futile to wonder whether the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions could have taken place without the advent of Atlantic slavery and the colonial system that enslaved labor made possible, but I do think that raising the question is useful, insofar as it reminds us once again that the famous names in books like Invention and Weinberg’s Discovery didn’t exist in an historical vacuum. The same institutions and many of the same individuals were implicated in a world outside Europe that depended in concrete ways upon violence, slavery and yes, religious fanaticism.

From this does it necessarily follow that the individuals implicated in all of this were wrong on an empirical level? Not at all. And despite what I wrote above, I also don’t think that the historian’s overarching goal should be to render moral judgments. But I do think that it is relevant information that Columbus and many other early modern European mariners were indeed slave traders, that they did kill people, that they were motivated by millenarian religious views. I mentioned this not to retroactively condemn them as bad people, but to point to the issues inherent in any celebratory historical narrative. To say Columbus was a murderer is not a moral judgment; it’s just a statement of fact. Certainly, as you note, to argue that Columbus’s actions set in motion a series of intellectual changes and discoveries is not to say that these later events were directly guided by Columbus, or that the people involved shared his outlook.

But when Invention credited the activities of Columbus and Diogo Cão to a new “celebration of innovation,” it gave me pause. That the book’s readers – many of whom may well see themselves as contemporary participants in that very same tradition of innovation – would see this as a good thing seems like a relatively uncontroversial statement to me. As I said above, in the context of things like sanitation, the emergence of a new concept of discovery and innovation clearly was a good thing (and note that here I agree with your reading of the Portuguese “descobrir/descobrimiento” as representing a new conception of innovation). But when we draw such a wide circle around this nebulous new culture of “innovation” that it is is made to include everything from arguments for geocentric orbits to medical statistics to attempts to establish slave entrepôts at the mouth of the Congo, it seems to me that the term’s utility breaks down. And that it becomes problematic to celebrate it. If you want to dismiss that argument as “some sort of political point” and not grapple with its implications, then I think we really do have a real disagreement there.

It seems to me that historians of science of my generation, which is to say people who finished grad school in the 2010s, are eager to move beyond 1990s style debates about relativism and postmodernism and combative mentality these debates engendered. For what it’s worth, if I'd been asked to write a review of a hypothetical new history of science written by David Bloor, I'd have been at least as critical as I was with Invention (almost certainly more, in fact).  So having said that, what do I actually think? Like you, I believe that the history of science needs to be more ambitious and expansive. But the ambitious works in the history of science that I’ve personally found to be the most compelling don’t appear in Invention: Neil Safier, Carla Nappi, Jorge Cañizares, Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Matthew Crawford, Susan Scott Parish, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare, James Delbourgo, Jennifer Rampling, Elaine Leong, Pamela Smith (who I noticed in the bibliography but saw little engagement with her ideas or work), Harold Cook, etc.

That’s because (it seems to me) these scholars write about science outside of northwestern Europe and/or their work straddles the traditional divide between medicine and magic, or chemistry and alchemy, or the female cook’s work and the male apothecary’s work. To me, at least, these works collectively represent a clear path forward in the historiography of science. They don’t advocate for a single point of view, and they cover a bewildering array of geographic regions and languages, but I don’t see that as a negative in the least. These works (from my reading, at least) don’t argue that the Scientific Revolution didn’t take place, nor do they mount relativist arguments. But they don’t seem to fit into Invention, and I think that’s because they try to expand not just the temporal but the geographic and social limits of what we mean by scientific discovery and investigation.

In fact, taken collectively, these works seem to me not just to broaden the concept of scientific discovery, but to call into question its utility as a frame of historical analysis. Taking an example from my own research, because I know it best, let’s follow the historical pathway of what would be eventually identified as the anti-malarial alkaloid quinine (arguably one of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time if we use “number of lives saved” as our litmus). When was quinine discovered?   Was it…

  •       When indigenous healers in the Peruvian Amazon first realized that the bark of the cinchona tree was an unusually effective treatment for fevers?
  •      When a new generation of healers, contending with the introduction of malaria into the New World via the slave trade, realized that cinchona bark was also effective in the treatment of this hitherto unknown disease?
  •       When a Jesuit priest seeking to convert said healers realized this too?
  •       When the Jesuits carried cinchona bark to Europe?
  •       When Iberian and Italian licensed physicians began experimenting with preparations of the bark (such as extraction in alcohol) that more effectively concentrated what we now know to be its active alkaloid?
  •        When an Englishman named Robert Tabor published the first account of the tincture of the bark’s antimalarial properties in English?
  •       When a Luso-Brazilian surgeon named Bernardino Antonio Gomes first isolated what we now call quinine in 1811 and named it cinchonin, but didn’t publish his findings?
  •       When two French doctors, working in 1820, developed a similar method for isolating the alkaloid and named this alkaloid quinine, the “discovery” of which was recorded in scientific journals?

Now, traditional narratives have tended to say that the final step marks the discovery of quinine. Social historians of medicine have tended toward the first step. But after thinking carefully about this trajectory of quinine through history, I’m increasingly convinced that the concept of discovery doesn’t even have value as a category of analysis here. Every step arguably marked a discovery, but no one step was decisively different from the others. Picking the “real” moment of discovery seems, to me at least, to be necessarily a political judgment, and an arbitrary one at that. Likewise with policing the boundary of what steps on that chain count as science and what don’t.

Granted, I’m aware that pg. 567 of Invention indeed notes that “concepts such as discovery are problematic,” but I think I disagree with the implication of the conclusion of that paragraph, that “we cannot understand science without studying the history of these foundational [and problematic] concepts.” Certainly it’s true that the notion of discovery has long been central to debates about the history of science, but doesn’t that actually create an opening to try to attempt something entirely new by trying to move beyond those debates?

That at least is the direction my own research is leading me – I fully acknowledge that this isn’t a particularly well articulated or coherent position, and it’s one that is in flux and will probably change in a year or two, but perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, I think that it’s important to acknowledge not only what we already agree on, but also to be open to changing our minds and to avoid hewing to dogmatic camps. And with that I’ll simply add that I’m very glad to have had the chance to have such a substantive dialogue.

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