Dos and don’ts in history of science

This post is an attempt to put down an idea that has been loosely turning around in my mind for some time, partly continuing the thoughts raised in my earlier two posts on ‘Good popular history of science’, slightly inspired by the attempt to write a Manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions, and in some sort of response to posts on the role of history of science over at PACHSmörgåsbord.  It’s by no means a definitive statement and, although I am interested to gague views and receive further suggestions, it is in some ways a note-to-self. It could be a personal checklist when speaking to people outside the discipline, whether in exhibitions, lectures aimed at the general public or in a media interview. On the spot, especially when directly questioned by someone with little or no knowledge of the topic under discussion, it can be all too easy to either fall into jargon or – in order to avoid that sin – make use of modern terms or concepts that make a nonsense of the history. This is a list of things that I think are, in such contexts, worth insisting on, even at the expense(?) of taking up a little more time, making people think a little harder and losing the neatness of a nice story.

In the end, I am not all that interested in serving up nice stories and historical titbits to the public if this is not also a means to discuss something a bit more substantial: a sense of the real differences between past and present; the way ideas are shaped by the context in which they are formed; the lack of neat linear narratives; the fact that our view of the past and its people have been shaped and reshaped by those who have written about them, etc. The nice story serves people in the same way as fiction – history can (should?) have other objectives.

If this list gets to be better defined and further thought-through it could, potentially, also be useful for anyone who finds themselves, unexpectedly, straying into the field. I like to think that it might help journalists and others who start researching something in the history of science to avoid some of the usual errors. It might, at least, help people to see where criticisms from folk like me are coming from. The following are, therefore, my set of basic assumptions, from which I – and anyone intending to write about the history of science – should not depart. I hope that my explanations will show why this is not mere pedantry.

1) Do not ever call anyone a scientist who would not have recognised the term. The word was not coined until the 1830s (by William Whewell himself) but a) he meant something rather different by it and b) the word was not actually used until the 1870s. If we use the term to describe anyone before this date we risk loading their views, status, career, ambitions and work with associations that just do not exist before this date. I may know what I mean if it slips out in my description of an 18th-century astronomy, but the person listening to me will hear all sorts of other things. It too easily glides over points such as the fact that individuals probably did something else to make their living, or were personally wealthy. Science was not a career, or a vocation. I could give many further examples, and expand this rule into to using actors’ categories elsewhere, but this is the fundamental point. Not only did the word not, essentially, exist pre-1870 but there was no equivalent and no such idea. Awkward as it can sometimes be, man of science, natural philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, physician, naturalist or whatever should always be used instead.

2) Do not allow assumptions about conflict between science and religion or ‘rival’ theories. This is usually the result of anachronism. It takes more recent debates or views about science and places them in a past where they may make no sense. Assuming antagonism where none exists can obscure how ideas were really developed or shared. Over on Renaissance Mathematicus today is a nice example in the figure of Giovanni Battista Riccioli, of how Jesuits were not in the business of hindering scientific progress and that one individual might be able to consider rationally the pros and cons of Ptolemaic geocentrism and Copernican heliocentrism without frothing at the mouth or burning heretics. To quote that oracle of truth, Wikipedia, “Contemporarily, most of the scholarship supporting the Conflict Thesis is considered inaccurate”. I rest my case.

3) Do encourage people to take stories of genius and eureka moments with a pinch of salt. Sorry to be a kill-joy, but most of these are pure invention and follow very predictable tropes, many of which go back to antiquity. Newton and his apple is one of the best in terms of provenance (see the discussion in the comments on an earlier post), but even here it is more than possible that the story was created long after the fact. Whatever the truth about this and the many other stories about Newton, they certainly reinforced the clichés and inspired further applications. The stories are interesting and useful, but more in terms of how reputations are built and views of science and scientific genius develop than what they tell us about the individual in question.

4) Do not allow passage of time to be taken as an explanation for progress in science. By this I mean that progress in science, from the development of new theories to the manufacture of increasingly accurate instruments, cannot be taken as a given or as inevitable. Such developments only happen in areas viewed as important by people in the right places at the right time. Much of this is an economic story, for financial investment is usually required and support is only given if the outcome is considered useful or desirable by those holding the purse-strings. There are other cultural values at play that allow for reward and recognition by peers, but tapping into national, class and personal interests are usually key. Failing to insist on this effectively leaves out everything that actually makes science happen.

5) Do not expect that progress to be straightforward. This point is largely an excuse to quote Thony C’s response to a comment of mine: “Science does not progress, it stumbles along on a zig-zag path evolving in fits and starts.” I hestitate to say that it also goes backwards as well as forwards, because, of course, that direction (as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’) can only be labelled retrospectively.

6) Do respect the boundaries. And where they lay. What we understand as ‘science’ is not necessarily the same as what an early 20th-century physicist, a 19th-century man of science, an 18th-century instrument-maker or a 17th-century natural philosopher would understand as science, or their field of study. This is related to, but not the same as, Rule 1, since respecting actors’ categories can get you out of trouble, and to Rule 2, since religion has, in the past, been part of science. But, in addition, do not let yourself, or your audience/interviewer, get away with talking about astrology, homeopathy, psychical research, natural magic or phrenology as pseudo-science before such ideas and practices were actually defined as such by contemporaries. It only comes as a surprise that Newton was an alchemist if we look at the past with our modern sense of where the boundaries between science and not-science lie.

I think six rules will do for present, especially as it’s nearly my bedtime, but I expect to revist this, either privately or in another post. What else should be added? Is anything here not worth insisting on?

72 thoughts on “Dos and don’ts in history of science

  1. The cosh of context wielded in 6 and other places is the most important I think.

    But the stunned feeling you get when first hit by the big stick of history is what makes it an exciting subject for me at least. So it will carry part of the crowd. Other sections may need repeated beating particularly when modern sense involves modern politics or identity issues.

    A ‘know youre audience’ may merit a rule 7 rather than mixed in with 6. but thats just my brief thoughts before bed.

    • Thanks for this. I think the ‘know your audience’ rule is well worth adding in – and responds also to some of the points made below (with some provisos that I will add in my responses there).

      I think that “the cosh of context” is exactly one of the things I’d like to get across to people. In the end it doesn’t matter so much if they don’t remember any of the facts relating to that context so long as they get the idea that a) it makes a difference and b) things were different then (or there).

  2. Not seeing presentism in any of the rules, in that, for example, I should not judge Darwin’s seed dispersal experiments in the 1850s on what biogeographers in 2011 know about seed dispersal (unless, #6 makes this point).

    • Thanks Michael. I suppose that I would see presentism as similar to anachronism, which underlines several of the points above. That said, highlighting it in terms of how we tend judge particular theories or methods is probably worth a separate rule. This is particularly the case when talking about something that feels like it’s part of modern science, and where context is more easily brushed over.

  3. Rule 7: There is no… Rule 7.

    A science can progress, but science as a whole doesn’t, necessarily. Information and tacit knowledge is lost and much science is never cited again. Negative results are not published, and so the success and boundaries of a science are unique to it and its context and time. The presumption that science is a triumphal march tends to be made by those who are selling something, usually their own theories.

    • Nicely-made point. It’s one of those that may be considerably too subtle for most public exchanges, but always worth bearing in mind!

  4. I sympathise with a lot of this, and I think you succeed in showing it’s not just pedantry. Still, it dies seem a bit what the sci comm community would call ‘top-down’ to me – about educating re public, feeding them something substantial, showing off your knowledge and, most importantly talking rather than listening.

    Maybe that’s ok though. I’m not necessarily saying you have to apply the ideals of post-PUS anti deficit model sci comm to talking about the history of science in public, but it is at least a challenge worth taking on…?

    (or, more simply, I like to odd titbit and funny story about scientists back in the day, and I have a first class degree in HPS!)

    • I take your point, but I think the role of history of science public engagement is somewhat different to science engagement. Everyone comes across and has to deal with science in some way in their daily lives, whereas history of science is hardly compulsory. Science is undeniably useful, as well as complicated and problematic, but history of science needs to work a bit harder to demonstrate its role above and beyond the fun stories. I’m not saying the stories should (or could ever) disappear, but I don’t think they achieve a great deal – and some of what they promote is itself problematic (for history and for science communication). It just as, with science communication and education, I am not all that enthused about things just designed to make the audiences say “wow”. I happen, of course, to think that history of science can be very useful for helping the public understand the role of science, but only if it sticks to basic assumptions such as these.

      I think “showing off your knowledge” and “talking rather than listening” is a bit harsh! I’m not saying this is something that should be rammed down the throats of those you’re speaking to, just a base-level of assumptions in your conversation that are worth adhering to if you think that the discipline has any value. It’s not really a question of ticking the questioner off for saying “scientist” but of consistently avoiding the word yourself, or making sure that the conversation, or exhibition narrative, is not steered into something linear or based on a set of anachronistic assumptions.

      • Ok, but are you really getting ‘engagement’ here? Similarly, re comments here about knowing your audience… ok, knowing your audience is good, but better is interacting with them. From a research comms point of view, I’d still repeat my challenge (albeit differently articulated) to go from delivering ready made ideas (including your own ideas about what your profession does) and instead having a conversation with people.

        I agree sci com is different from history of sci com… however you seem to defend this point by talking about how the way the profession of history of science is presented? I mean, isn’t this the old story of doing popularization for the sake of professionalism? For the record, I don’t personally mind this, normative speaking, as long as people are honest about it and it’s worked more in terms of explaining your often publicly funded role (as you seem to be framing it) than simply saying we are amazing and clever worship at our feet.

        — this was kind of what I meant by ‘showing off your knowledge’. I didn’t mean it as ‘harshly’ as it might have appeared (sorry, was quick typing at the airport…).

      • Some of this I need to think about more, but I don’t think I should be accused if popularisation for the sake of the profession so much as being guilty of thinking that we have some useful insights that it would be genuinely useful to share. Is this a basic error for engagement? Why engage at all if you don’t believe it?

        I do clearly need to know more about how science engagement works at its best. But surely, however much there’s listening and conversation, there are some things that a science communicator wouldn’t want to say and some points that they wouldn’t let their audience go away with unchallenged.

        In my conversation I can listen and respond to the ideas and questions of the person I’m talking to, but why not also expect them to listen to me? Why not say: “I try not to be anachronistic for these reasons. Does that sound sensible to you?”. But if doing a lecture, or a quote for TV or a newspaper it’s not really a conversation – the best you can do is think about your audience and try to say something useful and interesting.

      • By the way, I went to look at your blog to read about how I should be trying to engage, but it seems to be blocked? I’ll try again later!

  5. I have to say on reading your guidelines I was in complete agreement even though I think I’ve broken every single one of them is some way or another in the past!

    Very useful post.

  6. A lot of good points to think about. Not sure there can be blanket rules for such a thing, unfortunately, although these are all important things to keep in mind.

    A good example is the claim in No.1, to ‘never’ refer to a historical figure as a scientist unless they would have referred to themself as one. I see the reasoning, and think it’s a good thing to keep in mind amongst those who do have appropriate knowledge and context. But as somebody who writes for kids, I have to remain aware of how my audience would hear the word and interpret it. ‘Scientist’ might be a loaded term, but it’s the nearest thing most children would understand to the nature of what it is a lot of historical natural philosophers or theologians practiced.

    Of course, even this is contextual. I might decide not to use a descriptor at all, depending on the angle of my piece. My point is more that I’ve learned to judge communication events individually, as I’ve pretty much found reason to break every rule I’ve ever come up with at least once at some point. It’s primarily why it’s so hard to be a good science/history communicator – it’s just so damn difficult to codify as a practice, and relies on knowing so much about language and metaphor and how different audiences interpret them.

    • I absolutely take the point (as with earlier comments) that you should think about your audience. However, I will stick with my “scientist” rule. If talking to kids this is one point that it might be most worthwhile for them to take away with them. In the end, as a writer or speaker, you need to decide what you most want your audience to understand. I, personally, care less about getting them to understand the science than understanding that science has a history. (I agree, though, that avoiding the desriptor is often the best course.)

      However, I suppose that, in the end, my hope is that people discussing the history of science would know such ‘rules’ before deciding to break them, for good, well-considered reasons.

      • I would rather have Rule #1 stated in a more general manner (“avoid anachronisms”, or something like that), to go better with the way the others are phrased. Using a term that was only coined years later is just one particular case of such a kind of historical sin.

      • Your point about knowing rules to break them is a good one. I use a similar method when I’ve taught classes on writing.

        I’d be wary of viewing history of science and how science works as too distinct. It’s a common error of a lot of sci-commers, I find, and I’d really hope that those who promote the history side wouldn’t make the same mistake. Teasing them apart, IMO, is not only difficult, but I don’t see the benefit in it. Describing an idea is so wrapped up in the historical context of it, it’s a dangerous thing to separate them (maybe that’s another discussion, though).

        Anachronisms are important to be mindful of, but they are also somewhat unavoidable. Much like metaphors in science theory, it’s never a case of using a metaphor that’s inaccurate (they’re all inaccurate) – it’s a case of being comfortable with your degree of inaccuracy with respect to the audience’s level of understanding. Likewise we can’t speak to an audience in ancient Greek or medieval Persian, so given the way language evolves there will always be – to some extent – a requirement for some poetic license.

        Again, the message is ‘know your objective – know your audience’. 🙂

      • Beto – I think that what’s important in almost all these rules is “avoid anachronism” or “listen to your actors”. My aim, which succeeded better in some cases than others, was to pick out particularly common examples of this being ignored. This might be more memorable and, remembering one, basic, point, I hope, will begin to change the framework. ‘Scientist’ is key, because as soon as the description is changed, people will think a little differently about them.

    • You should especially observe these points when writing for children. It’s quite remarkable how much “general knowledge” comprises things learned at school, many not explicitly on the curriculum, and never questioned. (The re-branded marxist tenets of many of my teachers were the occasion of the reflection, but the list above covers several other examples). It may be the only encounter they have with sound historical method!

      • It is, which is why communicating it effectively is so important. My point is not to load with unnecessary baggage, but to use terminology that has the best chance of being understood.

        In the classroom, you have an opportunity to develop a culture of understanding. You might even have the luxury of building up shared language. As such, using the term ‘natural philosopher’ to describe somebody such as al Hasan would be easier to do, and would avoid the complications of referring to him as a scientist.

        Yet this isn’t always a luxury communicators have. In which case, there is a balance that needs considering, where you need to choose language that will still communicate the angle of your piece without confusion or distancing the content from the child. As somebody who has been both a teacher and a science writer for children’s publications, I can assure you that there are contrasting contexts in each field which aren’t apparent until you’re forced to sit and consider your objectives.

      • I should certainly bow to your experience – I have only tried to talk to a group of children about history of science once. I learned important lessons, including how much comprehension changes between mid and top primary school, but I did feel fairly happy with avoiding ‘scientist’ and saying instead that people were doing certain things in science for certain reasons. I’ll admit this is easier in some cases (like the utilitarian early history of the Royal Observatory) than others!

  7. To summarize don’t do like Science textbooks…
    I have the feeling that the flaws you correctly mention are part of how scientist are trained. One has just to look in science textbooks at the “brief historical perspective” they often place at the beginning.

    (I am a scientist)

    • Yes – I am, essentially, asserting the worth of my kind of history of science over ‘bad history of science’! Maybe this is pure self-interest, but I do believe – or have been brainwashed into believing – that it is genuinely a more useful and satisfying approach that can serve both history and science better than the science textbook one.

      Kieron Flanagan raised an interesting question on Twitter recently, about whether anyone had ever specifically argued for the value of ‘bad history of science’, or against the ‘good’ on the grounds that it was detrimental to science. I’d be interested if anyone knows if anyone has – I certainly get cries of “shame” when stories are shown to be myths. Historical myths are certainly created for particular ends, whether consciously or not, but then they often stick around when they no longer serve their original purpose. Science is in a very different position, with different challenges, than when most of the archetypical myths were created. It’s time to replace them with new ones (for I know that I future historian of the history of history of sience will correct everything I’ve written 😉 )

      • The myths that are use in the history of science, done by or directed to, scientists are useful for social norm creation and making people work together in the present structures. In this case, should we say pseudo-history of science like many scientists like to talk about pseudo-science? I think they pertain to maintaining the social structure of scientific institutions as does “corporate culture” for firms. They allow young scientists to follow the “good rules” of work. In my point of view, the roles of those myths are thus, like always probably, to build a sense of belonging to a group and follow their traditions and way of working. It is not about good science or good knowledge. It is part of the explanation why some scientists are so arrogant or keen in fighting what they call pseudo-science. It is about privilege and power of what matters in science as an institution against “the others”.

        Good history of science (and Science Studies in general), on the contrary is about true understanding and better knowledge. They will then break the myths and the scientific social working rules. But at the same time, I think, it helps in making better scientists, less arrogant, keen to see all the implications of their work and share with other sciences including the so called social sciences. All this comes at a price: questioning the way science is done today. Breaking myths is also about making politics and questioning the existing power.

        But in the age of ranking, impact factor, citation indexes and other managerial methods for evaluating science productivity, who is willing to break the scientific myths?

      • Does everyone here know about Stephen Brush’s 1974 article, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” (web search reveals the full text in a couple of places…)

        Pre-SSK, of course, but post-Kuhn, and emphasises that “the teacher who wants to indoctrinate his students in the traditional role of the scientist as a neutral fact finder should not use historical materials of the kind now being prepared by historians of science”. This, of course, raises the question of whether the traditional approach is worth keeping, and Brush concludes that it probably isn’t. The robotic sterility of the “neutral fact finder”, the smug inevitability of whig progress, and the impossibility of living up to the attainments of vulgar-triumphal heores, may themselves serve to put good people off taking up science.

        Which makes it the more depressing that the “traditional” approach is still immediately recognisable today…

      • I would agree with James that there is much in “traditional” approach that should make people, as José puts it, “willing to break the scientific myths”. I think they are firmly entrenched, but not actively being kept in place. There’s a lot there that sounds distinctly off-putting for the average, non-genius school student. Seeing science as a human activity is, I think, more inspiring, more interesting and sounds distinctly more open to the input of ordinary humans (as potential creators and consumers of science).

      • AAAAAAAH. Just when I finaly get use to the way H.S.O uses the term myth for what I understand as legend, and grow relaxed about it, historical myth appears.

        Ive led a sheltered life and never heard the term before.

        Ive been trained to understand myth as a narrative set in a timeless setting before the world was made or at its birth, but its setting is always non- historical making it distinct from legend, which is always given a historical basis.

        Not being pedantic, just so use to seeing it used in a different sense. It just seems very odd to my eyes.

        Still, I won’t fall out of my seat if I see someone use the term a non-historical legend. I will be ready for it.

      • I can forgive. I suspect a couple of the more ultra conservative members of my former department would internaly combust if the term was uttered out loud. I must guiltily confess to the fact that its not an entirely displeasing image.

  8. “Dr Becky’s Guide to Writing Good History of Science” is definitely a winner. All six of your ‘dos and don’ts’ should be tattooed, in abbreviated form, in Leonardian mirror writing on the foreheads of all HoS novices so that they are forced to read them first thing every morning whilst cleaning their teeth over the bathroom sink.

    1) Don’t use terminology anachronistically!
    2) There is no ‘War against Science’!
    3) Genius & Eureka moments are (almost always) myths!
    4) & 5) Progress is never linear and may not exist at all!
    6) Presentism is a No No!

    Further rules:

    7) Avoid anecdotes!
    7.5) Know your audience!
    9) Hagiography is a SIN!

      • Excellent summary. I rather like Know you audience! being a sub-point to Avoid anecdotes! – may well leave us in a vicious circle, chasing our own tails and forgetting to communicate at all 😉 (got the smiley in too!).

  9. Interesting post, Becky. I suspect many of us have lists of contended Golden Rules floating around in our heads — I certainly do, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to type a few up. Mine are not specific to the history of science, though it’s easy to see where the HoS influences come in. There’s a lot of common ground with yours.

    1. The Record is not an index of The Truth. If you find an old piece of paper with Proposition P on it, you don’t have evidence for Proposition P. You do, however, have pretty good evidence that some literate person once thought it was worth putting Proposition P on a piece of paper. This may help you.

    2. Pedestals are not geological phenomena. Finding a person on a pedestal is evidence that there was once a project to build the pedestal and get the person up there. People may put themselves on pedestals, with a bit of help. The entire group that engineered the pedestal will not, by definition, fit on top of it.

    2a. The pedestal is not always there for the sake of the person on top. Some people are put on pedestals to keep others off them; others, purely for the sake of having a pedestal. Pedestals are built for visibility and they do come in handy for navigation. As destinations, they’re a bit of a let-down.

    3. If it’s a good story, that’s the point. Tales which are neat and smart and memorable can survive and breed on that alone: they don’t need to be plugged into the evidence base. Any good story is like a good traditional joke. It may express an underlying cosmic truth, or it may reject the most basic principles of shared human understanding, but there’s no reason to take it at face value.

    4. Human factors are made by humans. If, in your argument, they look like forces of nature, you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere. The Religious Authorities, Working-Class Culture, The Sensibilities of Polite Society, Trade Secrecy, Contemporary Racism, Market Forces: all have their roots in reasonable statements about changing patterns of behaviour common to groups of people, but all can too easily be blown up into ahistorical overgeneralisation.

    5. Boundaries matter. A good boundary is as powerful as a carefully wielded scimitar, but as endlessly reconfigurable as Lego. Classic example: the boundary between “science” and “non-science” moves, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have agency. Many individuals in history knew exactly what they were doing when they pushed it in one direction or another; many others, less observant, came to grief when they got in its way or it got in theirs.

    • I love these – thanks James. Much funnier (and cleverer) than mine! Some are also fairly subtle points – perhaps yours are for the undergrad in HPS, while mine were, in intention at least, aimed at a broader public?

      • Not intentionally, but the germ of most of them was probably planted in the course of reading a lot of undergrad essay scripts.

        Then again, most of our undergrads are on service-taught option courses, will only work on HSTM topics once or twice during their time here, and are, for the most part, reasonable proxies for the “literate person writing history for the first time”. But I’d want to engage differently with someone who was a bit older and had established professional expertise in a different field.

  10. Great points. I wonder if it might be useful to add something along the lines of remembering that history of science is itself a live discipline – that historians are revising widely held views and discovering new evidence about the past all the time, and that it might just be worth checking out the latest thinking on the person/event/theory under discussion rather than any old textbook? Holds for any discipline, of course, but I wonder if it gets forgotten in the case of HoS – (dusty old books have an air of authenticity 😉 ) Actually this might be a parallel to Thomas’ thoughts about the exhibition being left ‘unfinished’…

    • I agree this is a useful point, perhaps especially as a counter to my tendency to shout “I’m right and you’re wrong!” at authors of ‘bad’ HoS!

    • But if Professor Dr. Dr h.c. World’s Leading Expert on the Subject wrote it in his epochal definitive study of the subject then it must be true!

  11. Hi, Rebekah —

    Two things occur to me:

    One, it’s worth prying at why the hoary-chestnut stories exist, the fairy tales of any significant science history. As Jose says, there’s something corporate-culture about them, but they were also composed to suit a purpose at the time.

    Two, some training in handling living scientists isn’t a bad idea either. Anytime you write a history that’s not hagiographic and involves living people you’re going to have scientists, retired or not, come flying at you and trying to defend their reputations, and it seems to me that thinking about this ahead of time is smart. Otherwise I think the default is to go into shock and start apologizing and backpedaling needlessly.

    Three — and this seems obvious, but too often it doesn’t happen — if there are living people to talk to, go do it. Talk to secretaries, who know everything. Talk to wives, children, principals. Then go look at the papers and the secondary sources, and see how well the stories line up.

  12. Oh, and I’ll add (4) — don’t let partisans who’re involved in the history write chapters of your books unless you really understand how you’re taking sides and mean to do it. Again, seems shocking to have to say this, but I see it happen.

    • Thanks for your comments. Some, of course, are very pertinent for those working on recent history, while I prefer to stick safely in the 18th-19th century when everyone is safely dead! I guess my equivalent of talking to scientists and not letting partisans write chapters is just to be a good historian and make sure that I’m well-read in the topic and can spot the biases of my various actors. Looking into why the old stories were created and persist is extremely useful (and my intellectual bread and butter – my PhD was on biographies of Newton).

  13. Rereading this thread:

    Perhaps another idea is to leave HPS as a discipline alone, and work as a science writer for a long time instead.

    Here’s why: The discussion above is hothouse to the point of suffocation, and I suspect that’s because what’s taught in a few years’ HPS study is the compression of decades’ wisdom earned observing scientists and reading others. This strikes me as unwise and not as efficient as it seems at first glance. You can’t hurry love, and you can’t hurry the understanding of what goes into a history and why, either. If you try, you wind up with conversations that start out looking for a story, turn back, and wind up in your own navel, fretting over method, and this results in the worst sin of all: being boring.

    I see no reason why someone who’s 29 years old and has read a lot of SSK and pre-SSK should have any deep understanding of what she’s looking at in a science story. Without that understanding, there’s no hope of an interesting book. So I’d say: forget the academy and its strictures; go out and learn stories and read history and talk to people and work in labs and out and write; and come to an understanding of method that springs from discovering yourself, in some real context, why it’s necessary. (I’m not very sympathetic to arguments that this isn’t financially feasible; I’m neither an academic nor a trustifarian, and I still eat every day and have done for a good long time.)

    There. That’s my final answer.

    • At the risk of provoking a war I would point out that on average science writers produce even more rubbish than historians of science so I don’t quite see how that should improve the quality of history of science writing.

    • Is this comment mainly about the discussion? I’ll admit that there’s some things there that is relatively in-jokey or obscure. I hope it’s less about my original post which is precisely about trying to distill an essence of what the discipline considers really important and worth insisting on even while speaking to broad audiences and trying gain general interest. You may not be able to hurry understanding of history, but I think there are things you can do that help and other things that can seriously retard that understanding.

      You do have a point about “looking for a story” – as my earlier posts on popular writing in HoS suggest – it can be really hard to produce satisfying stories while maintaining intellectual rigour. I have not yet got the answer on that one. This post, though, is more aimed at situations where some sort of story is already agreed (media interview, exhibition, public lecture) and who to think about and control the discussion or interpretation.

      In the end, I’m happier to find ways to make the discipline I care about speak to a wider public, in ways that I think are important, than in simply finding some story out there to write about.

  14. Another point against history of science that I have heard among scientists is that good history of a scientific discovery is much too complicated to use in science teaching. Because the history is so intricate and often complex it does not help in teaching but makes it much more difficult.

    One has to prefer a modern presentation of the topic with a modern logical structure and notations etc., and put in the broad context of present knowledge. Which means for instance that even the experimental demonstrations can be different from the historical one. That is a firm call for strictly a-historical textbooks.

    One puzzling consequence is that one can teach Maxwell’s equations without even knowing who is that guy when and how did he did that, etc.. Of course the way we write Maxwell’s equations have little in common with the way he historically wrote them and the scientific context of the presentation is completely different. “Maxwell” in this case is not a historical person but a mere label.

    Although this is often a good point, I still have the gut feeling that teaching science that way misses something important.

    • I would agree that the main role of history should not be about teaching scientific principles or theories, and certainly that these should not be taught with erroneous stories (although there may be a role for introducing useful, memorable stories, explaining that they are just that, because they are useful for teaching certain ideas). Personally, I think that history of science should be introduced through history lessons, programmes and exhibitions rather than science ditto. I can see that science can be taught without the historical backstory but I fail to see how history can exclude science, technology and medicine, although it very often does.

      • Actually, the history of Science TEACHING itself should be a vast, interesting and relatively inexplored field.

  15. I fail to see how history can exclude science, technology and medicine, although it very often does.

    That is what I tell people is my raison d’être for being a historian of science. If one wishes to understand how humanity got to where it is, then political, social and cultural history is not enough you also need the history of science, technology and medicine.

  16. @Jose:

    “Although this is often a good point, I still have the gut feeling that teaching science that way misses something important.” Well, it does: it deprives them of the understanding of the equation as historical, and it also deprives them of any ability to witness jumps in understanding and recognize how serious they were, and that’s a serious thing. It’s the same deprivation of wisdom I was discussing above wrt HPS. On the other hand, the science students are actually able to use the equations to find out new things about nature, which gives them an advantage over young historians trying to apply compressed wisdom without actually understanding it themselves. (And it’s only HPS types who’ll worry over what that “finding out new things about nature” means. The scientists simply barrel along, and they and the public are happy with whatever “wow” or practical applications might come out of the work.)

    @Thony: Of course there’s lots of terrible science writing. That doesn’t contradict what I’ve said, though.



    ‘In the end, I’m happier to find ways to make the discipline I care about speak to a wider public, in ways that I think are important, than in simply finding some story out there to write about.”

    is somewhat disturbing to me. I have trouble seeing what history is if not story. I understand wanting to look for intellectual rigor, but people live in satisfying stories, not consistent intellectual constructs. This means that — to me — it’s very easy to decide which to jettison if there’s a fight between story and interpretation. Nor would I try to build the intellectual framework first and then attempt to tell a story by it; it seems to me the very best you can do that way is to come up with a good tune wrapped in a bad fashion. That sort of thing always seems a great idea at the time, but a decade shows the tune to be the important thing, and the fashionable cowbell/synth/tambourine/etc. stuff to be a bad and very loud mistake.

    One could get impatient at this point and argue that it’s impossible to tell a story without intellectual construct, and I’d say that while that’s true, it’s also not very interesting to many people. _Ulysses_ showed the same thing in fiction a century ago, but in the end it’s a great book not because Joyce shows all language wears clothing, but because the language itself is gorgeous, as are the scenes, and the story’s about a little Jew whose little son has died, and who’s wandering because his wife is fucking another man in his own bed. That’s why it’s read.

    Apart from which, I can’t think of a single attempt at making people live under an intellectually rigorous framework that’s ended well. And that says to me that, again, it’s probably a mistake to try to make their stories abide by intellectually rigorous frameworks. Writers write, artists make, and people live blissfully heedless of theory. Which, I appreciate, seems a blow struck at the whole discipline, but I think perhaps that if one comes to history slowly, rather than trying to eat the wisdom of decades in a few years, one can see more readily how far it’s sensible to let intellect rule story, and when it’s time to stop, and why.

    • I guess what I meant was that I feel I have plenty I want to say without having to look further for it – at present, at least. But I did not mean to give the impression that this is all about intellectual framework and no content – what I’ve written is not high-level or condensed, but pretty basic stuff that can help us begin to tell our stories. Although, that said, I don’t see that history must necessarily be a story. Life is not a story.

      However, I also consider myself to be in the business of challenging, broadening or engaging with the intellectual frameworks that people do, already live by. They may be heedless of theory, but it does not mean that sets of assumptions do not already shape their views.

      Again, it comes back to what you actually want to achieve.

  17. The thing is, though, that people live by hodgepodges — often massively, multiply contradictory and convenient hodgepodges — of intellectual frameworks, which is what makes the rigor difficult if not downright ill-advised.

    • I still don’t quite see why you see what I wrote as particularly rigorous or intellectual. I’m not advocating any particular philosophical school or type of historiography. It really boils down to something basic like avoiding anachronism or presentism, which is, surely, point one when beginning with history at any stage.

  18. This is more generally history, but it applies well to history of science. I try to emphasize this to my undergraduates.

    All historical writing is historiographic, that is, everything that is written about the past is an interpretation of the past–that includes your textbooks! Some interpretations are relatively non-contoversial (Galileo was important to the history of physics/natural philosophy and astronomy), some are more controversial (There was or was not a the Scientific Revolution), but all are interpretations of the significance of events, eras, or people.

    • Very sound advice! From my understanding of the history curriculum (mostly gained while fuming against things said recently by Michael Gove and Niall Ferguson) there is an element of this introduced in school too – a great thing in my view! I wonder how early it’s possible to raise with kids. Probably as soon as they stop being supreme egotists at 4 or 5 – I’ll start experimenting on my son soon!

  19. I really enjoyed this blog post. It struck a chord because at the moment I’m reading a (very good) history of Ancient Greece, and a couple of days ago came across the comment that “Some of the great thinkers were scientists …”, an anachronism that the distinguished author would never have perpetrated with regard to other aspects of Greek life and culture. He also refers to Aristotle as “a philosopher and scientist”. And I’ve just listened to a podcast by a Professor of Philosphy, who says of Thales that “he was a scientist, in something like the sense we would use the term.”

    • Thanks John! I sometimes think that history of science is in a great position in terms of having things to say to people working in a huge range of disciplines. On less positive days I think that no one wants to know – far too many scientists are suspicious or dismissive (and ignorant) of what the humanities do, and far too many historians just stick their fingers in their ears when it comes to the ‘science bit’ and say that they never did understand it at school, therefore cannot be expected to engage with it in their historical past. Both sides pick and choose the bits of their historical characters that they want to deal with and leave aside.

      I wonder what on earth the Professor of Philosophy meant by saying that Thales was a scientist in something like the modern sense of the term. This looks to me like failing in communication by striving too hard to achieve it.

  20. “This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian”

    Marc Bloch, Historians Craft

    I stumbled across Bloch’s two volumes on Feudal Society one rainy day in a second hand book shop when I was an undergrad. It had a massive effect.

    • In a similar (or possibly contrary?) vein, I am very fond L.P. Hartley’s famous quote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. He was writing about personal pasts and memory, and not how to do history, but has been used that way (see for instance the book by David Lowenthal) and is a decent motto for us.

  21. Both work together rather well I think. David Lowenthal’s book deals directly with the questions that interest me the most about history. A must read!

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