A couple of evenings ago an interesting conversation developed on twitter, between me (@beckyfh), Thomas Soderqvist (@museionist), Thony Christie (@rmathematicus), James Poskett (@jamesposkett) on science and progress. It all started with a query from Danny Birchall:
When I asked for more details he told me that the exhibition was “about material culture of the brain; context is faux-measurement of brain capacity/function. shd definitely explain racism (tweet). After another couple of tweets, Danny wrote “I think what I’m trying to ask (in the abstract) is, is it useful in histsci to show … (tweet) … how ideas that we now find repellent are intimately intertwined with the ‘progress’ of science? (tweet). I replied:
(@beckyfh): @dannybirchall I think it’s absolutely essential to show that science has never been one long, straightforward, ‘clean’ story of progress
(@beckyfh): @dannybirchall Racism, imperialism, sexism etc are as implicated in history of science as any other part of history, as it’s a human product
At this point Thomas entered the conversation:
(@museionist): @beckyfh @dannybirchall Equally senseless to deny progress in sci; such denial was a dogma among historians of sci from 1970s to early 2000s
And thus the conversation was kicked off. Apologies if I’ve missed out any important tweets from the conversation below, and for it getting confusing where parallel discussions developed. I’ve had to play with the order a bit to make these make sense.
(@beckyfh): @museionist No, not denying progress, depending on definitions! Bt complexity, dead-end, retrograde, morally dubious etc too @dannybirchall
(@beckyfh): @rmathematicus But also senseless to assume all areas & questions in science have progressed uniformly, inevitably (or at all?) @museionist
(@museionist): @beckyfh @rmathematicus Who’s suggested uniform progress? That’s a strawman’s counterargument against the general progress claim
(@beckyfh): @museionist There ate [are] plenty of people who assume inevitable progress in science. It’s still an attitude worth countering IMO @rmathematicus
(@museionist): @beckyfh @rmathematicus The debate easily falls into extremes: denial of progress vs inevitable progress
(@beckyfh): @museionist Which is the joy, and importance, of complexity! The question, though, is how to sell that. @rmathematicus
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh @rmathematicus @museionist Tend to agree. History of science needs to escape its negative ‘progress is problematic’ mode.
(@beckyfh): @jamesposkett How about my more positive “it’s excitingly, confusingly and unexpectedly complex” approach? @rmathematicus @museionist
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh @rmathematicus @museionist Sounds better! I guess I’d prefer less focus on progress & more on specific exciting problems.
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh @rmathematicus @museionist Like “How did science come to make global claims?” (my own interest) rather than “Did science progress?”
(@beckyfh): @jamesposkett This is more or less where I came into histsci: “how did science achieve its status & authority?” @rmathematicus @museionist
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh @rmathematicus @museionist That’s an exciting and complex question! I see much more value in that than the (strawman?) of progress.
(@beckyfh): @jamesposkett Well, one thing that gave science authority was its narrative of progress! @rmathematicus @museionist
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh @rmathematicus @museionist That’s great! Can’t disagree. Harder to ignore the subject than I’d like it seems!
(@rmathematicus): @jamesposkett @beckyfh @museionist Progress exists but it is almost never linear and it can oft only be recognized with hindsight
(@rmathematicus): @beckyfh @jamesposkett @museionist The question is how to control the complexity so that one can say anything at all
(@rmathematicus): @beckyfh @jamesposkett I get criticised for arguing that irrational subjects such as astrology have helped science to progress 1/2
(@rmathematicus): @beckyfh @jamesposkett “It gives people the wrong impression” What is the right impression? 2/2
(@beckyfh): @rmathematicus Anyone who argues that has the wrong impression of how science works & they should be told so! 😛 @jamesposkett
(@rmathematicus): @beckyfh @jamesposkett Going back to complexity. Any presentation of the history of science is a simplification at what level does 1/2
(@rmathematicus): @beckyfh @jamesposkett the simplification become unacceptable? 2/2
(@beckyfh): @rmathematicus Depends on what you’re trying to achieve. On 1 level there’s merit in just showing science is a human activity @jamesposkett
(@rmathematicus): @beckyfh @jamesposkett @museionist I think authority is assumed to come from science’s claim to provide ‘truth’.
(@beckyfh): @rmathematicus And one piece of evidence for its ‘truthfulness’ is progress… @jamesposkett @museionist
(@dhayton): @rmathematicus @beckyfh @jamesposkett @museionist is it interesting to think about how authority allows science to provide “truth”?
James and I had a bit of a side conversation, on the subject of whether there’s a simplistic popular notion of scientific progress, even if the subject is a bit passe in scholarly circles:
(@beckyfh): @jamesposkett Thing is, by and large people (as opposed to historians of science) still assume neat progress. They therefore don’t see…1/2
(@beckyfh): @jamesposkett …a reason to question/ discuss/take an interest in science & policy for science. I still find it worth arguing 2/2
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh I’m just a bit overeager to push past it! BBC and Guardian don’t push progress much now (tho I agree with you, this leaves a lot.)
(@beckyfh): @jamesposkett Interesting. Sure you’re right, tho doesn’t always feel that way! But any ‘progress’ on this must be result of pushing view?
(@jamesposkett): @beckyfh I concede news is often muddied by popular metaphors which skirt round the issue of progress: approximating the truth etc.
That was more or less it for the night. Thomas had long left us for a book and bed. However, bright and early the next morning:
(@museionist): @beckyfh @rmathematicus @jamesposkett Good morning: I think we need to discuss the meaning of the word ‘progress’ in the history of science
I hazarded the following:
(@beckyfh): @museionist i think most wd see progress in sci as knowing more, knowing better, being able to make better use @rmathematicus @jamesposkett
Thony agreed, but there we left it. So: what do we mean by progress in science? Is there a simplistic view of progress that exists generally, and is it worthwhile trying to point out that the picture is a great deal more complex? Did historians of science in the 1970s-90s really believe that there was no such thing as progress in science? Do some still believe it now? How should we deal with progress in science as opposed to progress in technology?
Answers below, please.