Science, the public and the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog. This post relates to the Twitter spat that took place between various scientists, science advocates, historians, philosophers, communicators at the end of last year. For some context and links to other related posts, see Peter Brok’s post, notes and comments.

Icebergs and Ice Bits Near Kangilerngata Sermia Glacier, Disko Bugt (Disko Bay), West Greenland

Some Twitter-types may have noticed that the New Statesman editorial by Brian Cox and Robin Ince on science, evidence and policy provoked some discussion and debate between the authors and various people loosely within the fields of History and Philosophy of Science and Science and Technology Studies.

One interesting post on the piece has been written by Jack Stilgoe here in the Guardian. Let me say straight up that, like Stilgoe, there was plenty I agree with in the piece. Particularly the meat of their article, in paragraphs 4 to 7, including the clear acknowledgement that science is work-in-progress and that it cannot be the only thing that policy-makers take into account.

Likewise, most of those engaged in the Twitter discussion would have been in complete agreement that science is an excellent way of producing evidence vital for informed policy and that the scientific evidence on climate change is clear.

So why the fuss? It was an opinion piece that discussed the nature of science and the role of science in society. These are areas that people in HPS and STS have devoted their careers to researching. The view of science that was presented here does not chime with the current consensus within these disciplines, and that naturally provoked a reaction – just as scientists are provoked to react by those who reject or ignore their research.

Both sides of this discussion have more in common than not, and the criticism was made in good faith and with a genuine belief that science, science communication and the use of scientific evidence in government policy, would benefit. We aim to aid, not to jeopardise understanding of scientific evidence, by following the evidence uncovered by our disciplines (and, yes, there are other kinds of evidence than scientific).

Broadly, my objections fall into two categories:

1. The piece suggests that science is separated from the “moral, geopolitical and economic components”, even if they rightly acknowledge that it must be part of policy-making

2. Some large and a-historical claims are made regarding changing attitudes to science and technology

On the first, I agree with what Stilgoe has written: “Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics”, for scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.

While there are lots of good phrases about this in the piece, it remains the case that we have scientific evidence on one side of the equation and everything else on the other. It is right to say that scientific evidence “should not be seen or presented … as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged”, and yet it and “the scientific method” are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion”, and they explicitly see a border between science and politics, even if it is portrayed as an unclear one.

The second issue arises in the article’s framing, especially the big opening: “The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method”. This was bound to get the historical and philosophical radar twitching, even if it seems peripheral to the focus of the piece.

“[U]nparalleled human advances” is questionable, for almost any other 100-year period can give a similar sense. In the West in recent centuries, science and technology have certainly played a huge part in those changes, but claiming that the kind of technological innovations Ince and Cox are referring to are due to “the scientific method” is something most scholarship in the history and philosophy of science rejects. Firstly, there are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological. Secondly, new technology tends to lead to new scientific research, rather than vice versa.

This is fairly trivial in the context, however galling to those who carry out research that demonstrates these points. However, more problematic is the fact that the piece goes on to claim that our cushy life and unquestioning consumption of incomprehensible technology is leading us to be less impressed by and accepting of such novelties. Apparently we are devolving:

The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.

In fact, historical research suggests that levels of “believing complete drivel”, like those of greeting innovations with “excitement and awe” or boredom or suspicion have not changed a great deal. There is no evidence that “humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease”, and I have yet to find anyone arguing that “we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature” or that “scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary”.

It is untrue and unhelpful to claim that those who question or ignore certain scientific findings are opposed to science in general. Such statements set up unnecessary dualisms and a “you’re either with us or against us” feeling. Frankly, if people only accept part of the package, better that than none. We need to avoid situations where people, who for whatever cultural, religious or personal reasons are unconvinced by scientific arguments in one area, find themselves forced into taking sides in a science/anti-science dichotomy.

How are we to proceed? We should simply accept that “It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so”. But the trouble is that people do challenge, and being told that they can’t isn’t likely to stop them. There is no call here to improve communication with those who have doubts about the message. In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us”.

Finally, I do think that scientists are better at science than me, and that successful science communicators are better at communicating science (to a large audience, if not to all audiences). I also think that when scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.

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Beyond our Kuhnian inheritance

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The history and philosophy of science inherited a huge legacy from Thomas Kuhn, but it has not stood still for the last 50 years. Photograph: Bill Pierce/Getty

This year sees the 50th anniversary of a book that – whether through inspiration, disagreement or unintended hints – has been hugely influential in the history and philosophy of science (HPS). It is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was discussed in this great piece by John Naughton in the Guardian last week.

For me, Kuhn’s influence feels somewhere near second or third hand. Responses to him informed the work of my tutors and supervisors, and have long been part of the daily bread of those training in HPS. Considering where we have got to, and how much we have (or haven’t) achieved since Kuhn, is a regular hobby.

Someone who recently did this particularly well, making a convincing case for development in the discipline, is Greg Radick in his inaugural lecture on becoming professor at the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds. I therefore wanted to share on this blog some of his ideas about the directions in which our field has moved, or is moving.

Radick is particularly interesting in being able to work between history and philosophy – areas that have become increasingly separated since Kuhn’s time – and with scientists as well as colleagues in the humanities. As he shows in the lecture, some of his and the discipline’s newer approaches take us considerably beyond Kuhn and his immediate legacy, although its significance remains.

You can see the lecture, called Scientific Inheritance, on YouTube – skip to 7:15 for the start of the lecture (unless you are interested in hearing the testimonial by Robin Le Poidevin, and jokes about radical radishes).

Radick’s lecture explores the state of the discipline through the question of why Gregor Mendel has become the founding hero of textbook histories of genetics, at the expense of good history, of those who made more essential contributions and, he suggests, of good pedagogy for future biologists and geneticists. As he says, “the gap between what’s widely taken for granted as true scientifically and what’s actually the case is a theme of perennial fascination for historians and philosophers of science.”

This is where Kuhn enters. Radick explains that the influence of Structure was not just the overuse of the term paradigm shift, but “what we sometimes call the historical turn” in our field, “which is to say that after the publication of the book it become possible to see new ways in which history matters for the sciences”. However, the rest of his lecture is devoted to highlighting “three of the most exciting ways in which the field has gone beyond Kuhn” on this front.

The first point that Radick challenges is the notion that scientists only rarely take a serious interest in the history of science. Kuhn had shown that textbook history was misleading, inaccurate propaganda, concerned with presenting a version of the past that led directly to the science being encountered by students. The textbook version of Mendel and his pea experiments is a case in point. For Kuhn, these accounts are misleading for a reason, enabling the training of students into a particular paradigm. They retain their usefulness until one of science’s rare revolutions occurs, at which point the textbooks are rewritten.

In Kuhn’s reading, history of science is otherwise of little significant interest to scientists. Radick sees this as condescending, and presents a case study from the career of the zoologist Walter Weldon and his response to the rediscovery of Mendel in about 1900, to illustrate “just how much creative critical insight really good scientists take as a matter of course from the history of science”. Darwin is another example he briefly mentions.

Secondly, Radick says that while Kuhn encouraged the asking of counterfactuals, he discouraged the answering of them with regard to the possibility of alternative paradigms. Historians of science were not to tread into the domain of science itself, nor scientists into HPS. Their strength is a lack of introspection: as Radick puts it, “there is a concern that it would induce a kind of collective nervous breakdown in the sciences if students and their teachers began to see what they were doing is just some kind of tribal induction process”.

This is a taboo that Radick and others are breaking. He is interested in the history of genetics pedagogy, but also in whether a sounder textbook history of genetics could be developed and practised: one that looked at the genuine or alternative roots of current work, and might better prepare students for the complexities of epigenetics than Mendel’s deterministic rows of peas.

The final difference with Kuhn highlighted in the lecture is in his decision to avoid all discussion of “technological advance or of external social, economic and intellectual conditions in the development of the sciences”. Radick suggests that the field has long been impatient with this approach. Despite this, and the firm connection between truth, science, power and utility bequeathed to us by Francis Bacon and the early Royal Society, it has made little headway into textbook history. In a world of impact, patents and limited resources, teaching this “separate spheres” approach to science, society and technology seems short-sighted, as well as incoherent.

Radick shows that history matters for the sciences. It can be a resource for scientists, not merely as propaganda (though it may be that) but in their “normal” work too. He suggests that historians of science may “interfere a little bit with the sciences” in genuinely helpful ways. Finally, science considered separately from technological and social change was a possibility in 1962, but it no longer has a place in our field, let alone the real world.

I heartily recommend watching the lecture, which is a model of clarity, to see how these issues play out in Radick’s discussion of Mendel and an alternative history of genetics.

Martyr of Science

I wrote this introduction to David Brewster’s collected biography of Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Martyrs of Science (1841), some time ago when there was a plan to republish it as part of a collected edition of popular 19th-century works on science and history of science. This never worked out but, given my recent discussions on popular history of science writing, and current anxieties about financial support for science, now seems as good a time as any to give it an airing. Read More »