Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

“therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.


*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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5 responses to “Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

  1. Open Parachute RSS feed request to Before It’s News

    Hi,

    My name is Ben Chasteen and I’m the Science/Technology editor at Before It’s News http://www.beforeitsnews.com. Our site is a People Powered news platform with over 4,000,000 visits a month and growing fast. We like to think of our selves as the “You Tube” of news.

    We would be honored if we could republish your blog RSS feed in our Science/Technology category. Our readers need to read what your Open Parachute blog has to say.

    Syndicating to Before It’s News is a terrific way spread the word and grow your audience. Many other organizations are using Before It’s News to do just that. I just need you to reply with your permission to do so. Please include the full name and email of the person who will be attached to the account, and let me know the name you want on the account (most people have their name or their blog name).

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  2. Amazing that you can’t see beyond your faith-based belief in catastrophic climate change to see the irony in these scribblings.

  3. Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

    No, why should it?
    Just asking a question.

  4. Speaking of science, I presume you’ll be reviewing Michael Mann’s new piece of writing.

    Needless to say, you don’t actually have to read it. Just read the cover that drones on about “deniers” and cut and paste that a few times.

    Don’t forget to put in some gratuitous references to the ACT party, the smoking lobby, and evil fossil fuel funded “deniers”.

    Actually, come to think of it, I could actually write your blog for you. What do you think?

    Just a thought?

    Maybe you’d have more time to do other stuff. Like pulling legs off spiders.

  5. Pingback: “History of Science” (relative to AGW) | The GOLDEN RULE

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