Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science

Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.


Robin Ince, comedian, actor and writer, and Brian Cox, particle physicist and Professor at the University of Manchester.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the scientific process which even some supporters of science are not completely aware of, let alone critics. So it’s worth bringing out these points.

The place of science

Brian Cox and Robin Ince are clear that science cannot dictate to politics. Decisions in this and similar fields inevitably also involve non-scientific considerations. Considering the climate change issue they say:

“The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”

Decision making on politics and many other areas of society involves far more than just facts. Of course science can provide the facts, it can help inform the discussion, but social decisions also involve tradition, culture, emotions and feelings. And yes, prevailing social prejudices.

Unfortunately some critics do not see the difference between science, on the one hand, and politics or social decision-making, on the other. They slip too easily into the mistake of denying the science and/or slandering the scientists, and not debating the political, social and moral issues which really concern them. The mistake is really obvious among the climate change and evolutionary science sceptics/contrarians/deniers. And it can take really nasty forms (see, for example, discussion at Climate change deniers don’t understand expertise).

Scientific knowledge provisional but best we can do

Scientific knowledge is not absolute – we don’t make extravagant claims of Truth (with a capital T). There is humility in the scientific approach. Cox and Ince say:

“Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.”


“The wonderful thing about nature is that opinion can be tested against it.”

And just in case critics choose to interpret these descriptions naively – yes, scientists are human. Yes, individual scientists or groups are not as sceptical of their own ideas as an idealist might hope. But the nature of scientific knowledge, the checking against an objective reality and the social character of research helps overcome these very human prejudices.

Most working scientists have experienced more than once the horrible disappointment of their beautiful hypothesis being destroyed by an ugly fact. Maybe even finding the real fact mercilessly drummed into them by colleagues. But then picking themselves up and getting on with investigating a modified hypothesis or even new ideas. Being wrong is actually an important part of the scientific process.

It might take some time but, in the end, science has an inbuilt self-correcting process.

Scientific knowledge not just another opinion or belief

This validation against reality, the self-correcting and social nature of research and the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, makes it far more than just “another opinion.” Cox and Ince:

“Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.”

Those critics who attempt to equate simple belief, faith or opinion with scientific knowledge, who try to bring that knowledge down to the level of opinion of belief, have their own agenda. They wish to promote their own beliefs, not by checking them against reality, but by denigrating the scientific process that does check against reality.

Criticism of the editorial by Cox and Ince came mainly in two guardian articles and a blog post. These, and many of the comments attending the articles, reveal  misunderstanding of the points I made above.

Science and politics

Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist at University College of London, chose to interpret Cox and Ince’s description of the different roles of science and politics as a call for separation of the two (see Science and politics needs counselling not separation”). The misinterpretation seems to be a mechanism for repeating criticism of real or imagined influence of politics within science. And a chance to disapprove of scientists who criticise attacks on science, as on the issue of climate change. He charges that:

“Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.”

It seems to me that those who are attacking and misrepresenting climate science and scientists are the ones who are intending destruction of its “political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.” Stilgoe is surely blaming the victim here.

Rebekah Higgitt, a curator and historian at the Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum, is more explicit claiming a common influence of politics in science (see Science, the public and the history of science):

“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.”

Here she is just trying to teach Cox and Ince to suck eggs. Scientists are well aware of all these frameworks and influences (current science funding regimes quickly bring this home to us). That is why they consider that evidence and the validation of ideas and theories against reality is so important. It’s fundamental to science and helps reduce the distorting influence of influences, frameworks and opinions.

I just wish that some sociologists and historians could understand that.

As for “different kinds of evidence.” Reference to scientific evidence in no way inhibits Higgitt’s opportunities of presenting alternative “kinds of evidence” and arguing for them. I am curious to know what they are. Her inability, or unwillingness, to present them seems to me the real reason such discussion is inhibited.

Denying the special role of science

The blogger Haralambos Dayantis finds Cox and Ince, and indeed all “geeks,” “arrogant” (see Why the Geek movement is bad for science). To him their description of science as “the only way we have of exploring nature” is a “fundamentally close-minded attitude” which “will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.”

Strange then that this blogger didn’t simply describe alternative ways to explore nature – it would have immensely strengthened his argument! Again I am curious. I wish these people would share their secrets.

As for audience appeal – hasn’t he got it exactly back to front? Cox and Ince argued for a special role for science based on its relationship to reality. In this case the close-minded ones are those who refuse to consider, or even misrepresent, the argument presented. And I don’t think this blogger even understood the argument.

Higgit is also is concerned about Cox and Ince’s description of the cognitive advantage science has because of its reference to reality. The validation of its ideas by checking against reality. She objects to the fact that:

“scientific evidence . . . . and ‘the scientific method’ are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion.”

Worse, she implies that evidence relies only on reputation, ignoring the ability to check, reproduce and validate. It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further. To hell with considering the evidence – she claims: “In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us.”

Stilgoe also misrepresents this cognitive advantage as a grab for dominance, even power:

“Churchill was right to have argued that science should be “on tap, not on top”. For Cox and Ince, this won’t do. For policy, they call science an “adjudicator above opinion”.”

By ignoring, even denying, the cognitive advantage its relationship with reality gives science, Stilgoe and Higggit reveal their own agenda – to present science as just “another way of knowing,” and inevitably contaminated by political influence, prejudice and bias.

I am disturbed these particular historians and sociologists of science are unaware of this special cognitive relationship between reality and science. Surely this is key to understanding modern science, its history and its role in society? That aspect of science is just a fact. It’s not a political grab for power.

Scientists sometimes need to remind society and politicians of that basic nature of science – if simply to fight the misunderstanding promoting by those who try to present scientific knowledge as just another opinion. And those who attempt to discredit scientific knowledge when they should be debating the policy and political implications of that knowledge.

Who is really guilty of arrogance?

Often these conflicts between scientists on the one hand and philosophers, historians and sociologists on the other derive from professional sensitivity. Sometimes participants feel their profession is being defamed, or at least under-rated or under-appreciated. I can understand the emotional need to “come out fighting.” Maybe I am doing a bit of that myself.

But in this particular situation scientists have not been misrepresenting philosophy or sociology – just attempting to win understanding for the special role scientific knowledge can play. These critics have responded because they themselves feel their specific professions are neglected in the discussion. Higgett expresses these feeling of neglect with her last demand:

“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.”

Well, one can hardly deny participation of these “realms” in the discussion – and of course no one suggests otherwise. Rather, these specific contributions have been welcomed, if not completely accepted. But it is arrogant to claim these realms must have the final word. That sociologists and historian should just have to say “Believe us” and we should blindly follow. Especially as some of the comments may not even represent consensus views of their professions (even if these particular critics assure us they do). Personally I think they derive from basic misunderstandings of the nature of science.

For example, Higgett lectures Cox and Ince’s reference to scientific method by pointing out:

“There are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.”

This response is a trite lesson on sucking eggs again. No working scientist is unaware of the complexity and creativity of research. Of the many ways of interacting with reality. Most of us will, like Richard Feynman, reject naive formulaic or algorithmic descriptions of method and instead describe it as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” And we all accept the need for evidence and validation against reality.

Higgett was challenged to give specific examples of these “many scientific methods”  and was not able to. She resorted instead to differences in specific methodology used in different disciplines:

“There are many methods in science – a field biologist works very differently to a theoretical physicist, works differently to a structural engineer, works differently to an experimental chemist etc. People work with models, with statistics, with exact numbers, with approximations, with theories, without theories – they make observations, develop experiments, crunch numbers, formulate RTCs.”

I think her answer was a diversion as clearly Cox and Ince were talking about the overall scientific approach, not specific methodologies. Her claim is easily interpreted along the lines of the “other methods of knowing” argument used by Sophisticated TheologiansTM and others when they attempt to discredit science. Those people also usually refuse to give specific examples.

An appeal to some historians and sociologists

Finally, I am responding here to specific arguments proposed by these specific historians and sociologists. I am not attacking the history and sociology of science professions themselves. I recognise that there is plenty of room for different trends and schools of thought within these professions and that the opinions presented in this discussion may only be minority ones (I hope they are). In fact, the whole-hearted endorsement of the criticisms by Steve Fuller, suggests this is the case. (Steve Fuller is a sociologist at the University of Warwick who was used as an expert witness for creationist defendant in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. He writes and lectures in support of Intelligent Design and I find it hard to believe that his views are at all representative of his profession).

I think these specific people show with their criticisms that they don’t understand the fundamental nature of science which gives it a cognitive or epistemological advantage. Its intimate connection with reality. This helps overcome, or at least reduce, biases and social or political influences. This is why scientific knowledge should not be treated as mere opinion. And that is why simply pointing out this fact is not arrogant or a demand for unwarranted power.

To claim that it is avoids the real issues.

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40 responses to “Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science

  1. Two more great articles responding to the criticism of the Editorial:

    Is the Geek Movement bad for science?


    Science is not political, except when it is


  2. Pingback: Science and “mere opinion”: a dilemma wrapped in an irony « Literacy of the Present

  3. “Stilgoe is surely blaming the victim here”

    This is just wrong on so many levels. You need to offer up criticism of the BAD SCIENCE that is accepted by the mainstream, even by people who have no knowledge of that particular discipline, in their desire to defend science and scientists as a whole. I could list too many examples in Climate Science (the area to which you refer) where precisely the opposite has happened.

    Bad science does much more to generate distrust in science as a whole than any polemicist pilling on against a particular political position the science doesn’t happen to support.

    When scientists start actually criticising their own outside of their little paradigm circles and in the public sphere, then they can more justifiably assert themselves as being its defenders. Otherwise they’re just another self-interested group of state subsidy junkies.


  4. Geoff Bartholomew

    This is something I have been banging on about for some time. The problem is not science itself or its methods, or even its communication and explanation to the outside world. The problem is the understanding of science by the great blinkered/brainwashed/closed minded general public. Unfortunately that unflattering description also applies to some journalists who attempt to bring that explanation to the public in one strap line or metaphor.


  5. Great article, should be compulsory reading for those confused by the way science works and sees its place in society!


  6. Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    The Cox-Ince controversy rumbles on….


  7. Exceptional analysis. Thank you.


  8. This reminded me of my irritation at how out of hand this whole pre-Christmas spat got. I agree with many of the underlying principles in this post, but I think you ascribe an unfairly relativistic and anti-science position to Higgitt and misread the points she’s trying to get across. My feeling is there’s astonishing miscommunication between the two communities.

    Science attempts to understand an objective universe (I’m an astrophysicist by trade and its pretty clear that galaxies will keep doing their thing with or without humans and their language). As scientists, we attempt to use something we call the “Scientific Method” to connect theory and experiment to say something about that underlying universe. Nothing about that process is straightforward and the more you look at the history and philosophy of science (HPS) the more clearly you see the problems and caveats.

    In the long run, you’d hope that the sociology of science drops out and science should home in on correct underlying principles. That’s not trivial though and its ever more important that we clarify how science works in practice, because science is getting bigger and many of our closely held techniques don’t appear to scale well. Peer review is an obvious example and, if you follow news of scientific fraud in fields like biology, you might worry about the timescales involved for honing in on the truth – it gets expensive to reproduce big experiments, the incentives aren’t always there, and occasionally reputation is what decides what’s believed. In an ideal world, conversations between scientists and HPS folk would help identify and reform the bits of scientific society that need it. Sadly, I think the communities talk past one another because they’re thinking about different sorts of problems and there’s an underlying fear of excessive relativism or positivism depending on your priors.

    I read Higgitt as worrying about how science interacts with politics with complex science questions – like climate change – where you have to piece together science from many different fields with political constraints or don’t have all the science to begin with because, say, oil companies lobbied government not to fund it. Or with the complex sociology of how consensus is formed for science questions in flux – maybe like dark matter, where different forms of evidence e.g. direct and indirect detection, cosmological, or production in colliders get weighted very differently by different researchers according to theoretical prior and methodological bias. She’s also worried about how science can be communicated outside of the narrow scientific community in a way that’s more than “believe us! we’re scientists, see our plots”. All the stuff involved with the practicalities of how science learns and communicates something about an objective reality.

    Sorry for running on… clearly I need my own blog. I think we agree on many basic points, but I think you’re unfairly attributing arrogance and anti-science views to Higgitt when, in the context of some really shitty twittering, she’s just arguing for the importance of HPS in the discussion, not for its pre-eminance.


  9. Robinson, I am happy to criticise bad science when I find it. And I can assure you criticism is ingrained into the way science works – we criticise all science. It’s in our nature.

    Trouble with your comment is that although you say you “could list too many examples” of bad science you actually give none. That fact, together with the completely unwarranted characterisation of scientists as “state subsidy junkies” indicate to me you have your own agenda. But strangely you are being coy about it.

    Why not make your critique specific?


  10. Jonathan, you might be correct in your defence of Higgitt but of course she is the only one who can really defend or explain her position.

    My concern is that some historians and sociologists really don’t understand how science works. Higgett’s trivial comments on scientific method, and her general misinterpretation of the original editorial, make me suspicious of her understanding. And anyway, they were points they needed correction – Higgett’s interpretation could not remain unchallenged.

    As for attitudes, I really am surprised that an historian of science should feel she has to lecture to scientists about the role of social and political influences and the non-formulaic nature of the scientific process. After all scientists deal with these issues day-to-day – they would have to be extremely naive not to be aware of them. And an historian’s judgement is surely out of whack if they don’t realise that. It really was teaching unto suck eggs.

    I can appreciate that we shouldn’t assume historians and sociologists are intimately aware of the nature of the scientific method or attitudes of scientists. But then, neither should they make such assumptions as that will only impede their understanding of the very thing they study.

    And let’s not forget – just as society inevitably influences how science operates, it also influences how other disciplines operate too. It’s quite easy to see agendas that historians and sociologists adhere to but never acknowledge. I think a bit of that was coming out in this little “spat.”


  11. Hi Ken. Its definitely fair to be concerned that many of those that study sociology and history of science don’t understand how it functions on a day to day basis and certainly many don’t appreciate the scientific principles behind what’s being done. I worry about that too. The history of that field seemed to go through a nadir with what one reads of the “Science Wars”. Some of the agendas from that time probably persist – its pretty recent – but I think your (very eloquent) post projects a lot onto what was written. Understood given that much of the criticism of the original Cox/Ince editorial was disappointingly superficial with lots of irate and hurried commentary on blogs and twitter. I think the HPS folk wanted to get at fairly subtle issues that affect the long term direction of science communication and engagement with politics, but the signal got lost in language, tone, and touchiness. Missed opportunity.

    At the same time, my sense is that many scientists don’t understand how science works at a detailed, practical level and accept a fairly simplistic picture most of the time. Not out of naiveté, but out of being busy and educated with a healthy dose of idealism. I count myself in there. I’m not sure I understand the functioning of scientific enterprise on scales beyond my own niche and I know through friends that biology operates quite differently in detail from astrophysics. Doing science is not the same as studying how science is done. The latter has a lot to offer. I’m continually learning how much of the structure of how science is organised arose from particular arguments and politics of the 17th and 18th century with much post-justification and less rational thought. As scientists we should be looking for ways to do better and not perpertuate poor structures out of habit – research journals & open access might be an example area. I don’t have the time to research that sort of thing, I’ve got physics to do and I’d like others to summarise the critical bits for me. If we could get constructive dialogue rather than spats between HPS and science it could be really useful.


  12. Jonathan, on the one hand you acknowledge that many historians and sociologists who criticise scientists “don’t understand how it functions” or “appreciate the scientific principles behind what’s being done.” Then on the other hand you present “HPS” people as objective and enlightened and only giving uninterested advice on subtle issues. Personally I prefer to see historians and sociologists as human like the rest of us, with their own problems of social interference and personal ideologies. This helps explain this whole spat.

    We shouldn’t forget that Cox and Ince made an important, and correct, point about the cognitive advantage of the scientific method over simple opinion and I think they were perfectly warranted in reminding politicians and the public about the difference. It did not deserve the naive instruction in sucking eggs that Higgitt delivered. And her confusion over scientific method surely shows the danger of such unwarranted criticisms.

    The disciplines of history and society are at least just as likely to be influenced by social prejudices and ideological agendas as the natural sciences, and there are far more problems in validating ideas against reality in those disciplines. Consequently we would be fools to just accept such instruction on the basis of “Believe me, I am an historian/sociologist and this is the consensus of my profession.”

    Personally I also enjoy reading the history if science – although my lessons on the real nature and history of the scientific process have certainly been brought home to me more by professional experience than by reading history.. However the history of the science in the 17th and 18th centuries has been presented differently by different historians. In particular consider the controversies over Galileo and the different presentation of his contributions. I have come across historians who actually express a hatred for Galileo! Sometimes the popular history of science an be a real minefield.

    In this situation we need to remind ourselves that historians and sociologists are human like the rest of us. They have their own agendas and ideological biases.

    Sometimes it’s worth actually trying to suss those out rather than just taking personal self recommendations for their claims.

    Spats are probably inevitable in any twitter or Internet discussion. Despite that I believe this particular spat has enabled some important principles to be aired – at least on scientific issues. That has been valuable. And on the whole the exchanges have been relatively polite for an Internet discussion.

    It would now be nice, and extremely educative, if we could place that same spotlight on the nature of the processes that occur within the disciplines of sociology and history. And try to get to grips with the underlying reasons for some of the controversy and misinterpretation that has occurred in the history of science.

    Now that would be a constructive dialogue.


  13. Pingback: Politics, Science and Evidence Based Policy | Reason and Reality

  14. I could list too many examples in Climate Science (the area to which you refer) where precisely the opposite has happened.

    Ah yes. Too many. So many, in fact, that you list none at all. It would be just all too exhausting to list them. Save your strength. Better yet, save your opinion.

    When scientists start actually criticising their own outside of their little paradigm circles and in the public sphere, then they can more justifiably assert themselves as being its defenders. Otherwise they’re just another self-interested group of state subsidy junkies.

    No doubt, no doubt at all. Shame on those “state subsidy junkies”. Good job you are here to warn us all of the danger.
    Do you have any more vague hand-waving?


  15. Ken, I must admit to be being a little bit baffled by your post.

    You, and others who have commented on this spat, appear to be castigating the HPS folks and sociologists for not understanding how science really works, by implication unlike scientists such as Brian Cox or science literatyourself (and presumably also comedians and science fans such as Robin Ince). Setting aside the fact that this assumes that historians and sociologists of science uniformly have no practical experience of scientific research (not true, many switched to those subjects after doctoral or post-doctoral research in the natural/physical sciences) the Twitterstorm has given the impression that there is a consensus amongst the scientific communities about ‘the scientific method’ but, of course, this is far from being the case. ‘How to be anti-scientific’ by Steven Shapin has a good discussion of the lack of any such consensus:

    Click to access shapin-Antiscientific_1999.pdf

    Given this lack of consensus, how should we decide who is right and who is wrong? Surely our understanding of how science actually works should be based on systematic empirical research? And it is historians of science and sociologists of science who conduct systematic empirical research into how science has worked and is working. Certainly we could discuss at length the difficulties of doing this well, and no doubt there is ‘bad’ HPS or sociology of science just as there is ‘bad’ neuroscience and presumably ‘bad’ particle physics etc.

    However, you seem to be implying that scientists automatically have a privileged understanding of the way science really works by virtue of their being scientists. Putting aside the fact that this is akin to arguing that we all understand how the economy works because we are all consumers, it does seem to contradict the central point of the Cox/Ince thesis – that disputes about matters of fact should be settled on the basis of systematic, evidence-based research. Surely it is precisely historians and sociologists of science who should be “lecturing” about how science works, just as it should be a particle physicist like Brian Cox who we would sensibly turn to about the importance of the Higgs boson?


  16. Apologies for the typo above.


  17. Sylvia McLain

    Hi – I am trying really hard to stay out of all of this – as I have been not really been paying *close* attention so will just end up saying something un-informed …

    but I did want to caution you about something – I am sure you didn’t do this on purpose but I noticed this in your post when you were talking about Rebecca Higgett’s arguments you say:

    “It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further.”

    This is commonly what people (men and women) say to women sometimes when they are making intellectual arguments. I think it is common in our culture but I think we have to all be aware of them. I don’t know if she is ’emotional’ or not but it could be interpreted as ‘she is just a woman therefore ’emotional’. I am sure you didn’t mean it that way but I wanted to flag it up in the gentlest possible way because I think we all need to be aware of these things.

    Hope you understand what I am driving at….


  18. Pingback: Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists | Open Parachute

  19. Kieron, “Surely it is precisely historians and sociologists of science who should be “lecturing” about how science works..”,
    err, no, not at all, it is scientists who should be talking about how science works. Economists talk about the economy, historians about history.


  20. Sorry, I just don’t understand your point? Economists talk about the economy, historians about history, particle physicists about the Higgs boson and historians of science about… the history of science. Scientists don’t systematically study how science progresses. I’m not even sure scientists need know or care how science works. They have myths from the first few pages of the textbook, and their own personal beliefs, partly shaped by their own individual experiences. All one scientist can ever see of the processes and practices of the sciences is a partial view.

    Clearly we ought to consider the thoughtful reflections of scientists on the practice of science – though as Shapin notes in the piece to which I linked, there is no consensus amongst scientists about this. But surely you must see that scientists’ beliefs about how science works are just that, beliefs? Are you really trying to say that science is the only realm to be protected from the application of systematic, reasoned, empirical analysis? How is that different from arguing that some other realm – climate change, for instance, should be protected from systematic, reasoned, empirical analysis?


  21. I take your point, Sylvia.

    All, I can do is assure you nothing of the sort was implied here. We all have emotional outbursts – I certainly do. It’s part of being human – we are an emotional animal (even though we like to fool ourselves into thinking we are rational).

    The (important) role of emotions is one of my own hobby horses.


  22. Kieron, perhaps there are professional sensitivities all around on this one. However I take issue with your claiming the understanding of how science works for historians, or especially for historians. Surely they do history, not epistemology?

    I would think that it is rather the philosophers of science who might claim some special expertise here.

    However, we must be realists. As I point out in today’s posts we are all human (Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists). Historians (and philosophers) are also influenced by society, politics and ideology.

    To underline that point I have noticed how some historians can throw the baby out with the bath water regarding Galileo. They can be so concerned with historical details they completely miss Galileo’s contributions – especially to scientific method. Whereas scientists tend to pick that up, while being hazy about the historical details.

    On this particular specific issue I am critical of Higgitt because she has demonstrated a confused concept of scientific method – misunderstanding the editorial on this. And yet she is asking us on these issues to believe her, she’s a historian of science and is presenting a consensus view. She seems not to have understood the editorial’s central point about the cognitive advantage of scientific method (because if its relationship to reality) over mere opinion.


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  24. Ken, many thanks for taking the time to reply. I certainly accept the point that we are all human and am grateful that you make that point because it offers me the opportunity to clarify something that was unclear in my original, rather hurried, comment. I said that there is ‘bad’ HPS or sociology of science just as there is ‘bad’ science. By this I mean research that peers might agree has been conducted to a poor standard. But all knowledge is provisional and there is also ‘good’ (well conducted) HPS and sociology of science the conclusions of which will later be deemed by peers to be wrong.

    Of course it is not always possible to tell which is which and scientific disputes often hinge around this. But the point here is that some of our historical and social scientific claims about the nature of science will be wrong, just as some of our current scientific knowledge about the natural world will be wrong. This would be the case even if science were not such an extensive, heterogenous set of activities and practices – a moving target which defies analysis because it is always changing. So, perhaps HPS and sociologists of science need, as Shapin argues, to be “cut a little slack” – it’s no easy task.

    On your point about the respective roles of sociology, history and philosophy of science, I suppose philosophers are concerned with reasoning from first principles how knowledge claims might be established as factual whilst historians and sociologists are concerned with understanding how specific knowledge claims were established as factual at a particular point in time.

    Because all knowledge is provisional, much of the scientific (and social scientific) knowledge that has ever been claimed has been subsequently proven wrong. Scientists, rightly, are not concerned with discarded knowledge claims. They live in the present. In contrast, historians and sociologists are interested in understanding how and why these knowledge claims were accepted for a time. I think this difference in focus is responsible for much of the misunderstanding between the two communities. Scientists are concerned with current accepted knowledge, and would understandably argue that knowledge claim X was disproved because it was wrong. But for historians and sociologists this is an unsatisfactory, circular explanation. It is necessarily for their purposes to ask why knowledge claim X was earlier considered valid. “Because they were all wrong” cannot really a sufficient explanation for their purposes because we know that at least some – and perhaps much – of what we currently believe to be true in science will also, later, be established to be wrong.

    It is important to realise that historians and sociologists (and probably philosophers) are not in the business of providing a prescription for how science should be done. Nor are they (generally) in the business of trying to undermine the institution of science by creating the impression that it is built on sand. I think this is a point frequently misunderstood by scientists.

    As I noted in my response to the unusually named commenter above, the sciences have their own beliefs about how science works, and these can differ from what the evidence tells us. This doesn’t seem to have harmed the progression of science. Indeed I have no reason to suppose that science would work better if scientists had different, more evidence-based, beliefs. But that does not make those beliefs true and I am always a little disturbed to see some cling to quasi-religious attitudes towards the special status of science (‘it just is the way it is, it does not require evidence’).

    However, our provisional historical and social science knowledge about how sciences have worked and might be working now IS useful in understanding how to make resources available for science. I am a science policy analyst and draw upon HPS and STS insights as well as economics, political science and policy studies. Drawing on these bodies of knowledge people like myself have been able to amass a substantial and persuasive evidence base in support of the societal and economic values of science which goes beyond the standard list of anec-data often proffered by scientists in lobbying for support, most of which fall apart on even the most cursory examination.

    I know that this evidence base has had major impacts in terms of protecting and increasing funding for science in the UK and elsewhere. So I think these underlying perspectives are clearly useful and I would therefore hope that scientists could respect them for that reason, even if they otherwise find it difficult to reject long-cherished beliefs and accept that the sciences as perhaps the most important and successful of human activities should be amenable to careful, reasoned and systematic analysis.

    My sincere apologies for the overlong response!


  25. First of all, thank you for the editorial. Discussions like these are, I believe, too important to not conduct thoroughly and this piece has some good valid points. Personally, my attention was primarily drawn by ms. Higgit’s “emotional outburst”.

    “Worse, she implies that evidence relies only on reputation, ignoring the ability to check, reproduce and validate. It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further. To hell with considering the evidence – she claims: “In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us.””

    This reaction is, most regrettably, very common when people are confronted with science. In my mind, a possible reason for this attitude may be a simple lack of understandig from both sides. In this case, ms. Higgit might not fully grasp what particular scientists are trying to convey (which would be quite understandable, since scientists require years of specialist training). When an accurate explanation of all the factors necessary is not possible to someone who hasn’t spent many years on theory and practice in a particular field, it might well sounds like “just believe me” to them, mistaking lack of understanding for a lack of explanation.


  26. Additionally, the lack of understanding may be misinterpreted by scientists as a lack of interest on her part. This may lead to tension between scientists and other groups.

    p.s. My apologies for my english, I’m not a native speaker


  27. D.Meijer – it might also be instructive for you to read the Steven Shapin piece that I linked to in my first comment above. As he points out, professional historians of science generally know much more about the content of past scientific knowledge claims than do professional scientists. Of course years of specialist training are required to be a practising scientist. But years of specialist training are required to become a historian of science too. I can certainly agree that the two “sides” in this debate have spent much of the time talking past, rather than to, each other but I don’t think it’s really very sensible to just start accusing anyone on any side of ignorance.


  28. Kieron, I really don’t see what your comment has to do with Cox and Ince’s editorial or the criticisms of it. But clearly they are issues you feel strongly about.

    I disagree with your assertion that “much of the scientific knowledge that has been claimed has been subsequently proven wrong.” That is a mechanical understanding of the scientific process and ignores the progressive, improving nature of knowledge. An important omission.

    I also think it presumptious to claim that we “have our own beliefs about how science works and these can differ from what the evidence tells us.” It is this sort of sweeping claim that does upset scientists, I guess, especially when they come across as straw men. I certainly don’t think that claim describes either my own attitude or that of my colleagues during our research careers.

    Similarly I find your attribution of “quasi-religious attitudes towards the nature of science (‘it’s just the way it is it doesn’t require evidence’)” offensive. It is just not the case and it worries me to find people with such a cynical, and straw man, attitude towards scientists getting involved in this discussion. Especially as it is in complete contrast to what the editorial said.

    Perhaps you should go back and read the editorial and comment on the specific points it made. I think that would be far more helpful.


  29. Hi Ken, thanks for replying. It seems either I have not been able to make myself clear or you have not approached my comments in the spirit of open-mindedness implied by the strapline of your blog. I’m sure it must be the former so let me make one final attempt to clarify.

    You ask what my comments have to do with the Cox/Ince editorial but none of my comments have been in response to the editorial – they have been in response to attacks on HPS academics and sociologists for daring to challenge the accounts of scientists (or a scientist and a comedian) about how science works. The attacks all share the common implication that HPS people and sociologists have no basis on which to challenge scientists on the way science works. Look at the title of your blog “Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science”. In fact Brian has already accepted some of the criticisms made of the editorial. The remaining ones probably do reflect misunderstandings and miscommunications.

    But what worries me is the persistently anti-Enlightenment implication of the attacks on HPS people and sociologists that they have no right to challenge statements by scientists about how science works, or about the historical development of science and technology. Surely you must see that such attacks go against the core message of the editorial?

    On your other criticism, do you really think that my claim that some scientists evidently hold beliefs about the nature of science that are at odds with the evidence is more problematic than the claim that ‘the scientific method’ has a special cognitive advantage which presumably is so obvious it needs no further explanation or evidence?

    We all have blind spots, fondly-held beliefs we cling to, refusing to consider that there might be evidence that undermines them. This doesn’t make us stupid – it just makes us human. Do you truly think that ‘quasi-religious’ is not a good description of this phenomenon? Do you not think that your refusal to countenance the possibility that there may be a bit more to the nature of science and how it progresses than your personal beliefs – however dearly held – may fit this description?

    I wish you all the best for 2013.


  30. Pingback: Is the sci-comm movement bad for science? « The Thought Stash

  31. Kieron, you seem to be confusing issues. It may be correct to claim that historians know more about history than physicists (well I hope you are correct).

    But that does not mean that historians necessary understand the scientific processes going on then, or now. As I have argued, demonstrably some historian don’t. For example some are oblivious to Galileo’s contribution to scientific method, or wish to draw unwarranted conclusions about the position and nature of science or natural philosophy in the medieval period compared with pre-Christian eras and countries.

    One should not be sensitive about implications of ignorance. We are all ignorant about most things. I am largely ignorant about history (or at least my knowledge is from self reading and interest rather than training). But from training, a career in scientific research and personal study of the philosophy of science I would not describe myself ignorant of the scientific process.

    In contrast, I would have to acknowledge Higgitt’s expertise in history, and the history of science, because of her training and employment. But from the example of her criticism of Cox and Ince’s editorial and particularly her expressed confusion about scientific method, might I suggest that she is at least not very knowledgeable in that area. (And I don’t necessary expect a historian to be all that confident with philosophy).

    That in no way denies her the the right, or indeed duty, to comment. And I welcome her comments. But it is also her duty to accept that others may disagree with her (and you), and we also have rights and duties.

    The desired response is to enter into the discussion, not claim an expertise which one does not necessarily have by vague requests to “trust me, I am an historian, we have out a lot of effort into empirically investigating the history of science and what I say represents a consensus of the profession on the issue.”

    One could start by given a better justification to the claim that there are other scientific methods than that suggested in the editorial – or acknowledging that claim was unwarranted. It is after all central to the editorial’s argument that on issues of scientific fact, science should be given more weight than mere opinion.


  32. Kieron, I have been away at the beach for a few days – consequently our comments have crossed and I have only now caught up.

    Seems the title of my post upset you – good! That means I have grabbed your attention. But please don’t make assumptions on only that.

    Yes, Bran Cox acknowledged some mistakes in his editorial (related to his claim that the science (always) precedes the technology – obviously an oversimplification – which some of his critics have also been guilty of in their claims that science (always) comes after technology). However he certainly has not conceded that there are better ways of knowing than scientific method. That is, I think, a key issue.

    Strange you see this issue as involving only attacks on “HPS academics and sociologists?” And you are upset that scientists have responded to unwarranted claims about the scientific method made by just a few historians and sociologists (who I really hope do not represent a “consensus).

    I am quite happy that Higgitt made her claims – it enables discussion and there is obviously a misunderstanding. Surely you can’t reject the idea of a discussion in such situations? And surely it is juvenile to interpret such discussion contributions as attacks and denial of others rights to comment!

    It is far better that misconceptions like Higgits are expressed and out in the open where they can be discussed – surely?

    Kieron – where is the good faith discussion? It is hardly fair to accuse me of claiming that “scientific method has a special cognitive advantage which presumably is so obvious it needs no further explanation or evidence.” What the hell was my over-lengthy post about? Did you not read past the title? Did you not see the content?

    And how adult is it of you to make unwarranted claims about what I believe? How can you consider yourself in a position to even know that? Surely that is just strawmannery.

    Let me assure you I am fully aware that there is a lot “more to the nature of science and how it progresses than your [my] personal beliefs.” As in everything I consider I am always discovering new issues and adjusting my ideas accordingly. To enter an investigation with “beliefs” that must be satisfied is hardly scientific. And accusing me of this is completely unwarranted.

    And this is the problem – if you can present scientists this way what confidence can any of us have in any description of the history of science you give? Or what trust can anyone place in your presentation of the sociology of science today? Surely scientists have a right to be concerned that such strange ideologically motivated arguments are being presented and also the right to counter them.


  33. It’s Bill and Ted all grown up and responsible!


  34. Themos Tsikas

    “This is why scientific knowledge should not be treated as mere opinion. ”

    And that is your opinion. (((Sheldon’s Mum)))


  35. Lovely, Themos.

    Sheldon’s Mum does seem to get the best lines, doesn’t she?

    Especially the philosophical ones.


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  37. Pingback: Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists | Secular News Daily

  38. Well written 🙂


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