Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists

This great Sidney Harris cartoon reminds me of the Big Bang Theory scene where Sheldon and Leonard end up wrestling during a conference presentation by Leonard. It’s also a handy antidote for anyone with an idealistic picture of scientists and how science is done.

The human, but real, behaviour of scientists seems to be a current theme in recent discussions of the nature of science by historians and sociologists. That’s not a bad thing in itself – much of the old history may have given an unrealistic and idealistic picture of science as it was done in the past. Let alone now.

I enjoy reading about the history of science and am really pleased that biographies of famous scientists are no longer hagiographies. These days we often learn about the personal foibles and character flaws as well as the great discoveries. It doesn’t in any way destroy my picture of science to learn about Newton’s or Einstein’s character or personality defects, or about the affairs, professional jealousies and outright bad behaviour of science icons. And my own professional experience has certainly taught me about the social and political influences on science and science funding.

Given that current science history tends to be a “warts and all” coverage, and that modern scientists also experience the real sociology of science day-to-day I am a bit surprised that some UK historians and sociologists recently took it upon themselves to lecture us about this (see Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science) As if scientists had a naive, idealistic picture of how they do science!

Keeping us honest?

Mind you – it did start me thinking. These historians and sociologists are assuring us that they perform an important function. Revealing, and reminding us, of the social and political influences on science. And of the real non-algorithmic nature of the scientific process. Of the real scientific method. These historians think they play a key role in keeping scientists honest – perhaps they do.

But who plays this role when it comes to history and sociology? Who has described the social, political and ideological influences on the history and sociology of science? And has anybody been reminding the students and practitioners in these fields of those influences on their ideas and teachings?

Personally I think history and sociology should be subjected to the same sort of realism that these historians and sociologists have given science. This might then help overcome an attitude which comes across as “Believe me, I am a historian/sociologist and what I say represents intensive research and consensus in my profession.”

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that historians and sociologists are just as human as scientists. They also are prone to personal emotions and vanities. They are exposed to social, political and ideological influences. And they probably have less opportunity to validate their ideas against reality than do their scientist colleagues.

Where claims of consensus are false

Two areas where historians who have attempted to claim they represent a consensus view really annoy me:

Galileo is of course a key figure in the history of science – but one whose history and significance is contested among historians (although scientists generally accept his important contributions to scientific method and astronomy). Some historians really seem to hate the guy. They downplay his contributions, often appearing to argue against them. They will concentrate on his mistakes (all scientists make mistakes), set impossibly high standards of proof for his ideas and even now seem to favour alternative discredited ideas.

Paula E. Findlen, Stanford University describes “the trial and condemnation of Galileo” as having been “debated, and reinterpreted for over three and a half centuries. We are not yet done with this contentious story.” So true. The historian of science Maurice Finocchiaro has detailed this debate in his book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. A shorter version is in his chapter of Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

I am sure much of the controversy could be sheeted back to ideological motivations and that would be a fascinating study. But the persistent controversy among historians about the “Galileo Affair” underlines the fact that one should not take on faith the history presented by a single historian.

Some historians of sciences adamantly promote the myth that Christianity gave birth to modern science. The ideological bias is pretty obvious here but again this is an area where one should not just take the word of a single historian – no matter how much they assure you their view represents a consensus of their profession.

For an overview of that particular myth Noah J. Efron has a good chapter, That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science, in Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Efron chairs the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and serves as President of the Israeli Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

Just imagine that we had an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – but for history and sociobiology instead of climate science. Maybe then historical and sociological controversies could be resolved and the consumer may really get a consensus view.

But I am sure there would still be sceptics/contrarians, deniers!

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6 responses to “Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists

  1. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83)

    Sure, in most cases I fear that STS and history/philosophy of science is an irrelevance to scientists carrying out science (whether it should be or not is open to discussion). However, there are clearly big questions surrounding the dissemination and communication of science to the public and policy makers that are outside the realm of pure scientists. Why, for example, was GM so badly received and still seen with suspicion by much of the public whereas the reception to nanotech has been generally less hostile? Why is it that the compelling scientific case for immediate action on climate change has failed to break down social, economic and political barriers? Why do social and governmental responses to vaccination programmes vary so much between countries and cultures? These are issues all clearly rooted in science and the empirical observation of reality, yet scientists alone cannot answer them. Nor, for that matter, can historians, sociologists, philosophers, political/cultural theorists or economists.

    At times this debate over the Cox/Ince editorial has thrown up some interesting points and has, to a relative layman like myself, been educational and thought-provoking. However, at other times it has produced unhelpful and occasionally offensive contributions, which, if viewed by an outsider, would make both communities appear to be aloof in their ivory towers throwing rocks.


  2. Ali TT – wasn’t that the exact point Cox and Ince were making? That scientific information is only one if the inputs. That social and political decisions involve much more – values, even prejudices.

    But they also made the point that when the discussion resolves to just the scientific facts then mere opinion should not be given the same weight as objectively based scientific knowledge.

    It seems to me that their point about not raising mere opinion over scientific knowledge, or instead of that knowledge, is what the argument is about.


  3. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83)

    Yes, no doubt, and its a sentiment I generally concur with but I don’t think its an end-all. Surely there are times when a scientist needs to go to another discipline for help before presenting the facts to a decision maker? Its one thing to say that primacy of empirical evidence should hold court of mere opinion, most would probably agree, but how do we arrive at a situation where this is routinely the case? Also, where do we draw the boundaries between situations where empirical evidence should be the decisive factor in policy making and where opinions and beliefs need to also be considered equally? Cox and Ince (and Henderson and others) have set admirable goals, its the process of achieving them that is, perhaps, more complex.


  4. Ali TT – I agree this is important. But why do people throw up their arms as if the editorial implies it isn’t or shouldn’t happen.

    My experience in agricultural research was that we have been attempting this, quite successfully, for a long time. More recently sociologists and similar professionals have advised, or even been part of the teams involved in communication.

    I see this happening in climate science, with more attention on how best to communicate. Even to bother communicating.

    And surely Cix and Ince are well known for thinking outside the square when it comes to communicating science.

    And haven’t they shown success in this?


  5. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83)

    Yes, I think this is why I have been left frustrated by this debate in that many of the comments don’t bear any resemblance to the reality of many cross-disciplinary collaborations on such issues.

    As for Cox and Ince, the latter is an English grad so surely the best example of a successful collaboration crossing the bridge between Snow’s two cultures?


  6. Pingback: Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists | Open Parachute « Bibliography

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