I like reading about the history of science, including my own discipline. But there is one kind of history of science that annoys me hugely, and that’s the knowledge relativist kind. A knowledge relativist historian of science will chronicle a scientific debate of the past but make no comment on who – if any – of the participants turned out to be right. (If you feel the need, you’re welcome to substitute “gain the eventual support of today’s scientific consensus” for “be right”.)

Such history writing makes scientific debate look ridiculous and pointless. Just a lot of agitated people dreaming up conflicting interpretations with no way to check what’s right. A relativist history of science gives the erroneous impression that the changes in science’s world view are quite random in their direction and always of about the same magnitude, when in fact debates with a good empirical foundation tend to converge on consensus truth over time, the error bars and the number of open questions shrinking decade by decade. Most of the interpretations suggested in 19th century archaeological debate, for instance, are impossible to put forward today because we have learned so much since then. They have been laid to rest because we know they were wrong.

But I have a feeling that many relativist historians of science may not in fact have such a dismissive attitude to scientific truth as their writings suggest. They may just be lazy and/or pressed for time. Because it takes time to follow and chronicle a forgotten debate of the 1830s. And when you’ve done that, it helps if you don’t also have to read the current literature on the subject to find out how the matter was eventually settled. Apparent relativist historians of science may simply not know or care what came out of those debates a hundred years down the line. But in my opinion, the outcome is the point of scientific debate, and an historian of science who ignores that makes enemies of the debate’s current participants.


  1. #1 Jim Chapman
    California, USA
    August 19, 2013

    @Martin, Okay, but surely you have a particular case in mind. Would you mind citing an example or two?

  2. #2 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    August 19, 2013

    This is a great argument, but I’d appreciate it greatly if you could include one or more specific examples. Which book you just read irritated you enough to trigger this post?

    In my own field (particle physics), I have always appreciated the way Pais and Gleick _do_ keep track of the right vs. wrong interpretations (and the not so infrequent occasions when Mr. Wrong changes his mind later, as a result of new evidence) (yes, “Mr.”, because of our long standing gender bias in the field).

  3. #3 Sascha Vongehr
    August 20, 2013

    You blame relativists for not concluding the absolute? To refuse relativism is one thing, but to be so unable to understand a relativistic perspective as to demand it to be please non-relativist, …, I mean, WTF? Why don’t you blame Einstein for not having decided from which absolute reference system we must describe spacetime; hey, after all, he is a relativist, so his theory is all about that one can describe relative to any reference system. Oh stupid Einstein for not telling us which one is the absolutely correct reference system. LOL

  4. #4 Kaleberg
    August 20, 2013

    MK expresses my thoughts exactly.

    I read an awful lot of history of science which explains why perfectly sensible and often quite intelligent people came to incorrect conclusions. (e.g. Wegener was rejected, because there was no known mechanism for continental motion.) Sometimes it involves correct conclusions made for the wrong reason. (Copernicus argued that a heliocentric system made it easier to compute horoscopes involving Venus and Mercury.)

  5. #5 Martin R
    August 20, 2013

    Sascha, Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics has nothing to do with knowledge relativism, or as it is often termed, epistemological relativism. He certainly did not subscribe to the latter. As for my demands on historians of science, the customer is always right, you know.

  6. #6 Martin R
    August 20, 2013

    Kaleberg, yes, that’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading history of science. I don’t claim that science’s road towards knowledge of the truth is usually optimal or sensibly laid out. But I insist that the road does go somewhere, and does not circle in on itself.

  7. #7 Martin R
    August 20, 2013

    I see this now and then in manuscripts that we receive for the journal I edit. But the immediate stimulus for the blog entry was Evert Baudou’s 2004 book “Den nordiska arkeologin — historia och tolkningar”. It largely suffers from a neutralist viewpoint. But actually, I get the impression that it’s not because of knowledge relativism per se. Rather, Baudou seems to assume that all of his readers know, as he does, what the current consensus is on all the important issues. You see, a few times he makes brief offhand comments like “but here, as we know, Stjerna was wrong”. He just seems to feel that it isn’t the job of the science historian to inform the reader about what the real answers are to the questions debated by his study’s subjects. And I disagree.

  8. #8 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    August 20, 2013

    @Martin R (#7 in particular): Thanks, Martin! That makes your point much clearer, and I do agree with your final statement. A good historical writer’s job is _always_ to inform and educate the reader, and where appropriate, relate the past to the present. That is *not* a statement of Whiggish history (the latter being almost as annoying as blind relativism), but more “here is where we are now, because of this stuff that happened before.”

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    August 20, 2013

    Rather, Baudou seems to assume that all of his readers know, as he does, what the current consensus is on all the important issues.

    This is an important issue: the author seems to have misjudged his audience. If he were giving a presentation to people who really are experts on the topic, he would be justified in assuming that his audience knows the current consensus. But a broader audience, even of people nominally in the same field, would need to know what that consensus is. In this case Baudou seems to have incorrectly assumed that only specialists would read this book. This strikes me as a poor assumption for a book (for a journal article, it may be more understandable depending on what journal is involved).

    Likewise, in the world of physics we have a distinction between seminars and colloquia. If you are giving a physics colloquium, your audience consists of all of the faculty and students in that department, so the appropriate level for your talk is something intelligible to the earliest stage students who are likely to be in the audience (first year graduate if the department grants Ph.D. degrees, third year undergraduate otherwise). A seminar is aimed at those professors and students who are specializing in a particular subfield, so you can assume a higher level of background knowledge in your audience.

  10. #10 Philippa Hellawell
    United Kingdom
    August 20, 2013

    I enjoyed reading your post and your interpretation of the History of Science, but I have to disagree with your argument. It would be an anachronism to impose current knowledge of science on the past, and it would result in giving undue emphasis to those who are now deemed to have ‘got it right.’ This is not representative of the past for there were no indications in past societies which ideas, theories and scientists would gain the ‘eventual support of today’s scientific establishment’ and we should treat historical characters with that in mind. If a historian was to use this approach, we would end up with a very whiggish version of history which implies that society is on an inevitable progression towards scientific enlightenment. This kind of history would ignore the complexities of the past and competing world views. Of course, I say this as a historian who looks at early scientist’s (or rather natural philosophers) investigation of the natural world, rather than as a scientist who looks at the historical development of scientific ideas, but I am interested in how each discipline interprets the History of Science differently.

  11. #11 Martin R
    August 20, 2013

    Sadly the book is used as an Archaeology 101 textbook. That’s why I read it last week.

  12. #12 Martin R
    August 20, 2013

    I am more interested in the science than in the history here. I believe the history of forgotten scientific debates is such an abstruse corner of past reality that it is not worth study except to the extent that it illuminates scientific progress and methodology. And though the progression towards scientific enlightenment is sadly not inevitable, we have in fact seen continuous scientific progress since the 17th century.

    A meta-discipline is always more abstruse than the studied discipline. This means that the meta-study of abstruse corners of disciplines that are in themselves abstruse, such as, say, Scandinavian Prehistory, are not worth putting much resources into. Few care about Scandinavian Prehistory. Even fewer care about the history of its academic debates.

  13. #13 Sean M
    August 21, 2013

    Martin, I am of two minds. On one hand, given a century or so the side with the best evidence tends to win in scientific controversies. So it is important to mention the evidence when describing the debate. But on the other hand, it would not be fair to say that someone was wrong about prehistoric chronology in Scandinavia without mentioning that this was only clear after the invention of new dating technologies which appeared after their death. Often the wrong theory was the best fit for the evidence and methodologies which were available at the time. One of the values of the history of an academic discipline is that it reminds current practicioners that some things which they earnestly believe and which the best evidence and methods available support are wrong. This is not a good reason to give up on empiricism, but it is a good reason to be humble and to check received wisdom from time to time.

    In short, I think the most important thing is to emphasize what evidence was available at the time, and perhaps what new evidence lead to the current consensus.

  14. #14 Martin R
    August 22, 2013

    Sean, I take it your suggestion would also entail the historian of science pointing out when people are committing airy non-empirical speculation, which is all too common in my field. I would support that. Either way, neutralist history of science makes science look stupid and non-progressive, and that annoys me. It is a myopic way of looking at science.

  15. #15 Birger Johansson
    August 22, 2013

    I wonder if the neutralist narrative is the result of the authors simply assuming “newer=more accurate beliefs” so they don’t bother with digging out the details -not because of laziness per se, but because they have internalised a progressive narrative of history, with past disproven ideas being regarded as too unimportant for the details being chronicled?
    — — — — —
    OT: Spicy food on the menu in the Baltic 6000 years ago http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24086-spicy-food-on-the-menu-6000-years-ago.html

  16. #16 Sean M
    August 22, 2013

    Martin, I agree with that. If a debate has been going around in circles since a field was founded, and the changes don’t seem to reflect new evidence or new ways to use the existing evidence, that is a sign that it is speculative. Whereas I’m pretty sure that as dendrochronology and carbon dating appeared, it only took a few decades for dates based on them to become the standard in Scandy archaeology. Studying the history of your field also helps avoid the problem where an idea was suggested in 1910, rebutted by 1930, and revived in 1990 in ignorance of its early history.

  17. #17 Birger Johansson
    August 23, 2013

    (OT) Miscellaneous links:
    -Ancient mound in Greece fuels heady speculation http://phys.org/news/2013-08-ancient-mound-greece-fuels-heady.html
    -The Vikings were not the first colonizers of the Faroe Islands http://phys.org/news/2013-08-vikings-colonizers-faroe-islands.html
    -Human transition from foraging to farming was a gradual co-evolution, not a rapid innovation http://phys.org/news/2013-08-human-transition-foraging-farming-gradual.html
    -Tomb find confirms powerful women ruled Peru long ago http://phys.org/news/2013-08-tomb-powerful-women-peru.html
    -Archaeologists race to save Gaza’s ancient ruins http://phys.org/news/2013-08-archaeologists-gaza-ancient.html

  18. [...] “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science” Martin Rundkvist rants about those annoying “knowledge relativist historian[s] of science.” [...]

  19. #19 Martin R
    August 25, 2013

    Birger, cool about the pre-Viking people in the Faeroes! But I wonder why the excavator is arguing that later colonisation would have obliterated all the evidence. Our current activities certainly haven’t obliterated the Viking Period evidence.

  20. #20 Birger Johansson
    August 25, 2013

    Martin, maybe he means “the evidence easily available to us through low-cost excasvations”? There is always evidence, from pollen in peat bogs to isotopes in detritus to artefacts scattered in rubbish dumps.
    The journalist maybe thinks archaeology is only about big things easily dug up.or mounds easily visible.
    -And if we can find skeletal remains, it might be possible to see -through the isotopes in the enamel of the teeth, and other details- where these people grew up before migrating to the Faroes. It would be fun if a resurrected “Time Team” were to look at the Faroes. :)

  21. #21 Birger Johansson
    August 25, 2013

    OT/Skeptic alert:
    -I did not know that the gay really are pod people!? http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2013/08/22/harvey-gays-absorb-personality-of-others/#comments
    -Gordon Klingenschmitt, Demon Hunter: http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2013/08/24/klingenschmitt-spots-more-demons/#comments
    Glenn Beck: I’ll Fire Anyone Who Helps the Environment” http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2013/08/24/beck-ill-fire-anyone-who-helps-the-environment/
    -Is this guy for real?“

  22. [...] days ago about “Scientific Progress and the History of Science,” which was a response to his “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science.” Dr. Rundkvist was polite and invited me to respond to his comments. Although I have not yet had [...]

  23. #23 Birger Johansson
    August 28, 2013

    (OT) “European Hunter-Gatherers Owned Pigs as Early as 4600 BC” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130827113020.htm

  24. #24 John Massey
    August 28, 2013

    Damn. For once, I thought I might have beaten Birger to a bit of interesting OT news. Delusional thinking on my part. The man never sleeps.


  25. #25 Birger Johansson
    August 28, 2013

    John, on the positive side, you probably have more fun things to do than checking the internet! (Chilly, the beginning of autumn up here. Bleh!)

  26. #26 hans mayr
    August 28, 2013

    “I believe the history of forgotten scientific debates is such an abstruse corner of past reality that it is not worth study except to the extent that it illuminates scientific progress and methodology”

    thanks for clarifying that. said Progress, it would appear, is on your side.

    unlike you, i’m not so sure though that the Enlightenment Project will be done much good by weeding out the “aesthetic disciplines” in favour of mindsets like yours.

  27. #27 Birger Johansson
    August 29, 2013

    Sorry John, I did not intend for my comment to appear snarky. I meant, non-Swedish commenters probably prefer to spend spare time drinking exotic drinks in the shade of palm trees, while we must huddle near the warmth of our computers :)
    — — — — — — — — —
    First Americans() “Hidden shell middens reveal ancient human presence in Bolivian Amazon” http://phys.org/news/2013-08-hidden-shell-middens-reveal-ancient.html -Only 3000 years after the first Clovis people… the first immigrants either pre-dated Clovis, ot they jogged all the way from the Bering bridge.

  28. #28 Birger Johansson
    August 29, 2013

    (OT) Korean dolmens: 35.000 in total!

  29. [...] and Darin Hayton (historian of science) about the function of history of science. Rundkvist argued against ‘knowledge relativist’ history of science, where no comment is made about which of the historical participants turned out to be right, and [...]