Recently I blogged about historians of science who chronicle scientific debates of the past neutrally and leave it to the reader to find out who (if anyone) turned out to be right in the end. This approach pisses me off because I’m a scientist and I believe that the main point of such debates – past and current – is to advance science. I don’t enjoy the implication of neutralist history of science, that it’s all just historically contingent talk and the process isn’t taking us anywhere.
Historian of science Darin Hayton of Haverford College in Pennsylvania didn’t like my viewpoint and wrote a rather angry blog entry about it. There’s no comments section on the blog – I’m guessing because his blog is on Haverford’s server and they’re afraid of libel or hate speech. (But really, getting comments is half the fun of blogging!) Instead Dr. Hayton kindly agreed to publish a guest entry of mine where I explained my position. And now he has replied.
He opens by ascribing a rather odd opinion to me: that all intellectually defensible activities must show how past scientific debates have been resolved in the present. That is not my opinion. (Is this a copy editing error?) I do think however that the history of science should, as one part if its remit.
Dr. Hayton then appears to say that he rejects the idea that through scientific studies we gain better and more accurate knowledge about the world over time. The wording isn’t quite clear to me, but if this is what he believes, then I don’t understand what he thinks that scholars have to offer the world. Or why we should be paid.
I do believe, as he suggests, that in Enlightenment science only those activities that contribute to accumulation of knowledge are worthwhile. One such activity is scientific debate. Debate leading to expert consensus is how provisional scientific truth is established, tested, modified and built upon.
Dr. Hayton points out correctly that scientists of the past didn’t quite have the same long-term agenda as today’s scientists have. But as I pointed out to him, many or most scientists of today feel that we are continuing a centuries-old project aiming to find out what the world is like. And we are a considerable chunk of his potential readership. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone working in an abstruse field (like mine) to alienate potential readers. The customer is always right.
I’m not asking Dr. Hayton to ”sanitize” Isaac Newton’s work or ”excize God” from it. I’m not asking neutralist historians of science to remove anything from what they’re writing. I’m asking them to recognise that although scientists of the present are certainly not exclusive owners of Newton & Co, we do deserve to be counted among the stakeholders. We are way more interested in the history of science than most people. I’m not asking for hagiography. I just want a history of science that recognises that scientific debate actually produces more accurate knowledge of the world over time. Just like debates among historians of science produce more accurate knowledge about, say, Renaissance astrology.
Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.