Via a retweeted link from Thony C. on Twitter, I ran across a blog post declaring science a “bourgeois pastime.” The argument, attributed to a book by Dierdre McCloskey is that rather than being at the root of economic progress, scientific advances are a by-product of economic advances. As society got more wealthy, it was able to direct more resources to science, which made great advances possible.
And, you know, if you’re looking to make a bold and contrarian argument, you can certainly do that. Unfortunately, the bit quoted from McCloskey as an illustration of the power of the argument is:
Such an apparently straightforward matter as the chemistry of the blast furnace was not entirely understood until well into the twentieth century, and yet the costs of iron and steel had fallen and fallen for a century and a half.
Now, I haven’t read McCloskey’s book, or previously encountered this blog, so making too much of this is a dicey proposition. But at least on this particular line of argument, I vehemently disagree.
I mean, you can argue that this is a true statement in support of the argument that science doesn’t drive progress, but in order to do so you need to adopt a perverse and ahistorical definition of “science.” Because while it’s absolutely true that we didn’t have a modern chemical understanding of steel-making until the twentieth century– more or less by definition– using that fact to claim that science was not involved in making iron and steel better and cheaper is utter garbage.
Science is not a particular set of facts or institutions, science is a process. And that process is at the heart of human civilization. It may not have included a microscopic picture of crystal lattices or an understanding of band structure, but there was unquestionably a great deal of science done in the process of making iron and steel better and cheaper through the 19th century, and long before that. People mining ore explored new techniques for getting metal out of the ground, and steadily improved quality and reduced cost. People extracting metal from ore tried new refining techniques, and developed better methods for ensuring purity. People making steel from iron and coke tried new mixes and improved furnaces, and steadily got better at what they were doing.
All of that is fundamentally scientific in nature. That is, people involved in the production of iron and steel looked at what they were doing, thought about ways they might do it better, tried those ideas out, and kept those that worked. And they passed those ideas on to their descendants and colleagues, leading to a general improvement. That process is the essential core of science.
And that process is not an invention of nineteenth century bourgeois gentlemen– it’s as old as the species. But since we’re talking about metallurgy, we’ll just stick with steel, the making of which is not by any means an obvious process. You need to get iron ore hot enough to melt, which is not a trivial step, and when you melt it you need to include something in the mix that will react with the undesirable impurities to leave stronger metal behind. Every detail matters, including the temperature, the ore composition, the cooling/ quenching method, etc., and none of that is immediately obvious. How it’s forged into useful implements is yet another complex subject, with different types of tools needing different techniques.
And yet, somebody had figured out how to do all this by around 4000 years ago, at least as claimed in that Wikipedia article. By the eighth century AD, steelmaking was understood well enough for the Japanese to be making really cool swords like the ones in the “featured image” up top (which, OK are more recent than that, but the oldest characteristically Japanese swords date from the 700’s), optimized for local conditions (that is, the particular shape of the blades and the techniques used to make them fit with the available resources and local martial styles, in what was probably a mutual refinement process).
That process involves science at every step– figuring out which rocks contain iron, how to make a really hot fire, what to add to get strong steel, how to forge it to make a good blade, etc. All of that was developed over centuries of trial and error experimentation, and refined into a high art.
Now, the usual counter-argument to this is some dismissive statement like “Oh, but that’s just engineering, not science.” But that’s exactly the sort of false class distinction that historians and social scientists are forever clucking tongues and wagging fingers about. I suppose there’s really nothing stopping people from choosing to define “science” as doing the sort of thing that wealthy white males started doing in the eighteenth century. Turning around and then declaring it a “bourgeois pastime” is the worst sort of intellectual chicanery, though– it only looks like a bourgeois pastime because you’ve chosen a narrow and impoverished definition that excludes the vast majority of the last hundred thousand years of human scientific activity.
Now, it’s tempting to speculate about the social and psychological factors that make scholars in non-scientific fields want to run with this kind of definition– what’s good for the goose, etc.– but that would be petty and unproductive (I am not, however, above hinting at it as a cheap shot). What we really need is not more cheap Two Cultures point-scoring, but a more inclusive definition of what science is, that encompasses what humans actually do. Which has to include the long history of progress in technology, not merely the recent development of a sophisticated understanding of matter at microscopic scales.
(Now, as I said above, I haven’t read McCloskey’s book, so I may be doing her a disservice based on a poor selection of quotes on the part of another blogger. But the “That’s just engineering/technology” dismissal is one of the most common responses when I describe my book-in-progress, so I’ve been meaning to do something along these lines for a while now. This was just the catalyst that got me annoyed enough to type it out.)