Who Cares about the History of Science?

Nathaniel Comfort

I want to start what I hope will be not only a series of posts but also a discussion about the value of the history of science. We don’t often stop to think about—let alone systematically formulate a set of justifications for—our field. But it matters for things that affect our daily lives. Why do we teach? Why should the NSF, NEH, NIH, or other foundation give us a grant—or our university pay our salary? Who should publish our book? On what basis should we recruit graduate students?

Imagine you are a Dean. The university president is expecting your budget and he demands that you cut $10M from it. Painful decisions have to be made. Well-intentioned but unproductive junior faculty are going to be denied tenure. Maybe some of those interdisciplinary programs that were so trendy ten years ago can be cut. Who really takes Classics any more? And what about that program for the history of science? Can’t that be trimmed? Let’s float a proposal to axe it and see what happens.

Okay, now imagine you direct that history of science program. How do you respond to the letter? Why should your program not be sacrificed?

I absolutely think our field deserves a place in the curriculum and on the bookshelves--indeed, a more prominent one than it now has. And to get there, we have to do some soul-searching and to be honest with ourselves.

We have, I fear, painted ourselves into a corner in the last few decades. The history of science, of course, used to be done mainly by retired scientists. Then Thomas Kuhn came along and turned the whole enterprise on its head, and then the Edinburgh School and the Strong Programme turned Kuhn on his head and then we had tea. The history of science differentiated itself from the field it studied, it fledged, rebelled against its parent—in a word, professionalized.

But it got carried away. In the 1990s, the “science wars” pitted us against the scientists, and Alan Sokal’s brilliant—yes, brilliant— hoax exposed the pose of much scholarly science studies, making meticulously articulated arguments mockable. Science scholars’ strategy of dismantling its own subject in order to demonstrate its own sophistication backfired; society backed the scientists. It was the scholars who came off seeming ridiculous.

In the past decade, where there ought to have been a pendulum swing there has been inertia. For the most part, the history of science and science studies has become irrelevant to wider social discussions. There are important exceptions to this—most recently, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt has engaged serious, important contemporary scientific issues with serious scholarship. This stuff can be done, people.

This is just a hint of one of the reasons that science scholarship—a term I’ll use to refer to the history of science, sociology of science, philosophy of science, and science studies—matters. And there are, I think, really only a few fundamental justifications for it. We need to think pragmatically, but we can’t lose sight of aesthetics and principles, either.

I want to explore these reasons in an occasional series of posts. Let’s begin.