Why Should We Care? Part II. History As a Way of Knowing

Nathaniel Comfort

Last week I raised a rhetorical question about why we or anyone else should care about the history of science. I see two broad categories of answers to that question:

Because it is useful or because it is beautiful.

Today I want to talk about being useful. In her recent book, Heredity and Hope, Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes about using “the historian’s tools” to better understand bioethical questions surrounding genetic testing and screening that ordinary, non-scholarly people often have to face. What are those “historian’s tools,” exactly? What is it that training in historical research and reasoning, combined with knowledge of science, can bring to the table in the wider marketplace of ideas?

Historicism is one of the fundamental ways of knowing. In the 1980s, the fashion was for science as a way of knowing; John Pickstone’s history of science and medicine text cleverly pirates that late Cold-War phrase. “Science as a way of knowing” implies an emphasis on logic over emotion, and of course on evidence over belief. When the debate is between science and religion, I come down solidly on the side of the rational empiricists.

But science is also about reasoning strategies—it is, as Lindley Darden and colleagues have carefully articulated, about mechanisms. Science analyzes the gears and levers of a natural system, cleans them up in solvents, and lays them out on a clean paper towel. It then painstakingly reassembles and lubricates them. And then—the ultimate demonstration of scientific understanding—it manipulates them and predicts the results. Scientific understanding is eternal, independent of time. A watch just runs; this gear connects to that and trips that lever. Not all science works that way, of course, but the main exceptions, are fields such as geology, ecology, and evolutionary biology—the “historical” sciences.

History as a way of knowing implies cause and effect through time. It is contingent, local. Scientists often dismiss historical contingency as a kind of randomness or pointlessness:

“For historical reasons,” writes the distinguished scientist Harvey Lodish in his textbook Molecular Cell Biology, “the names of various cyclins and cyclin-dependent kinases from yeasts and vertebrates differ.” In other words, it’s more to remember, I know, but sorry, you’ll just have to deal with it.

“Primarily for historical reasons,” begins chap. 13 of Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, “most studies on yeast have involved Saccharomyces cerevisiae (hereafter termed yeast).” I.e., pombe is just as good a model organism and in some ways better, but the decision wasn’t made rationally.

“For historical reasons,” write Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones in Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight, “the molecular formulas of binary hydrogen compounds of Group 15/V elements are written with the Group 15/V element first.” Sorry, no insight possible with this one. Don’t you hate it when nomenclature has these messy bits with no rational basis?

I guess I should have realized I was heading toward history when, back in neurobiology grad school, I found such explanations bemusing and dissatisfying. Oh, the stories behind those “historical reasons”! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves and starting to talk about beauty.

Historical reasons, then, are not governed by iron laws of determinism. They could have been otherwise. As historians of science have gotten bolder in recent decades, we have shown that it’s not just nomenclature and choice of organism—everything in science is for historical reasons. Contingency tints almost every action of the lab. Now, in my view those who have pushed this line the hardest—for example the Edinburgh School and Bruno Latour’s crew—became polemical about it. They seemed to be trying to push mechanism and reasoning out of science altogether, to deny that scientists actually understand what they are doing. Most people not romantically attached to high-falutin’ French theory recognize that scientists in fact have an extremely robust understanding of nature that often works astonishingly well. Science is predictive in ways that historians can only fantasize about.

Scientists take complex phenomena and makes them simple, by isolating variables, making simplifying assumptions, modeling, and other methods. Historians like to take something simple and make it complicated. A mundane recipe book contains clues to gendered ideas about medical care in the 17th century. A modern laboratory is a zone of metaphorical exchange of resources and knowledge production. An ancient Chinese drawing reveals a culture’s views of the body and helps explain their poetic system of five elements. One can get carried away complicating the simple—sometimes a stethoscope is just a stethoscope—and we need to guard against long-windedness. But in today’s world of soundbites and cynical spin, nuance and texture can be salutary.

Historians can put current & recent events into a broader, more nuanced perspective than journalists can. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s recent book, Merchants of Doubt, is doing a superb job of awakening people to long-term trends in the political manipulation of scientific data. In the so-called “Panda trial” over the teaching of evolution, Barbara Forrest’s superb and witty analysis of the text of the creation-science textbook Biology and Origins into the Intelligent Design text Of Pandas and People gave the lie to ID proponents’ claims that the two were unconnected.

The history of science began as a way to document and, often, to celebrate science, and still much is written in that vein. But nowadays, such scholarship—which can be valuable, interesting, and pleasurable—is balanced by other scholars who take the role of science critics. This, it seems to me, is especially important in biomedicine today, a field so rich and powerful and with so many cheerleaders that it desperately needs a coalition of informed skeptical analysts. Once again, historical cause-and-effect can be anodyne to scientific determinism. Memorable history of science often contributes a pithy phrase that captures a process or event. Think of Kohler’s “breeder reactor” in the Drosophila room, or Peter Galison’s “trading zone.” Kuhn’s “paradigm shift.” Butterfield’s “Whig history.” A good phrase changes the way people think. Careful use of language is not just cosmetic; it is integral to the value of scholarship.

I’m sure there are many more ways the historian’s toolkit bears on contemporary issues—I look forward to comments. But I’ll finish with a plea to reach out to an audience beyond the half-dozen people with a professional interest in your topic. One of the hazards of serious scholarship is a kind of vanity, a tendency to think that everything we have found is so important that it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone else is interested. I admire the integrity of that sort of uncompromising scholarly standard, but the principle of utility is a counterweight. It places value on productivity, on access, on changing people’s minds. The history of science has much to say about contemporary debates over the teaching of evolution, genetic medicine, climate change, healthcare policy, and energy policy, to name but a few. Those of us fortunate enough to get paid (at all) to do scholarly research have a duty to reach somebody, make an impact, change something.

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