What Happened to the History of Science?

What Happened to the History of Science?
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Carl Sagan lauded science as a candle that dispelled darkness.[1] Sagan's appreciation for science was preceded by George Sarton (1884-1956), the person who founded the study of the history of science as a formal academic discipline. Sarton described the history of science as "the history of mankind's unity, of its sublime purpose, of its gradual redemption."[2] Although the study of history is fascinating in and of itself, Sarton believed that a primary reason for studying the history of science is that it would provide a deeper understanding of scientific method.[3]

Science is far from infallible. The history of science is the history of error. It is the history of dead ends, discarded theories, and tendentious quests loaded with cultural pretensions. Sarton hoped that a study of these follies would inform the scientists how to improve their methodology and facilitate the acquisition of reliable knowledge that sustains human civilization.

Alas, this has not proven to be the case. After a grand beginning, the academic study of the history of science has largely degenerated into a caricature of itself. It is not that it is merely bad. No, it is far worse than that. The scholarship being produced by most historians of science today is not good enough to be bad. Consider a quote from a recent paper by two historians of chemistry. "We find that efforts to differentiate alchemy from chemistry prove to be anachronistic, arbitrary, or presentist."[4] In other words, there is no difference between alchemy and chemistry. This thesis would not only shock a modern chemist, it would be rejected by any intelligent person with no special knowledge of these subjects.

In fact there is a chasm between chemistry and alchemy. Alchemy contributed apparatus and procedures to chemistry, but it also mixed chemical technology with religion, philosophy, magic, metaphysics, and astrology. Naturalism is essential to science but alchemy incorporated supernaturalism. Alchemists sought to obscure their methods and knowledge whereas chemists seek to reveal and clarify. Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier, men who struggled to free chemistry from metaphysics and define it as an exact science, would be outraged at the claim that chemistry and alchemy were indistinguishable.[5]

Science as we know it today began during the Scientific Revolution in Europe. It emerged from natural philosophy when Europeans learned to subjugate reason to empiricism, to expel metaphysics, and to abandon the futile pursuit of final causes.[6] The demarcation is distinct, and was apparent even to the people who lived through it. "The new philosophy," explained Robert Boyle, "is built upon two foundations, reason and experience."[7] But according to a leading modern scholar in the history of science, "there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution."[8] The claim is made all the more remarkable by that fact that it occurs in a book titled The Scientific Revolution. This is a breathtaking paradox designed to entrance those ignorant enough to confuse novelty with erudition. Of course, if there was no Scientific Revolution, there is no such thing as science itself. Thus we are left with scholars who devote their lives to studying something they claim does not exist. This is not a quandary but a masterful slice of the Gordian Knot. Confronted with the task of analyzing a discipline they were intrinsically unable to comprehend, historians have dispelled their cognitive dissonance in one master stroke by declaring that the incomprehensible does not exist.

The gap between the humanities and the sciences was described in 1959 by C. P. Snow as The Two Cultures.[9] Snow noted that although his scientific and literary colleagues were of equal intelligence, they were separated by "a gulf of mutual incomprehension."[10] There was no common ground between them. In particular, Snow noted that scholars in the humanities exhibited a "total incomprehension of science."[11] To be fair, it is implicit in Snow's thesis that the contrary is true:  that many scientists and engineers find artistic and literary works to be unfathomable. Imagine an engineer assigned the task of evaluating the artistic merits of different sculptures. He would proceed to weigh, photograph, x-ray, and subject these objects to every conceivable quantitative measure, thus producing a mass of irrelevant data that entirely missed the point.

What happened to the study of the history of science is that in the 1960s and 1970s it was taken from scientists and turned over to historians. The proffered justification was that scientists had no training in historical research. They tended to produce hagiographical biographies whose shallow perspectives missed all of the cultural influences inherent in any creative work. The truth of these faults can be conceded, but the cure proved worse than the disease.

Unable to appreciate science as science, historians desperately needed a tool that would enable them to analyze the incomprehensible. They found one in an obscure little pamphlet titled The Whig Interpretation of History, an essay by Herbert Butterfield first published in 1931.[12] Butterfield's book was a critique of Thomas Macaulay's History of England. According to Butterfield, Macaulay's work was badly flawed because it had distorted history by focusing only on those aspects that had demonstrated the working of a principle of progress. The mistake, Butterfield explained, was that a Whig historian judges the past in terms of the present. He divides the world dualistically, into the friends and enemies of progress. The resulting chronicle is nothing less than an optical illusion. "Above all," Butterfield cautioned, "it is not the role of the historian to come to what might be called judgments of value," because "we can never assert that history has proved any man right in the long run."[13] Butterfield's little booklet thus furnished a template for an entire academic discipline. What happened is reminiscent of the Star Trek episode, A Piece of the Action (1968), wherein a misplaced book provided the blueprint for a dysfunctional culture.

It is reasonable enough to grant Butterfield's thesis in the discussion and analysis of subjects such as politics or morality. In many areas of human knowledge there is no established criterion for arriving at demonstrable truth. The social sciences are not yet exact sciences, and the humanities may never be. Morality is subject to cultural convention, and I am unaware of any objective way to demonstrate that Shakespeare was a better author than Tolkien. Certainly, my preference is for Tolkien. But to assert that scientific knowledge is arbitrary and relative is quite another thing.

Following Butterfield's thesis, many scholars in the history of science believe "there is no preordained or right way for ideas to develop."[14] A number of absurd corollaries necessarily follow. The abandonment of the geocentric model of the Solar System was not inevitable as observations increased in number and accuracy. Nor can any scientific theory be better or more accurate than any other. The reality of scientific progress, once considered an axiomatic fact, is an illusion. The idea that the Sun revolves around the Earth is just as valid as the Earth revolving around the Sun. The germ theory of disease is no better than the ancient Greek idea that plagues are caused by bad air. Aristotelean physics, in which heavier objects fall faster, is as good as Newtonian mechanics. And so on.

Of course no one really believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, or sincerely accepts scores of other discarded scientific theories from the past. And invariably, the people studied by scholars in the history of science continue to be all the people who "got it right" from the present day perspective:  Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Darwin. What is accepted as true in one context becomes false in another, and vice versa. It is the resurrection of the medieval doctrine of the double truth.[15]

There is some evidence that historians of science are beginning to acquire an awareness that something has gone terribly wrong. A leading scholar in the field recently conceded that his discipline suffers from "hyperprofessionalism" and a "crisis of readership."[16] The work produced is "self referential," meaning that no one outside some narrow area of academic specialization has any interest in reading it. There's hardly anything original about academic folly. Cloistered in proverbial Ivory Towers, college professors have been making fools of themselves for centuries. In the sixteenth century Erasmus ridiculed scholastic theologians for producing sophistical subtleties that had no real existence or relevance to the human condition.[17] Today we have a cadre of pedants who author histories of science that contain no science. Even if there is some recognition that the academic study of the history of science has some problems, there is no evidence that the people working in this field are willing to change. The conception of the history of science as a coherent narrative of progress is viewed by them as "old fashioned," as if ultimate truth was a matter of fashion like popular music or clothing styles.

The world needs science. It is the only method we have for producing reliable knowledge, a commodity valued by all human civilizations and cultures. George Sarton was right. If we are ever to understand how to perfect scientific methodology we have to study history. Theoretical and philosophical conceptions come and go, but history itself is the master science because it deals entirely with facts. What has happened to the study of the history of science is not just a harmless exercise in folly, it is a tragedy. The discipline that once offered so much promise for informing science has been driven into a dead end.

David Deming (ddeming@ou.edu) is Professor of Arts & Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, and the author of Science and Technology in World History (McFarland, 2010, 2012, 2016), a history of science in four volumes.


[1] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York:  Ballantine, 1997.
[2] George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. 1 (Washington DC: Carnegie Institution, 1927) 32.
[3] George Sarton,"The New Humanism," Isis 6 (1924): 31.
[4] William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, "Alchemy vs. Chemistry:  the Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake," Early Science and Medicine, 3 (1998): 33.
[5] David Deming, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 4:  The Origin of Chemistry, the Principle of Progress, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland, 2016), 3-119.
[6] David Deming, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 3:  The Black Death, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution (Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland, 2012).
[7] Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, Book 1 (London:  Edward Jones, 1690), 4-5
[8] Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1.
[9] Charles Percy Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1961.
[10] Charles Percy Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1961), 4.
[11] Charles Percy Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1961), 11.
[12] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History. New York:  W. W. Norton, 1965.
[13] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1965), 73-75.
[14] Margaret J. Osler, "The Canonical Imperative:  Rethinking the Scientific Revolution," in Rethinking the Scientific Revolution, ed. Margaret J. Osler (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, 2000) 6.
[15] David Deming, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 2:  Early Christianity, the Rise of Islam and the Middle Ages (Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland, 2010), 138.
[16] Steven Shapin, "Hyperprofessionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science," Isis 96 (2005), 238-243.
[17] Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, translated from Latin. London:  Hamilton, Adams & Co.,1887.

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