Last month I tried to show that historians can honour the symmetry principle without becoming skeptics about current scientific theories. We do not need to "forget" that the earth moves in order to see that there was once good reason to believe that it is stationary. But even if we do not need to forget this, perhaps we should try to forget it anyway just to be on the safe side? The aim of this short post is to explain why this kind of methodological relativism is not a good idea. Put simply, if we need to resort to this psychological trick in order to do good history then we have not understood the symmetry principle. My point is easily stated in the abstract. According to the symmetry principle, it is a fallacy to infer the quality of a person's reasons for holding a belief from the truth-value of their belief. In other words, the whole point of the principle is that truth-value--as judged by present-day science--tells us nothing about quality-of-reason. So if you are worried that your knowledge of present-day science will lead you astray in historical research, you have missed the point of the symmetry principle. Present-day science should not lead the historian astray because present-day science should not lead the historian anywhere. An analogy might help to get the point across. When small children are around we place the chocolate bars on a high shelf so that the children cannot reach them. The reason for this--or one of the reasons--is that small children do not grasp the fact that chocolate bars are bad for their health. If the chocolate was easy to access, children would eat it all at once and get sick. When adults are around, we place the chocolate bars wherever we like, because adults understand the link between overeating and illness. They can see chocolate, and even handle chocolate, without eating too much of it. The historian who cannot do good history in the knowledge of present-day science is like the child who cannot stay healthy within reach of chocolate. Present-day science can be dangerous in the hands of the historian, just as chocolate can be dangerous in the hands of a child. But these things are only dangerous if they are badly handled. To keep these things out of our reach is to concede that we cannot handle them properly. Once we know how to handle them properly, we should be able to store them in accessible parts of our kitchens (in the case of chocolate) or our minds (in the case of present-day science). But, you might object, it's not just children who need to store the chocolate on the top shelf or behind the muesli. Fully-grown adults can also give in to temptation, and surely they cannot be faulted if they use physical or psychological tricks to make up for the weakness of their will. After all, the important thing is to avoid getting sick, not to develop an iron will. We make use of this pragmatic principle every time we download software to block distracting websites or close the window to shut out the summery music being played outside our office. Why shouldn't historians of sciences help themselves to similar ruses? The answer is that historians who mishandle present-day science do not show a weakness of the will but a fundamental misunderstanding of the thing they are trying to understand, namely past science. The reason we should not infer quality-of-reason from truth-value is that there is such a thing as being right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. These things are possible because the state of the evidence for a theory can change over time, because scientists can make lucky guesses on flimsy evidence, and for other equally significant reasons. If we are worried about violating the symmetry principle we should try to grasp these reasons rather than taking un-illuminating short-cuts such as forgetting or rejecting the theories of current science. Expand post.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014
Last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS). Aside from the overall bubbliness and smooth organisation of the conference, the highlights for me were the opening session on recycling in early modern chymistry, Richard Serjeantson's talk on seventeenth-century student notebooks, and the spinach-and-mozarella pastry that was served up for lunch on day one. I was also impressed by the well-attended closing session with the curious title "Should the history of science have relevance?" Rebekah Higgitt, one of the four panellists in this session, said that someone should blog about it. Hence this post, which reconstructs the discussion with the help of other people's tweets and my hasty notes. Feel free to use the comments section of this post to complete or clarify what I have written. At the end of the post I offer three comments of my own: facts matter, there's a place for the deficit model in the humanities, and we should take reflexivity seriously. But first, why blog about this session? Out of all the stimulating talks at the conference, why single this one out for special attention? The obvious answer is that the session was about engaging with the public, so it makes sense to engage the public in this session, or at least make it available to the public. Another reason is that public engagement is a topic that concerns every historian of science, in a way a seventeenth-century notebook does not. But the main reason is that this kind of session, more so than the standard academic talk, is only as good as the number of people who know about it. The aim of these events is to get people talking about some of the challenges facing the profession. The more people talk about them, the better. Noble intentions are one thing; turning up on time is quite another. I have to confess that I missed the first half-hour of this session, so I did not hear the short presentations that each panellist gave before the general discussion began. However thanks to twitter (and in particular to Rebekah Higgitt, Dominic Berry, and Angela Cassidy) I can relay four key messages from the first part of the session: How much, who, how, and at what cost? No-one was seriously arguing that historians of science should never aim for relevance. Rather, the question was how often they should aim for relevance in their research and research proposals, who should aim for relevance, how this aim might be achieved, and whether relevance can be reconciled with the other pressures of academic life such as the need to produce sound scholarship. Usefulness not relevance. Usefulness is a better term than relevance to describe our aims when we engage with people outside academia. Why is it better? The answer, I gather, is that "relevance" implies topicality, ie. it suggests that our case studies should bear a superficial resemblance to events that are currently in the news. One risk of this approach is that by focusing on the big stories of the day we will ignore the more important but less visible stories (as one participant put it, we should always ask "relevant to what?"). Another risk is that we will ignore lessons that flow from the strangeness of the past rather than from the resemblance between the past and the present. Finally, it is not enough to juxtapose past episodes with analogous present-day events; to make a real difference we need to draw concrete lessons from past episodes. In short, we can be useful without being topical and topical without being useful. We have failed. Historians of science as a community have failed to get the attention of some important audiences. We have done good work, but we could do much better. In particular, we could do more to interact with social scientists and other historians as well as with scientists. Less deficit-model and more engagement. Our failures may be due in part to our condescending view of our audiences. We are guilty of the "deficit-model" that we so often attribute to scientists and naïve science communicators. What is the deficit model? This is where I need help from someone who was actually present, because there are different versions of the deficit model that have different implications for our attempts at outreach. The implication might be that we have no special expertise in the history of science; or it might be that we do have special expertise, but that it takes the form of special skills or methods rather than factual knowledge; or it might be that we do have special expertise but that we should try to learn from non-historians rather than teaching them. This brings us to the half-hour mark, which is when I discreetly entered the room. What follows is my attempt to arrange the free-flowing conversation that I witnessed into a series of discreet chunks. I've arranged the chunks roughly in the order in which they were discussed. Gender. The gender balance in the profession is much better than it was fifty years ago. (At this point one of the panellists joked that he was pleased to be the "token male" on the panel). Still, the balance is not perfect, and some sub-fields in the history of science are still dominated by men (the speaker did not name the sub-fields). Ethnic minorities. The situation is quite different for ethnic minorities, who are still badly under-represented in the history of science as in other areas of the humanities. One possible link between under-representation and usefulness is that minority groups decline study in the humanities because they feel that humanities degrees are relatively useless given their high price-tag. Hence one way to solve our under-representation problem is to show that humanities degrees are more useful than they may appear at first sight. Independent scholars. Speaking of marginalised groups, spare a thought for people who are historians by avocation but not by vocation. Much high-quality research in our field is done by people who are not employed as academics in universities. These people are sometimes slighted, and this is unwise given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs and the increasing number of people who move freely between academic and non-academic jobs in the course of their careers. Attitudes to outreach. In some university departments there is still an alarming lack of recognition of the value of activities such as policy work, museum work, and blogging. Academics should not only respect these activities but also make room for them. Outreach should not be something that academics do on top of the normal load of teaching, research and administrative work. It should either be integrated with these core activities or seen as a (partial) substitute for them. Junior scholars. Senior scholars sometimes have a tendency to delegate public engagement to PhDs and early career colleagues. There is a danger of creating an unhealthy division of labour whereby young scholars do the hard work of outreach while their supervisors get on with their own research. [Disclaimer: I have not observed this tendency in my own academic circle, though I can't speak for other circles.] Nor should the outreach activities of senior scholars be separate from those of junior scholars. Instead we should strive for "intergenerational collaboration." Translation. This buzzword refers to the process of converting academic research into something that the general public can understand and appreciate. Translation is all very well, but can we expect academics to be experts in translation--twitter and museum exhibits and all that jazz--as well as being experts in the traditional tools of scholarship? Wouldn't it be nice if we could delegate the former tasks to a dedicated team of translators? The answer from the panel was that it depends on the end product of the translation. Not every academic has the know-how to set up a museum exhibit, but every academic should be able to summarise their latest research in a readable blog post. Capacity building. In policy circles there is much talk about building the scientific capacity of developing nations. One of the panellists recalled a recent conference at which various criticisms were levelled at the concept of capacity building, but where the African participants seemed quite keen on the idea. This concerns historians because many university administrators in developing nations see the history of science as an ally in their efforts to raise the profile of science in their communities. Hence the demand for historians of medicine in these universities, a demand that may extend to historians of science and technology in the future. Methods but not facts or disciplines. Our gift to the public should not be facts about past science but a set of methods for studying past science, or perhaps a perspective from which to view past science. But we should not be too precious about defining our discipline, since we are inherently interdisciplinary, with contributions from philosophers and sociologists and scientists as well as pure-blood historians. Usefulness need not be public. There are many ways of being useful, and not all of them are public-facing in the manner of blogs, museum exhibits and newspaper articles. For example, we can make ourselves useful by talking to policy-makers and scientists on a one-to-one basis. Ethics not impact. The British government measures the usefulness of British academics in terms of the "impact" of their research. Lots of British academics object to this criterion and to the way it is currently measured. But our dissatisfaction with the impact agenda should not become an excuse for retreating into the ivory tower and drawing the blinds. On the contrary, we should think deeply about why we do research in the humanities and what we can contribute to society at large. We may shrink from the impact agenda, but we cannot shirk the ethics of research. *** In the interests of continuing the discussion, here are three comments inspired by the conversation that I have just summarised: Facts matter. I was surprised that some participants insisted on the importance of conveying methods or perspectives to the public rather than conveying facts. Haven't we been diligent, not to say militant, in correcting the factual errors made by scientists who write about past science? And aren't our perspectives (such as our emphasis on political context) based on our hard-won knowledge of the facts of key episodes (there are too many episodes to name)? Finally, aren't we obliged to refer to facts about particular fields or disciplines (such as climate science or evolutionary psychology) if we want our messages to be specific and concrete rather than vague and evangelistic? There's a place for the deficit model in the humanities. I realise that there are problems with the deficit model, but we should not be too diffident when it comes to instructing non-historians about past science. As a rule, those of us who have studied past science in detail are in a better position to speak about it than those who have studied it superficially or not at all. The same is true for scientists, but there is an important difference between the sciences and the humanities, namely that scientists use their expertise to make useful gadgets. This means that if scientists always engaged with the public and never instructed them, their expertise would not go to waste. The same cannot be said for historians. If we do not use our expertise to teach people about the past, our expertise is not much use at all. We should take reflexivity seriously. There were a couple of references to "reflexivity" in the tweets about the BSHS session on relevance. Here's my definition of this protean term: to be reflexive is to insist on consistency between our own condition as historians and the conditions we observe in past science. For example, it would be non-reflexive to say that there is a historical method but no scientific method. Yet this is what historians of science, as a group, seem to be saying: we no longer believe in the scientific method, yet we like to claim that we have a distinctive and powerful method for studying past science. If we take reflexivity seriously, we should either abandon one of these claims or explain why there is room for method in history but not in physics or chemistry. Two other examples come to mind. If we complain about the public misunderstanding of history, as many of us do, we should admit that there is such a thing as the public misunderstanding of science. And if we defend scholarship on the grounds that it is useful in the long run, we should tolerate scientists who use the same argument in favour of basic research. That's all for now. As I mentioned in the introduction, feel free to use the comments of this post (or your own blog, if you have one) to improve on my summary of this relevant and useful BSHS session. Expand post.