Solutions

Isn’t blogging brilliant? You write something, people read it (a surprise in itself), and their opinions make you think, and reevaluate and refine your original argument. Brilliant. A little bit like a conversation or conference paper I suppose, but over a longer period of time allowing for more thinking time.

Thank you everybody who responded to my last post. You gave me a lot to think about. I also liked these, which I came by via Twitter since I wrote my last post:

Ken Perrott’s excellent blog post – where I especially liked the neat summation on the entire argument in one of the comments. Basically they argued that scientists and historians of science were failing to communicate properly because each assumed, or was too quick to read into the other’s comments, an overly positivist or relativist agenda. It rang true for me anyway.

Melvin Bragg programme on Two Cultures

link to Steve Shapin’s 1999 chapter, ‘how to be anti-scientific’ showing how depressingly long this debate, in this exact form, has been going on.

While now even I am bored to tears with the whole Cox/Ince debate, I do like to tidy up loose ends, if only in my own thinking. So, this is the last thing I’m ever going to write on the subject, but I thought I would just throw out a few questions the debate has raised for me that I would really like answers to, before offering, finally, my own cowardly solution.

James Elder raises an excellent point (see comments on my last post) when he talks about all the history of science already in science programming. I know these are still figure headed by scientists in the main, which may grate a little, but, as I think I’ve said already, they are good at it and have skills, contacts and experience in that area which, to my knowledge we do not currently have within our ranks in history of science. If we want our subject out there – which I think was part of what motivated Becky, Vanessa, Thony et al – wouldn’t it make more sense to build on this? Perhaps by trying to ensure more lost characters are woven into their narratives? Or encouraging Science Club to include a more imaginative and diverse range of options on their wall of fame?

I know I’m being really dim, and I sort of think this I probably identifying me as not a proper historian but just can’t understand what might be achieved by insisting scientists or science popularisers avoid the term ‘scientific method’ or at least avoid using it without qualification. I am not trying to accuse anyone of being overly relativistic or anti-science here, I really do want to be a proper historian, but I also really, quite genuinely do not get it. I appreciate that everyone, even every scientist will give a slightly different definition of what scientific method is. But for the purposes of a throw away line in a non-specialist, non-scientific magazine are they really that different? Surely as historians of science we recognise ‘science’ as meaning a particular group of disciplines sharing some common ground, even if that changes over time. Otherwise why call ourselves historians of science? Why not historians of ideas or just historians? Would it have been better for the article to have argued that politicians listen to experts in all field relating to the climate change including but not exclusively scientists? I’m inclined to think that it would but at the same time I can’t see it having quite the same rhetorical flourish. Its just gets messy and the point gets lost.

For my part, I think I will stick to a relatively uncontroversial approach to history of science and look to find and promote lost stories and characters. Incrementally, that may even change the way science is seen, as the scientific work of mothers educating their children or of instrument makers promoting their wares become part of the grand narrative of science. I’m not brave enough or smart enough to pick the big fights, but if someone could explain them to me, I would really appreciate it.

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2 thoughts on “Solutions

  1. On ‘the scientific method’, I doubt there would have been much fuss if it had been a throw-away line. But it wasn’t. We were being told that it was responsible for all the science and technology surrounding us, and we were being told that it was irrational to question particular scientific frameworks because that was rejecting ‘the scientific method’. These are big claims that privilege an entity that just doesn’t exist in the way that readers are going to understand it. Climate change deniers can see perfectly well that the scientific methods used in climate science are not the same as those used in particle physics, and claiming otherwise only adds fuel to their fire.

    Their editorial could perfectly well, and simply, have presented the important argument about evidence-based policy without framing in the way they chose (particularly the completely non-evidence based claims about anti-science).

    On history of science programming, it may be true that there aren’t many TV-friendly historians of science (though thank goodness for Simon Schaffer!), but why should history of science be presented by scientists? Perhaps we could have an historian of science script rather than just advise, and then have a non-expert presenter? Or an historian? It would be a refreshingly different perspective.

    Finally, I have to say something about Perrott. The point you summarise sounds reasonable, but I have not read this post because I have previously come across him on twitter and blogs and can safely say that, as well as having no interest in historical facts that don’t fit his philosophy, he is a troll and sexist. From twitter I gather that most of the historians and sociologists aren’t much impressed by his way of dealing with comments and alternative perspectives. I also know some have called him out for sexism, including a comment on the from Sylvia McLain, @girlinterruptin.

    • Thank for this. On paragraph 1, I think we may need to just agree to disagree. I can’t speak for any other reader than myself, but all I read into it was that science is their thing, and so they would say that wouldn’t they? Just as Jamie Oliver might make luxuriously overblown claims for the power of food, or a fashion journalist might claim a certain designer transformed women’s lives for ever. Reading it again, I did want to heckle ‘no it didn’t’ at the end of the first 2 sentences, but since the rest of the article was, I thought mostly quite sensible, I didn’t feel any particular need to make a big thing of it.

      On paragraph 2, that does start to make more sense of it for me, thank you.

      Paragraph 3, I don’t think I explained myself very well. I would love to see a history of science driven programme, but, and should come clean here, I’ve tried pitching ideas (& will continue to do so – any suggestions welcome), and its very hard. These are ideas incidentally, who might present them would come later. This is also where my anxiety about this debate comes from. If I succeeded, would I get hauled up by people I respect over something similar? I don’t know what’s wrong with what they did, so how do I know I won’t do the same? As I’m sure you know, TV, radio, magazines, all to a greater or lesser extent want something new which is also familiar. That’s why introducing history of science through these established celebrities, I thought would be a good first step.

      On Perrott. I had no idea. I’d never heard of him before. I just thought on this one post, what he said sounded quite reasonable. I saw the sexism claim later. Without the context you describe, I hadn’t read it as sexist but simply a comment on the pre-Christmas timing of the debate. The comment I paraphrased wasn’t actually from him, it was from someone commenting on his post.

      Hope that all sound OK. Thanks for reading and commenting. You must be very bored of all this by now.

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