Yes, histories of science are worth reading!

In a previous post, Alice Bell suggested in a comment that I read the article by Mark Erickson in this month’s issue of History of the Human Sciences. The issue also contains responses from Patricia Fara, Steve Fuller and Joseph Rouse but, since Erickson’s reply to these replies doesn’t seem to have taken on board some of the points that they and I consider important, it seems pertinent to continue the discussion. Also, since Erickson considers histories of science aimed at specialist and popular (or esoteric and exoteric) audiences, a blog seems an appropriate place to do this.

Erickson asks “Why should I read histories of science”, not, as you might expect from someone who researches and teaches the sociology of science, to explain why YOU should read books in this important discipline, but to explain why he think histories of science have little to offer anyone who does not want to reinforce society’s “normative understanding of science” [p. 86]. Some of his complaints certainly chime with my own thinking, as discussed in earlier posts, and the sort of thing that I would consider ‘good’ history of science  is what he too believes is missing from existing work. But Erickson goes much further, disapproving of  most specialist (or esoteric) histories as well as popular (or exoteric).

He divides histories of science into four general categories, or poles [p. 83]:

  1. Histories of science for the esoteric history of science thought community [i.e. written by professional historians of science for professional historians of science]
  2. Histories of science for esoteric forma science thought communities [i.e. written by scientists for scientists]
  3. Exoteric histories of science for the general public written by historians
  4. Exoteric histories of science for the general public written by formal scientists

A footnote admits that only recently did he notice the divide between histories written by historians and those written by scientists. However, Erickson claims that books in all these categories fail to explain why science happens, and what its position is within society. They retain “a picture of science as essential, separate and superior to other forms of knowledge” [p. 87]. There are, he says, some partial exceptions within the professional history of science community, but he sees them as few and their engagement with the social, political, cultural and economic context of science as pretty paltry. He also claims that popular histories of science, whether written by historians or scientists, are especially culpable and that the audiences for both are probably identical. This, I think, is unlikely – those who enjoy reading general history or historical biography are probably not interested in the kind of ‘histories’ of science produced by science writers.

I, like Erickson, believe that there are far too many books that present history of science “in a predictable and triumphal way” [p. 78]. I also agree that there is a significant failure by those historians of science who are interested in capturing a genuinely popular audience (not all are: see the post by Will Thomas on this site) to present their preferred narratives in an appealing way. But, frankly, I am staggered by what Erickson has to say about history of science as a discipline. I could go on at some length here, but I had better limit my comments to a few points.

Firstly, Erickson claims that historians of science are short on historiography. This came as a real surprise to me. My first degree was in straight history and, at undergraduate level at least, we barely came across the word historiography, let alone any indication of how it might help us read or write history. When I moved into history of science, however, I couldn’t move an inch without tripping over the stuff: it was there at the beginning of almost every seminar I attended and book or paper I read. This is perhaps where Erickson goes wrong. His brief search is for stand-alone historiographies (he comes up with Joseph Agassi’s Towards an Historiography of Science [1963], Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962] and Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science [1987] – which doesn’t exactly seem up-to-date) and he apparently fails to notice how much historians of science grapple with the topic and nail their colours to the mast at the beginning of most of what they write for the professional community.

Secondly, Erickson seems to suggest that, generally, historians of science are trained, initially, as scientists and not as historians. (This presumably means that he has missed, for example, books by writers like Jenny Uglow and Richard Holmes.) While this was true in the past, and is perhaps still commonly the case today, I am not alone in having starting out as an historian. I’ll be the first to admit that my lack of scientific training does mean that there are some topics and approaches that I am neither able to nor particularly interested in tackling, but I hope that I bring other things to the table. One is an interest in the relationship of science to society, and another is that I lack investment in and, often, even knowledge of where a particular area of research has led. I hope that, rather than meaning that I bathe in utter ignorance, this allows me to judge the science of a particular time on its own terms, rather than looking back from our current position to spot the individuals, experiments and publications that brought us to this point. That is hindsight, not history.

Thirdly, Erickson decides that historians of science need a lecture in reception theory. I mean, really! Yes, some historians of science do not think enough about who they are writing for and why (although plenty do – see Steven Shapin’s essay and rest of the contributions to the 2005 Isis Focus section on ‘The Generalist Vision in the History of Science’, the programme of this recent conference on ‘Science and its Histories’ and the approach of museums, societies and institutions [see e.g. a Chemical Heritage Foundation blog post in relation to the above conference] – they may not all have the same motivation, but they have all thought about the issue), but this does not mean they do not use reception theory in their work. And as if historians of science have not heard of Foucault! As if they have not considered – deeply – the question of audiences for science and the way in which scientific texts are changed by who reads them, when and where! Works on, for instance, pedagogy and the reception of theory, or on geographies of science, would suggest otherwise.

Erickson’s views say a great deal more about the kind of history of science he has happened to read than the state of the discipline in general (and, incidentally, suggest that anyone interested in the social construction, political context or cultural meaning of recent physics and nano-technology would have an open field). This is the point made in Patricia Fara’s response, ‘Why Mark Erickson should read different histories of science’. She suggests that he read books such as Jim Secord’s Victorian Sensation. Sadly he does not, but, typically perhaps, chooses to follow Rouse’s prompt by re-reading Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time, which he accuses of containing “no mention whatsoever of industrialization, social change, or capitalism” [p. 106]. We are left to wonder what he would say about Secord’s book which, though lengthy, has sold well, is of interest to various fields in history, does engage with historiography and is all about readers and the construction and reconstruction of texts.

In Erickson’s view it is necessary for historians of science to keep a focus on what makes science distinct because it is essential to maintaining the discipline as a separate field of study. This may be true for some, but not this historian of science. I would be delighted if history of science was fully a part of general history and a specialism only in the way that political, economic, domestic, gender etc. histories are separate. I want history of science, technology and medicine to be taught in schools – not as part of science curricula or as a separate module within the history curriculum, but as integral to the study of any period or culture. That said, the bonus of professional, disciplinary history of science is that it has been a meeting place for people coming from history, science, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and elsewhere – but perhaps this liveliness and variety could also be usefully brought into general history?

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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12 Responses to Yes, histories of science are worth reading!

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  2. Aaron Wright says:

    But need we waste our time with such lazy scholarship? A quick look at Erickson’s bibliography (and/or lack of quantitative data) shows that whatever he writes will be insufficient. I agree with many of your points Rebekah (but not all of them), but let’s ask first: is Shapin on hyper-professionalism the only Shapin he read? No Leviathan and the Air Pump (with S. Schaffer), no Social history of Truth? Forget his missing the Forman Thesis .

    I just pulled my Isis “Current bibliography of the history of science and its cultural influences” 2009, off the shelf. Section A.5: “Historiography and historical methods” has 32 entries by my count. And this excludes philosophy and sociology of science. And then we turn to Section C, “Thematic approaches to the study of science,” which includes such sub-sections as “science and ethics” and “Science and society: politics, law and economics.” Section C has ~45 entries. This gives us about 72 works. And Rebekah is right to point out that this misses an enormous number of pieces that substantively engage with historiography as a matter of course, not as an explicit subject. Erickson’s entire bibliography has 45 entries (46 if you count citing himself) including all the popularizations and triumphal histories he talks about. Erickson’s entire bibliography for his four types of history of science isn’t even as large as the current bibliography for one of his types. Not to speak of anything written earlier than about 2004.

    Is our attention magnifying the audience (oops, I’m not supposed to know about those) for this sub-par piece of work?

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      This is a good point – but perhaps it’s just fun to have a good rant sometimes?! More seriously, although I am not generally familiar with the journal and its readership, the thing has been published and may be read by people lacking knowledge of the field. And there are plenty of people who think history of science has to be written by scientists, for example, or that it must be full of equations and complex terminology. There is a place for that, but it doesn’t describe the field.

      Thanks for making the point about his apparent lack of knowledge of Shapin’s oeuvre – that was another thing on my lengthy list of complaints.

  3. Will Thomas says:

    I find it interesting that Erickson finds it entirely convenient and, indeed, possible to read onto history of science writing more-or-less the same sorts of specific errors that I have claimed historians of science read onto popular and scientists’ understanding of the history of science to explain why popular and scientists’ histories fail to pass professional muster.

    I’m with Aaron here. It’s simply not an accurate reading of the historiography. (Agassi?) Best to move on.

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  7. Dr. Bruce Martin says:

    How can you comment or publish on the history of science, unless you take into account the histories and views of the fairies, elves, and hidden people? It is well known in history that everyone always considered these sources of information to be valuable in the past. To evaluate information in the context of its own time, one must consult fairy records and interview pixie historians. Anything else is not fair and balanced.
    There are many professional historians who actually do consult with the hidden people, whether in Britain or in Iceland or in various other countries. To ignore this active scholarship is highly unprofessional. One hopes that you are not among the philistines who are said actually to doubt the validity and relevance of leprechaun lore and fairy fact-checking.
    Proof of this methodology should be as simple and straightforward as using the naval records at Greenwich to correlate successful voyages with the relevant astrological data, as all competent historians have always done. I am sure your work in this area will be most enlightening, and will quickly be accepted for publication, once you can cite your correspondence and references with honored fairy historians in these fields.

    What more can one say?

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