This post is an attempt to put down an idea that has been loosely turning around in my mind for some time, partly continuing the thoughts raised in my earlier two posts on ‘Good popular history of science’, slightly inspired by the attempt to write a Manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions, and in some sort of response to posts on the role of history of science over at PACHSmörgåsbord. It’s by no means a definitive statement and, although I am interested to gague views and receive further suggestions, it is in some ways a note-to-self. It could be a personal checklist when speaking to people outside the discipline, whether in exhibitions, lectures aimed at the general public or in a media interview. On the spot, especially when directly questioned by someone with little or no knowledge of the topic under discussion, it can be all too easy to either fall into jargon or – in order to avoid that sin – make use of modern terms or concepts that make a nonsense of the history. This is a list of things that I think are, in such contexts, worth insisting on, even at the expense(?) of taking up a little more time, making people think a little harder and losing the neatness of a nice story.
In the end, I am not all that interested in serving up nice stories and historical titbits to the public if this is not also a means to discuss something a bit more substantial: a sense of the real differences between past and present; the way ideas are shaped by the context in which they are formed; the lack of neat linear narratives; the fact that our view of the past and its people have been shaped and reshaped by those who have written about them, etc. The nice story serves people in the same way as fiction – history can (should?) have other objectives.
If this list gets to be better defined and further thought-through it could, potentially, also be useful for anyone who finds themselves, unexpectedly, straying into the field. I like to think that it might help journalists and others who start researching something in the history of science to avoid some of the usual errors. It might, at least, help people to see where criticisms from folk like me are coming from. The following are, therefore, my set of basic assumptions, from which I – and anyone intending to write about the history of science – should not depart. I hope that my explanations will show why this is not mere pedantry.
1) Do not ever call anyone a scientist who would not have recognised the term. The word was not coined until the 1830s (by William Whewell himself) but a) he meant something rather different by it and b) the word was not actually used until the 1870s. If we use the term to describe anyone before this date we risk loading their views, status, career, ambitions and work with associations that just do not exist before this date. I may know what I mean if it slips out in my description of an 18th-century astronomy, but the person listening to me will hear all sorts of other things. It too easily glides over points such as the fact that individuals probably did something else to make their living, or were personally wealthy. Science was not a career, or a vocation. I could give many further examples, and expand this rule into to using actors’ categories elsewhere, but this is the fundamental point. Not only did the word not, essentially, exist pre-1870 but there was no equivalent and no such idea. Awkward as it can sometimes be, man of science, natural philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, physician, naturalist or whatever should always be used instead.
2) Do not allow assumptions about conflict between science and religion or ‘rival’ theories. This is usually the result of anachronism. It takes more recent debates or views about science and places them in a past where they may make no sense. Assuming antagonism where none exists can obscure how ideas were really developed or shared. Over on Renaissance Mathematicus today is a nice example in the figure of Giovanni Battista Riccioli, of how Jesuits were not in the business of hindering scientific progress and that one individual might be able to consider rationally the pros and cons of Ptolemaic geocentrism and Copernican heliocentrism without frothing at the mouth or burning heretics. To quote that oracle of truth, Wikipedia, “Contemporarily, most of the scholarship supporting the Conflict Thesis is considered inaccurate”. I rest my case.
3) Do encourage people to take stories of genius and eureka moments with a pinch of salt. Sorry to be a kill-joy, but most of these are pure invention and follow very predictable tropes, many of which go back to antiquity. Newton and his apple is one of the best in terms of provenance (see the discussion in the comments on an earlier post), but even here it is more than possible that the story was created long after the fact. Whatever the truth about this and the many other stories about Newton, they certainly reinforced the clichés and inspired further applications. The stories are interesting and useful, but more in terms of how reputations are built and views of science and scientific genius develop than what they tell us about the individual in question.
4) Do not allow passage of time to be taken as an explanation for progress in science. By this I mean that progress in science, from the development of new theories to the manufacture of increasingly accurate instruments, cannot be taken as a given or as inevitable. Such developments only happen in areas viewed as important by people in the right places at the right time. Much of this is an economic story, for financial investment is usually required and support is only given if the outcome is considered useful or desirable by those holding the purse-strings. There are other cultural values at play that allow for reward and recognition by peers, but tapping into national, class and personal interests are usually key. Failing to insist on this effectively leaves out everything that actually makes science happen.
5) Do not expect that progress to be straightforward. This point is largely an excuse to quote Thony C’s response to a comment of mine: “Science does not progress, it stumbles along on a zig-zag path evolving in fits and starts.” I hestitate to say that it also goes backwards as well as forwards, because, of course, that direction (as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’) can only be labelled retrospectively.
6) Do respect the boundaries. And where they lay. What we understand as ‘science’ is not necessarily the same as what an early 20th-century physicist, a 19th-century man of science, an 18th-century instrument-maker or a 17th-century natural philosopher would understand as science, or their field of study. This is related to, but not the same as, Rule 1, since respecting actors’ categories can get you out of trouble, and to Rule 2, since religion has, in the past, been part of science. But, in addition, do not let yourself, or your audience/interviewer, get away with talking about astrology, homeopathy, psychical research, natural magic or phrenology as pseudo-science before such ideas and practices were actually defined as such by contemporaries. It only comes as a surprise that Newton was an alchemist if we look at the past with our modern sense of where the boundaries between science and not-science lie.
I think six rules will do for present, especially as it’s nearly my bedtime, but I expect to revist this, either privately or in another post. What else should be added? Is anything here not worth insisting on?