The Oxford Illustrated History of Science
THE first book in the history and philosophy of science that I can remember reading as an undergraduate thirty years ago was Alan Chalmers’s What is This Thing Called Science? The copy is still on my shelves somewhere. The title has stuck with me for a number of reasons. The question it asks appeals because the answers turn out to be so unexpectedly elusive and slippery. At first sight it appears obvious what science is— it’s what scientists do. Very few people now would deny the critical role that science plays in underpinning contemporary life. Science, and the technological offshoots of science, are everywhere around us. Modern science does not just provide us with technological fixes, though. Its ideas and assumptions are embedded in a very fundamental way in the ways we make sense of the world around us. We turn to science to explain the material universe, and to account for our spiritual lives. We routinely use science to talk about the ways we talk to each other. But what do we really mean by science? It’s a uniquely human activity, after all. At its broadest level, science sums up the ways we make sense of the world around us. It’s the set of ways we interact with the world—to understand it and to change it. It is this humanity at the heart of science that makes understanding its history and its culture so important. Despite the fact that science matters so much for our culture, we often treat it as if it were somehow beyond culture. Science is assumed to progress by its own momentum as discovery piles up on discovery. From this point of view, science often looks like a force of nature rather than of culture. It is something unique about science itself that makes it progress, and there is something inevitable about its progress. Science therefore doesn’t need culture to move forwards, it simply carries on under its own steam. Culture gets in the way sometimes, but in the end science always wins. If science exists outside culture like this, then it should not really matter where it happened. This means that the history of science should not really matter either. At best, it can tell us who did what when, but that is a matter of chronicle rather than history, which tries to interpret the past as well as simply record it. Advocates of this sort of view of science often talk about the scientific method as the key to understanding its success. Some pundits now talk about peer review or double blind testing as the hallmarks of scientific objectivity, for example, despite the fact that these are cultural institutions of very recent provenance.
As a historian—obviously—I think that the history of science does matter a great deal. If we want to understand modern science we do need to understand how it developed and under what circumstances. Even the most cursory survey of the history of science should be enough to demonstrate that the scientific method itself has been understood very differently by different people at different times. A century ago, most scientists would have agreed that science progressed by accumulating observations. According to this hypothetico-deductive account, science proceeded by formulating hypotheses based on observation and testing those hypotheses through further experiment. If the hypotheses passed the test of experiment then they were confirmed as true descriptions of reality. More recently, the idea that science proceeds by falsifying rather than confirming hypotheses has gained currency. History tends to show us that in practice, it is difficult to discern any kind of consistent method in what scientists do. On the contrary, different accounts of scientific method are very much the products of particular historical circumstances. After all, no one could have argued that the modern system of peer review was at the heart of the scientific method before the cultural institutions that support that practice (like scientific journals, professional societies, and universities, for example) had appeared.
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