The Future of the History of Science QOTD

Isis, the journal of The History of Science Society, has a four essay symposium on the future of the history of science. Ken Alder’s excellent contribution begins with a few humorous linguistic nuggets about the history of science and its close neighbor, science studies, which I thought worth extracting and re-posting:

For many people, both inside the academy and out, the juxtaposition of “history” with “science” seems to imply a logical contradiction, giving the phrase “the history of science” the ring of an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “deafening silence.” That is because science, in the prevailing view, still designates that form of natural knowledge that winnows truth from error to produce a state-of-the-art summation of all and only those prior discoveries that possess current value. In this sense, science is an enterprise that swallows its own past. History, by contrast, is generally thought to offer a recapitulation of the past on its own terms and in a manner oblivious to the tug of present-day concerns. Hence, the apparent contradiction. But this is just the sort of problem that we should be able to turn to good account.

According to rhetoricians, the contradiction of a genuine oxymoron is actually supposed to suggest a larger unexpected meaning, much the way the word’s two Greek roots—“oxy,” meaning “sharp,” and “moron,” meaning “dull”—combine to describe a recognizable human type: the “clever fool.” After all, paradoxes such as “deafening silences” really do exist. And since science—as we who study its history can attest—has repeatedly proved itself far more bountiful than its current accumulation implies, and since history—as we who study the past can attest—keeps provoking new arguments, there is no reason our field cannot aspire in the manner of a genuine oxymoron to open onto some larger unexpected meaning.

[H]istorians of science have often taken up a set of powerful intellectual tools fashioned in collaboration with our cousinly enterprise known as “science studies.” The problem here is that that field’s self-description generates its own contradictions. Many academics and university administrators—not to mention members of the laity—are thoroughly bewildered by the term “science studies,” which they seem to regard as a kind of pleonasm: a redundancy either way they turn. In those quarters where science is taken to be the premier form of inquiry (including wide swaths of the social sciences), the field is presumed to aspire to the status of a science of science, meaning that it should actually be called “science science.” And among humanists its diversity of methods (from literary criticism to actor-network theory) and its range of topics (from bioprospecting to financial markets) means that its name might just as well be “studies studies.” In either case, the confusion stems from the fact that the field’s name seems to reify its object of inquiry even though the field’s central mission is to challenge science’s singularity and coherence.

Of note in regards to the last comment is the existence of the NSF’s “science of science and innovation policy” program, which is very much not science studies, but rather an attempt to bring scientific methods to bear on questions of encouraging better science (“The Science of Science & Innovation Policy (SciSIP) program supports research designed to advance the scientific basis of science and innovation policy.”).

Alder’s entire essay is worth reading if you are invested in the project of history of science (or, in my case, science studies. Studies studies?). I particularly like this little gem on the call for treating history of science as a heterogeneous collection of tools and not an overly unified subfield, which characterizes another major theme of the essay: “After all, if science is no one thing, its history cannot be either.” Alder’s answer is another linguistic invention: episcience. For more on that, read the rest of the essay.

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1 Comment

  1. Oh wow! This is super timely. I have an STS exam in two days. Totally reading this riiiight now: I think it will definitely inform and fill out my knowledge in dimensions that the course barely covered. Thanks!