Skip to main content

History as a part of science

Scientists often think that if they were to engage in history it would be more than faintly disreputable. Some go so far as to put signs on their office doors that read: "We don't study history; we make it." 

It's alright to have hobbies, of course, but to occupy oneself with history, especially the history of science, is taken by some to be the first alarming sign of senility.  Whatever it is, history on this view is not science.  Science aims at general truths, the wider the better.  Science is future oriented; it makes predictions that allow us to plan and improve our futures. 

History, by contrast, is preoccupied by the particular and the past.  Insofar as history is about the particular, it is taken to be trivial.  Insofar as it is about the past, it may seem to be no longer relevant to our futures.  And the history of science is even worse.  By studying the theories, persons, and scientific cultures of the past, this sort of history is said to be derivative, lacking real ideas of its own.  As such, it wastes precious resources, both intellectual and financial, that could otherwise be used for real scientific progress.

This is a powerful argument, and it is widely believed.  But almost everything about it is wrong.  Every lab book is a record of particular events, and before the ink is dry every event thus reported is thoroughly and irretrievably in the past.  Every experiment and every measurement is a particular event.  And by the time we can use them they are in the past.  A science without these past particulars is no science at all; it is nothing more than speculative metaphysics or dogmatic mythmaking.

The involvement of science and scientists with history does not end there.  Often its self-conception is that real science invents new ideas but history is wholly derivative, rehashing old worn-out ideas. Yet the same scientists want to claim that their latest views represent progress.  To claim progress requires a comparison of present theories with those of the past; it requires a description and interpretation of those past theories.  Indeed, making a case for your own views frequently requires getting the audience to see the alternatives in a certain way so that your view is the natural next step forward.  This is the function of the literature review and above all the review article.  This is interpretive and paradigmatically historical work.  Yes, it is about the past.  But those who control the review articles control the present and future as well.  Once we see what history (including the history of science) is, it is no mere hobby.  It is as central to science as experimental findings and as vital to its future as a research grant.

For further discussion see: Richard Creath, "The Role of History in Science", Journal of the History of Biology, (2010) 43: 207-14.

Blog Name