What Happened to the History of Science?
By David Deming
December 13, 2016
Carl Sagan lauded science as a candle that dispelled darkness. Sagan's appreciation for science was preceded by George Sarton (1884-1956), the person who founded the study of the history of science as a formal academic discipline. Sarton described the history of science as "the history of mankind's unity, of its sublime purpose, of its gradual redemption." Although the study of history is fascinating in and of itself, Sarton believed that a primary reason for studying the history of science is that it would provide a deeper understanding of scientific method.
Science is far from infallible. The history of science is the history of error. It is the history of dead ends, discarded theories, and tendentious quests loaded with cultural pretensions. Sarton hoped that a study of these follies would inform the scientists how to improve their methodology and facilitate the acquisition of reliable knowledge that sustains human civilization.
Alas, this has not proven to be the case. After a grand beginning, the academic study of the history of science has largely degenerated into a caricature of itself. It is not that it is merely bad. No, it is far worse than that. The scholarship being produced by most historians of science today is not good enough to be bad. Consider a quote from a recent paper by two historians of chemistry. "We find that efforts to differentiate alchemy from chemistry prove to be anachronistic, arbitrary, or presentist." In other words, there is no difference between alchemy and chemistry. This thesis would not only shock a modern chemist, it would be rejected by any intelligent person with no special knowledge of these subjects.
In fact there is a chasm between chemistry and alchemy. Alchemy contributed apparatus and procedures to chemistry, but it also mixed chemical technology with religion, philosophy, magic, metaphysics, and astrology. Naturalism is essential to science but alchemy incorporated supernaturalism. Alchemists sought to obscure their methods and knowledge whereas chemists seek to reveal and clarify. Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier, men who struggled to free chemistry from metaphysics and define it as an exact science, would be outraged at the claim that chemistry and alchemy were indistinguishable.
Science as we know it today began during the Scientific Revolution in Europe. It emerged from natural philosophy when Europeans learned to subjugate reason to empiricism, to expel metaphysics, and to abandon the futile pursuit of final causes. The demarcation is distinct, and was apparent even to the people who lived through it. "The new philosophy," explained Robert Boyle, "is built upon two foundations, reason and experience." But according to a leading modern scholar in the history of science, "there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution." The claim is made all the more remarkable by that fact that it occurs in a book titled The Scientific Revolution. This is a breathtaking paradox designed to entrance those ignorant enough to confuse novelty with erudition. Of course, if there was no Scientific Revolution, there is no such thing as science itself. Thus we are left with scholars who devote their lives to studying something they claim does not exist. This is not a quandary but a masterful slice of the Gordian Knot. Confronted with the task of analyzing a discipline they were intrinsically unable to comprehend, historians have dispelled their cognitive dissonance in one master stroke by declaring that the incomprehensible does not exist.
The gap between the humanities and the sciences was described in 1959 by C. P. Snow as The Two Cultures. Snow noted that although his scientific and literary colleagues were of equal intelligence, they were separated by "a gulf of mutual incomprehension." There was no common ground between them. In particular, Snow noted that scholars in the humanities exhibited a "total incomprehension of science." To be fair, it is implicit in Snow's thesis that the contrary is true: that many scientists and engineers find artistic and literary works to be unfathomable. Imagine an engineer assigned the task of evaluating the artistic merits of different sculptures. He would proceed to weigh, photograph, x-ray, and subject these objects to every conceivable quantitative measure, thus producing a mass of irrelevant data that entirely missed the point.
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NOTA DESTE BLOGGER:
Nem ouse escrever história da ciência desnudando os ídolos preferidos da Nomenklatura científica, demonstrando seus erros fundamentais e seu colapso epistemológico no contexto de justificação teórica. Sei do que falo. Passei por essa inquisição sem fogueiras da Nomenklatura científica. Quase fui imolado no altar de Down por ousar apontar, historicamente, que Darwin já estava nu, cientificamente, nos anos 1860-1870. Não pude escrever a história como realmente ocorreu... Ainda escreverei sobre essa controvérsia científica sem essas amarras e distorções na História da Ciência.