Looking twice at the history of science

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle VI: symmetry without short-cuts

Last month I tried to show that historians can honour the symmetry principle without becoming skeptics about current scientific theories. We do not need to "forget" that the earth moves in order to see that there was once good reason to believe that it is stationary. But even if we do not need to forget this, perhaps we should try to forget it anyway just to be on the safe side? The aim of this short post is to explain why this kind of methodological relativism is not a good idea. Put simply, if we need to resort to this psychological trick in order to do good history then we have not understood the symmetry principle. Expand post.


  1. You've lost me here, Michael. It doesn't seem to me that there is a material distinction between "forgetting" present science and not taking it into account in historical (or sociological) explanation. Do you have an example in mind where proponents of the former genuinely advocate such mental gymnastics? I can take you to be arguing that many methodological discussions treat attaining proper historiographical method as an almost superhuman mental leap (Alder's "episcience" piece comes to mind) when it's not, but this presentism-as-chocolate-bar angle of approaching the question with strikes me as oblique.

    1. Hi Will, I admit that there are probably better analogies than chocolate bars for the scenario I am describing. But the analogy does illustrate the key distinction between "keeping present science to hand" and "storing it out of reach." I take it that your worry is that there is no way of making sense of this metaphor once we start talking about the minds of historians rather than kitchens.

      My ad hominem answer is that some people do indeed "advocate such mental gymnastics." Surely Harry Collins' "special relativism", as outlined in one of your posts (, is one example? In those articles from the early '80s, Collins seemed to say that sociologists of science should cultivate a particular attitude to the natural world that is different from the scientist's attitude. In his "Epistemological Chicken" article, written with Steven Yearley, he expressed a similar idea with the notion of "meta-alternation," a somewhat obscure mental process whereby one alternates between the world views of different groups of people (

      What I am saying is that historians of science can adopt the attitude of present-day scientists while doing perfectly good history. No alternation is necessary. There is no contradiction in simultaneously believing that the earth moves and that Ptolemy had good reasons to think the earth is stationary. The methodological error is not to believe that the earth moves when we write about Ptolemy, but to believe that there is a tension between those two mental states.

      Of course, the fact that Collins advocated meta-alternation does not mean that meta-alternation makes sense of the kitchen metaphor. However I don't think it is too hard to make sense of that metaphor. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of believing something but not thinking about it this particular moment. In fact at any given moment there are only a tiny fraction of our beliefs that we are actively thinking about. We are also capable of trying to avoid thinking about something, and often we succeed in doing so, eg. when we forget about work during our time off, or when we get emotionally involved in a work of fiction even though we know at some level that it is a tissue of lies.

      In the case of the history of science there are also concrete things we can do to keep present-day science at arms length, eg. omitting it from our books and articles and lectures, and not reading present-day science textbooks to find out what the current consensus is on the corner of science that interests us.

      It is true that Collins was talking about the sociology of science, and as you have pointed out before it is not clear what lessons Collins bears for historians of science, if he bears any at all. Among historians of science I cannot think of anyone who loudly promotes the kind of mental compartmentalism that one finds in Collins.

      However I do come across the view that there is something unseemly about giving too much space to present-day science when we write or think about past science. There is Stephen Shapin's suggestion that training in early modern theology is a better preparation for the study of early modern alchemy than training in modern chemistry. Vanessa Heggie made a related suggestion recently, in the context of an article about anti-vaccination: "what I believe in my own life and the way I practice the profession of history require different sorts of methodologies."

      Perhaps these examples are not enough. Maybe the average historian of science has no view about whether we should try to forget present-day science when we write about its past. If that is the case then I still think it is worth formulating a view on the matter, as I have tried to do in the above post, since our view has implications for how we think and write and teach the history of science.

    2. OK, that clarifies things. Yes, it makes sense to mention Collins here - in fact, he's why I put "sociological explanation" in parentheses above. I do think his attempt to create a purely sociological mode of explanation (whatever that actually means) does require putting on blinders.

      I think the question of propriety you bring up in your second to last paragraph of your reply to me is interesting, as I could see historians objecting to even bringing up present-day science, even for the sake of comparison or clarification. Alchemy is a good case example here. While Newman and Principe are committed to recovering past reasoning, they seem to have no qualms about saying that when Boyle thought he saw a metal transmuted into silver, he was really seeing silvery antimony. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that a good knowledge of early modern theology isn't the superior preparation for understanding alchemy, though, again, as Newman and Principe have shown, knowing laboratory techniques is helpful too!