Looking twice at the history of science

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How to end the science wars: a review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture? A Conversation About Science, part II/II

This is the long-delayed second part of a two-part review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture: A Conversation About Science (2001). In the first part I argued that we—by which I mean, roughly speaking, scientists and sociologists of science—would more easily reach agreement about science if sociologists acknowledged their past relativism and if everyone was charitable in debate. It would also help if we set aside the interesting but irrelevant question of whether the truth of a belief can (partly) explain the belief. In this post I make three other recommendations: revive the internal/external distinction, or something like it; be clear about how our visions of science differ, if we think they do differ; and beware tacit philosophy of science. Expand post.


  1. Michael, good to see part 2. I didn't have any immediate reactions, but then historians of science on social media began to express unreserved approval for Steven Shapin's scathing Wall Street Journal review of Steven Weinberg's new book.

    I don't think we need to consider ourselves to be on Team Weinberg to find Shapin's reply unduly divisive, essentially disenfranchising scientists from the writing of their own history because of their lack of historiographical expertise and their presumed ideological commitment to preserving the perception of the sanctity of their enterprise. I suppose you could say Weinberg provoked the response (I haven't read his book), but your diagnosis of at least some of the failures of The One Culture do seem to continue to apply to the way many of our colleagues react to and portray scientists. Scientists may not have the sharpest language to address historical, sociological, and philosophical problems, but their perspective does matter, and their objections and contributions ought to be taken seriously.

    1. Thanks very much for drawing my attention to the Shapin review, which I think is so informative that it deserves a separate post, which I have just put up. Like you, I have not read Weinberg's book. But I agree with you that Shapin is needlessly divisive in his criticisms. I would go one step further, though, and say that some of Shapin's criticisms would be unfair even if they were directed at historians (as opposed to scientists). In other words, Shapin is mistaken about how to do history of science, not just about how to communicate historical best practice to scientists.