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Cantankerous Historian of Science Questions Whether Science Can Achieve "Truth"


One of the best things about teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology, which I joined in 2005, is shooting the shit with distinguished historian of science James E. McClellan III. Jim has authored, co-authored or edited half a dozen books, including Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction, which he wrote with our late Stevens colleague Harold Dorn. The book, which won an award from the World History Association, serves as my textbook when I teach "History of Science and Technology." Every time I read the book I learn something new, which perhaps means that I never read it carefully enough. Just kidding. I've learned more about the history of science from Jim than I like to admit.

Jim knows much about many things, but he is especially knowledgeable about the history of French science. That is the topic of his monumental new book The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime, co-written with Francois Regourd. Based on exhaustive research into original archival sources (which gave Jim an excuse to spend lots of time in Paris), the book yields disturbing lessons about the historical linkages of modern science to state power, colonialism and slavery. I recently asked Jim some questions about his book, the history of science and related topics:

Horgan: To what extent can we learn about the emergence of modern science by focusing on pre-revolutionary France?

McClellan: You wouldn’t think that Old-Regime France has much to do with anything except Old-Regime France, yet important stuff happens in the history of science in the period. Conceptually, intellectually, the long eighteenth century bridges the Scientific Revolution and more modern science in the 19th century and down to today. Organizationally, institutionally and in terms of emerging norms in science, pre-revolutionary France is remarkable and incomparable. The history of modern science runs through it.

Horgan: Are there any aspects of pre-revolutionary French science that especially fascinated you?

McClellan: How can anyone seriously be interested in this topic? Of course, I have found much that is fascinating and compelling, but for most people I might as well be talking about Ming dynasty horse farms.

Horgan: Ming dynasty horse farms sound fascinating, actually. So to what extent did early French science help to promote colonialism and slavery?

McClellan: Read our book! Science and medicine were virtually “means of production” facilitating the success of European expansion, colonialism and slavery. Conversely, Western science and the enterprise of science were enriched and expanded by dint of expanding outward with European and American economic and political imperialism.

Horgan: Is there such a thing as "pure" science? Science for its own sake? Or does science always serve the interests of some group?

McClellan: Well, there’s “pure” science in the sense of disinterested natural philosophy and the pursuit of inquiry into nature that is not looking for immediate, applied ends. What science knows and can say of the world abstractly today is a great human accomplishment. By the same token, only naïve realists like you, John, don’t subscribe to the notion of the social construction of knowledge made by human groups that have their own interests, practices and sociologies. No?

Horgan: I'm the one asking the questions here. Rumor has it that you studied under historian of science Thomas Kuhn at Princeton. Did he turn you into one of those postmodernists who think science never really achieves truth?

McClellan: I took two seminars with Kuhn and saw a fair bit of him over the years I was in graduate school. My dissertation director was the eminent historian of science, Charles Gillispie. Kuhn was a realist (of sorts), but realism and postmodernism are not incompatible. Kuhn and postmodernism are self-evidently correct that science cannot make true and lasting discoveries about nature because we are all stuck within our paradigms (taken loosely), language games, cognitive structures, etc. Is anyone actually seriously going to stand up and tell me something true that is not at the same time a human creation? Let him or her start by telling me what gravity is.

Horgan: Yeah, yeah. Save it for our next faculty lunch. Can history ever become a scientific field, perhaps by incorporating more mathematical modeling or concepts from neuroscience and evolutionary biology?

McClellan: We need to make the (elementary) distinction between “history” as what happened in the past versus “history” as the scholarly, intellectual discipline that seeks to inquire into the past and explain change in the past by pursuing debates and research. The latter is already quite multifaceted, with many of its elements and methods scientific, as in a social science. It can even be theory guided, but if you mean that history should or could be like physics, then I think not. But then most sciences aren’t like physics, either.

Horgan: Sometimes physics isn't like physics, like when it's peddling string theory. Final question: Do you think modern scientists and engineers can benefit from knowing more history of science?

McClellan: Not really. Stephen Brush’s old 1974 article, “Should the History of Science be Rated X?,” argued that knowing the history of science is positively harmful to the pursuit of research in science.

Horgan: Just found Brush's paper online. Provocative! Next time I teach History of Science and Technology, I'm going to force my students to read it and blame you. Thanks, Jim.

Postscript: My Stevens colleague Garry Dobbins, a philosopher in the most profound rather than simply academic sense, takes exception to the proposition of McClellan/Brush that "knowing the history of science is positively harmful to the pursuit of research in science." Garry writes: "Readers of Einstein's autobiographical sketch in the Schilpp volume devoted to his work will note that this was NOT the view taken by Einstein, who credits his reading of Hume and Mach with having provided a fundamental stimulus to his thinking. Then there are the many references to the work of Descartes--whose account of space Einstein took over as his own--and Newton, scattered all through his work, demonstrating his awareness of and interest in the history of discussions of science. Einstein's intimate friendship for many years with Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap points to my mind in the same direction. Perhaps this might be a topic for a debate at Stevens between the iconoclast McClellan--"history of science is an obstacle to doing science"--and the defenders of... shall I call them "the usefulness of historical study" crowd?"


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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