• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Other Side of Science

One pleasure of reading Steven Shapin on the history of science is that he rarely walks in a straight line. He approaches his subjects indirectly, creeping up on a topic through a thicket of examples, quotations, or questions, only to make a sudden turn, revealing a vista so unexpected that it makes one laugh aloud. The destabilizing “as if” in his subtitle is an indicator of what we should expect. To a literary reader this might imply that “science” is a fiction, a fantasy claiming realist credentials. For a historian of science, however, the “if” is Shapin’s laconic nod to a school of thought—against which he has argued for years—that holds scientific knowledge to be transcendent, discovered not made, placeless, timeless, objective, unsullied by the conditions of its creation or the personalities and prejudices of its makers.

Although grand narratives of the heroic march of science had long been set aside by the 1970s and 1980s, those of us from the humanities who wanted to explore the sciences within a broad history of culture were still frustrated by “histories” that took the form of case studies of progressive “discoveries.” We longed for a richer analysis embracing competing philosophies, political and economic pressures, and personal attitudes and prejudices, a history that suggested how scientific knowledge was created and accepted. We pounced, therefore, on Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, coauthored by Shapin and Simon Schaffer in 1985.

The authors received the Erasmus Prize for this book, but not until twenty years later. For a long time Shapin’s interdisciplinary approach positioned him outside formal studies of the history of science. Before becoming the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard in 2004, he was, he says, “happily, if awkwardly, placed in a sociology department (at the University of California, San Diego).” He had moved there from the small Science Studies Unit at Edinburgh, which was manned by a philosopher, a sociologist, and Shapin as “historian.”

This trajectory, he explains, partly accounts for the heterogeneous nature of his writing, with its blend of empirical research and reflection. In the introduction to this collection, selected from essays of the past twenty-five years, he proudly lays claim to “lowering the tone” of the discipline, a happy term for the debunking of genuflections to science as humanity’s “noblest” achievement. Although he has marshaled his articles into sections, dealing in turn with method, places and practices, “the scientific person,” bodies and knowledge, science and common sense, and science and modernity, they inevitably overlap. Many are essais in the Montaignean sense, in that they are “tries” or attempts to unravel particular sets of ideas: their freewheeling movement is itself an active agent in Shapin’s rejection of absolutes.

Everywhere in these assaults on unquestioning reverence, parallels are drawn between science and religion. At bottom, the key issue is the nature of belief and credibility. Acceptance of religious truth involves surrender to authority or a leap into the arms of faith, while a scientific truth (or as Shapin would say, “whatever it is that counts as Truth in a range of historical settings”) is supposedly provable to reason, its results confirmed by experiment or calculation. But how have we learned, or been persuaded, to accept the “facts” presented to us as “true,” to regard science as a secular enlightenment, in contrast to the obscurantism of religion? Why should we believe in quarks and not in demons?

Explorations of the preconditions for accepting any body of knowledge, Shapin tells us, were a kind of “infatuation” among historians of science in the 1990s. They are tackled here in the essay “Cordelia’s Love.” Answering Lear’s demand to testify to their love for him before he divides his kingdom, Goneril and Regan rely on rhetoric, while Cordelia (“a modernist methodologist”) simply speaks the truth. This, she discovers, is not enough: validity does not equal credibility. For imperfect humans—and in this we all resemble Lear—truth does not shine by its own light. It needs polishing, amplifying, refracting.

Establishing credibility in any claim involves understanding the unspoken subtleties of social forms: what kind of person is a good witness, what language persuades and what affronts. With regard to a scientific claim, we have to accept not only the accuracy of a particular experiment, but the implied process of inference by which one experiment—whether it be on air pressure or drug efficacy—“stands for” a general phenomenon, becoming “a shorthand for the natural world.” We may be persuaded by the proven accuracy of earlier work or by the approval of peer review or known authorities, but we have also become increasingly aware that political or commercial considerations may slant one presentation above another. So may giving priority to a particular finding or area of inquiry.

Shapin deduces that credibility is bolstered in contexts of familiarity. Thus we accept “facts” as true when they are vouched for by people we trust in a given role, “teachers, professors, physicians, nurses, plumbers, mechanics, colleagues.” This openness to familiar voices also affects the exchange of information between scientific and technical groups, and between experts themselves, lowering the threshold of skepticism. In the fifteen years since this essay appeared we have become increasingly reliant on “experts” in every field, from finance to frog identification. They now play a central part in criminal cases, where expert witnesses address juries who lack specialist knowledge. As an ignorant layperson I am agog at one recent example, the debate over the validity as evidence of patterns of microbes transmitted from a person’s hand to an inanimate object, say a car. Allegedly the microbe pattern varies with each individual, allowing identification to be made even where there are no fingerprints and no bodily fluids to provide DNA.*

To me this seems incredible. Yet I would accept a direction to trust an expert from the judge, who has himself been persuaded by citations from accepted authorities. So in the end, as in the early days of the Royal Society, acceptance still boils down largely to the question “Says who?” And on those grounds, nineteenth-century courts—though they had fewer “expert witnesses”—would probably have accepted evidence from a phrenologist (and one can see, incidentally, why phrenology was one of Shapin’s early interests).

Shapin’s essays teach us to be alert to the independence or bias of “experts” and the communities that support them. Paradoxically, the more we grasp the intricacies and pressures put on experts, the more readily we may grant them the authority they assume. But to achieve that understanding we have to be aware of the circumstances in which the expert’s knowledge was gained or created.

A central premise in this collection—an approach that Shapin defines as “historical naturalism”—is that all scientific work, in its many diverse aspects, is not only historically situated but also spatially located. This seems so obvious that one wonders why it should be worth discussing, yet the resistance to such historicism is astonishing. Scientific knowledge is commonly held to stand “outside of history.” No scientific finding, for example, can be called “political,” a term that only applies to the use of such knowledge by nonscientists. This is hard to argue against, but in “How to Be Antiscientific” Shapin provides a riposte to the “Defenders of Science” in their battle against the perceived slurs of sociologists, historians, philosophers, and others who dared to question the objectivity and impartiality of scientific inquiry.

As in his advocacy of “lowering the tone,” Shapin redefines a derogatory adjective, “antiscientific,” as simply meaning asking all the right questions. Employing another rhetorical trick (used more than once in these essays), he quotes a list of provocative “antiscientific” comments, only to show that they come not from erring sociologists but from high-flying Nobel Prize winners, including a paraphrase of Einstein, “The conceptual basis of physics is a free invention of the human mind.”

The period of conceptual inventiveness that has preoccupied Shapin for much of his career is the mid- seventeenth century. This is the period covered in Leviathan and the Air-Pump, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994), and The Scientific Revolution (1996). Several of the current essays circle fruitfully around the formation and practice of the Royal Society in London in 1660, and around contemporary conflicts of ideas in European thought, particularly the contrast between the English adoption of Baconian induction and probabilism and the French embrace of “Cartesian deduction and logical certainty.”

Both Descartes and Robert Boyle insisted, if unconvincingly, that they were free of adherence to earlier authorities or to dogmatic positions. In addition, Boyle and his followers claimed that within the experimental community, which was “open to all,” it was possible to set aside partisan politics, class, and nationalism; in the search for truth all could be equal and united. This claim seems to me to have particular resonance in Restoration Britain, not only because the “new” spirit of inquiry required protection, but also because the overriding national urge was to heal divisions, to remove animosities and sectarian bitterness lingering after the civil wars and the Interregnum.

Yet this alleged unity and equality, notes Shapin, was an illusion as much in the Royal Society as in the nation. Once more, the quest for credibility involves manipulation of circumstance. The need for “trustworthy” members of the society to witness experimental findings immediately limited membership according to then-current dictates of social hierarchy:

So when the uneducated Dutch draper and microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek reported seeing hosts of small animals in a drop of pond-water, the gentlemen of the Royal Society required that his skill and probity be vouched for—not by equivalent experts, for there was none as skilled as him, but by the ministers and lawyers of Delft.

The Royal Society, supposedly open to all, included few Catholics and Quakers, and no women or Jews. The formula for the ideal community, free from prejudice, is not to be found here.

Shapin also critically analyzes the assertion that scientific knowledge is “placeless” and universal, unmarked by the location of its origin. In an entertaining essay of 1988, “The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-century England,” he argued the case for studying the venues of knowledge and the connections between physical and social settings. The use of particular settings was, he claimed, a method “of policing experimental discourse” and of “publicly warranting that the knowledge produced in such places was reliable and authentic.”

The split between public and private spaces was never easy to manage. Achieving privacy in the laboratory proved a problem for men like Boyle, brought up according to aristocratic customs of hospitality, who found it almost impossible to turn away the curious. By contrast Robert Hooke, Boyle’s assistant and then curator of experiments for the Royal Society, rarely had visitors and could work as he liked in his quarters at Gresham College, on intimate terms with his assistants and technicians. Yet while Hooke’s place of residence—“probably the most important site for experimental trials of Restoration England”—was private, he too lived on the public stage, not only as demonstrator for the society, but also discussing new findings with other interested parties in the taverns and coffeehouses.

  1. *

    See, for example, Marilynn Larkin, “Microbial Forensics Aims to Link Pathogen, Crime, and Perpetrator,” The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Vol. 3, No. 4 (April 2003).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print