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…

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