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.
Today the gulf between home and workplace is absolute. As Shapin says, we no longer believe scientists because we know them or have direct experience of their work. Instead “we believe them because of their visible display of the emblems of recognized expertise and because their claims are vouched for by other experts we do not know.” We nonscientists are exiled from the house of experiment. Yet we still have distinct images of the kind of people “scientists” might be. The most intriguing essay of this historical cluster, colored by Shapin’s wit and by his underlying romantic streak, is “‘The Mind Is Its Own Place’: Science and Solitude in Seventeenth-century England.” Here and in the succeeding essay, “A Scholar and a Gentleman,” he examines how the ancient image of the scholar shaped that of the natural philosopher, so strongly that it still has force today.
In Western religious traditions, knowledge gained in solitude signified the holder’s closeness to God, from Moses on Mount Sinai to Saint Jerome in his cave. Enlightenment philosophers adopted this mantle, from Rousseau decamping to the forest of Montmorency to Thoreau escaping to Walden Pond, while Wordsworth famously drew Newton into this pantheon of inspired solitaries, gazing on his Cambridge statue with its “silent face,/The marble index of a mind for ever/Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”
Solitude, however, was not necessarily equated with the virtuous life. A countertradition, derived from classical antiquity, regarded withdrawal from society as reneging on civic duties, an indulgence amounting to sloth. From the Renaissance to the eighteenth century these two views often clashed, or were resolved by some social contrivance, just as the natural philosopher, experimenting in private, was exonerated from accusations of withdrawal by putting on a display at the Royal Society, which reintegrated his work as a social act. This raises the topic of conflicting perceptions. While philosophers might see their work as “noble,” to others the image of the scholar was one of disarray and self-neglect—the absent-minded professor has a long pedigree. The seventeenth-century pedant, we are told, was “disputatious, litigious, affected, and hectoring.”
He was obsessively concerned with matters of little interest to polite society; his objects of study were frequently trivial and ignoble. He was ill-mannered, rude, and uncivil; living separated from polite society, he could not master its mores and was a figure of fun and ridicule when obliged to enter that world; he might be mad.
Far from accepting the claim that scientists were investigating nature to understand the ways of God or to benefit society, outsiders mocked experiment as pointless play, the “weighing of ayre [air],” as Charles II joked. In science’s long fight for respectability, each step forward is undercut by new accusations of irrelevance or fears of the “mad scientist.”
The machinery that boosts, or undermines, credibility is subtle. All the historical essays reprinted here—including a deft analysis of Boyle’s prose style as a practical tool, creating a wider public that could participate in “virtual witnessing”—examine the complex relationship between formal and informal presentation of material.
A second question to which Shapin is always alert is the moral weighting of such presentations, the shift from “is” to “ought.” This implicit moral tone becomes explicit when scientific knowledge is couched as advice or prescription, as in medicine or dietetics, a field that Shapin good-humoredly but sharply defends from accusations of triviality. From antiquity onward, he maintains, the statement that “you are what you eat” was a pat formulation of a profound belief that “alimentary practices were an important component of a self-making system.“ Tracts on food and diet, like books of manners, were laced with a piquant moral sauce—what is good for you must make you good.
But once again, social attitudes can cloud the issue. While medical tracts condemned asceticism as much as gluttony, the neglect of food (from the desert hermits to Wittgenstein’s view that anyone who disliked powdered eggs was a snob) could be flaunted as a badge of rejection of the material desires: “The truth-seeker is someone who attains truth by denying the demands of the stomach, and more generally, the body.” And while most authorities counseled moderation to control the overflow of humors and passions, independent thinkers like Bacon and Montaigne were skeptical of generalizations and external expertise, suggesting that personal habit could create a self-regulating system for each person, including the occasional binge.
The difficulty with the history of eating, manners, and medicine is distinguishing between advice—which may or may not be followed—and actual practice. To illustrate this, in one of his essays on the tangled relation between science and common sense, Shapin considers the eighteenth-century dietetic doctor George Cheyne. Famous for identifying excess as the cause of melancholy, Cheyne claimed that “the English malady” could be cured only by a strict “lowering” diet. Once again, the key issue is the establishment of trust, since Cheyne’s prescription was disconcertingly novel, replacing the theory of the humors with a view of the body as a hydraulic system operating according to laws like any Newtonian mechanism.
Cheyne gained credibility, as Shapin shows, through smart marketing, public and private. The Newtonian underpinnings gave authority to his claim to “deep and systematic knowledge of the invisible world”; the case studies in his books testified to practical success; the starry clientele added social status. Furthermore his flexibility in practice, revealed in his detailed correspondence with two patients, Lady Huntington and Samuel Richardson, showed that he could mobilize informal as well as formal channels of assent.
Cheyne is interesting, too, in that he made a living from his science. With the rise of professionals it became increasingly difficult to consider science as disinterested. The assumption of virtue faded with the secularization of the nineteenth century: if nature was no longer divine, a scientist could not claim a divine calling. The institutionalization of science in universities bolstered its scholarly credentials, but the incorporation of science into industry and government departments fostered suspicions that far from being “pure,” science was the lackey of Mammon. Shapin tackled these questions in The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008). From the academic point of view, as he notes here in “Who Is the Industrial Scientist?,” sociologists like Robert K. Merton in the 1940s argued that the scientists working in industry mourned the lost freedoms of university research. Grinding out their lives in unhappy servitude, they resented the constraints of secrecy, property rights, and profits that they saw as incompatible with the noble ethos of science as “public knowledge.”
This remained an accepted “truth” until the late 1960s and 1970s. But—as one has by now come to expect from these essays—the opposite appears to be the case. Surveys conducted by research managers in large corporations showed that their scientists were granted considerable freedom to choose research topics. Good management, according to Kenneth Mees of Eastman Kodak, consisted in “disorganization,” in leaving researchers alone rather than issuing directives. Ironically the managers’ problem was not their researchers’ unhappiness but their too speedy adoption of the values and research agendas of the corporate culture. If this was so, asks Shapin, why was the research of the sociologists so skewed? To find an answer, typically, he looks back to the researchers themselves. In the 1950s, he suggests, when academic freedom was under threat from McCarthyism, academics actually wanted their corporate colleagues to suffer, as a mirror of their own embattled sensitivity, so that they too could be recruited as allies in the battle for academic freedom against external control.
Locating the sciences within the messy conditions of real lives and relationships makes for fascinating stories. And such storytelling, in part, is Shapin’s aim. He describes his quest as a journey stripped of baggage, where negative qualities become in effect positive:
As historians of science, we’re committed to telling rich, detailed, and, we hope, accurate stories about science without believing that it is cognitively or methodologically or socially unique, without believing that it is integral and unified, without believing that it has a special set of values not possessed by other forms of culture, without believing that it is divinely inspired, without believing that it is only produced by geniuses, without believing that it is the only progressive force in history, or that its practitioners do not eat chicken.
But the stories Shapin tells, investigating scientific lives over time, also prompt questions about the scientist’s status today. We have long been told that science “created” the modern world and remains its motive force, and that “we” (but who are “we”?) think in scientific terms, or ought to do so. Clearly many of us do not, to judge by the argument over “Creation Science.” But scientists cling to the belief that their discipline is the most important guide to understanding the contemporary world:
Consider the litany of complaints from high scientific places about “public ignorance of science.” …Complaints can actually help to establish the esteem in which science is held in our culture. It’s been some time since I heard anyone gain a public platform for complaining about “public ignorance of sociological theory” or “public ignorance of the novels of Mrs. Gaskell.”
(As a biographer of Gaskell I feel bound to demand a platform at once.) Yet despite, or perhaps because of, this alleged ignorance, and despite the absorption of the scientific enterprise into “institutions of wealth-making and power-projecting,” most people today in Europe and America accept the word of acknowledged experts. Scientists are no longer seen as priests, unveiling the mysteries of the universe, but what they do have, or, with Shapin’s emphasis, “may have left as a basis of authority is a kind of independence and a resulting notion of integrity.”
Shapin’s changing lines of approach resemble those of social historians examining all forms of cultural performance over the past two decades: the new historicism of the 1980s, with its emphasis on physical and social settings; the subsequent concern with method, forms of discourse, and the nature of knowledge itself; the long preoccupation with “the body.” But in recent years, his essays have moved from history to the present, and his belief in knowledge as a tool of democracy has become more obvious: “The place of science in the modern world is just the problem of describing the way we live now: what to believe, who to trust, what to do.”
This is ingenuous. He offers no simple “describing.” Pursuing his quarry with acuity and wit, Shapin has been chasing definitions of credibility and trust, authority and “expertise” for years, not as abstract concepts but as lived experience. Unpeeling layer after layer of assumptions, he has examined how knowledge is created and how it “works” in different situations from the Renaissance to today. What makes his essays so enjoyable and alive—so that one can write about an article from 1984 in the present tense, as if it were published today—is their leaping range of reference, always running one step ahead and urging us to catch up. As he says of his bravura excursion into the territory of proverbs, scientific knowledge, and common sense,
when we meet up with science again we see it from an unaccustomed angle. I want here just to show some paths that might be taken to achieve this changed angle of vision.
The resulting view is always worth the detour.
June 24, 2010