Credible Witnesses

What to believe? Who to trust? What to do? One only has to look at the debates emerging around global warming, vaccines, and consumer genomics to know that these are among the pressing questions of modern times. They are also the parting words of Never Pure, a series of essays by Steven Shapin, who is a history of science professor at Harvard University. These essays do not attempt to provide the last word on such debates, but they do suggest ways for us to think about how we have arrived at what many experts view as critical junctures for individual, environmental, and global health.

Throughout his career Shapin has been concerned with the relationship between credibility and authority, as viewed through a history-of-science lens. Perhaps best known for his work on 17th-century science, represented in A Social History of Truth (1994) and The Scientific Revolution (1996), he also wrote the highly regarded Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985)—an account of the debates between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle over the legitimacy of experimental science. Recently, he delved into more contemporary history with The Scientific Life, which begins with 19th-century science becoming a profession and ends with an exploration of the contemporary biotech world. Never Pure, save for the first essay, is composed of “lightly edited,” previously published essays grouped into six sections, each with a short introduction. Together they represent the research breadth of this prolific scholar.

Readers looking for narrative may be tempted to skip the essays in Part I, which discuss approaches used in history of science, but those who persevere will find the effort worthwhile. The essays, about problems that historians of science face in situating science in time and context, are well written and jargon free but by no means easy reads. “Cordelia’s Love” is a particularly lucid, creative piece that attempts to explain some of the methods and concepts that historians use to study credibility, with examples from different historians, Shakespearean literature, and Shapin’s own personal anecdotes.

The essays in Part II explore place and its relationship to practice. These look more closely at physical sites from which scientific knowledge has historically emerged—like houses, laboratories, workshops, and cities—while Part III includes essays about the roles and characterizations of scientists and the “scientific person.” They help us think about how “the scientist” is situated in the cultures, societies, and generations from which she or he emerges. Part IV concerns diet. Why diet? As Shapin writes, “Dietetics is a compelling cultural object for historians interested both in the making of the modern self and in the interplay between bodies of academic expertise and lay knowledge” (p. 235). Essays on the relationship between the scientific world and the general public make up the following section.

If one wants to understand how credibility and validity—or to put it another way, authority and knowledge—have become inextricably linked in our modern world, this volume is a lively way into this discussion. Shapin is one of the best storytellers in the history of science today, and this volume is full of concrete examples. Still, this is not light reading. Shapin is not in the business of storytelling for its own sake, and the book’s first essays showcase his sophisticated, theoretical understanding of how history of science is done. Even the more narrative essays favor readers who appreciate rich, thick descriptions and nuance. As such, this is a volume for those who want to better understand the discipline of the history of science, though many of the questions and conceptual frames that Shapin uses can also be applied to current issues. A warning, though: this is not an introduction to the history of science as a whole; some may find the sampling of essays too eclectic. Furthermore, there are many ways to frame the history of science—feminist and postcolonial approaches, for example—that are not part of Shapin’s concerns. Still, this is an excellent anthology of both his theoretical and narrative-based work.

In the last chapter, “Science and Modernity,” Shapin tells us that science and scientists continue to make the modern world. Scientific knowledge making is arguably more important today than ever before: the stakes are high. At the same time, this issue of credibility at the intersection of validity—that is, the problem of the relationship between trust and scientific knowledge—has intensified. What to believe, who to trust, what to do? In this volume Shapin shows us how the intersections of science and social science can help make these questions tractable when grappling with our late-modern concerns.

Pei Koay is program manager for biotechnology history and policy at CHF.