What’s the History of Science Good For?
The future of history of science? (Rembrandt van Rijn's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. 1632.)
With universities around the country cutting their budgets, especially in the humanities, history of science departments might seem like a good place to cut. After all, they aren't money makers for universities—no new patents, technologies, or bankable discoveries tend to come from them. So what is the value of history of science? Nathaniel Comfort at the PACHS blog has taken up the question.
Comfort believes that history of science is less relevant now to scientists and to wider social discussions than it used to be. Oddly enough, some of the comments do, I think, minimize the importance of history of science. For example: “questions of relevance for history of science are similar to those for other fields in the humanities. It would be interesting to survey responses from, say, scholars of ancient Assyrian or art historians.”
While I have no wish to denigrate art history of ancient Assyrian—like other humanities subjects they deal with what it means to be human—I think they do have less direct relevance to us right now. Neither ancient Assyrian or art history has much power on our lives and our ways of thought. Science does. Understanding science through the lens of history and sociology and anthropology of science tells us a lot about our world and how it got this way.
Professional historians of science tend to write for other historians of science, and as a result they tend to be invisible to the wider world. Scientists know they must speak to the public to justify their work, so why not historians of science?
I think often the expectation is that journalists and museums will translate the work done by academics to a broader audience. But why can’t more historians write for the general public? Well, the academic system tends to discourage those who might like to write for the public. Not surprisingly, most popular history of science books are not written by professional historians of science. Until that changes, making the case for the relevance of the history of science is going to be an uphill battle.