Who’s Afraid of History of Science?

Le Philosophe Ein Chemiker in seinem Laboratorium, a lithograph by after the painting by David Teniers II. Fisher Collection, CHF Collections.

Three historians of science got together last week in Philadelphia to talk about what matters in the history of science and what’s useful about it. The event was hosted by the American Philosophical Society and organized by the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science. It featured speakers Susan Lindee, Matthew Jones, and Nathaniel Comfort, all of whom are senior historians of science at major universities.

The speakers didn’t spend a lot of time discussing ways to reach a general audience, which is not surprising given the academic environment of the talk. They did, however, give a good case for history of science’s importance.

Susan Lindee told the audience that it is impossible to tell the story of the cold war without science, technology, and medicine. Lindee added that science is everywhere in mass culture and advertising, but in a way that is dismaying to historians. We all are in so deep in the world of science that we’re not even aware of it, and one of the jobs of historians of science is to help people regain that awareness. Nathaniel Comfort said that history of science is a way of explaining the world. Done well it can enable us to make better decisions about healthcare, science funding, and global issues such as climate change. From his perspective history of science can be useful and beautiful—through telling stories about colorful people.

I went into the talk convinced of the importance of the history of science. After all, I wouldn’t be a historian of science if I didn’t think it important. But I did have one concern. The panelists, academic historians of science, know what they want people to learn about the history of science. But many people are already deeply invested in traditional, slightly fairytale-y notions of science. There’s the “good” story: science as never-ending progress done by incredibly clever and heroic people who are not like you or me. And then there’s the “bad” story: science as hubristic overreach ending in disaster. We’re comfortable with these narratives, and that’s why most best selling history of science books are not written by historians of science. Such books are usually engagingly written stories about individuals who do amazing things against great odds.

Such stories are tough to beat, but history’s goal is to show that these cozy, familiar narratives are misleading. This approach does make history of science a little frightening, though, because done properly it makes us question our assumptions and rethink the world we live in.

Michal Meyer is the editor in chief of Chemical Heritage.

What’s the History of Science Good For? [Periodic Tabloid]
Making Connections: "The Big Picture" and the History of Science [Periodic Tabloid]
The Uses of the Past: Why Science Writers Should Care About the History of Science – And Why Scientists Should Too [The Primate Diaries]

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