This year, Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg published a history of Western science up to Newton: To explain the World. The Discovery of Modern Science. Weinberg was an important player in the science wars, voicing his strong intuitions that genuine science transcended history and culture against what he perceived as subversive social constructivism. Now that he has taken more than just a glance at the history of science, the result is bound to be interesting.
What is an expert? Is it someone who possesses specialized knowledge? Or rather someone who is qualified to make rational decisions on sensitive social issues, a technocrat perhaps? Is it someone with great technical skills, who uses these skills professionally? For historians, the different markers used to typify a class of ‘experts’ pose considerable difficulties. As historians of the sciences and political historians increasingly examine the way in which the rise of experts since the middle of the nineteenth century was tied up with the advent of modernity, they also seem to lack a proper (and shared) terminology to tackle such a complex phenomenon. How to conceptualize ‘expertise’ in historical research? How to examine experts as actors of historical change?
In the classic 1990s television show The X-Files, the Federal Bureau of Investigation relegated files of mysterious cases to a backwater office to be investigated by a lonely pair of agents, forgotten by the rest of the world (except when they got into trouble). The Immanuel Velikovsky Papers, stored in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, are in some ways rather similar. The purpose of the present short post is to encourage other historians to use these documents, which can aid in exploring questions far beyond Velikovsky alone, questions about the way the demarcation of science from “non-science” has been negotiated historically.