With the boisterous rise of populism in politics and public debate, politicians and the media seem to deal with the truth in an increasingly dubious manner. We have entered—it is said—the era of ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and ‘fact-free’ politics. In this essay, I argue that history of science can help putting these developments in a new perspective.  Continue reading “The rise and fall of the fact: History of science in times of post-truth and alternative facts”
Onlangs kreeg ik van iemand die kennelijk wat aan mijn gevestigde opvattingen wilde rammelen het boek van Pierre Bayard kado, How to talk about books you haven’t read (2007). Bayard is Fransman, psychoanalyticus en doceert in Parijs Franse literatuur. Die combinatie belooft meestal niet veel goeds, maar het boek is werkelijk heel leesbaar. Daarmee kon mijn eerste vooroordeel dus alvast het raam uit.
On 6 December 2016 Katrien Vanagt, a historian of science and filmmaker, gave a guest lecture on early modern experiments in anatomy and optics within Prof. Sven Dupré’s Master course “Art and knowledge: Light, Color and Perspective in Art” at University College Utrecht. First, we watched her documentary In Waking Hours, co-produced with film maker Sarah Vanagt, followed by a hands-on session in which the students built their own camera obscura’s. In this blog, I reflect upon the documentary In Waking Hours as a research method and pedagogic tool to explore experiential aspects of early modern experimental practice. Moreover, I argue that Vanagt’s film encourages humanities researchers to engage with their research matter hands-on and to experiment with unorthodox media and formats to do and present research, despite the pressure for conformity in our current academic research landscape.
The period of transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, known as late antiquity, gave rise to some of the elements that have since constituted the identity of the Western self. It also gave rise to new lines of psychological investigation, of which Western psychology is the remote heir. Psychology, however, did not exist in the ancient world as an independent science, nor was a distinction drawn between scientific and moral or religious elements of psychological knowledge. Accordingly, this important source of evidence has been neglected by scholars investigating the history of Western psychology, who have tended to focus on the 19th-century roots of scientific psychology. This post argues for the need to broaden the focus on the history of the discipline of psychology to include the history of psychological knowledge, and demonstrates some of the benefits to be derived from this endeavor.
The History of Science PhD-Conference at De Glind is the successor of the biennial conferences at Rolduc. Two years ago, Hans Schouwenburg noticed a remarkable diversity of topics in his report of the Rolduc gathering. A great variety again characterized this year’s meeting. This was clearly reflected in the different backgrounds of the participants. Though a fair share of them were historians, other disciplines were well represented as well. There were representatives of both faculties of science and social sciences, while the representatives of the humanities included even art historians and philosophers.
With such a diverse group of attendees it was not surprising that the participants aimed to go beyond traditional efforts to sketch the history of a particular field of scholarship in a number of ways.
Thinking about nineteenth-century scholars we tend to picture well-behaved members of polite society. The paintings and pictures of old faculty members that still adorn so many contemporary university halls and lecture rooms show earnest and erudite men who seem to be miles above ordinary pettiness. Some of these men have indeed made extraordinary contributions to their fields of research. Few of them, however, were above an ubiquitous practice that is often seen as hopelessly petty: gossiping.
As historians, we historicize. Indeed, it is our firm belief that everything in our world is open to historical analysis and that, in the case of a job well done, the result will invariably be a deeper understanding of the object of our study. In fact, the more timeless and placeless this object appears to be, and therefore the more immune to historical analysis, the more interesting the outcome has often proved to be. We now have histories of ‘the modern fact’, ‘objectivity’, and of ‘truth’, that is to say precisely those aspects of science that one tends to see as universal and timeless. In this essay I would like to advocate a similar approach with regard to another notion that most scientists tend to take for granted, that of the ‘laws of nature’. To be more precise, I want to suggest three possible lines of attack that may deepen our understanding of this crucial concept, and therefore of science itself. The first aims at a conceptual history of the term, akin to what the Germans call ‘Begriffsgeschichte’; the second is a study of the ‘biography’ of specific laws, and the third looks at the distribution of such laws across the various disciplines. Strangely enough, many of these topics have so far barely been addressed by historians of science.
The recent discovery of gravitational waves has impressed many people and has caused considerable stir in the community of physicists. Surprisingly this commotion has not spread to the community of historians of science. This is surprising because I believe that the claim to have detected gravitational waves constitutes a serious blow to the stronger versions of social constructivism, which arguably has deeply influenced the profession of historiography of science in recent decades. The aim to find empirical confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves has occupied physicists from the 1960s onward. Sociologist of science Harry Collins (Cardiff University) has turned the activities of this group of ‘wave’ physicists into one of his central case studies. Collins has long been one of the most important proponents of the social approach to the study of knowledge formation. His programme of methodological relativism may be more ‘practical’ and less ‘philosophical’ than the perhaps better-known strong programme of the Edinburgh School, but in essence both approaches in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) boil down to the same thing. They share the radical view on science as a social process, not in the sense that other factors such as ‘nature’ or ‘reason’ (whatever they might be) do not play a role in determining the course of scientific development, but in the sense that social factors are always ultimately decisive in determining such things as the acceptance (and rejection) of evidence, experimental methods and claims to knowledge. In tracing the search for gravitational waves, Collins’ aim has been to show how scientific data can be subject to interpretative flexibility, and how social or ‘non-scientific’ means are used to close scientific controversies. In what follows I will argue that the discovery of gravitational waves seriously undermines the SSK perspective on science because it cannot be fitted into SSK’s explanatory scheme. It follows that this discovery has rippling effects on the study of past science and I close with a brief reflection on the direction in which these ripples are heading.
Fred de Heij (illustraties), Ad Maas (tekst), Ehrenfest! (Museum Boerhaave, Leiden 2015), 50 pagina’s, € 7,95.
Als er één natuurkundige een stripverhaal waardig is, dan is het Ehrenfest. Zijn leven is op zich al bijna een stripverhaal. Deze energieke fysicus wist in een tijd van verwarrende ontwikkelingen de natuurkunde te verlevendigen door deze te vatten en verhelderen in pakkende beelden. Hoe toepasselijk dat Fred de Heij en Ad Maas het leven van Ehrenfest zelf in beelden weten te vangen, waarbij ze slagen een nieuwe dimensie aan de beschrijving van deze flamboyante wetenschapper toe te voegen.
David Wootton’s The Invention of Science (Allen Lane, 2015) is witty and learned and gloriously ambitious, and although I am not convinced that science as we know it came into existence in the seventeenth century, as Wootton argues, I do think that the seventeenth century is the one that lays the strongest claim to hosting that momentous event. I also agree with much that Wootton has to say, in this book and elsewhere, about how the history of science should be done, and especially with his view that there is a place for hindsight in the study of past science. However I do think that there is a blind spot in Wootton’s hindsight. He suffers from some of the same confusions as his adversaries, such as the historian and sociologist Steven Shapin, and the gap between Wootton and Shapin becomes much smaller when we clear up these confusions.