Historians of science and practitioners of science haven’t always gotten along. There’s an interesting piece about their stormy relationship in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. (The article’s behind a paywall, but you can get a taste of it at HNN.)
Although it entered academe as science’s explanatory sidekick, over the past few decades the history of science has emerged a full-fledged discipline, drawing practitioners mostly from the humanities.…Where scholars based in the sciences documented a rational march toward knowledge, historians—inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—have asked how science is socially constructed and culturally received.
In other words, historians of science who are trained as scientists see a progression toward the truth, as scientists generally tend to have a great deal of faith in their own discipline’s capacity to get things figured out. It’s analogous to the Whig interpretation of history as a progression toward greater human freedom, except in this case it’s progressing toward knowledge and truth. All those dumb guys in the past were wrong, but over time there were smarter guys who started figuring things out. And finally we come to us, and we’ve got more figured out that anybody.
Historians of science who are trained as historians, on the other hand, see the history of science the same way they see the history of any other human activity—subject to power relationships, personal biases, vagaries of fashion, and all the other foibles and quirks to which groups of humans are prone. Humans and their foibles, after all, are the stuff of history (and of the humanities generally).
Of course, historians sometimes fall into a view of their own field of study as an inexorable upward progression, too. After all, when we talk about historiography, don’t we tell ourselves that all those benighted historians of days gone by ignored race/class/gender/memory/discourse/whatever, and that we know better now because we’re hip to all this stuff? Sure we do.
But I think historians are a more attuned to the human factors that influence fields of study, since humanity is basically the subject of history. Because historians study humans (and human institutions, societies, and so on), they assume that the discipline of history itself is influenced by human factors. You don’t always see farther by clambering up the shoulders of your predecessors. Sometimes you have to knock over whatever those predecessors are standing on. In a methods course my first year of grad school, we read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, because his arguments could apply to history or any other field of study as well as science. And in all the courses I took, we spent much of our time discussing how historians’ conclusions and interpretations have developed out of the social circumstances in which scholars have worked. It’s a basic part of getting ready to do history.
I can understand why scientists would be uncomfortable when historians point out the role of human foibles and quirks in the development of scientific knowledge. But an awareness of the human factors that influence scientific thought can only make science better, because scientists who have that awareness will take care that their conclusions aren’t the result of these non-scientific factors.
Furthermore, I think that coming to terms with the role of human foibles in scholarly endeavor is necessary because it means an awareness of the way things are. Things like power relationships and the vagaries of fashion do, in fact, play a role in determining what scholars think about the world.
But maybe I think this because I’m a historian by training instead of a scientist. To borrow some terminology from Kuhn, my “paradigm” is a historical one, influenced by a belief in the role of human contingency, human institutions, human shortcomings, and so on.
One thing scientists and historians should share is a devotion to the truth and a belief that we can, at the very least, approach it. If approaching it means incorporating the insights of other disciplines into our own, then so be it.