Scientists and history

Recently, historian of medicine Edward Shorter made the following comment [follow link for a good discussion]:

Historians aren’t as interested [in his work] because they aren’t intellectually equipped to study that kind of thing. Most of them don’t have a scientific background. They can’t get into detailed discussions of therapies because they aren’t well informed about the science, so they study such subjects as psychiatry’s attitude toward women or how is knowledge diffused in medicine — by conferences or by medical journals? These questions are marginal but they are the kind of questions that animate the discipline.

One counterexample: Dom Murphy’s book Psychiatry in the scientific image. There are a multitude of other cases. Shorter is doing what scientists who turn historians often do, deriding those who actually do history properly as being externalists. Most of the historians of science I know do actually understand the science they study, some very well indeed. More than a few historians of physics are ex-physicists. Likewise more than a few historians of biology either studied biology or were in fact practising biologists.

The internalist/externalist distinction in the history of science is a fraught topic, widely discussed. Internalists treat science as a sequence of valid ideas replacing invalid ideas. Externalists treat science as a historical movement of political and social forces. True, there was a period in the 1980s and thereafter that tended to study scientists the way an anthropologist would treat a Papuan mountain tribe (an extreme example being Life among the scientists looking at the institution I worked at for a decade), but today and for some time historians of science have attended to both the internal ideas and the external social aspects of science. After all, science is a human activity: humans do science, not disembodied context-free agents with perfect empirical information. So the human aspect of science is crucial, as every scientists engaged in a controversy or shift of political control of a discipline knows intimately.

The use of history by scientists is very different to the use of history by historians of science. The latter seek to explain how science has changed and why, and while a number of such changes really are conceptual or methodological, these are not disembodied changes. They happen in conferences, grant applications, political environments (big science, for example), and in journals and scientific associations that appoint editors and reviewers for personal and political reasons (by “political” here I mean the politics of the discipline, not the politics of the wider communities, necessarily). To understand any social changes, whether in science or medicine, or any other aspect of human behaviour, you simply have to attend to the social interactions of the people involved in it.

The way scientists tend to use history, however, is as a weapon in disputes. Scientists are natural internalists. They see science as a progressive sequence of successes and failures leading to the current state of opinion (their own, of course). Those who disagree with them, or hold to an unpopular opinion, are regarded as old fashioned, ignorant, foolish or simply prevaricators. In historiography, this sort of approach is called Whiggism, from the eighteenth century Whigs who saw all of history leading to their particular form of progressive Englishism. Not coincidentally, the terms was coined by a historian of science, Herbert Butterfield, in the 1930s, to represent the triumphalism of most history of science.

The way that scientists use history is ineluctably Whiggist. This can often be useful, but as history rather than politics it is deeply flawed. Historians of science now focus as much on the ways science has failed as much as it has succeeded, because science needs its failures, and because it is not always, or even very often, as clear what is a success as many scientists think. Consider, for example, Lamarckism, the idea that organisms pass on acquired characters gained in life to their progeny. Roundly disparaged as false and primitive by geneticists in the middle of the twentieth century, Lamarckism (which was not even Lamarck’s main idea) is making a conditional comeback, as we discover how extra-genetic factors modulate genes and can be passed on to progeny (not for many generations, so far as I know). And yet when I learned my biology back in prehistory (the 1980s), Lamarckism was held to be a dead idea altogether, in a triumphalist fashion.

Likewise, other features of science, particularly methodological features, can fall by the wayside simply because of political factors. Morphology, which was (out of technical necessity) the only way to study organisms and their evolution for a century, was supplanted by molecular techniques to the point where doing morphological (anatomical and developmental) studies was considered “old school” and unnecessary. Now it is making a comeback, but under other headings (molecular developmentalism, cytology, etc.). However, because the older techniques were effectively lost and untaught for several generations of scientists, the old mistakes and arguments are being rerun. A decent historical study of this sequence of developments might aid people in their scientific work.

Shorter’s position derides the good work done by externalists because on the one hand there really has been an ignorance of the science by some historians (but not, usually historians of science, but by historians of politics or social movements who dip into history of science), but also because he is an internalist. Instead, both approaches are required. Science is a human social activity as well as a discovery of the natural world (and psychiatry is right on the cusp of the human constructed world and the natural world of neurology and biology), so we must study both the ideas and the ways the ideas are gained, without fear or favour.

An example of an externalist history is Desmond and Moore’s biography of Darwin. If you knew nothing of Darwin’s theories and work, this book would not enlighten you (mostly the ideas are mentioned rather than explained). To maintain what is, to me, a rather silly argument (that Darwin was stressed by his betrayal in his theories of his class), they basically ignore the logic of his work. This is a mistake, for sure. But neither is it wrong to focus on the sociological context of those ideas. The transition from gentleman science to professional science that Darwin endured is directly relevant to his reception. It takes nothing away from his arguments that he had to convince an increasingly professionalised, and state subsidised, scientific community. In fact, it adds to our understanding of science itself.

Shorter’s comment is a throwback to an older Whiggism that we can safely reject. Good history of science will always be both internalise and externalist simultaneously. It’s really hard: you have to get across several fields to do it. You have to understand the science and the debates that occurred in that field. You have to understand historical and sociological methods. But it can be done, and it is done, and done well.

15 thoughts on “Scientists and history

  1. While your dichotomy internalism-externalism is well established among historians, you attach Whiggism/triumphalism/progressivism to internalism, which is IMHO not necessarily always the case. I see internalism and extermnalism as perspectives and the border as transparent (at least to good historians). The (good) internalist sits inside science, but can also see what’s going on outside and will weave that into his narrative if necessary. The (good) externalist sits outside science, but can look inside and understand/explain what’s going on, if necessary.

    As far as I can tell from the site you linked to, Shorter does start with a social phenomenon: more and more patients are diagnosed with depression and treated with Prozac and the like. If that is not an externalist point of departure… I think Shorter has a point here, and suspect that the same is true for ADHS and Methylphenidat and the like.

    Did you consider the possibility that Shorter does not want historians of psychiatry to come inside his box and, then be blind to external goings on? Maybe Shoorter wants them to open what remained a black box to them so far and peek inside?


    1. I don’t think internalist accounts are necessarily Whiggist – after all I do just that sort of internalist history myself. But I think we are in furious agreement here.


      1. Okay, we agree on that point. What about my claim that Shorter is not an internalist. For all I can tell, he starts with a societal phenomenon (more and more people are diagnosed with depression) and keeps an eye on the role of the
        pharma industry in this. AFIK, that’s externalism.


  2. I too have an objection of sorts to the charge of Whiggism. One point missing is the influence/corruption of science by politics, especially politics in the form of money. In the late 80s and early 90s immunologists sold out and played the grantsmanship game of claiming their research was relevant to HIV. Today biologists coin some sort of ‘Omics or proclaim they are doing Systems Biology in ways that are cheap facades over what they have always been doing. And within the variant levels of success at gaining funding the jealousies are reported as people being sell-outs, charlatans or frauds depending on whether the conversation is over a coffee or a beer. This doesn’t radically change your thesis but it seems to me you’ve neglected a significant distinction which is the fantasy of scientific purity: the very authentic desire to believe in a purist ideal of the quest for knowledge. The derailments of significance are not “old fashioned, ignorant, foolish or simply prevaricators” but sell outs.


  3. “Life among the Scientists” is a hoot! It did make me think a little about how successful institutions simultaneously maximize goals at completely different levels of analysis, and how this might fit into pathological science (in that person X might be making all the right moves at the anthropological level…), and critiques of the free market blah blah blah.


  4. Finding out about things is expensive, and choices have to be made at the individual, institutional, and political levels as to where resources will be expended. That’s certainly the case in the applied sciences, as I can attest from personal acquaintance with a host of roads not traveled. We know some things and do some things at the cost of not knowing and not doing other things. Unless the internal teleology of science determines what is important and unimportant, some externalist factors are going to turn out to be surprisingly internal in explaining why things happen as they do in the history of science. Truth and falsity, after all, are not all there is to explain.*

    The outside also impinges in another way. I suppose a tremendously rigorous analyst could claim that the real content of scientific ideas is really a system of differential equations or an enormous matrix or something equally bloodless. In practice, however, the way that scientific ideas are represented and thought is underdetermined by this purported real content. Surely the way that we imagine the world has something to do with how we proceed in further thought and research. Gerald Holton pointed out many years ago how the terminology of the new physics of the early 20th Century reflected the Zeitgeist of the Age of Anxiety (fission, annihilation, anti-particles, indeterminancy, etc.). Einstein didn’t have to call it the therory of relativity, after all. As I recall he actually entertained the idea of calling it invariance theory, which would have been just as appropriate but less sexy.

    * Apropos of this issue, I’ve heard that Bruno Latour has taken to calling the virtual atmosphere that surrounds scientific activity the plasma, by which he does not mean something at all mysterious, but simply all the things that could have been figured out but never have been and mostly never will be. I haven’t decided yet what to think about this notion.


  5. This means that the history of science cannot be written on its own. Historians no longer take the cognitive or moral priority of science for granted, or the existence of nature as an objective source of information. If scientists’ learning about nature is not as distinct from other, more familiar forms of learning, invention and expression as we used to think, then we may be close to writing a history of science which explains why science has been so successful as a way of learning about nature and so powerful an influence upon the way we live and think. Many historians of science now have training in both history and a natural science and can combine interpretative and empirical modes of investigating history. Their explanations should be more accessible to scientists and humanists, than earlier histories that placed science above and apart from the rest of culture.


  6. According to Google Books, Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), which introduced the phrase, contains one occurrence of the word “science”, in a quote from Lord Acton: “It is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of men and things.”

    In short, Butterfield did not have the history of science in mind when he coined the phrase, but rather political history (as indeed the term ‘Whig’ indicates). Eighteen years he published The Origins of Modern Science, as triumphalist and whiggish an account as one could ask for.

    For more on this history of the term, I recommend Nick Jardine’s article “Whigs and Stories: Herbert Butterfield and the Historiography of Science”. For a careful disentangling of various possible uses of the term in HoS, I recommend Michael Bycroft’s post, “Different kinds of Whig history are wrong (or right) for different kinds of reasons”.


    1. Cambridge European history featured lectures by J.H. Parry, Butterfield and Sir George Clark among others. Not sure where the accusation came from but the attack line against Clark was that he had “reduced the Scientific Revolution to the influence of a watchmaker from Leyden.”

      I suspect it would be very popular statement in Oxford the medieval and Renaissance course I studied in Edinburgh used the syllabus from Oxford and was little changed. I used a series of awful 1950’s Oxford texts books I got cheap in a second hand shop to pass the course.

      The line was that England is unique and had no relationship with Europe or European history.

      It gives every subject a semi-detached air to it. When deployed in the class room these one-liners which guide the attitude you are expected to take rather than the evidence were always introduced “as a very senior and very much respected member of the department once said……”


        1. (Just to be clear about my last sentence — I meant from my compatriots. It’s political death here for a politician to admit that the US is not number 1 in anything, no matter what the objective evidence.)


          1. “Not sure what this has to do with the history of the term ‘Whiggism’ in HoS.”

            Hugh F. Kearney, a student of Butterfield’s at Cambridge. Its where I first heard the term in a modern context. Top down history with a strong nationalist approach. Kearney does not confine himself to H.O.S. neither does the term.


            1. p.s the off topic part for you

              I just read an article that touched on the use of cliche as I factor in establishing normative institutional attitudes in teachers in training with regard to classroom discipline (very off topic).

              The cite I used came from Kearney. Its in the preface to his book “Ireland Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History” 2007, title, on being a historian in four countries.

              It may supplement you’re understanding of Butterfield to a small degree (his relationship with trinity collage Dublin and the concerns it was addressing, which places him in a wider context. The issues are not dissimilar to those H.O.S faces from populist accounts of science I would suggest).

              It should also illustrate for you usage of the word outside of H.O.S. Somewhat amusing really (catholic church in this case)


  7. I found Shorter’s small C. (conservative) utterances, depressingly familiar, although I have never studied H.O.S.

    I think knowledge requires considerable diversity and a range of approaches. People come to study with widely diverse cultural backgrounds and interests which I think makes difference inevitable and needful.

    I also think some measure of humility is needed in order to study effectively. From some of his utterances with regard to his own work it would seem to be an unfamiliar concept.

    I don’t think anyone making these type of statements should be put anywhere near a classroom or given the responsibility of teaching students.


  8. Fascinating article and comments. I practice medicine, but not history writing. But I see much of the controversy as I read science and watch changes in medicine and improvement of weighing evidence and exposing bias over the last 30 years.

    It is also interesting to watch dead-end debates on religion which are obviously the cause of unspoken internist-externist confilcts. Not surprisingly, many of the same pitfalls apply because they are both human activities.


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