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.