Medieval illustration of two figures walking with staffs, dressed in blue and red robes, standing within a circle, with decorative blue and red corners.

L’image du Monde (1320-25) by Gossuin de Metz. Courtesy the BnF Paris


The missing conversation

To the detriment of the public, scientists and historians don’t engage with one another. They must begin a new dialogue

by Lorraine Daston & Peter Harrison + BIO

L’image du Monde (1320-25) by Gossuin de Metz. Courtesy the BnF Paris

Would boycotting Russian scientists be an effective protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Where do terms like ‘altruism’ come from, and what assumptions come with them? How long should research groups be allowed to embargo their data, and why? Why is the normal curve assumed to be normal for so many disparate phenomena, from the distribution of heights to the distribution of observational errors? Who should count as an author of a scientific publication?

These are questions that, in the here and now, tax scientists’ judgment and shape their research. Historical perspective and understanding can illuminate these and other problems facing scientists. The problem is that the scientists and the historians have stopped talking with and listening to one another.

Scientists found the thickly contextualised, sharply focused histories of now-discarded science irrelevant and indigestible. Historians bridled at the scientists’ demands for a mythologised and anachronistic version of the past. We think it’s time to restart the conversation, for the benefit of both scientists and historians.

What would the scientists stand to gain? First, they would learn a lot to help them in making consequential decisions. Take the question of whether to boycott Russian science because of the invasion of Ukraine: history is rich in lessons about how effective a boycott is likely to be, as well as about the potential costs. Specifically, historical precedents suggest that a boycott is likely to significantly damage Russian science as well as serving as a statement of moral disapprobation. Given the indifference of the present Russian regime to the flourishing of domestic science, however, a boycott is unlikely to have any direct impact on the course of the present conflict.

History also gives us a better understanding of the question of whose work merits recognition in the author line of a scientific article. Norms of scientific authorship have evolved constantly since the 17th century, when aristocratic anonymity (what could be more vulgar than splashing one’s good name across a work anyone with some spare change could buy?) prevailed. By the 18th century, signed, individual authorship became the norm, but all manner of other forms of authorship were and are being tried. For example, the Bourbaki, an influential mid-20th-century group of mathematicians, chose the collective pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki in order to modernise and standardise the teaching of mathematics at French universities. Today we see lists of 80-plus names on publications in high-energy physics. Historical studies show how the present norms of authorship originated in past circumstances – and past values (for example, values that elevate theory over practice, or seniority over actual contribution) – that may no longer hold.

The same goes for norms concerning the open publication of data: the ongoing debate over how long scientists may embargo the results of clinical trials in medicine or whether corporate-funded research belongs in the public domain are only the latest episodes in the long history of who, if anyone, owns scientific data. Knowing something about these developments can be liberating as well as enlightening: not so long ago, scientists made very different decisions about similar matters. What was different in the past can change again; history can show the plasticity of things scientists sometimes presume fixed.

Second, history can provide strong insight into flawed premises. The most well-documented cases are of racial and gender biases malforming all-too-many studies of human difference, some with tragic consequences, as in the case of eugenics researchers who recommended policies of social exclusion, sterilisation and even genocide. In January 2023, the world’s largest body of human geneticists, the American Society of Human Genetics, apologised for the role of its past members in promoting racism, eugenics and other forms of discrimination. The board’s pledge to do better in the future was grounded in historical knowledge of its past. ‘This time of reckoning with history is overdue,’ announced the society’s president, ‘but it forms the foundation for a brighter future.’

A deeper understanding of metaphors can sharpen the scientist’s eye for inaccuracies or distortions

Political prejudice is only the most obvious source of dubious assumptions. More subtle but more pervasive are the metaphors and analogies coined to capture newly discovered phenomena and newly invented ideas that, by their very novelty, stretch existing terminology. Sometimes old words, such as ‘intelligence’, which meant general quickness of understanding, are turned to new purposes, as in the case of how Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman and other 20th-century psychologists defined an ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ), which measures specific verbal and quantitative skills. But the new, scientific applications still drag along the baggage of the old words: IQ is conflated with all intelligence, and altruism with all unselfishness, and not just by the lay public.

Importantly, a metaphor that shines a spotlight on one aspect of a phenomenon – for example, ‘partnership’ to pick out the mutually beneficial aspects of symbiotic relationships among organisms – can plunge other interesting features into darkness. In this case, for example, it obscures the fact that more than two organisms may be involved and that the relationship can be both competitive and cooperative. Similarly, Richard Dawkins’s arresting metaphor of ‘the selfish gene’ helped popularise George C Williams’s gene-centric view of evolutionary change and William Hamilton’s notion of inclusive fitness. Dawkins’s work promoted an understanding of how the persistence of altruism and self-sacrificial behaviours in populations could be consistent with the core evolutionary principles of competition and the struggle for survival. But the power of the metaphor led to an overemphasis on natural selection and diverted attention away from other mechanisms of evolutionary change such as developmental constraints. Proponents of a new ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ have persuasively argued that evolutionary thinking needs to be expanded beyond simplistic models that focus purely on genes and natural selection.

Other metaphors – nature as a machine, the brain as a computer, DNA as a ‘blueprint’, to cite just a few examples – can harden into uncritical assumptions and inhibit innovative thinking. Social scientific studies suggest that scientists are often unaware of the extent to which their activities are shaped by such constrictive metaphors and analogies. A deeper understanding of key terms and metaphors that form some of the currency of scientific communication and thought can sharpen the scientist’s eye for blind spots, inaccuracies or distortions. In fact, the repeated and uncritical use, in word and thought, of familiar images and metaphors can easily lead those engaged in the scientific pursuit of knowledge astray, to distortion rather than illumination.

The pinpoint specialisation required in scientific research, and the prestissimo tempo of contemporary science, may be efficient but they also produce myopia. In the competitive environment of scientific research, it is natural to acquire an ant’s-eye view of a landscape shaped as much by the availability of funding, professional relationships, institutional resources and serendipity as by some inexorable march toward truth. The history that does survive in research programmes straightens out meandering paths of development: every journal article begins with a review of the relevant literature, most of it recent but some of it stretching back centuries to honoured ancestors such as Johannes Kepler or Charles Darwin. These brief reviews connect the research at hand with a trajectory of past enquiry, as if extending a curve through the latest data point.

That is not the story the history of science tells. Instead of the one smooth curve, there are many curves, each with multiple forking branches, some veering off at unexpected angles, and some petering out altogether. We suspect that this history, the result of research every bit as scrupulously empirical as that of the scientists themselves, is in fact closer to the lived experience of most working scientists. What the history of science can provide is a wide-angle orientation that helps scientists see a bigger picture, including why they’re studying what they’re studying – and what the alternatives might be.

How would the historians benefit from renewed lines of communication? Historians, too, suffer from specialisation and the pressure to publish. They are swept up in the pursuit of the latest hot research topic to the exclusion of all else. Writing for an audience of scientists would force historians of science to look up and outwards from trends within their discipline. It would also oblige them to forge new kinds of narratives. It is one thing to reject a teleological plot line, in which past science inevitably and triumphantly culminates in present doctrines. It is quite another to invent an alternative narrative that captures the drama of how science actually advances while remaining true to the fundamentally unpredictable path of empirical research. With a few notable exceptions, historians of science have largely ducked this challenge. Writing for scientists – not to mention the broader public – would force them to confront it. And not just in writing. Some of the most compelling recent accounts of key episodes in the history of science have been television series and films – see, for example, Light Fantastic (2004) and Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know (2020), respectively.

Historians would also benefit from a deeper and more supple understanding of their most fundamental concept: context. The relevant context for, say, political historians may not be best suited for historians of science. More discussions with scientists might heighten historians’ awareness of the cosmopolitan character of both past and present science. Nationalist geographies and chronologies frame most forms of history, and the history of science is no exception. Since the rise of the nation-state in the 19th century, most historians have tailored their specialties to fit this political framework. But these nation-centric frameworks are a bad fit for the scientific ideas and practices of almost any epoch, which traversed many cultures and languages, and in all directions. This is not just the case for jet-age science. Studies of premodern science and scholarship in many parts of the world reveal the remarkable mobility of people and ideas across seas and continents. Framing science within the history of a single nation-state – or, for that matter, within a single culture, language or religion – is as misleading for the 13th century as it is for the 21st. Historians of all stripes stand to benefit from the cosmopolitan perspective that has long been integral to science.

Historians insist that what the present takes for granted should not be projected onto the past. But it is also true that hindsight can be powerful, and that present experience does shine a new light onto parts of the past that historians have neglected. Occasionally, lighting up dark corners can transform a familiar historical landscape. The social movements of the latter half of the 20th century inspired new kinds of history: workers’ history, women’s history and the history of marginalised minorities. This extraordinary body of scholarship has, in many cases, brought us more vital and sophisticated understandings of political revolutions, industrialisation and imperialism, to name only a few examples. Similarly, historians of science have a lot to learn from the present experience of scientists – and not because any easy analogy can be drawn from past to present science (such analogies are usually superficial). Rather, what’s happening now can pose new questions to the past. For example, the methods of big data have alerted historians to the historical collection of data troves, from the astrometeorological observations of ancient Babylonia (some still cited in NASA’s Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000) to the weather diaries of 19th-century ships’ captains (a valuable source for tracking climate change). Conversely, historians investigating the impact of climate episodes such as the Little Ice Age, which lasted from about 1300 to 1850, have greatly benefited from scientific data such as the width of tree rings, which can be reliably correlated with annual average temperature.

Scientists accused historians of ignorantly and maliciously undermining scientific authority

Consider, too, the Ordered Universe project, a collaborative endeavour involving scientists and historians (along with philosophers, artists, educationalists and others). The project focuses on the remarkable scientific writings of the polymath Robert Grosseteste (c1170-1253). One of its accomplishments has been to show us how modern physics can assist with the interpretation of medieval works on optics and experimental methods. Thinking the history of past science in terms of present science can sometimes enlarge, not just distort.

Since conversations between scientists and historians of science would benefit both, why are they so rare? History provides some insights. For almost two centuries, the increasing specialisation of the sciences has militated against the flow of information between the sciences and the academic humanities (and, indeed, among the sciences themselves). As early as 1834, the polymath scientist-historian William Whewell bemoaned the ‘division of the soil of science into infinitely small allotments’. Science, he feared, was ‘a great empire falling to pieces’. This dismal prospect prompted Whewell to coin the term ‘scientist’ in the hope of bestowing a semblance of collegial unity on fragmenting disciplines. Overall, the new appellation has been an outstanding success. ‘Scientist’ is now an immediately recognisable designation. It conveys the impression of an authoritative community of professionals committed to a proven and reliable ‘scientific method’. The profession of the scientist, moreover, is a relatively prestigious one and is consistently ranked by the general public as among the most trustworthy.

But it is significant that the label ‘scientist’ initially struggled to gain acceptance among those whom it was intended to unite. Some thought it a crass Americanism. To others, it was redolent of ‘dentist’ – someone who is paid for the performance of uncongenial labours. For much of the 19th century, the preferred descriptors continued to be ‘philosopher’ or ‘naturalist’. These terms reflected the older disciplines of natural philosophy and natural history, which then constituted much of what we now refer to as the natural sciences. In the Anglophone world, the eventual success of the designation ‘scientist’ led to an effacing of the origins of the older disciplinary configurations in which core scientific activities were conducted as branches of philosophy and history.

In a related development, there emerged the accompanying idea of ‘the scientific method’, understood as a singular and systematic approach to knowledge-making that distinguished genuine science from other ways of knowing. In all of this, the word ‘science’, which had once encompassed all legitimate forms of knowledge, came to refer only to the natural sciences (again, in the Anglophone world at least – other languages, such as German, still use their cognate terms for ‘science’ to refer to all forms of systematic knowledge). In the latter half of the 20th century, after English became the lingua franca of science, the narrowed meanings of the words ‘science’ and ‘scientist’, along with the conception of a distinctive and unified ‘scientific method’, helped establish an enduring science/humanities division, and began the reversal of a balance of cultural prestige that had once strongly favoured humanistic disciplines.

The division hardened further and became acrimonious in the 1960s and ’70s. The philosophers Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend challenged the self-perceptions of many scientists, who understood them to be impugning the objectivity and rationality of science. In the 1990s, the ‘science wars’ broke out, in which scientists such as the physicist Steven Weinberg accused historians of science and science studies scholars of ignorantly and maliciously undermining scientific authority (and, with it, public support for big scientific projects). Historians countered that their accusers were too arrogant to learn history and accept legitimate criticism. These episodes left deep scars on both sides. After a decade of bitter exchanges between scientists who felt science was under attack and scholars who felt scientists had no authority to talk about history, an uneasy detente was bought at the price of mutual non-interference, which subsequently became mutual indifference.

Like most people, scientists are interested in history. Yet they often prefer to read triumphal works produced by fellow scientists rather than scholarship by professional historians. To the chagrin of historians, popular interest in the history of science often resembles the kind preferred by scientists, with celebrity scientists reproducing digestible myths and memes that offer entertaining and engaging stories about the past. These popular histories are replete with heroes and villains and offer a simple narrative arc of truth vanquishing error and ignorance. These one-dimensional accounts often promote public misconceptions about how science really works. Equally importantly, among the scientific community they can also erode the self-critical spirit that is so central to the success of scientific endeavours, replacing it with a self-congratulatory one. Worse, they can suggest that what scientific textbooks currently teach are only eternal truths – a position difficult to reconcile with belief in scientific progress and how history works. Such a rigid view will undermine public confidence in scientific authority when new evidence prompts scientists to change their minds. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the history of science, it is caution about smug complacency. Science doesn’t stand still long enough to rest on its laurels. Its triumphs are at once very real and never the last word.

To begin again a fruitful conversation, both historians and scientists will have to overcome some misgivings. Historians would have to surmount fears that learning from and writing for scientists would compromise their critical edge and independence as scholars. Scientists would have to overcome their fear that non-triumphalist history is somehow, by definition, hostile to science. Both sides’ fears are exaggerated – and counterproductive. Historical scholars and scientists should recognise the need to make common cause against political forces that would discredit all research-based expertise, whether scientific or historical.

Dialogue between science and history could have improved public understanding of the pandemic

Aside from what benefits scientists and historians may derive by restarting the conversation, the public also stands to gain. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us all that neither scientists nor historians have done a particularly good job of explaining how science works: that fierce controversy over how to make sense of empirical results is a feature, not a bug; that while there is no central authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, some sources of information are more reliable than others; that views can evolve quickly as research accelerates.

A perplexed public expecting scientists to deliver eternal truths that could guide policy and conduct during a dangerous pandemic was understandably confused and disappointed when those truths seemed in flux. Many scientists seemed hard put to reconcile their commitment to both the permanence of scientific truth and the desirability of scientific progress, which brings all such truths under scrutiny and revision. A better dialogue between science and history could have contributed to improved public understanding. Historians and scientists need one another to reconcile and communicate how the practice of science is always fragile, sometimes chaotic, but also astonishingly successful.

What scientists and historians share is a deep commitment to empirical enquiry. Scientists may claim that they’re the experts on what science is and how it’s done in the present, and historians may counter that they’re the experts on what science was and how it’s been done in the past. Both sides often regard the perspective of the other as irrelevant. Yet science-present and science-past have lessons to teach each other. Past science shows that current arrangements are neither inevitable nor necessarily optimal; present science shows how novel ideas and practices emerge in real time. Might this be the occasion to think about how science is done with the same empirical rigour that both historians and scientists bring to their own specialties? That means including both the past and present practice of science; here, historians and scientists can make common cause.

There are some hopeful signs that such conversations are being restarted: historians who spend time in the lab or in the field as well as the archive and the library; scientists who inform themselves about how their field has grappled with past challenges in order to seek guidance in current dilemmas, both intellectual and ethical. Whether the resulting conversations will be worth the effort required of both parties to take part in them is admittedly a wager – especially when both scientists and historians of science have plenty to occupy themselves with in their own thriving disciplines. But the stakes are high for both sides: nothing less than a deeper understanding of how science has changed – and is still changing.