Oldies But Goodies
As the semester (and the year) comes to an end, it is an ideal time to go through old documents and files. While sifting through piles of filed papers, I came across a few articles about the history of science and I thought I would share a few with you.
I reviewed a book published in 1985 by Steve Shapin entitled Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. The book focused on the controversies that arose because of the publication of the work done by Robert Boyle entitled New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of Air (1660).
The author believed that the controversy was more about social order than about science. He was not concerned about how Boyle discovered his law but rather he wanted his book to be an exercise in what he called the "sociology of scientific knowledge." The main protagonists in the book were Boyle and Hobbes.
Boyle's "elaborate experiments" in which artificial phenomena were produced by apparatus, in this case the air-pump, caused problems for him with physical integrity, standardization and replication. Shapin pointed out how these matters caused disputes with Boyle's fellow scientists but also showed how the confrontation with Hobbes was more profound. Hobbes not only rejected the existence of the vacuum in nature but he argued that only reason or philosophy could yield reliable knowledge not Boyle's "engine philosophy."
The author addressed the complex relationship between theory, experiment, and the intellectual and political community.
In another book published by the same author, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994), Shapin was concerned with questions about the grounds of scientific knowledge that traditionally had been the preserve of philosophers. Shapin wanted to explore the bases upon which scientific knowledge was held.
The author believed that the way we secure factual knowledge would rest upon the reliability of testimony. He argued for the importance of trust in establishing knowledge, especially empirical knowledge, in the natural world. He gave historical accounts involving the importance of gentlemanly codes during the seventeenth-century in resolving disputes about such things as water pressure and comets among natural philosophers.
Shapin described the scholarly communities of the seventeenth-century and showed how the person actually doing the experiment was paid to do so. The worker was only to perform the experiment not to explain the outcome. The explanation was the job of the natural philosopher. As the author stated so well: "The merely experienced agent was rightly subservient to the reasoning agent." Another way of putting it was from Boyle himself: "Experience is but an assistant to reason."
Lastly, an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1991 addressed the role of trust in knowledge. Hardwig believed that much of our knowledge rests on trust. He stressed the importance of teamwork in acquiring scientific knowledge and also pointed out the fact that no one person alone can grasp all of the information available on any topic in science.
Hardwig discussed the specialization that was so prevalent in modern scientific research. The author also addressed the issue of research fraud and pointed out that it was harder to control than was once believed. The more difficult and costly the experiment the less likely it would be that replication for the sake of repeatability would occur.