Should the History of Science Be Rated X?

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Science  22 Mar 1974:
Vol. 183, Issue 4130, pp. 1164-1172
DOI: 10.1126/science.183.4130.1164


I suggest that the teacher who wants to indoctrinate his students in the traditional role of the scientist as a neutral fact finder should not use historical materials of the kind now being prepared by historians of science: they will not serve his purposes. He may wish to follow the advice of philosopher J. C. C. Smart, who recently suggested that it is legitimate to use fictionalized history of science to illustrate one's pronouncements on scientific method (56). On the other hand, those teachers who want to counteract the dogmatism of the textbooks and convey some understanding of science as an activity that cannot be divorced from metaphysical or esthetic considerations may find some stimulation in the new history of science. As historian D. S. L. Cardwell has argued (57, p. 120):

. . . [I]f the history of science is to be used as an educational discipline, to inculcate an enlightened and critical mind, then the Whig view . . . cannot do this. For it must emphasize the continuities, the smooth and successive developments from one great achievement to the next and so on; and in doing so it must automatically endow the present state of science with all the immense authority of history.

He suggests that the critical mind might be inhibited by seeing the present as the inevitable, triumphant product of the past. The history of science could aid the teaching of science by showing that "such puzzling concepts as force, energy, etc., are man-made and were evolved in an understandable sequence in response to acutely felt and very real problems. They were not handed down by some celestial textbook writer to whom they were immediately self-evident" (57, p. 120).

The past may give some hints on how to survive the most recent recurrence of public hostility to science. Rather than blaming historians such as Kuhn for encouraging antiscientific attitudes, as one physicist did in a public address in 1972 (58), one might consider this criticism of the older style of science history, published in 1940 by W. James Lyons (59, p. 381):

The historians of science are responsible, it would appear, for the unpopularity of science among those most acutely affected by the depression. In their clamor to enhance the scientific tradition, and hoard for science all credit for the remarkable and unprecedented material advances which studded the century and a quarter preceding 1930, these historians have been more enthusiastic than accurate . . . science emerged [in the popular mind] as the most prominent force responsible for making this modern world so startlingly different from all preceding ages. Thus when, for many people, the modern world, in spite of all its resources, began to slip from its role of "best of all imaginable worlds," science came in for a proportionate share of blame. Had a more accurate picture of the part science has played been presented, science would not now be the object of so much suspicion and resentment.

In more recent times, hostility to science has been intensified by the image of the "objective," robot-like scientist lacking emotions and moral values. If the new approach to the history of science really does give a more realistic picture of the behavior of scientists, perhaps it has a "redeeming social significance." Then, rather than limiting the conception of science to the strict pattern allowed by traditional local standards, one might try to change those standards in such a way as to reflect the freedom that the boldest natural philosophers have always exercised.

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