Importance of History of Science (for scientists and others)

My SciBling John Lynch recently published a very interesting paper, on a topic close to my heart: Does Science Education Need the History of Science? by Graeme Gooday, John M. Lynch, Kenneth G. Wilson, and Constance K. Barsky. Isis, 2008, 99:322-330
This is a part of a broader focus issue of Isis on the topic of History of Science. I got the paper two weeks ago, but only now found some time to sit down and read it. And I was not disappointed! Fortunately for all of us, the entire paper is available online for free (yeah!), so you can read it in its entirety.
While using the fight against Creationism (including Intelligent Design) in the USA as an example of how history of science education can help in the public arena may or may not appeal to everyone, the main thesis of the paper – that History Of Science classes to science students will make them better scientists – is what I always thought was an obvious truth. They write:

First among them is that at least one Nobel laureate (in physics) has already found benefits in introducing history of science in the precollege science curriculum. Kenneth G. Wilson, in collaboration with Constance Barsky, has conducted over a decade of research on the impact of such integrated historical teaching in that particular educational sector. They argue that exposure to the history of science helps students considering science as a career to think, ask questions, and explore the concepts and ramifications of broad topics, enabling them to grasp what science is about and how it is conducted. In particular, they suggest focusing on such topics as the history of engineering and the recognition that the existence of a large number of concurrent redesign processes in science and technology can build understanding of how and why socioeconomic changes arise as new versions of artifacts are introduced. More generally, they suggest that knowledge and understanding of the history of science can enable future practitioners of science better to anticipate and respond to the challenges of rapid globalization and be better prepared to mold our future.

Perhaps if scientists-in-training learned the history of the way science has been done, funded and communicated over the centuries (e.g., for communication: books, monographs, letters to societies, journals, peer-reviewed journals, conferences, the Web), they would be better prepared for the changes currently happening in the way science is done, funded and published. That is why I thought that placing current changes in the publishing world would be better understood in the context of history.
I have also written before about the way I got into my own field – because the course was heavily anchored in the history of the field:

I got excited about my area of research BECAUSE of the way the course was taught on it. Every topic started with “the first guy” who thought about it, then went through the history, stopping to analyze the key experiments and how they were interpreted by the authors and readers at the time (and why – the importance of context), and ended with the current knowledge, including some “hot off the presses” stuff. There was no way anyone could have taken the class without leaving with an impression that everything is tentative, that new research can change stuff really fast, and how much still there is to learn. That feeling that the field is wide open, feeling I got due to the way this was taught, made me want to jump into the discipline and do my own research.
[It] was a great example of teaching a field of science using a “Great Men in Context” approach. We learned names of people who did stuff, but also why they did it, i.e., how was it possible for them to even think that way at the time they lived. Why was a certain interpretation of data possible or impossible in 1700s, or 1920s, or 1950s, although we have a different interpretation today, with 20/20 hindsight. This approach made the class extremely effective, and I wish more science classes are taught this way.

Gooday at al. have some similar thoughts:

By contrast, studying the history of science as a process of perpetual flux and innovation can cultivate their expectations of how they might contribute to future forms of its change, especially by interactions with medicine and technology. Moreover, if student expectations are better attuned to open-endedness in the character of science, they can more readily appreciate the incompleteness and fallibility of models and theories they regularly (and thus perplexingly) have to discard as they encounter each new stage of their curriculum. Much more of science thus becomes comprehensible through study of its history–and in ways that cannot easily be addressed by scientists working within a time-pressured science curriculum.

Hopeful Monster is trying to do something similar:

…..the article also argues that training science students about the history of science will produce scientists that are better informed about their disciplines and have a better understanding of how science changes–or even that science changes. One major flaw I see in my own students is that, even as college juniors and seniors, they still see science as a collection of facts that they can memorize for the exam, rather than as a process. I try as much as possible to get students to analyze, predict, and interpret far more than I ask them to memorize. I have also tried to incorporate history–having students interpret data from classic experiments, for instance; investigating how models have changed–to emphasize science as process. It’s possible that I didn’t take much concrete away from the article because I had already been sold on the idea. But I could probably still work on the implementation.

Or, as John and his co-authors say in the paper:

Arguably most important is the understanding of the broader processes of science that studying its history can uniquely offer. The key role of history here is characterizing the complexities of how science changes. So many science textbooks unhelpfully–and above all inaccurately– cultivate a rather static image of scientific disciplines, as if they were completed with comprehensive certainty. It is perhaps not difficult to understand how this gross oversimplification might arise as the result of a pedagogical need to “tidy up” the
presentation of science to meet the needs and capacities of students. But faced with the textbook spectacle of such an apparently unalterable monolith, is it any wonder that students can have difficulty conceiving how they might ever contribute to science?

This is also why, as an Open Access evangelist, I particularly stress the need for making old papers OA and having them available in classrooms at all levels.
Bob O’Hara, though, warns about naivete with which some science professors introduce the historical context into their science classes:

Ever since I was an undergraduate, I read histories of science written by historians. It became apparent that the history we are taught in science is very much a fake history – the Good Guys make great advances by carrying out the crucial experiment, and once it was published the best of the scientific community accepted it and moved on the next Great Advance. Only the elderly professors and the less competent objected, and they were wrong. Aspects like Mendel being ignored are treated as some oddity – how on earth could scientists have ignored the ground-breaking work of an obscure monk for 40 years?
Once you start to read “proper” histories, you see that reality was different. It was never as clean: the original experiments were not definitive, there were valid criticisms of them (some were even fiddled!), or were not understood the way they are today. Sometimes experiments had to be placed in the right context before they could be properly understood (this is more or less the issue with Mendel: he was thnking along different lines when he did his experiments). If we are ignorant of this sort of history, we can end up with a distorted view of science and its progress – we can become naïve scientific triumphalists (to use a phrase one of my genetics lecturers used about her head of department). It should be clear that, by implying the inevitability of progress, this can breed undue arrogance.

I had the same feeling when I started. So, in grad school, I took four History of Science courses – those I wanted, not those marked as necessary for getting a Minor in it – and those four were some of the most fun and edifying classes I ever took. The first was a general survey course of History of Life Sciences (about a third devoted to history of medicine starting with Vesalius, a third on evolution, and a third on the birth of molecular biology). The second was Biology In History seminar looking at broad patterns in history (one of the main readings was Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’) and how agriculture, diseases, domestication, drugs, etc, affected those. The third was ‘Darwin in Science and Society’, where we read mostly secondary sources (just firt 5 chapter of the ‘Origin’). The fourth was ‘Darwin (Re)visited’ seminar in which we actually read the entire Origin, entire Voyage, almost entire Descent, bunch of letter, autobiography, a couple of papers, some excerpts from his other books, etc.
Finally, I taught a graduate seminar in ‘Readings in Behavioral Biology’ in which, for each week’s topic, I paired a classical paper to a recent one so we could discuss the topic within a historical framework.
Will Thomas, who is a historian of science, writes among else:

More to the point, the article portrays history as a potential force of enculturation while science courses portray a more “static” and stripped-down picture of what science is. We can show how scientific communities work, and how scientific knowledge changes over time, thereby relieving the perplexity caused by the discarding of simplified notions for more advanced treatments offered in more advanced courses. To a degree, I think this is true. One of my science students this spring even mentioned that the course ought to be required of science students (I suspect flattery here). But, other means of enculturation, such as contact with science professors and working in labs, is surely more important and can present a nuanced view a history of science class would likely lack (although maybe sociology of science can find a place here?). If science students get perspective on what it means to be a scientist from our courses, that’s good of course: we do offer a broader picture in scope and in time. But if we are a primary means of enculturation, it tells me that science departments aren’t really doing their jobs.

I think that science departments are, actually, not generally doing a good job. Contact with professors and working in labs is not enough – you are told what to do, you are given recipes for techniques/kits you will be using, and you are urged to read the latest, sexiest papers in the narrow area of research that the lab is focusing on.
This differs between disciplines, I have observed, with ecology, evolutionary biology, behavioral biology, and organismal/systems physiology generally inculcating the new students into the historical lore much more than Big Science labs (biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics except Population genetics which does pay attention to its history). In those disciplines, new students are pointed to the Classical papers in the field. I have greatly profited from reading the ancient (often 60 pages long) papers by Achoff, DeCoursey, Pittendrigh, Ehret, Gwinner, Daan, Halberg, Bunning and even Frank Brown (who got it all wrong, but it is enlightening to see how and why he did get it wrong) – those papers gave me a good grounding, gave me ideas, told me what would NOT work, reintroduced concepts that everyone seemed to have forgotten in the decades since their publication.
As John and others say in the paper:

And last, but not least, students can become acquainted with the key institutions, formative episodes, and accomplishments of their fields, a process that can contribute to the formation of professional identity in ways that are probably more effective than simply learning and replicating the contents of science textbooks and laboratory routines.



9 responses to “Importance of History of Science (for scientists and others)

  1. Thanks for posting the paper. The idea is spot on. But your are preaching to the choir with me. Only when I filled out the graduation paper did I realize that I’d inadvertently finished a history minor and came very close to a second major.

  2. I am curious about one aspect of the teaching of the history of science. I have been aware for some time of the tension between the advocates of Thomas Kuhn and those whom I might tendentiously call evolutionary historians of science. Kuhn advocated a revolutionary view of science, promoting the picture of paradigm-shifting young turks committed to upending the musty old establishment creed. Against this is the narrative of steady progress, where science adds to a growing store of knowledge. As a theoretical physicist, I have heard both narratives, not just of Einstein as up-ender, but also relativity as generalization of Galilean mechanics, and general relativity as a generalization of special relativity. I tend to side with the view that “every new theory swallows the old theory whole” (the evolutionary view) rather than “new paradigms reframe observations, making the old paradigm obsolete” (the revolutionary view). After all, we still teach Newtonian mechanics. And classical field theory. And continuum mechanics. And so on….
    So, which view of science history gets taught? What happens when a Kuhnian collides with an anti-Kuhnian?

  3. While I generally agree that history is important in science and everything, I think that trying to put everything in a historical context can sometimes obfuscate more than illuminate. Quantum mechanics, for instance, is generally taught by recounting the historical development of the field, but it would probably be easier to pick up if it was just taught as a fully-developed mathematical theory, like analysis or topology (side note—history seldom came up in any of the post-calculus math courses I took, except when a theorem was named after some mathematician). Michael Nielsen wrote about this recently; here’s a quote from the end of his essay:

    The standard explanation is based on the historical development of quantum mechanics between 1900 and 1930. During that time there were a series of crises in physics. The pattern was that each time some experimental fact would be noticed that seemed hard to explain with the old “classical” way of viewing the world. Each time, physicists would bandage over the old classical thinking with an ad hoc bandaid. This happened over and over again until, in the mid-1920s, the sick patient of classical physics finally keeled over completely, and was replaced with the new framework of quantum mechanics.
    The problem with this style of explanation, and what makes it confusing, is that none of those early crises was entirely clearcut. In each case, there were physicists who argued that the new experimental results could be explained pretty well with a conventional classical picture. And, in fact, with hindsight, we can now see that some of these crises have pretty good explanations that are essentially classical.

  4. lylebot,
    Teaching the history of quantum mechanics and teaching quantum mechanics as a ‘fully developed mathematical theory’ are not mutually exclusive. Most scientists aren’t qualified to teach the history of their science, and I don’t think anyone is advocating teaching science by going through the historical development of scientific theories. We can go to science classes for the heavily processed version of scientific theories, a version tailored for easy application in scientific research. But history of science as taught by historians of science is still valuable to practicing scientists.

  5. Whoops, I just read Bora’s post more carefully and realise that he was advocating teaching some science by starting from ‘historical’ papers. I think this might not work so well in physics because learning a modern physical theory is difficult enough that going through its various historical incarnations would probably end up confusing students even more.

  6. Also, one of the problems with the kind of ‘historical’ account of QM that Nielsen doesn’t like is that it’s Whig history of science. So the solution isn’t necessarily to banish history altogether, but to give an accurate account of it, one that doesn’t just repeat the simplistic storyline of QM defeating classical mechanics by sheer repeated empirical success.

  7. Great post. One of my favorite classes in undergrad was a biochemistry course in which the professor deliberately included (more even than usual in biochem) material on the history of the field.
    I also took the History of Life Sciences course at NC State. Isn’t Will Kimler great? I hear he has a book coming out sometime, by the way.

  8. Yes. I took all those courses with Will. He is amazing – a true Victorian scholar: he knows his science and his history (and music and art and literature and everything else).

  9. Pingback: Observations: Circadian clock without DNA–History and the power of metaphor | StephenKMackSD's Blog