Physicist’s story of science breaks historians’ rules

Evaluating past on its own terms misses important points, Nobel laureate Weinberg says

scene from Raphael's 'The School of Athens'

Plato and Aristotle discussed what they considered the scientific questions of their times, but they did not discern proper and effective approaches for learning about the nature of the world, physicist Steven Weinberg argues.

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-1511/Wikimedia Commons

BALTIMORE — For centuries, clashes between science and religion have made waves within society at large and in the academic world. You probably haven’t heard very much, though, about similar clashes between science and history.

Yet scientists and historians have fundamentally different perspectives on history, especially when it’s the history of science. Scientists tend to celebrate the discoveries of the past that built the knowledge of the present. Historians argue that the scientists of the past should be viewed through the lens of their own time, not evaluated on the relevance of their work to today’s textbooks.

One prominent physicist who objects to the historians’ modus operandi is Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin. His 2015 book To Understand the World unabashedly analyzes the scientific past in the light of the present. “I knew from the beginning that I was being naughty,” Weinberg said March 14 at a meeting in Baltimore of the American Physical Society.

In technical terms, Weinberg was engaging in “Whig” history (an allusion to criticisms of British historical accounts involving a prominent political party). Whig historians write (or rewrite) history as a story validating the chain of events that created present-day circumstances. Most historians argue that such an approach distorts the record of the past. Much of what happened in the past had little to do with how things are now, and historical actors certainly had motives other than creating a future they couldn’t even have imagined. “We don’t want to read history only from the winners’ point of view,” commented historian David Wootton, also speaking at the physical society meeting.

But limiting historical accounts to evaluating the past “on its own terms,” without admitting current knowledge into evidence, misses much of the story, Weinberg asserts.

And as Weinberg points out, it’s often hard to understand the past on its own terms anyway. Especially when studying early Greek philosophers, it’s impossible to know very much about the conditions under which they worked and the influences that shaped their thought. Even many of their own writings are missing or fragmentary.

“Our knowledge of present science provides a contrast to the attitudes and methods of the past, attitudes and methods that often obstructed progress,” Weinberg said.

Of course, the notion of progress itself is one of those concepts that some historians deny; it implies a value judgment that things now are somehow better than they used to be. But in science, progress of some sort is very hard to deny. Wootton, the historian, agrees with Weinberg on that point. Wootton believes many historians go too far in denying the notion of progress in many fields, with science being the most prominent example.

“The progress has been real and needs to be studied and explained,” Wootton said. “Understanding the past in its own terms is not enough” — a point he also makes in his recent book The Invention of Science.

Other historians view their task more narrowly, insisting that scientists of the past should be studied in light of their efforts to solve the problems posed in their own day within their own worldview. But that is not the story of science’s past that interests Weinberg.

He agrees that early scientists dealt with different problems. “Scientists of the past were not just like scientists of today who didn’t know as much we know. They had completely different ideas of what there was to know, or how you go about learning it,” he said. “But the point of scientific work is not to solve the problems that happen to be fashionable in your own day — it is to learn about the world.”

So that makes the stories that historians like to tell irrelevant (to him).

“It is the history of the change in the attitudes of what was there to know, and how do you find it out, that seems to me the most interesting … story.” That’s the story, Weinberg believes, that helps in understanding how science has succeeded and perhaps even helps identify present-day mistakes.

“The real story is the progress of science from an earlier day when the most intelligent and well-informed people in the world did not know how to address the mysteries of nature,” he said. “We’re certainly not finished, and we’re undoubtedly still making mistakes. But we have amassed a large amount of reliable knowledge, and more important we have developed techniques for deciding when knowledge really is knowledge or just a mistake. It is a great story. It’s not at an end. But we have learned some things, and if we don’t use the things that we have learned, then the story we tell has no point.”

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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