Science & Technology in World History

Authors James McClellan and Harold Dorn attempt to survey the world history of science and technology in their book Science and Technology in World History. Their general method for dealing with such a huge volume of information is clear, but definitely leaves to the reader the establishment of a solid timeline; they divide the book roughly by large time periods, and then by location. General trends are highlighted, such as the disunity of science and technology until recent times and the importance of certain societal and cultural institutions for the advancement of science, and evidence is provided in the form of a few basic, albeit specific, examples. They are careful in the introduction and the conclusion to emphasize that, in writing a survey of such magnitude, they had to be selective in what they included, and that the reader should understand that the historical record is far more complex than appears in their work.

Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, in the introduction of their work Making Modern Science, stress similar problems inherent in a survey and with the history of science in general. It is a contentious field, they emphasize, and far from a “smooth process of fact gathering,” due in no small part to the influence of scientists themselves.[1] The authors go on to trace the history of the history of science, from its post World War II conception (brought about by a society that had become painfully aware of science’s dangers) through its various critical stages of development. Their history serves another purpose; it highlights an idea that the history of science, along with sociology, philosophy, and related fields, have been working toward — treating science like other fields of inquiry are treated. In conclusion, Bowler and Morus justify a study focused on modern science based on the claim that research interests have changed in the field in order to address culturally relevant scientific problems, which involve institutions and other influences unique to modernity.

Both readings address a theme I have found quite prominent in my first week of classes here. Science has acquired an authority similar to that of religion in the early modern world, and it continues to fight for that power. Thomas F. Gieryn, in his article “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science,” deals with a similar idea. He analyses, through three examples of scientists’ own writing, how science has used the ambiguity of its ideologies to cast itself in different roles in order to claim authority in various situations. The outline of the history of science gives a few examples of scientists engaging in this activity; when confronted in the past by other academic disciplines about the fallibility of their methods, they maintain that their art is an objective one and should be treated differently. The survey also plays into this discourse by emphasizing the dangers of the power of the industrial science complex. The power of science, and the willingness of its proponents to defend it in light of its flaws, has major implications for the future.

The reading for this week was both broadly informative — I knew next to nothing about early science — and methodologically illuminating. Surveys have always been rough to read because I find them tantalizing, but this one was satisfying in that the authors did their best to include specific examples of the broad phenomenon they were describing. The general intellectual feeling I garnered from the two readings was disparate; on one hand, the survey painted a vivid picture of the development of an amazingly capable way to understand and analyze the world, and on the other, the introduction highlighted problems with science as an authoritative institution. It seems that humanity will take any powerful interpretive framework and abuse it. My main point of inquiry would be this; can science be “fixed”? Is a truly objective method within the capability of humanity to carry out, and if not, what is the role of the historian (and the sociologist, and the philosopher…) in mitigating the “human” component of science? And should we be striving to improve this method or, seeing its flaws and its dangers, should we engage in a “paradigm shift” and attempt to find a more perfect framework for inquiry into the universe?

[1] Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, Making Modern Science, 1.

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