I like reading about the history of science, including my own discipline. But there is one kind of history of science that annoys me hugely, and that’s the knowledge relativist kind. A knowledge relativist historian of science will chronicle a scientific debate of the past but make no comment on who – if any – of the participants turned out to be right. (If you feel the need, you’re welcome to substitute “gain the eventual support of today’s scientific consensus” for “be right”.)
Such history writing makes scientific debate look ridiculous and pointless. Just a lot of agitated people dreaming up conflicting interpretations with no way to check what’s right. A relativist history of science gives the erroneous impression that the changes in science’s world view are quite random in their direction and always of about the same magnitude, when in fact debates with a good empirical foundation tend to converge on consensus truth over time, the error bars and the number of open questions shrinking decade by decade. Most of the interpretations suggested in 19th century archaeological debate, for instance, are impossible to put forward today because we have learned so much since then. They have been laid to rest because we know they were wrong.
But I have a feeling that many relativist historians of science may not in fact have such a dismissive attitude to scientific truth as their writings suggest. They may just be lazy and/or pressed for time. Because it takes time to follow and chronicle a forgotten debate of the 1830s. And when you’ve done that, it helps if you don’t also have to read the current literature on the subject to find out how the matter was eventually settled. Apparent relativist historians of science may simply not know or care what came out of those debates a hundred years down the line. But in my opinion, the outcome is the point of scientific debate, and an historian of science who ignores that makes enemies of the debate’s current participants.