Birger’s Friday Link Roundup

  • Ikea’s typhoon rescue relief outguns China’s. Nope. Not surprised that their government does not care much.
  • China Ends One-Child Policy.
  • “Viking-age” ‘gold men’ unearthed in Sweden”. Actually, a bit older than the Vikings…
  • When the workload grows too huge, I recommend a solution found in Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids. The pyramid engineer creates a time loop so different temporal versions of him can work in parallel. Literally “an army of me”.
  • The Welsh language must be perfect for writing sagas about ancient heroes battling it out.
  • Creepy White Guys and Asian Women” *shudders in disgust*
  • Chinese supreme court bans the use of torture to extract confessions (only 240 years after Sweden). It also restricted the use of the death sentence. Now, if only the Americans took note…
  • Caananites had their priorities right when it came to inventions: Wine cellar from 1700 BC Team finds one of civilization’s oldest wine cellars.
  • Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha’s life.
  • A recent gem from Fox News (unintentional comedy): “Why women still need husbands”.
  • Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance.
  • I confess to judging Pope Francis because of his funny hat, but look at what he just said: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” An establishment figure who cares about the poor?!!! (swoons)
  • China to recover shipwreck’s treasures.
  • Investigation reveals black market in China for research paper authoring. Hvistendahl notes that such a black market has arisen in China due to the enormous pressure Chinese researchers are feeling to publish something. In that country, it appears having one’s name attached to a research paper, matters more than actually conducting research.
  • Sweden is closing one of its prisons for lack of inmates. And here is what happened when a guard forgot to lock in a group of prisoners for the night.
  • News for any Aussies reading this: There is a naked-eye nova visible in Centaurus. Make sure you have the correct number of contact lenses.
  • Women and science on YouTube. Few women promote science on YouTube, because of the creepy misogynist trolls that infest the comments. (Like John Hinckley Jr., they were too crazy for the Nazis and now trawl the internet instead of trashing Jewish cemeteries). PZ Myers has a list of women scientists who nevertheless use the medium. NB. If you are a woman who intend to use YouTube for science DISABLE THE COMMENTS and don’t enable ratings.


History Is Fine And Scientists Are Co-Owners

Recently I blogged about historians of science who chronicle scientific debates of the past neutrally and leave it to the reader to find out who (if anyone) turned out to be right in the end. This approach pisses me off because I’m a scientist and I believe that the main point of such debates – past and current – is to advance science. I don’t enjoy the implication of neutralist history of science, that it’s all just historically contingent talk and the process isn’t taking us anywhere.

Historian of science Darin Hayton of Haverford College in Pennsylvania didn’t like my viewpoint and wrote a rather angry blog entry about it. There’s no comments section on the blog – I’m guessing because his blog is on Haverford’s server and they’re afraid of libel or hate speech. (But really, getting comments is half the fun of blogging!) Instead Dr. Hayton kindly agreed to publish a guest entry of mine where I explained my position. And now he has replied.

He opens by ascribing a rather odd opinion to me: that all intellectually defensible activities must show how past scientific debates have been resolved in the present. That is not my opinion. (Is this a copy editing error?) I do think however that the history of science should, as one part if its remit.

Dr. Hayton then appears to say that he rejects the idea that through scientific studies we gain better and more accurate knowledge about the world over time. The wording isn’t quite clear to me, but if this is what he believes, then I don’t understand what he thinks that scholars have to offer the world. Or why we should be paid.

I do believe, as he suggests, that in Enlightenment science only those activities that contribute to accumulation of knowledge are worthwhile. One such activity is scientific debate. Debate leading to expert consensus is how provisional scientific truth is established, tested, modified and built upon.

Dr. Hayton points out correctly that scientists of the past didn’t quite have the same long-term agenda as today’s scientists have. But as I pointed out to him, many or most scientists of today feel that we are continuing a centuries-old project aiming to find out what the world is like. And we are a considerable chunk of his potential readership. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone working in an abstruse field (like mine) to alienate potential readers. The customer is always right.

I’m not asking Dr. Hayton to ”sanitize” Isaac Newton’s work or ”excize God” from it. I’m not asking neutralist historians of science to remove anything from what they’re writing. I’m asking them to recognise that although scientists of the present are certainly not exclusive owners of Newton & Co, we do deserve to be counted among the stakeholders. We are way more interested in the history of science than most people. I’m not asking for hagiography. I just want a history of science that recognises that scientific debate actually produces more accurate knowledge of the world over time. Just like debates among historians of science produce more accurate knowledge about, say, Renaissance astrology.

Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.

Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science

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.