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Science Wars and Purity: A Review of Steven Shapin's Never Pure

Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority.

Chemical Laboratory, Early 17th Century. History of Science Museum

The subtitle says it all. Never Pure is a collection of sixteen articles and essays about social studies of science aiming at a single idea: science (and its purpose of making claims that are as truthful and credible as possible) should be understood as the product of people working in a particular time, a specific place, and within a distinct culture. Science is human, fallible, and shaped by its historical moment.

Although the book is a compilation of texts published in different times and places, it has a strong internal cohesiveness. Most of the articles relate in some way to seventeenth-century English ”scientists” or experimental philosophers and the beginnings of the Royal Society of London, giving particular attention to Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle.

The book is organized thematically in six independent parts (See table of content below). The first part, called Methods and Maxims, is a compilation of essays about theoretical considerations related to science and technology studies, including thoughts on how the social studies of science have been perceived by natural scientists. The second and third parts, titled Places and Practices and The Scientific Person, look at how scientists in seventeenth-century London created a set of codes and practices that would ensure the legitimacy, credibility, and authority of their scientific experiments. In part four, Shapin relates (surprisingly) how philosophers’ and scientists’ diet and eating habits are related to their authority as producers of disembodied and truthful knowledge. Parts five and six examine the significance of common sense and how science has shaped the modern world, respectively.

Science is human, fallible, and shaped by its historical moment

In the spirit of situating things within a specific time, space, and culture, I hope to provide some academic and social context for the publication of these articles and their relation to their author’s career. Each chapter of this book was published elsewhere during a period spanning twenty-six years: the first in 1984, the most recent in 2010.

First, a short biographical contextualization is warranted. A closer look at Steven Shapin’s career is a good place to understand some of his choices as an author. First, it’s crucial to know that Shapin has a background in science. He majored in biology in his undergraduate education and did postgraduate studies in genetics in the late 60s. However, the longing for social analysis led him to pursue a Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Now a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, Shapin had appointments as a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, and—most importantly—the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh.

His preference for studying science in seventeenth-century England is evident throughout his career. One of his most famous works is Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, written with Simon Shaffer. The book examines the debates between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the validity of experimentation in 1660s London, an unarguably pivotal time in science history. As a historian, a sociologist, and even a scientist, Shapin seems aware he cannot truly grasp the greater consequences of this historic moment in science if one of these three qualifications is missing.

As a historian, a sociologist, and even a scientist, Shapin seems aware he cannot truly grasp the greater consequences of this historic moment in science if one of these three qualifications is missing

Never Pure covers his most known topics of interest and includes his thoughts on a very turbulent time in the history of the social studies of science. The last two decades of the twentieth century saw the consolidation of STS (Science and Technology Studies) and History of Science into somewhat independent fields, combining traditional approaches with social and theoretical advances that saw the light in the 1960s and 1970s. This led to the years of the so-called “science wars” of the last decade of the twentieth century; a war in which Shapin was involved, albeit he downplays his role in them.

A Soldier in the Science Wars

The nature of these articles is grasped in the broader academic context of their original appearance. Over fifty years after its first publication, it tends to be common knowledge among historians what Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did to the history of science. Kuhn’s book brought about the inconceivable: a question mark over the professed linear progress of science and the universality of its methods and processes. It reaffirmed the notion that science was human.

Kuhn’s main thesis was that the scientific process entails social elements at its core. According to Ullica Segerstrale (Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing Discourse about Science and Society), his message—liberating to some—was that science “was not the paragon of rationality after all.” This presented a problem for conservative scientists and traditional historians of science: Kuhn probed their work’s truthfulness and lowered it to the level of social constructs, not far from the often belittled social sciences or humanities. Science was stripped from being characterized as “pure,” where only evidence matters, and scholars needed to start taking into account the social interactions between scientists. Kuhn’s idea opened a path to a new field of study that may have seemed like a paradox at that time: the social studies of science. If Kuhn was right and science was indeed human, then it had a social history.

Steven Shapin at the 2008 History of Science Society meeting, by Sage Ross / CC BY-SA 3.0

Traditional historians of science must have felt concerned with what was happening with their field. They did not want to be confused with the new advocates for change that actually paid attention to the social side of the scientific practice. The transition was slow. As a representative of the new generation, Shapin tells a story about how he came to face the contempt of traditional historians. When he first arrived at the University of Edinburgh, he found another history of science professor in the history department trying to defend his turf. The old professor may have felt threatened by this new figure—as academics often do in the face of methodological changes—but was quickly appeased when Shapin said that he would name his course “the social history of science.” Why did this calm the old professor? Because to him, a traditional historian of science, there was no social history of science, or at least, it wasn’t relevant. For him, the term social was enough to distinguish what Shapin was doing from “the real thing.”

According to Shapin’s curriculum vitae, this must have happened in the early 1970s, ten years after Kuhn’s publication. It was at this time that the tension that would lead to the science wars started building.

The science wars were a series of skirmishes around the mid-1990s, not precisely between scientists and science studies scholars, but by “a relatively small minority of ‘proscience’ activists against a particular school within STS (Science and Technology Studies).” For the proscience advocates, this was a war of science and reason vs. the academic left, and the attacks were mainly directed at the poppycock of postmodernism and social constructivism. The main points of contention were, put simply, whether scientific truth was indeed obtainable.

Shapin describes himself as “something in between a common soldier and an interested witness to the current hostilities.”

Shapin was part of these wars, but he describes himself as “something in between a common soldier and an interested witness to the current hostilities.” Most of the articles in this book are a defence of the social construction of science, even if their tone is not particularly contentious. Occasionally, however, Shapin does throw a few punches. One worthy of note is in the third chapter—initially published in 2001—where he makes a list of the statements about the fallibility of science and the impossibility of regarding its results as absolute truths. To give a couple examples of these: “new knowledge is not science until it is made social;” “the conceptual basis of physics is a free invention of the human mind;” or “modern physics is based on some intrinsic acts of faith.” A few lines after, Shapin reveals that they were not uttered by social scholars of science or antiscientific sociologists but by natural scientists themselves. In this case, Edward Wilson (entomologist), Albert Einstein (physicist), and Brian Petley (physicist), respectively. Shapin lures the reader to his side, arguing that the notion of truth had also been unpopular among scientists all along.

A closer look at Sapin’s footnotes and book references, especially in the first chapters, reveals his allegiances. Some of the authors he mentions include sociologists Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Harry Collins, and Donald Mackenzie. The common factor between them is the aforementioned Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh. Together with some other British academics, these scholars came to be called the “strong programme.”

The strong programme was a reaction to the way the scientific process had been studied. It emphasized that the construction of scientific knowledge should be reexamined from a social point of view. According to sociology professor Bernard Barber, its members were exceptionally active in their work to popularized the new field of study: “they organized programs to train students, they started and have edited successfully what is the premier sociology of science journal (Social Studies of Science) [...], and they organized new groups to discuss their work,” among other things.

University of Edinburgh's Science Studies Unit - 1980s. (Photo taken from University of Edinburgh)

Some of Shapin’s articles were written before and others after the annus horribilis of 1994, as Ullica Segerstrale calls it. That year the hostilities between natural scientists and social scientists started to get critical. The most mentioned and controversial book on the wars that year was Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by biologist Paul R. Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt.

The aggressions heightened two years later with the infamous Sokal hoax. Physicist Alan Sokal managed to publish a bogus paper, a “parody of postmodern thought,” in one recognized social science journal. This, as Sokal said, ended up proving that the editors of that journal “were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

Back then, he wrote, the biggest casualty of the science wars would be the “free, open, and informed public debate about the health of modern science.”

In his article “How to be Antiscientific,” published in 2001 and included in Never Pure, Shapin seems to be trying to bring the belligerent parties closer. He talks about how he went to the same schools and might have the same inclinations and worldviews as the high-ranking generals of the wars on the science side, including Sokal, Gross and Levitt. With this, it appears he was trying to make peace in the name of knowledge. Back then, he wrote, the biggest casualty of the science wars would be the “free, open, and informed public debate about the health of modern science.”

Following the Strong Programme

Shapin’s solid sociological perspective is a product of his influences and membership in the so-called “strong programme“ of the Science Studies Unit. He even mentions that he was the only “nominal historian.” Of all historical specialties, Shapin wrote, “the history of science has been more disposed than most to reflect upon its methods and objects.” This is the case in Never Pure as well. Shapin is very transparent about his theoretical stances and lets his readers know his point of view from the start. In the end, this collection of articles does succeed in becoming a unity when its purpose becomes clear: Shapin wants to show that “philosophical, historical, or sociological dimensions should have a place in the science curriculum.”

Of course, the original publication of these articles cannot be reduced to the science wars. Their subject matter—the work of the experimental philosophers inside a particular society and the prevailing ideas about the production of truthful knowledge—responds to a larger structure of academic writing in science studies that had one of its foundations in the publication of The Structure of the Scientific Revolution. Shapin is aware of this when he explains that his work is the product of this time. But it is also the result of his life choices. He was part of the “small interdisciplinary Science Studies Unit” that produced some of the most renowned sociologists of science in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The Unit marked his own analyses and his quest, so to speak, for the beginnings of the idea of the scientist and the elusive scientific truth.


Table Of Contents


1. Lowering the Tone in the History of Science: A Noble Calling

Part I: Methods and Maxims

2. Cordelia's Love: Credibility and the Social Studies of Science

3. How to Be Antiscientific

4. Science and Prejudice in Historical Perspective

Part II: Places and Practices

5. The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-century England

6. Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle's Literary Technology

Part III: The Scientific Person

7. "The Mind Is Its Own Place": Science and Solitude in Seventeenth-century England

8. "A Scholar and a Gentleman": The Problematic Identity of the Scientific Practitioner in Seventeenth-century England

9. Who Was Robert Hooke?

10. Who Is the Industrial Scientist? Commentary from Academic Sociology and from the Shop Floor in the United States, ca. 1900–ca. 1970

Part IV: The Body of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Body

11. The Philosopher and the Chicken: On the Dietetics of Disembodied Knowledge

12. How to Eat Like a Gentleman: Dietetics and Ethics in Early Modern England

Part V: The World of Science and the World of Common Sense

13. Trusting George Cheyne: Scientific Expertise, Common Sense, and Moral Authority in Early Eighteenth-century Dietetic Medicine

14. Proverbial Economies: How an Understanding of Some Linguistic and Social Features of Common Sense Can Throw Light on More Prestigious Bodies of Knowledge, Science for Example

15. Descartes the Doctor: Rationalism and Its Therapies

Part VI: Science and Modernity

16. Science and the Modern World



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