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S3 Ep1 - Lorraine Daston & Peter Harrison Transcript

Samara Greenwood: Hello all, and welcome back to the HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science for a broad audience. 

I'm Samara Greenwood, your host, and I'm excited to introduce today's episode, which covers a topic that should be of great interest to both scientists and HPS scholars - the often complex, sometimes fraught relationship between practicing scientists and the history of science.


To discuss this topic, I'm joined by two of the most distinguished figures in the history of science, Lorraine ‘Raine’ Daston and Peter Harrison, who recently co-authored an article for the popular digital magazine Aeon, in which they urged for a fresh dialogue between scientists and historians.

In our wonderful discussion, we cover the history of these tensions, tracing them back to the science wars of the 1990s, as well as talking about why and how this relation should be repaired. In particular, Raine and Peter would love to see science historians collaborating further with scientists and producing works directed more towards a broad audience.

On the flip side, they'd also love to see graduate programs in all scientific disciplines bring back history of science as a core component of their studies. I think the great joy of this episode is not only its fascinating content, but the pleasure of listening to two HPS luminaries discussing topics so close to their hearts.

Samara Greenwood: First of all, I would like to thank you both very much for being on the podcast. It is an honour to have you on.

Peter Harrison: It's a pleasure.


Lorraine Daston: Great pleasure to be with you.



Samara Greenwood: Together, you recently wrote an article for Aeon about bridging the gap between scientists and historians. So first, I'm really interested to know what prompted you to write this article together?

Lorraine Daston: Yes, I think it was happenstance. Peter will chime in if his memory is better than mine. But shortly after the pandemic ended, we both had the good fortune to attend a small conference workshop in Oxford. One of the other participants, the science writer, Philip Ball, very kindly suggested that it would be a very good idea if Peter and I, as historians of science, joined forces to write something about the relationships between the history of science and scientists. 

I won't tax your patience with the various iterations and meanderings that this project took, but that was the beginning, at least, of this collaboration on the article for Aeon.

Peter Harrison: The meeting itself was about the meanings of science, and it was already attempting to address some of these questions about what the public understanding of science is, how that differs from the reality, what the different perspectives of historians and philosophers and scientists themselves are. So, in a sense, Philip’s invitation was right on the money because this was something that we were interested in, how to better re-establish communications between humanists, broadly speaking, but historians of science in particular, and the scientific community.


Samara Greenwood: What were the key points that came through that you really wanted to get across through this piece? 

Peter Harrison: Sort of winding back the history, I think there was a period towards the end of the last century when there was a degree of hostility and mutual suspicion between scientists and historians. I think, on the scientist's side, they perceived historians to be kind of undoing the objectivity and rationality of science by their efforts to explain that it was a human activity and that the outcomes weren't inevitable and so on.

On the other side, historians thought scientists really, paradoxically, didn't have very deep insights into the activity that they were participating in, and the stories they told about their own past were essentially mythologies. So, there's this kind of divide between scientists’ perception of their own activities and historians perception of their own activities, and an attitude attached to that that was one of mutual mistrust.

Part of what we wanted to do was to try and overcome those barriers. To think about what caused them, how they might be overcome, and the ways in which they might be productive both for historical understanding and, to some extent, for the practice of science and how the public perceives it. 



Samara Greenwood: What about you, Raine? Did you have something to add there?

Lorraine Daston: As someone who believes that the past can be illuminating about the present, I would take us back even further than the 1990s, the so-called science wars, which Peter has just described so clearly, and think about how different it was in the 1970s and 80s or before. 

So many science departments would have included a course on the history of their discipline as a mandatory part of graduate training. It would also have been the case that the main audience for historians of science would have been the scientists themselves, who were extremely curious about the development of their field. One only needs to look at the response to Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, which was as fascinating to the scientists, if also controversial amongst them, as a description of how they do what they do and the long-term historical patterns of the evolution of science, as it was for historians of science. The book had a very, very broad readership. 

So, something happened in the 1990s to change that, and I think it was, as always in history, entangled causes, but on the side of the historians, partly as a result of Kuhn's inspiration, we became more genuinely historical. That is, we began, as Peter intimated, to care about the contingencies of history, how things could have been otherwise, which was not exactly music to the scientist's ears who wanted to believe in the inevitability of the point that they had reached.


On the scientist's side, one has to keep in mind, it was a time at which, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, in which science funding was no longer such a self-evident aspect of the policies of Western democracies. It was the time, for example in the United States, where these battles over the science wars probably raged most heatedly, of the cancellation of the project of the superconducting supercollider in Texas, which was a very deep blow to many physicists, some of whom, like Steven Weinberg, blamed the historians of science.

We have never been paid, I must say, so grand a left-handed compliment. 


Samara Greenwood: Definitely. To have so much influence, if only.


Lorraine Daston: Yes, if only. 

Samara Greenwood: You mentioned the gap in the way that scientists and historians view the history of science. In the article, you use words like - scientists tend to have a ‘triumphal’, ‘heroic’, sort of ‘smooth curve’ view of history. While historians have this more complicated, ‘curves and branches’ perspective. 

I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about these two perspectives, particularly on the historical curves and branches view, because I think our audience would really be interested in hearing a bit more about how historians see the history of science? What are some of the characteristics that make it a little bit more complicated than we might think?

Lorraine Daston: I think, first of all, there isn't such a great divergence between branching views of the trajectory of the development of science amongst the historians and that of the scientists in their day to day practice. They're all too aware, far more keenly aware probably than any historian can be, of how many competing alternatives there are at any one moment, how delicate the balancing of evidence on one side or another side is, the contingencies of their own careers, which create this kind of zigzag path through the hierarchies of science and the associated prestige and influence. So, I think if one talks on that somewhat microscopic level, there isn't such a gulf.


I think the chasm begins to widen when one begins to think more long term retrospectively. One reason is that there is a deep contradiction at the heart of the story that we all tell ourselves about science, not just the scientists, which is we believe, and I certainly believe, that it is our best approximation to the truth. On the other hand, it's a truth which progresses. It is a truth that changes. This necessarily creates a deep uncertainty as to whether what we believe now, usually to the best of our knowledge, with excellent reasons, will be what we will believe 10 years, 15 years, 50 years from now. 

This I think, psychologically, translates into a need to have a story, which is the triumphal story with a happy ending, which lands exactly where we are right now and what we happen to believe at this very moment.

But I'll hand it over to Peter.



Peter Harrison: Well, I think Raine's done a terrific job of summarising the basic issue. How is the objectivity and rationality of science consistent with the contingent historical circumstances that give rise to it? And how one option seems to emerge from all of the other possibilities? How we hold those things together is the issue. 

I think it's natural to want to downplay the forking paths and the winding turns in order to be reassured of the objectivity of science. But, I don't think we need to do that. I actually think that exploring the alternatives and the paths not taken is a useful exercise for thinking about where science is at the present. It actually can have an edifying effect on scientific practice itself. 

To take a very simple idea, the triumphalist story about evolutionary theory is that we had Lamarck and Giraffe stretching their necks, and then Darwin came along with the conception of natural selection that put that completely to bed, and then it's been onwards and upwards ever since. But if we look at the way in which evolutionary thinking is presently going, we see Lamarckian elements creeping back in, and there's a sense in which that path not taken is actually now, to some extent, reasserting itself in aspects of the epigenetic elements of evolutionary change.


So, a familiarity with those possibilities and those paths not taken for present scientists, I think, is a useful exercise to think about possibilities in the present. This, in a sense, goes back to Raine's point about how progress and constantly moving forward is consistent with the rationality and objectivity of this wonderful enterprise. 


Samara Greenwood: When you were talking then, it brought to mind the idea, this difference between looking at the past as ‘winners and losers’, who was on ‘the right side’ versus ‘the wrong side’ of history, versus a bit more of a generous attitude and going, well, yes, certainly some ideas came to the fore at certain points, but that doesn't mean the ones that dropped off were necessarily the losers. They potentially have something that has yet to be explored in some way. Would you agree with that kind of thinking, Peter?


Peter Harrison: Yes. The trick is, of course, some of these are genuine dead ends. It's difficult in the present to say, well, oh, we need to bring back, you know, alchemy or something like that, which - let me be clear - I'm not advocating. But, I think seeing the multiplicity of options in the past, there's a salutary effect on how we think about the present. It helps us, I think, be more open minded about the alternatives.

Lorraine Daston: I think that's an excellent point. 

I also think - this is perhaps utopian - but if one looks at the history of science, one sees a certain sociological regularity, which is not necessarily conducive to rationality and objectivity, which is the polarization of a debate into two mutually opposed poles. When in fact, the reality, as so often in such academic debates, turns out to be far more nuanced, somewhere in the middle. 

I think, for example, of the debates over nature versus nurture. I think most people on all sides of this debate would by now say this can't be an either-or proposition. Yet, not only have oceans of ink been spilled trying to argue categorically for one side over another, but an enormous amount of social harm has been done in insisting dogmatically on one side or another.

So, if the kind of insight that Peter was describing would make the tone of these polemics somewhat milder, that in itself would be a step toward greater rationality. 


Samara Greenwood: That's a fabulous point. 

You've mentioned a little bit about my next question, which was, how do you think these two views might be reconciled? My question is, is it only about scientists learning about the complications of history and incorporating that more into their worldview? Or do you think there's also things that historians can do to help bridge this gap between these two ways of thinking about the history of science? 

Lorraine Daston: I definitely think that both sides have to be parties to this rapprochement.

I happen to work in the Max Planck Society in Germany, in an organization in which 75 percent of my colleagues are scientists. So, I have a lot to do in conversations with scientists, and I learn an enormous amount from them that very much feeds into my work as a historian. There are certain intuitions, and in particular, certain practices, which almost never leave an imprint on the printed page on my sources.

Those conversations with scientists in the present, though of course they are not about the actual practices of the past, they sensitize me, they open my mind to those faint, faint traces in the archival and textual and visual record that I can then begin to reconstruct some of those practices. I think this is really the universal experience of historians of science.

Even for me, working on 16th and 17th century sources, I find it enormously stimulating to talk, for example, to botanists about how they identify a type specimen when I'm thinking about Linnaeus, for example. 

Peter Harrison: The point Raine makes, I think, about the tacit unspoken aspects of the practice. You can't pick up on these unless you're in communication with scientists.

Twentieth century science, I think, is incredibly difficult because it's specialized, it's diverse, and it's just not possible for a historian to get on top of it as a kind of overall practice in all of its intricacies as it is for earlier periods. That's a problem we have, which I think is ameliorated to some extent by actually talking to scientists.


Samara Greenwood: On a slightly different topic, as part of the article, you wrote about how the use of metaphors in science can sometimes harden into uncritical assumptions. You mentioned ‘nature as machine’, or ‘DNA as blueprint’, or ‘brains as computers’. 

I think this is an important insight that's come from history of science. So, I'd love if you could tell us a little bit more about the ways in which metaphors can enable us, but also can limit scientific thinking at times. 

Peter Harrison: I think you've said it pretty well yourself, Samara. 

I think metaphors are really essential to scientific language and, to some extent, it's almost as if it's metaphorical all the way down. Even talk about basic things like forces, or the warping of space time, these are images that are important for communicating science, but also comprehending what the model is actually attempting to communicate. 

But, I think that the metaphorical elements have a downside. This is where I think it's possible to get trapped into failing to realize what's metaphor and what's literally out there, as it were.

I think the idea of, say, ‘the selfish gene’ is a classic case here. The notion of selfishness is, of course, metaphorical, but it tends to suggest that there's a kind of gene-centric understanding of evolutionary change, which I think had its advantages at the time that this notion was first promulgated, but it's problematic if you're stuck with it.

The same is true for gene itself, which tends to be understood as a kind of unit of inheritance, but it's far more complicated than that. So, talk about a genetic blueprint, for example, can be, I think, deeply misleading. And if you can't free yourself of that conception, you're not able to actually progress the science forward to understand the complexities of the way in which DNA operates in these very complicated ways with feedback loops and genes being turned on and turned off and so on.

The genetic blueprint is a classic case, I think, of what was once a helpful metaphor that became rigid and unhelpful.


Lorraine Daston: Here's a metaphor about metaphors in science, which is that of the spotlight. What a metaphor can do is to shine a very bright light on one part of a dark landscape to help us understand that one aspect.

Let me make this concrete. Judith Bronstein, a botanist in Arizona, has pointed out that the metaphor of ‘cooperation’ for certain kinds of symbiotic relationships amongst plants is very useful for understanding certain aspects of the ecology and the evolution of plants, but it obscures as much as it illuminates.

Many of the relationships amongst these plants and insects, which are allegedly in a symbiotic relationship, are also competitive. Competitive for resources, sunlight, water, etc. And as Peter says, the more one fixates upon the metaphor, the darker the surrounding landscape not illuminated by that pinpoint of light becomes and the harder it is to see everything which is going on.

The brain as a computer is amusing because there's a long history of metaphors for the brain, which are always likenesses to the most complicated machine of the time. So, for example, in the 18th century, the brain is an organ because the organ with all of its keys and stops and bells and whistles is the most complicated thing that anyone can imagine.

In the 19th century, it's a telegraph, and now it's a computer. Like all the others, it will illuminate some aspect, the spotlight will shift to some aspect that will help us understand. 

It's the partiality of metaphors and the rigor mortis, as Peter says, that tends to set in.




Samara Greenwood: That's a beautiful way of putting it, the rigor mortis. I love that. 

Near the end of the article, you call for historians and scientists to ‘team up’ to provide a more unified account of how science really works. What aspects of ‘how science works’ would you like to see emphasized in this more unified account? 

Lorraine Daston: I should say at the outset that I think some of these partnerships, gratifyingly, are already coming into being.

I can think especially of historians of contemporary biology and physics and astronomy who have - this is an awful metaphor because of its associations with war journalism – ‘embedded’ themselves in teams of scientists working on black holes or on fibre optics or on epigenetics, where you really are trying to shape a narrative together.

The problem, of course, is the enormous challenge - and we go back now to those forking paths - no one knows how this story is going to end. It's very hard to tell a narrative if you don't know where it's going to end. 

But I do think that it would be interesting for the historians, perhaps more than the scientists, to think about what it would be like to write for a broader audience.


As I say, some of our colleagues are doing this and some of them are actually making films as well. Peter Galison has made a number of really interesting films about the history of science, the history of very contemporary science. Simon Schaffer, our colleague at Cambridge, is a regular feature on BBC science programs. So, this is being done.


But what's really needed is the equivalent in the history of science of what a colleague of ours, Erica Milam at Princeton, calls colloquial science books. 

We're all familiar with these. These are books, hopefully on the bestseller list, in which very prominent scientists explain very clearly, very vividly, what their work is about and what the stakes are. I don't see why historians couldn't write such books. 

They wouldn't replace the learned monographs, any more than the colloquial science books would replace the technical scientific article. They're two different genres. 

But it would be an excellent exercise for us as historians to try to craft a narrative of that sort for a broader audience. 


Samara Greenwood: One of the things you noted in your article is that the works produced by historians, even if they are directed more towards a general audience, are often considered a bit less digestible, a little less entertaining, perhaps, than those produced by scientists, because they don't have some of those triumphal kinds of themes.

Do you think it is possible for historians to write in a way that is both authentic to the complexity and contingency in all those branches, but also engaging to a broad audience? I was wondering if you had thoughts about things you could do to bring this task about? 

Peter Harrison: First of all, let me acknowledge the difficulty, but I would say that we're fortunate in having outlets and this podcast would be an example and Aeon Magazine would be an example, where we were able to publish this piece. So, historians do have outlets that reach a broader audience and I think some historians are good at doing that. 

That said, the difficulty is that the triumphalist story of science - with the goodies and the baddies and coming out with the right answer at the end - that's a great story. It's a much better story than, ‘oh, it's all very complicated. It could have gone this way and it could have gone that way’. So, it's a difficult challenge. 

The other challenge we face is that scientists are regarded as the legitimate authorities on, paradoxically, the history of science. So it's often celebrity scientists who are telling the historical story and they're perceived to bear the appropriate authority. The poor old historians, often watching from the sidelines, tearing their hair out. Why doesn't someone ask me? Because this is actually my job to actually do this.

Think of the television series Cosmos. It's narrated by a scientist. It's not narrated by a historian, although its subject matter is history. So, there are frustrations there as well, I think. 

This perhaps is a reflection on the relative social status of the humanities and the sciences. The sciences still, I think, occupy a position of considerable prestige in our culture.


Samara Greenwood: What about you, Raine? Did you have something to add there? 

Lorraine Daston: Well, first a hearty second to everything Peter just said, but also maybe two further thoughts.


I completely agree, it is a challenge and we can't just say, ‘Oh, it's all so complicated’. But we have two sources of inspiration, or perhaps of a gauntlet thrown down.

First of all, we teach. Everyone who's lectured before a room full of students new to the topic knows that it is fatal to say it's too complicated. You've got to craft a narrative for your lectures. So, we know how to do this. 

The second is, historians in general face this challenge of complexity. We're not the only ones, and yet historians have managed to craft enthralling narratives out of very complicated events like the First World War, for example, and not only enthralling narratives, but narratives which readers are eager to read. So, I say ball in our court. 


Samara Greenwood: Finally, I was wondering if we could do a bit of an imaginative exercise where if we project ourselves, say 10 years in the future. I was really interested in what specific changes you'd both like to have come about in relations between historians and scientists. Do you have a vision of what that future might be? 

Lorraine Daston: Hmm. Yes. I mean, usually historians fear that their union cards will be revoked if we talk about the future <laugh> so I approach this imaginative exercise with some trepidation, I should say. But here goes. 

The first is, I would very much like it if graduate students in both programs took courses from the other side. I think it's an excellent idea, and many history and philosophy of science programs do require this of their students, if they take some science courses. I mean, I think this is really a very good idea, even if they have absolutely no intention of going further. Many, of course, of the students in such programs come from backgrounds in the sciences, and that is all to the good, as is the fact that many of them come from backgrounds in history, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology, also all to the good. But what we need is more systematic interaction.


But it's not the case. There's an asymmetry on the side of the scientists. Because there are no longer historical courses offered as part of their own training, an extra effort must be made in order to expose them to the history of science. As someone who has had such students in my class, I'm sure I speak for Peter as well, it's always really a mutually rewarding experience and I would be very happy if that could be more institutionalized as part of graduate training. 

I think, especially in the wake of the pandemic, it would be extremely helpful for scientists in terms of the kinds of communication that they must learn now in order to brief the public. Obviously, the pandemic was a state of exception in many ways, but in almost all societies these days, ninety percent of the funding of science comes from the public purse, and it is an obligation on the part of the scientists to make their work intelligible to a broader public.


I think the historians can be helpful here. I think also the philosophers of science can be helpful here, for example, in explaining to the public the intrinsic uncertainties of science, which does not discredit it, the problem that we touched upon earlier, that scientific progress demands a certain amount of revision. So, the fact that what we believed two weeks ago about the SARS CoV 2 virus we no longer believe is not an indictment against the science. I think the history and philosophy of science could be really useful in that capacity. 


Samara Greenwood: Peter, did you have anything to add? 

Peter Harrison: It's hard to better that, but the COVID example I think is a really helpful one. The fact that the science was constantly changing seemed to be news to the general public. If we'd had better science communication and better communication between historians, sociologists of science and scientists themselves, I think it would have helped in the communication.

That said, I also think it's important that those of us in history, and the humanities more generally, not simply be the PR wing of the practice of science. 

If we look to the past, my sense is the phases we've gone through were that scientists used to be very much philosophically and historically oriented. We saw in the last decades of the 20th century a kind of mutual hostility and that morphed in the 21st century to a kind of mutual indifference and just a failure to see how these two activities could be mutually relevant. 

One way I think to establish that is precisely the mechanisms that Raine has talked about, which is to say, in the intellectual formation of our scientists and our historians. If there was better communication at the educational level, I think that would be very helpful.

Lorraine Daston: One other role that historians, sociologists, philosophers of science have played, and it's still a very important one, is to expose really problematic assumptions on the part of the scientists. And the most glaring examples have been the case of eugenics, for example, but also assumptions about race and gender, which has informed quite recent research with, alas, baleful consequences.

I think that work of self-consciousness and reflection is work that we do very well and that would be helpful for scientists. I mean, it is always helpful to have one's unexamined assumptions dragged into the daylights where they can be scrutinized.


So I heartily second what Peter said about not simply becoming the PR department.

Samara Greenwood: A fabulous place to finish. I also heartily agree with all of those sentiments. 

I want to thank you both so much for agreeing to be on the podcast. It is our first two-person interview and I think we've done very well. It's been a wonderful experience. Thank you.


Lorraine Daston: Thank you very much.

Peter Harrison: Yes. Thanks Samara, it was a pleasure. Good speaking with you again, Raine, too. 

Lorraine Daston: Yes. Good to see you, Peter. 


Samara Greenwood: Thank you for listening to season three of The HPS Podcast. 

If you're interested in the detail of today's conversation, you can access the transcript on our website at Stay connected with us on social media, including Blue Sky, for updates, extras, and further discussion. We would like to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their ongoing support. And thank you for joining us in the wonderful world of HPS. 

We look forward to having you back again next time.


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