Does the History of Science Matter?

The June 2008 issue of the leading history of science journal Isis contains a “Focus” section on the question “What is the Value of History of Science?” The section was organized by Jane Maienschein of the Center for Biology & Society at Arizona State U. and George Smith of the Tufts U. philosophy department. They introduce the other five article of the section with a piece entitled “What Difference Does History of Science Make, Anyway?” In the opening paragraph, Maienschein and Smith write:

Simon Schaffer had remarked… that never has the market for books on the history of science been greater-and never has the historical accuracy of so many of the most popular books been worse. We worried that scientists and others want history, but they do not know how to tell good history from bad.

But even if they could tell the good from the bad, what difference would it make?

We decided to look seriously at the hypothesis that science can actually be made better when it embraces a historical perspective and resolved to explore whether and in what way this is true. We agreed to examine myths about how the scientific enterprise works, emphasizing the importance of accident and local contingency in science, exploring the role of assumptions and choices made in science, and working on examples of how such selections have shaped scientific results.

Following the introduction are five articles that examine significant aspects of the question

Does Science Education Need the History of Science?
By Graeme Gooday, John M. Lynch, Kenneth G. Wilson, and Constance K. Barsky

Taxonomy and Why History of Science Matters for Science
By Andrew Hamilton and Quentin D. Wheeler

How Can History of Science Matter to Scientists?
By Jane Maienschein, Manfred Laubichler, and Andrea Loettgers

Science in the Everyday World
By Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader

History of Science and American Science Policy
By Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes

This issue of Isis is already available on-line, if you or your instituion has access. The abstracts are available to everyone here. The printed version will come out late this month.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.