While Shapin and Schaffer embody intellectual, political, and social trends into particular historical characters, they also try to avoid caricaturing them. That’s why it’s a book-length piece, since they include a tremendous amount of historical detail, and as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. But I would also suggest that you think of the larger forces that each historical figure represents: Boyle can be seen as a technocrat, Hobbes as a populist and individualist, More as representing the Church. While it is historically and analytically inaccurate, try to think of how these characters would play out in contemporary times – in coverage of this year’s presidential election, on what television station would you see them (e.g., Fox vs. MSNBC vs PBS). Think of all the other historical figures in Shapin and Schaffer as somewhere in the middle – what are they thinking?
How about the air-pump itself? What is its role in knowledge production? In anthropology, we talk about “the social life of things,” commodity-chain analysis, social networks (in STS, Latour and others employ this perspective in something called Actor Network Theory). How would the air pump fit into our contemporary debates (perhaps think of the air pump as CRISPR)? What is the symbolic importance of the air-pump?
Shapin and Schaffer write:
“We can categorize Boyle’s reply to Hobbes under four main headings : (1) a technical response, involving modifications to the design and operation of the air-pump; (2) a reiteration of the rules of the experimental game, and a stipulation that, within these rules, Hobbes had failed as a natural philosopher; (3) an experimental programme devoted to clearing up the troubles which Hobbes had pointed to in his comments on New Experiments; and (4) an ideological response, identifying theological grounds for rejecting Hobbes’s natural philosophy” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:170)
What does this mean in terms of larger social and cultural issues? First, let’s look at the nature of the debate over the air-pump itself. Why is God (as Nature) invoked by all sides of the air-pump debate? To his contemporaries, Hobbes critique of Boyle’s experimental program smacked of heresy and vulgarity, with its emphasis on finding causal explanations in material nature itself. Remember, in the seventeenth century, there was a sense that doing science, natural philosophy, was to find traces of the ultimate source of agency in the world – God. Boyle’s experimental program emphasized the search for physical explanations through experiments, not the ‘unobvious experiments’ recommended by Hobbes (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:192); so in terms of the air-pump debate, Boyle was not as concerned with finding a causal nature to the air’s spring (as opposed to Hobbes). Hobbes’ continued use of aether then treated Nature as a causal agent, not God. So as Boyle argued, Hobbes’ critique of Boyle’s experimental program was un-Christian and atheistic. Yes, given the perspective of 21st century scientific understanding, Hobbes’ use of aether seems quaint and wholly inaccurate and counter-factual. But even though Hobbes in the end is wrong, can the introduction of ‘unobvious experiments’ be totally dismissed? Think of how quantum theory, as a paradigm shifter, was similarly rejected by the professionals of normal science (in the Kuhnian sense). Can we do science experiments without modeling causality?
Also, as Shapin and Schaffer describe on pages 176-177, Boyle’s critique of Hobbes included a defense of the Royal Society and an assertion that Hobbes made the mistake of attacking the community of scientists instead of Boyle himself or the details of the experiment. Boyle further adds that such scientific disputes must remain within the community of scientists, but that the scientific community itself should not be challenged. In this sense, Boyle does seem to be making science (and the scientists who are socially recognized as performing science) into a priestly class, making debates in science a theological matter only for the clerics (and not for the wider public).
Replication. If as Boyle argues, experiments were crucial to establishing ‘matters of fact,’ a concept that Hobbes rejects, then which experiments were to be the defining ones?
“A fact is a constitutively social category: it is an item of public knowledge. We displayed the processes by which a private sensory experience is transformed into a publicly witnessed and agreed fact of nature. In this way, the notion of replication is basic to fact-production in experimental science. Replication is the set of technologies which transforms what counts as belief into what counts as knowledge” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:225)
This points to the difficulties of replication something which continues to be an issue in contemporary science today, as well as something that any student who has conducted seemingly cookbook experiments in high school science also knows. Similarly, as John Oliver and Bill Nye demonstrated in terms of their depiction of the climate change debate, in the end it is social convention that lies at the heart of the determination of matters of fact produced by experiments (in the Oliver/Nye case, majority rules). In a sense, ‘majority rules’ does seem to guiding principle behind establishing matters of fact in contemporary academia; ideas like impact factor (she who is cited the most wins), delineates winners and losers. Shapin and Schaffer demonstrate the social (and political, economic) issues behind replication in great historical detail in chapter six, firmly concluding that: “if replication is the technology which turns belief into knowledge, then knowledge-production depends not just on the abstract exchange of paper and ideas but on the practical social regulation of men and machines” (my italics, 2011:281).