Today, it is difficult to hear the word science and not think about scientists and experiments. The birth of modern science, however, should be understood as the legitimization of experiments for the production of knowledge and the establishment of the scientific community: “I argue here that one of the major resources for generating and validating items of knowledge within the scientific community under study was this same extension of experience from the few to the many: the creation of a scientific public” (Shapin 1984:481).
Why did we start using the term scientist? We really didn’t start using the term scientist until the turn of the nineteenth century. Prior to then, people who explored the natural world were ‘natural philosophers.’ Shapin argues that Boyle used three technologies to produce and validate “matters of fact”: the material, the literary, and the social. Thomas Hobbes was one of the main people criticizing Boyle’s experimental method, and their argument over the nature of the vacuum highlights how the experimental method and the scientific community came to be fundamental to what we now call the natural sciences. For Boyle, then, the three technologies are:
- Material: the air pump; augmenting/replacing the fallibility of human senses with instruments
- Literary: a type of functional writing: plain, ascetic, unadorned – “facts” would stand out on their own merit
- Social: the Royal Society, the group of people who would “witness” experiments, the laboratory: “The laboratory was, therefore, a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members.”
Why is this particular debate over the air pump of particular significance? At one level, the two protagonists are still part of our historical memory – we remember Robert Boyle’s name because of Boyle’s Law, and we know Thomas Hobbes because of Calvin and Hobbes (or possibly because our social studies teacher or political science professor made us read Leviathan to understand why life is nasty, brutish, and short. We could instead read about the development of the Royal Society (a.k.a. The President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge) to understand the development of what we now call modern science. In fact, you may want to read (for fun) a fictional account: see Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, using different characters – Newton-Leibniz feud, Sophia of Hanover, and William of Orange. But the focus on Boyle vs. Hobbes combines the individual agendas, structural issues, and processual ones (e.g., scientific methodology, peer review) together in a way that lets us see the contested, temporal, and emergent properties of science and technology. Natural philosophy, as practiced by Hobbes and Boyle, can be seen as the ‘true liberal arts.’ Nowadays, we would put Hobbes in the Political Science department, and Boyle in the Chemistry department. This very debate over the air pump shows the artificiality of our current disciplinary distinctions. Or perhaps it shows the validity of academic disciplines, in that Hobbes made for a ‘bad’ scientist, while Boyle made for a mediocre humanist.
Things to think about:
- What is a “matter of fact” (according to Boyle and Shapin) and why does it matter?
- What did “bearing witness” mean for Boyle in his time, and what does it mean today? Is it still relevant?
- Who can be in the scientific community, in Boyle’s time? How does that compare with today? Any social implications?
- What is the significance of the following quote:
Radical individualism -each individual setting himself up as the ultimate judge of knowledge – would destroy the conventional basis of knowledge, while the disciplined collective social structure of the experimental language game would create and sustain that factual basis.Shapin 1984: 509