Where's the Beef?: Histories of science without Science

by Rodrigo Fernós

There are many worrying trends in academia, one them being a misrepresentation of the internal content of PhD theses.  Particularly worrisome, from my own field of interest, is the increasing emergence of histories of science that contain no actual discussion of science.

I will not name names, nor mention departments or universities.  But if you are going to talk about a subject, talk about that subject instead of dollying-dallying about it. All too often, 'social studies of science' tend to completely evade the internal content of the science under discussion.

It is certainly the case that history of science is difficult, much more so than people realize.  Science in and of itself can be challenging, and much more so if you have to look deep into the past where the intellectual mindset was very different from one's own. However, that is the challenge and joy of doing history of science, which is truly a variant of 'the history of ideas' or intellectual history.  Imagine a book about the political theory which never actually delved into the ideas proposed by their actors.

Oddly enough, even when PhD theses do touch on the 'science', it has been the case that this 'science' is not placed within the broader framework of the history of science per se. What ideas did the scientists contribute?  Did they provide data to oppose or support leading scientific debates of the time? 

The latter is perhaps the most interesting, and difficult perhaps, of the intellectual historian's task.   Yet consider what is actually happening when the chore is not undertaken: we left without a clue as to the reception and impact of a particular scientists lifelong effort.  It is like talking about Galileo without alluding to the heliocentric revolution, Newton without a mention of gravity or Einstein and his diverse variants of relativity. 

It is, in other words, to do no history of science after all.