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Do History of Science programs need more science?

latmosphere_metereologie_populaire_camille_flammarion2The history of science has never had the easiest stories to tell.

A field suspended between the two cultures, it’s been contested territory for as long as it has existed: rife with clattering jargon, methodological skirmishes, and ideological warfare. Although it entered academe as science’s explanatory sidekick, over the past few decades the history of science has emerged a full-fledged discipline, drawing practitioners mostly from the humanities. But this independence, and the field’s critical distance, has come at a cost, many in the discipline now say.

By expanding its intellectual tent, the discipline has eroded its own authority and intellectual base, said Carsten J. Reinhardt, a science historian and president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a Philadelphia library and museum supported largely by retired chemists and known as one of the country’s most prominent sponsors of science-history research. Where scholars based in the sciences documented a rational march toward knowledge, historians—inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—have asked how science is socially constructed and culturally received.

“We pulled it off the pedestal of untouchable, eternal wisdom and truth,” Mr. Reinhardt said. But perhaps they pulled too hard: “If you say that the field of science is not special anymore, you might end up not being special yourself. And that’s where we are now.”

That faded luster can be seen in several ways: With some exceptions, stand-alone science history and sociology programs are in decline, though at least several dozen remain in the United States today. Grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are tight. And the History of Science Society is undergoing a fundamental rethinking of its constituency—is it just historians, or scientists, too?

Most prominently, this concern has been voiced by Hasok Chang, a professor at the University of Cambridge and president of the British Society for the History of Science, in a lecture last year. It’s time, he said to a packed hall of science historians at an international congress, “to put the science back in the history of science.”

Click here to read more from this May 27, 2014 Chronicle of Higher Ed article by Paul Voosen.

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