The Culture of Science

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The fact that Jennifer Michael Hecht plays close attention to the impact of cultural values on our thought processes is hardly surprising.  After all, one would expect little less from an award-winning poet whose highly acclaimed works include The Next Ancient World, Funny and Who Said.

But being a poet is hardly the only hat she wears: she is also the author of a number of sociohistorical investigations on a wide array of intriguing topics, from doubt to atheism, happiness to suicide.   

“I went to Columbia for my PhD with the idea of studying cultural history, but they didn’t have a cultural historian at the time.  So I studied with Robert Paxton, who studies modern French history. He had some cultural stuff in his work, so there was something there.  But in the meantime I took a course in the history of science and I just fell in love with it.  It was the most like poetry that I had found in history.”

History of science is just like poetry?  I can imagine you asking yourself.  I must have read that wrong. But no: it is all about culture.  

“It was the way of feeling around with your gut.  I joke that the philosophy of science is how science works, and the history of science is how science doesn’t work.  What we’re really doing is looking at the ways that cultural ideas shape both the questions that are asked and the answers that are accepted.

“Well, how do you know when that’s happening?  Michel Foucault was doing a classic history of science move when he claimed that the Victorians, who were constantly saying, ‘Let’s keep sex under wraps. Let’s not look at it. Put a skirt around the piano because it has legs’, are actually obsessed with sex.  Talking about not having sex is almost the same thing as talking about having sex. That’s an example of a kind of flip, a kind of feeling that you have to go with.”

Well, ok, you might think.  Prevailing cultural attitudes towards sex and morality are one thing, and well might get absorbed, consciously or unconsciously, in the creation of plays, novels or even contemporary political exchanges.  But science? Surely that’s more, well, objective.

Not necessarily.

“Look at early anthropologists.  Some of their metaphors for women are similar to their metaphors for people of colour or children.  Each one supports a kind of social hierarchy in terms of how they perceived their world.

“My doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, was a study of some late nineteenth-century French anthropologists who were dissecting each other’s brains after death, ostensibly to show the relationship between brain weight and shape and personality characteristics.  

Darwin“And I came to believe that, on a fundamental level, this was a secular version of Catholic last rites that most of them had grown up with. Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it isn’t translated into French until 1962 by a woman named Clémence Royer, who’s an unequivocal atheist.  All of these French anthropologists are radical republicans who are finding strongly against the influence of the Catholic Church and anxious to use their science to demonstrate that there is no God.“     

In other words, culture matters.  While most scientists like to believe that they are in objective pursuit of the truth and that their findings are wholly independent from their own particular beliefs and values, history often tells another, very different, story.   

But how can we tell when cultural factors are playing a disproportionate role in our scientific understanding?  Well, sadly, we can’t. There is no one iron-clad algorithm for doing so – indeed, if someone were to come up with one, we should quite justifiably raise a sceptical eyebrow about the cultural influences involved in creating that.  

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make any progress whatsoever towards a deeper understanding of how culture influences our scientific thinking.  Jennifer, you might not be surprised to discover, has her own theory.

“I always say, the closer to the body you get, the less stable the scientific ideas are.  So ideas in cosmology can last a couple of centuries, while in the social sciences, ideas might last a century.  But when you get to medical advice, that changes every couple of decades. And when things change with that rapidity, it’s only reasonable to realize that they’re being culturally moved around.”

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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