Focussing on scientific heroes in history is like climate sceptics cherry-picking temperatures. Each piece of information may be accurate but the bigger picture gets distorted.
To understand the consequences of that imagine a documentary on global warming made and presented by climate sceptics. Each little piece of information may be factually correct, but the way the programme gets framed would probably have most climate scientists wanting to add their own voice-over saying “yes, but…”
Now imagine a documentary on 17th century science made and presented by a scientist. Each little piece of information may be factually correct, but the response from historians is likely to be the same as in the first example: “yes, but…”
Hopefully, this is an uncomfortable comparison for anyone who wants to use the past as PR for the present.
Most scientists would probably not like to see themselves as someone who manipulates information to support a political position, but this is precisely what is happening when a parade of great men from science’s past is recruited to argue for greater recognition of (and funds for) present day science.
Yes, they were very clever people; yes, it is important to support science, but…..it is not history. Indeed, it is interesting to see that Brian Cox’s current series Science Britannica is not listed as “History” on the BBC’s iPlayer.
For the most part the presentation of science’s past in mainstream media is not so much history of science as heritage science with a political agenda. Exceptions such as Simon Schaffer’s Mechanical Marvels on TV and Lisa Jardine’s Seven Ages of Science on radio serve only to give us a hint of what we could be getting. More please.
Some of this comes down to a question of expertise. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, if I want to know about the physics of something then I’ll ask a physicist. If I want to know the history of something then I’ll ask a historian. Unfortunately Science Britannica does not seem to have consulted any historians (at least not for the first two episodes).
Nor is this simply trying to find work for historians. I believe there is a danger that a decontextualised idea of science could undermine efforts at getting the public to engage with it. The rules of engagement (ie accepting science on its own terms) may well be the very thing that prevents Public Engagement with science from happening.
We can see the dangers of a decontextualised science if we draw a comparison with art.
Many years ago Richard Dawkins presented a programme about the public understanding of science. Standing outside the latest art exhibition he explained how it was assumed viewers would know about the life and work of Matisse but how an interviewer had once asked him “for the benefit of viewers” who Crick and Watson are. This, he argued, was evidence of a bias against and an ignorance of science.
However, what it really shows is a lack of sophistication in how science is presented to the public. A work of art can be taken as a springboard for discussions about politics, society, culture – and in particular the political, social and cultural context in which the work was created.
A work of science is rarely presented in this way. Instead, a decontextualised science is invoked as a way to close down debate of such things. Science is to be separated from politics and elevated above “mere opinion”.
But ideas about politics, society and culture are things with which a public can engage whether they know about Matisse or not, and to decontextualise science (in its history or its present) would be a bit like having a discussion of art that went no further than “sorry Pablo but that really doesn’t look like a face”.
There is also an irony in plucking scientists from history because they match a particular present day vision of science. Such decontextualised raiding of the past can be seen as very postmodern – and the scientists who do it wouldn’t want to be that would they?
As far as postmodernity goes there is very little to choose between “I know nothing about revolutionary politics but I like that Che Guevara beret and beard….” and “I know nothing about Newton’s religion or alchemy but I’ve got the gravity T-Shirt”.
Note: for a careful unpicking of the history which gets presented as a PR claim for British science take a look at this piece by Thony Christie: “Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the sciences“