Social Constructionism and Its Application to the Historiography of Science Research Paper

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Social Constructionism and Historiography of Science

In the historiography of science, the debate between intenalists and externalists has been one of the major fault lines over the past century. While many historians are not specialists in physics, chemistry and biology, by training and experience they also consider the political, economic and cultural influences on any institution and organization in a given period, and science his not been exempt from historicism. Internlaists found that scientific progress was generally driven forward by geniuses like Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, Antoine Lavoisier and Albert Einstein, and that their discoveries about nature were objectively true regardless of external social and political considerations. For externalists and social constructionists, however, all of these scientists were products of a certain historical and cultural milieu, which influenced their work in many ways. For example, according to Boris Hessen and Robert Merton, Newton and the 17th Century English scientists were influenced by Puritanism and the Whig-capitalist revolution of that period, while Bruno Latour asserted that Pasteur was part of a much broader social and public health movement in the 19th Century that facilitated the acceptance of his discoveries. In the case of Albert Einstein, politics and ideology led to attacks on his theories in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, while Britain and the United States benefitted militarily in the Second World War by their more open attitudes toward the new physics. In addition, the politicization of Darwinism in the form of Social Darwinism and eugenics, particularly in Nazi Germany, led to catastrophic consequences, but the Soviet Union also suffered by rejecting Mendelian genetics completely as a 'fascist' science. Probably the most influential history of science books in the last half century has been Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which combined the Great Man theory with a kind of externalism and social constructionism in which paradigm shifts in science occurred because of a change in generations, with younger scientists more likely to accept new ideas than older, more established ones.

According to Bruno Latour, even though Louis Pasteur received most of the credit for proving that microorganisms caused disease, he was in reality just a small part of a much broader social and political movement in the 19th Century that already accepted the basic idea of contagious diseases and the need for public health and hygiene measures to combat them. Even though very few people today "still believe in the advent of the Enlightenment…nobody has yet recovered from this loss of faith." [footnoteRef:1] Only naive epistemology still holds that science is uniquely set apart from politics, culture and history. Pasteur's 'revolution' took place "at the high point of the scientific religion," although only "extreme cynics" could doubt the true value of his discoveries.[footnoteRef:2] These were applied far more quickly than any others in the history of science, and his belief that invisible microbes caused disease was already widely shared in the 1870s and 1880s. His victory also took place in the aftermath of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War when public discussions about methods for improving national health, wealth and strength were intense. [1: Bruno Latour. The Pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 5.] [2: Latour, p. 8.]

Latour studied the relevant scientific literature from the 1870s to the early-20th Century, such as the journal of the Pasteur Institute, the Councours Medical and the Revue Scientifique and determined that germs, microbes and public hygiene were common areas of concern far beyond Pasteur's discoveries. He was interests not only in the content of chemistry and biology of the time but also their social, political and economic context. A wide variety of groups and interests had a stake in Pasteur's discoveries, including biologists, surgeons, veterinarians, military doctors and public health officials. He asks whether Pasteur created a scientific revolution as Thomas Kuhn theorized, or whether he was simply part of a much broader social and scientific movement. He may have been one of the Great Men of history, or even a Napoleon of science, but the transformation did not depend solely on "the great genius of a simple man."[footnoteRef:3] Pasteur had help, even though most of the helpers are long forgotten today, and these other groups were not simply "inert masses" that passively adapted to Pasteur.[footnoteRef:4] Physicians and scientists were already very concerned about public health in the large cities and the population loss from contagious diseases long before Pasteur, and the public hygiene movement had "already prepared the ground for the arrival of the Pasteurians."[footnoteRef:5] National health was necessary to ensure that the cities would no longer be death traps, and an infrastructure was already in place to put Pasteur's ideas into practice. They may not have known exactly what agents caused typhus, plague and tuberculosis, but they realized that overcrowding and lack of public sanitation were factors in the spread of disease. [3: Latour, p. 15.] [4: Latour, p. 16.] [5: Latour, p. 18.]

Pasteurism was already a social movement long before Pasteur appeared on the scene, and hygiene, housing, flush toilets, public water supplies, refrigeration, ventilation and disinfection were all part of public hygiene. Nor was Pasteur's laboratory the only one in the world studying microbes, but he has always "one bacteriologist among others."[footnoteRef:6] His ideas were accepted very rapidly in Britain, France, Germany and the United States since the ground had already been prepared for them years before. Of course there was some skepticism about the existence of the microbes, since they seemed to be "unknown and erratic agents" that did not always cause disease in everyone who came in contact with them.[footnoteRef:7] In 1896, for example, Robert Koch announced a vaccine for tuberculosis and was "besieged by patients from all over Europe possessed of the hope of being cured," but it turned out to be ineffective.[footnoteRef:8] Nevertheless, most resistance was swiftly and surely overcome since Pasteur had "provided the hygienists with a fulcrum" and "made the enemy visible." [footnoteRef:9] Military physicians had a great interest in healthy armies, while capitalists and colonial officials required healthy workforces, so a truly vast social movement associated with powerful political and economic interests existed to drive Pasteurism forward against rather feeble opposition. [6: Latour, p. 26.] [7: Latour, p. 30.] [8: Latour, p. 33.] [9: Latour, p. 34.]

In Laboratory Life (1986), Latour and Steve Woolgar used sociological and anthropological methods to study science as if it were an unknown culture,, and found that the 'facts' of nature were actually the product of intense discussion, debate and argument among various factions. They asserted that "the difference between object and subject or the difference between facts and artifacts should not be the starting point of the study of scientific activity."[footnoteRef:10] Reality only comes about after the settlement of intense discord within the scientific community, and only then do some ideas become objective facts of nature and others dismissed as purely subjective and imaginary. Scientists are not concerned with nature or reality as such, but with politics, language and public relations, "both to make a point and to out-maneuver a competitor."[footnoteRef:11] Their debates about proof and evidence are just as confused and disorderly as those between lawyers and politicians, and those with higher credibility and better credentials and funding usually win. This messy type of scientific debate "blurs arbitrary lines between economic, epistemological, and psychological factors" and the success or failure of scientific theories depends not on objective truth but which faction is stronger and more persuasive. In short, "science is entirely fabricated out of circumstance."[footnoteRef:12] [10: Steve Woolgar and Bruno Latour. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 236.] [11: Woolgar and Latour, p. 237.] [12: Woolgar and L:atour, p. 239.]

Other historians have questioned whether a Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment actually occurred in the 17th and 18th Centuries and regarded these concepts as artificial. Pierre Duhem, the French Catholic scientist and historian, thought that 17th Century science was "a natural extension of theories and methods that had already been developed by medieval scholars" and that the revolution was more a case of evolution.[footnoteRef:13] Emil Wohlwill and others in this school of thought concentrated of medieval and Renaissance predecessors to 17th and 18th Century science. Even Isaac Newton seems more medieval than modern in retrospect, since he spent more time on the "chronology of the Scriptures, alchemy, occult medicine and prophecies of history" than on the physics and mathematics for which he is remembered today.[footnoteRef:14] He used calculus to try to find the date for the end of the world and the number of souls in hell, and all this was perfectly normal and reasonable by 17th Century standards, especially given his Puritan background. At that time, all scientists combined "religious, moral and political considerations" with their work, so no historian can honestly isolate their scientific and non-scientific sides in ways that would have been quite alien to them.[footnoteRef:15] Robert Merton wrote extensively about the Puritan influence on 17th Century science in England and its links with the Whig revolution in society…

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