You have to be educated to be educated

Adam Phillips

  • The Scientific Revolution by Steven Shapin
    Chicago, 218 pp, £15.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 226 75020 5

For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if we did. So we put an extraordinary amount of trust in things we know virtually nothing about (very few people interrogate their anaesthetists). The reason there are ‘popular science’ books is that work has to be done to make science popular. We assume, rightly or wrongly, that scientists are not intent on mystifying what they do: it just is difficult to understand without the requisite education and talent. And yet it was part of the original intent of the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century that legitimate knowledge should be neither a mystery (the province of occult magicians) nor a piety (based on the authority of the Ancients, and acquired by reading their books). Shareable methods of enquiry would allow at least some people to find out things for themselves. It was, William Harvey wrote, ‘base’ to ‘receive instructions from others’ comments without examination of the objects themselves, especially as the book of Nature lies so open and is so easy of consultation’. ‘Easy’, though, is the word we use to describe things we have learned how to do. What people find easy is, among other things, an indicator of social class.

Steven Shapin’s previous book, A Social History of Truth, was about the sense in which – during the period covered by this new book, the late 16th and the 17th century – what people knew depended on who they knew. And who they knew, of course, and how they knew them, were largely functions of social class. In that book he set out to show ‘the ineradicable role of what others tell us and ... how reliance upon testimony achieves invisibility in certain intellectual practices’. If all knowledge is more or less sophisticated gossip then what we believe depends on what we are in a position to hear and overhear. As the title of his book made clear, Shapin’s aim was impressively ambitious; and what he managed to do was to make a detailed and persuasive case for the idea that ‘the fabric of our social relations is made of knowledge – not just knowledge of other people, but also knowledge of what the world is like – and similarly, that our knowledge of what the world is like draws on knowledge about other people – what they are like as sources of testimony, whether and in what circumstances they may be trusted.’

Applying these thoughts to the Early Modern period – and particularly to the study of Robert Boyle – Shapin showed that science in this period, and by implication not only then, was effectively a gentleman’s agreement: that so-called objective criteria had more to do with etiquette than Truth; that Truth or what counted as truth was akin to what counted as good manners. ‘It is quite possible,’ Shapin writes in his new book, ‘that many practical problems of scientific credibility were solved by a device as apparently simple as the gentlemanly code of honour.’ There are subtle links between how one is supposed to behave and how the world is supposed to behave. Objectivity has no objective definition. Rigour is a form of social propriety.

The rhetoric of science has, however, acquired such prestige since the 17th century that it has become difficult not to believe that through science the world is finally telling us what it’s really like. That if the world could speak for itself it would speak science. Indeed it can sometimes seem as if scientific descriptions are not made by people at all, especially when these descriptions involve accounts of our cosmic irrelevance. Science often suggests that the most brilliant thing about us is that we invented science. There is something ironic about such persuasive man-made accounts of our own unfreedom and redundancy. It is like God proving that God is dead.

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