Does Science Need History? A Conversation with Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston in Conversation with Samuel Loncar

As part of our Meanings of Science in the Modern World project, I had the honor of speaking with Dr. Lorraine Daston. A leading authority on the history of science, Daston is visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Permanent Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and Director Emerita of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.  

Daston has published on a wide range of topics in the history of science. Her more recent books include Rules: A Short History of What We Live By (Princeton University Press, 2022), Gegen die Natur (2018; English edition Against Nature, 2019), Science in the Archives (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (with Paul Erikson et al., University of Chicago Press 2014). Her many distinguished lectures, honors, and fellowships include the Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society for “lifetime scholarly achievement.” 

Over the course of a lively and generous conversation, Daston shared her expertise on science and some of the challenges it faces today. We began with the conception of “science” in Europe and America, which led to a rich discussion about what can happen when we ask scientists to be cultural authorities, the history of science as relates to moral and ethical training, the crisis of peer-review, the perks and problems of working in strictly defined disciplines, and the strengths of an international scientific community.

We began by chatting informally about science and its various meanings in America and Europe, which led to my first question:

Part One

Science in America and Europe

Samuel Loncar

What do you make of the dominance of the conception of “science,” as someone who’s familiar with the European context? “Science” has narrowed its meaning in the English language, moving from the whole of knowledge to just the natural sciences. This narrowness is fairly recent: the mid- to late-nineteenth century is when historians tell us our current idea of “science” and “scientists” originated. So how do you see the current role of the word and concept “science” in our culture?

Lorraine Daston

You’re right about the contraction of the expansiveness of “science,” which in all the European languages that derived some cognate from the Latin scientia was used to refer to any form of organized knowledge. But it contracts not only in English but also in French, albeit a bit later in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The French term for the scientist or scholar goes from being savant, which is still a word you can easily encounter in nineteenth-century French, to scientifique to refer exclusively to a scientist. And it surely has to do with the soaring prestige of the natural sciences, which is also the case in Germany. 

There were many anxious lectures given at the end of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth century in Germany, about how the Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences) were edging out the Geisteswissenschaften (what we would call the humanities, although that’s a very rough translation). But the reason is the same in all cases, and it’s made very explicit in these anxious lectures: the natural sciences, after centuries of promissory notes, have finally come into their own with regard to impressive applications, first in the chemical industries of the mid-nineteenth century, but then in the applications of electricity and magnetism in the latter part of the nineteenth century (the worldwide telegraph system, for example). At that point, you do indeed have a contraction of the word “science” and its use as a closely guarded honorific in French and English. 

In German, it’s the enormous prestige of at least some of the humanities, particularly classical philology, which, I think, ends up making that contraction impossible—not that there wasn’t a movement in the identical direction. One has to remember that in Germany, even the luminaries of the natural sciences, someone like physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz or the physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond would have had a classical education at a humanistic Gymnasium. They had been schooled in Latin and Greek, thought of this as part of shared high culture, and did not wish to sacrifice their credentials as members of a cultural elite. As long as the classics were enshrined in elite secondary education, the place of classical philology as the hardest of the hard sciences was secure. I remember when I taught in the early 1990s at the University of Göttingen—famous for its mathematics and physics in the twentieth century—I gave a talk at their Academy of Sciences, where the President was a classical philologist and the Vice President was an experimental physicist. I was told afterwards that this was because classical philology is harder than experimental physics. I’m not sure this would still be the view, but within living memory it had been so.

Science and Culture

Samuel Loncar

That’s fascinating because it points then to the importance of culture. For Germans, the idea of Wissenschaft is linked to the idea of Bildung, and the Gymnasium program is linked to an ideal that comes out of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century with people like Schleiermacher and Humboldt. Do you see that as connected to the distinctive development of, say, German science? Obviously, there are tremendous developments happening in the nineteenth century in French science, but it is the century of Germany. So even just from a competitive standpoint, would you say there’s maybe some advantage, if you want to evaluate, to the German broadness? That that system of Bildung, that broader vision of education, might have produced? You have scientists and physicists who have a much broader vision, because in their mind they’re really thinking Wissenschaft, and Wissenschaft really is something inclusive that has to do with the whole in its ideal rather than just this very narrow—I guess what we’d call—Fachmenschen-type of work, which we would actually think of as a “scientist” in the American or English-speaking context.

Lorraine Daston

Yes, I think that’s very interesting. There’s certainly, for good or for ill, the notion that intellectuals—professors, not just public intellectuals, but academics—are Kulturträger, carriers of culture. I say for good or for ill, because that status can be very easily abused, and people who are basically citizens like you and I will be asked to pontificate by the media on a topic of which they know not. But the other side of that, for good, is that there is something of an expectation that a scientist in her or his field should be able to present a lucid, well-informed lecture to a gebildetes Publikum (a generally educated audience), explaining not only the chief results of his or her research, but also their broader significance.

It’s historically fascinating to look at the contrast between, for example, how the pioneers of quantum mechanics in Germany—people like Schrödinger and Heisenberg and also Niels Bohr in Copenhagen—philosophized about the implications of this highly counterintuitive, remarkable new theory, whereas their American colleagues were narrowly focused on the solution of technical problems. You see the signature of this implicit embedding in the broader landscape of Wissenschaft, even in the most technical, scientific work.

Samuel Loncar

When you mentioned Schrödinger, I thought of this quote by him from his 1951 lecture:

it seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, ‘Who are we?’

Do you think it’s a problem with the current public understanding of science that the vision of science which has come to dominate is one in which the ideal isn’t a broadly cultivated person, and yet scientists wield an enormous cultural authority and are asked to speak very generally about the significance of their work, and the culture and the publishing industry wants that and encourages it?

Scientific Authority

Lorraine Daston

I think it’s a landscape which is mined with all kinds of dangers for scientists. On the one hand, because so much of research is publicly funded—over 90%, I think, still in the United States—not only might the media demand that scientists speak to the public; the public has a right to understand why it’s worth supporting science. 

So the fact that scientists attempt to explain their work to the public seems to me an entirely gratifying development and long overdue. I’m delighted that the old stigma that used to be attached to scientists who would write a popular book or a textbook is fast disappearing. That, I think, is an extremely positive development. The problem comes when the scientists are tempted to stray out of an area where they are genuinely experts. For example, although I am a historian, I certainly would never contemplate or countenance offering an opinion on the history of the American West, because I really am not better informed on that topic than your average Jane Q. Citizen. 

But the scientists, because of, as you say, capital-S science, are increasingly—particularly, of course, during the pandemic, but also in the context of climate change—being pushed into the limelight with a microphone put in front of them. That’s a situation which is dangerous for them and dangerous for the public. There’s an additional element that probably erodes what would otherwise be their professional inhibitions about straying from their area of expertise. Because science is publicly funded, to have an article about your work published in the LA Times or The New York Times or in Germany in Die Zeit or the Süddeutsche Zeitung is considered a real perk. It’s something that could possibly have an impact, however indirectly, on the future funding for your research in a highly competitive field. These considerations also add a motivation, first of all, to go to the popular press before you go to the specialist press, before results have gone through peer review, and secondly, perhaps, to exaggerate the significance of your findings. 

That’s why I think that the scientists are being forced to walk a tightrope between a laudable desire to communicate with the public and the temptation to hype their results for journalists. This is a situation not entirely of their own making. I think the professional disciplinary organizations or perhaps the American Association for the Advancement of Science needs to offer some guidance on what the professional ethics are in such situations.

How History Can Help Science

Samuel Loncar

And in relationship to such guidance, where would you position your own field? Should scientists know the history of science? Do you see what you do as part of science?

Lorraine Daston

I certainly see it as a discipline with rigorous standards. Because I’m a historian of the pre-modern period, the ancient origins of the word historia are always echoing in my mind’s ear. When I hear historia, I hear: we are the people who invented empiricism, all kinds of empiricism; we are the people who study particulars. We historians are not the whole of science, but we are the trailblazers of empiricism. 

I think of history as a discipline, one that invented and is still inventing ever new rigorous methods for not only the cross-examination of the sources we have, but even more importantly, the discovery of sources we don’t yet have. I look upon the integration of many different strands of evidence braided together into a strong rope of argument in history as identical, philosophically to the practices of any science. This is one of the reasons why the history of science is, of use to science and scholarship. All of these methods, which constitute, taken in toto, rigor in any given scholarly or scientific discipline develop at different times under different circumstances. Without knowledge of how differently, for example, in medicine, clinical observation and randomized clinical trials developed, you have no clue, no foothold in the next task, which is: how do you weigh these two kinds of evidence? How do you integrate them? And that holds, I think, mutatis mutandis, for all scientific disciplines. So that’s one good reason why the history of science is of use to not only the sciences, but all branches of scholarship.

Samuel Loncar

I think you make an extremely compelling case for history and the history of science particularly as a kind of science in the broad sense of a very technical, rigorous discipline. However, as you know, in the natural scientific community, historians of science are not a standard part of their education. I wonder, and this is a large topic, but do you think that it’s a mistake in the current natural scientific community that the history of science, based on what you said, is ignored?

The Uses of The History of Science: Ethics, Decisions, and Consequences

Lorraine Daston

I do, and I hope that doesn’t sound like provincial special pleading for my own discipline. Let me explain why I think it’s a mistake. We often have at the institute that until recently I co-directed in Berlin, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, scientists, young scientists, coming to us after they have finished a PhD in physics or biology or chemistry, but especially in the life sciences, who want to do some kind of postdoc with us. It’s certainly of no use to them whatsoever professionally; on the contrary, I’m sure on their CVs, it would stand out like a sore thumb. But the reason is that, because of the combination of the narrowness of research specialization and the intense pressure to produce results quickly, they have no overview of their field. Or perhaps to put it more provocatively, they don’t know why they’re working on what they’re working on. Moreover, they don’t know what the alternatives are. 

The history of science has always served two purposes. One purpose has been to give that kind of orientation, really in the Kantian sense: Here’s how the field has developed; this is why it has taken this path rather than another path. In some disciplines—psychology might be a good candidate for this—there were roads not taken or abandoned, which perhaps are more promising in retrospect because they showed very robust empirical effects. I’m thinking of Gestalt psychology, for example. 

So that’s one important use of the history of science: to train scientists. Another use, of course, is to prepare scientists for decisions that no science textbook can prepare them for, namely, ethical decisions. Increasingly, especially in the biomedical sciences, but one thinks also of the Manhattan Project—involving, physics and chemistry—scientists will be confronted with decisions about research that has ethical implications. The history of science is not an ethics course, but it can offer case studies of how scientists have dealt well or badly with this in the past and what the consequences have been. One might describe this as a form of sensitization about the importance of making these decisions in a somewhat wider context. 

So I think that’s what the history of science can offer the scientists. I think one reason why the history of science has disappeared from science courses is that it’s no longer offering what the scientists wanted from it, which was a history of triumph, a history of why it is that what we believe now is the only possible, reasonable theory we could embrace. But if there is one moral to the history of science it is: whatever we believe now, we probably won’t believe and should not believe it in 10 to 25 years when research has enlightened us further. To deprive scientists of that triumphal teleology has for many scientists been an enormous disappointment. They’ve simply stopped reading the history of science. . .

Part Two will be published in our next issue! Subscribe to get Part Two, and every issue of MRB, sent straight to your inbox.


Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and regular visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought. Her work focuses on the history of rationality, especially but not exclusively scientific rationality. She has written on the history of wonder, objectivity, observation, the moral authority of nature, probability, Cold War rationality, and scientific modernity. Her current book projects are a history of the origins of the scientific community and a reflection on what science has to do with modernity. Her most recent book is Rules: A Short History of What We Live By (Princeton University Press, 2022).

Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and writer, the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, the creator of the Becoming Human Project, and the Director of the Meanings of Science Project at Marginalia. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. Learn more about Samuel’s writing, speaking, and teaching at www.samuelloncar.com. Tweets @samuelloncar