Editor's Corner

Dwight E. (Ed) Neuenschwander, Editor

The philosopher of science Imre Lakatos argued that revisionist accounts of science were acceptable, provided they were supplemented with footnotes to preserve historical facts. In an imagined dialogue between Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, their editor had Lakatos uttering these lines:

"…I might agree that methods in science (and mathematics) change and can be expected to change. The important thing is to try and ensure that such methodological changes are for the better. However, we can take charge of this only if we succeed in rationally reconstructing change in standards as we reconstruct change in scientific theories. From this point of view my 'Changing Logic' [a book Lakatos planned but never finished] aims at grasping the 'unfolding of reason' and presenting it 'cut and dry,' after its process of formation has been completed.

"…And my exhortation towards a rational reconstruction of individual historical cases should be taken as a historicographical programme, an encouragement towards defining the reasons and strategies which have produced new ideas. There is, therefore, nothing wrong in appraising past beliefs according to a given norm or theory of rationality….[W]e should try to analyse and evaluate the case we are faced with in the light of our methodological standards. [original emphasis] [1]

The author of a philosophy of science textbook explains:

"Lakatos had some views about the relation between the history of science and the philosophy of science that are spectacularly strange. Lakatos argued that historical case studies should be used to assess philosophical views of science. Fine, so far. But he also said that we should write 'rational reconstructions' of the historical episodes, in which scientists' decisions are made to look as rational as possible. We should then separately (or in footnotes) point out places where the rational reconstruction is not an accurate description of what actually went on. So it is OK to deliberately misrepresent what happened in the past, so long as the footnotes set things straight. What matters most is that in the main discussion we are able to spin a story in which the scientific decisions came out looking rational." [2]

Such practices, I suppose, make historians of physics reach for their swords. We all know countless instances where textbooks present revisionist versions of the origins of physics paradigms—while neglecting to add the historical footnotes. Rather than presenting the messy but authentic stories about what actually happened, we know how easy it is, with our advantage of hindsight, to introduce special relativity or quantum mechanics by describing how they could have been neatly cut from whole cloth in their present forms, made to appear complete and whole in a kind of spontaneous creation.

Of course, arranging a network of physics concepts into a pattern of logical coherence is necessary for genuine understanding. Thus on the first day of electrodynamics class we are justified in asserting that "Electrostatics consists essentially of Coulomb's law along with the superposition principle." In so saying we are emphasizing the discipline's logical structure. But although the mastery of a paradigm's logic is essential, to stop there deprives the appreciator of a richer experience. Every physics concept, like every person, object, or community, has a story. In the adventure of seeking knowledge, if we nail the paradigm's logic but neglect its story, how deeply can we claim to know it? Samuel Crothers illustrated the point in another context:

"Your friends say, 'I want you to know Mr. Stifflekin,' and you say that you are happy to know him. But does either of you know the enigma that goes under the name of Stifflekin?... To really know him you must not only know what he is but what he used to be; what he used to think he was; what he used to think he ought to be and might be if he worked hard enough. You must know what he might have been if certain things had happened otherwise, and you must know what might have happened otherwise if he had been otherwise. All these complexities are a part of his own dim apprehension of himself. They are what make him so much more interesting to himself than he is to anyone else." [3]

Imre Lakatos's good friend, Paul "Anything Goes" Feyerabend, wrote in Against Method:

"The history of science, after all, does not just consist of facts and conclusions drawn from facts. It also contains ideas, interpretations of facts, problems created by conflicting interpretations, mistakes, and so on…. This being the case, the history of science will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains, and these ideas in turn will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as are the minds of those who invented them. Conversely, a little brainwashing will go a long way in making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more 'objective' and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchangeable rules." [4]

Students of science are "brainwashed" in different ways at different ages. Around the time of middle school, they are brainwashed through a checklist "Scientific Method" that presents science as catechism, with rigid rules to be memorized for a quiz. A few years later in university physics courses it is oh-so-easy to brainwash them again with smooth "rational reconstructions" of science

While a personal logical reconstruction in each learner's mind forms a creative task whose completion is essential to content mastery, teaching only such pre-edited reconstructions creates an impression of how science is done that is as misleading as the sixth-grade checklist. (One wonders if such experiences were the stimuli that led the logical positivists astray, with their rigid rules about how science was supposed to be done.)

A contribution to my own education that has come with my role as editor of this newsletter, is seeing first-hand the passion of physics historians who work hard to capture the events and personalities behind the textbook recitations. The stories they uncover restore the paradigms to shimmering life. I have found that sharing the history—not as mere footnotes, but as an integral part of the story—makes the physics itself more interesting to students, as it does for me. With the story comes authentic interest; with genuine interest comes the motivation to recreate in one's own mind the logical structure. Both the logical awareness and the historical appreciation are thereby enhanced.

[1] Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method, Matteo Motterlini, Ed. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1999), pp. 15-16. This passage comes from an introductory fictitious dialog between Lakatos and Feyerabend, written by Motterlini, summarizing their correspondence, arguments, and ideas.
[2] Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2003), pp. 103-104.
[3] Samuel M. Crothers, "Every Man's Natural Desire to be Somebody Else," originally published in Dame School of Experience (Houghton- Mifflin Co., Boston MA, 1920); appearing in my high school reader Exploring Life through Literature (Scott, Foresman and Co., Chicago, IL, 1964), pp. 413-420.
[4] Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (Verso, New York, NY, 2010), p. 3.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.