Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)
Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:
The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)
And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!
From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).
He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)
I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.
Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.