The naiveté of science as the history of Ideas
from Robert Locke
I am constantly perplexed by the way people on this blog handle the development of science as a history of ideas. I find this view particularly expressed in the exchange of opinions Asad Zaman provokes in his posts and comments to which others respond. I have noted that trying to explain the development of science without going into the political, social, and economic environment in which science exists, will not bear much explanatory fruit. Here are three examples of what I mean:
- To understand the development of science during the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), the grow of its institutionalization outside traditional universities, in the newly founded academies of science, the spread of scientific knowledge through the multiplications of philosophical societies, and it propagation through collective knowledge projects, i.e., encyclopedias have to be examined, as well as, the resistance that other institutions posed to the spread of new ideas, e. g., the Inquisition, the traditional universities that defended Aristotelian- Ptolemaic mechanics into the 19th century.
- The second instance occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries in Germany with the transformation of universities from places that possess knowledge into ones involved in a process of its constant creation through research seminars and graduate qualification degrees (research doctorates and Habilitationenschriften). (The point is that it is not the specific scientific idea that matters but the institutionalization of the discovery process that does) This institutionalization of knowledge creation took place first in non-natural science fields, e.g., philosophy and philology, then in natural science, e.g., Justus von Liebig’s research seminar in chemistry at Giessen, then in graduate studies in technical and commercial institutes. (Graduate research degrees in the UK and in the US hardly existed at the time) The networking of German universities and institutes spawned science based industries in organic chemistry, pharmaceuticals, electo-technology, and metallurgy in the late nineteenth century that enabled Germany to take over leadership in Europe in high technology industrialization, c. 1914. And you cannot get off the hook by making a distinction between fundamental and applied science; their development is inseparable.
- The final instance is the emergence of the triple helix as a causal factor in the creation of science based industries at the end of the last century. Famous publicly funded state-run research institutes existed in America, but the US government allots most of its research budgets to laboratories in public and private universities, and to private firms. The government permits researchers on its projects, who work in these laboratories, to retain individual property rights to their discoveries and the laws permits universities to grant licenses to commercial firms to exploit the discoveries that government-funded researchers make in university laboratories. The universities and the researchers share in the dividends garnered from this government-paid research. If the research results in a start-up firm, the university can allow it to exploit university-held patents in exchange for stock in the new company, and the university professors are not only allowed to leave academic positions to work temporarily for firms, with rights to return to university positions, but, while remaining in their university chairs, they are permitted to work on a firm’s board of directors and/or to work as a consultant. The triple helix is elitist; in 1997, seven great US universities took in 60 percent of the royalties from firms exploiting their discoveries.
There is much anecdotal evidence about the scientific advantage gained from this symbiosis between university research and private firms in Silicon Valley. “At Stanford,” William F Miller wrote, “as well as at the University of California at Berkeley, there are lively interactions between industry professionals and executives with faculty and students through many seminars and conferences.” C-M Lee, W Miller, et al, eds., The Silicon Valley Edge: a Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Stanford UP, 2000. Also Robert R Locke and Katja Schoene, the Entrepreneurial Shift: Americanization in European High-Technology Management Education. Cambridge UP, 2004)
The fact that scientists in Islam made great discoveries while Europe was an intellectual backwater does not explain why and how science developed or did not develop subsequently –to do that not the ideas themselves must be examined but the knowledge networking institutionalized in regions and civilizations.
In any event, the inclusion of economics in the discussion is misplaced, because its axioms and mathematical models are not, compared to those in natural science, scientific. Its development can best be explained by the creation and spread of institutions historically, i.e., during Britain’s maritime based empire in the 18th century, during the rise of Germany in the great power rivalries of the late 19th century, and through the spread and institutionalization of American views on economics and scientific management during the Cold War.