Leviathan and the Air-Pump

How did experimentation become accepted as a primary way of doing science? Leviathan and the Airpump,the history of science classic by Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer, looks at the historical transition in Restoration England, when the culture of experiment was just being invented. The book chronicles the dispute between Robert Boyle of the Royal Society, pioneers of experimental science, and Thomas Hobbes, whose work in political philosophy has been remembered, and whose work on mechanical philosophy, short on experiment and long on reasoned “proof”, has been largely forgotten.
It is an interesting question. Why, with the ability to demonstrate whether a scientific statement can be supported by facts, would someone choose to avoid experiment? Hobbes argues a few key points. Facts in the real world are messy. Boyle’s pump leaked, no two pumps were alike to permit replication; and there were other problems that led the results of experiments to be much more ambiguous than they appear in textbooks. Most important, Hobbes objected to the lack of causal logic. In geometry, Hobbes’ canonical form of natural philosophy, reasoned statements proceed methodically from axioms to incontrovertable conclusions. In purely empirical science, relationships between observation and conclusion are more ambiguous.
By contrasting Hobbes and Boyle, I wonder whether the authors stack the deck to maximise the contrast. Even within his peer group of experimentalists, Boyle was notoriously reticent to theorize. There are other pioneering experimentalists (Galileo, Huygens) who did more math; and whose process interleaved experimentation and mathematical theory. It seems as though Hobbes might have fewer problems with, say, Huygens’ work on pendulums.
The insight I found most interesting is the way the book shows how arguments in defense of alternative scientific methods were not only about how to prove knowledge, but about how to organize society. Both sides were anxious about maintaining civil order in the aftermath of the English civil war, and promoted their respective methods as processes for reaching agreement peaceably. Hobbes’ focused on creating geometric-style proofs that are so airtight that dispute is impossible. Boyle focused on removing philosophic discourse from the contentious topics of politics and religion, and allowing free argument on agreed facts.
One frustrating aspect of the book arises from its methodological refusal to be ahistorical. Responding to the tradition, in the history of science, of reading history from the perspective of known winners, and solved problems, the authors take the opposite approach, and try to present the world of 17th century natural philosophy without any more information than contemporaries had; the reader is left with the same puzzlement about “anomalous suspension”, cohering disks of marble, and other puzzles that did not get solved in the time frame under consideration. What’s more, the authors are deliberately anti-concerned with the scientific outcome.
I understand why the authors chose not to step out of the frame of 17th century knowledge and understanding; but I’d understand the content better with some additional glosses and appendices about the conclusions of later scientific work. Apparently, this book, Robert Boyle’s Experiments in Pneumatics. written in the 50s by James Conant, actually explains the science, and used copies are on the market.
The book belongs to school in the history of science that focuses on the sociology of science. I’ve heard three Bruno Latour references in the last week and need to pick up the thread there. The extreme side of the argument claims that there is nothing but sociology; but that takes us to Bush political appointees censoring global warming and forbidding the national park service to estimate the age of the Grand Canyon. It is useful to bracket science in order to understand its social context, but dangerous to assert that all knowledge is opinion and belief.

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