How to do history (and how not to)

Philip Ball in Pandaemonium:

ScreenHunter_1125 Apr. 08 17.45In a recent short review in Prospect of Steven Weinberg’s book To Explain the World, I took exception to his narrow and presentist view of the history of science. That perspective remains unchanged in Weinberg’s recent article in the Guardian, in which he gives us his take on both the history of science and popular science writing. In both respects his remarks are useful, insofar as they encapsulate the worst of what drives me to despair when some (most definitely not all) scientists talk about these things.

Weinberg’s view of the history of science is not down to ignorance. It’s important to say this because that’s what it looks like. But Weinberg does not write Whiggish history because he doesn’t know what historians of science do these days, but specifically because he does know and disapproves of it. Yes, this theoretical physicist believes that historians don’t really know how to write history. It is hard to know why he nonetheless expresses ‘enormous respect for professional historians of science, from whom I have learned so much’ – unless he means (as I suspect) that he is grateful to them for having dug all the facts out of the archives, but that he doesn’t believe they can be trusted to know what to do with them. Because Weinberg seems to have learned nothing from historians of science about how to be a historian.

If your view is that science was just blundering around and dragging its feet until Newton’s Principia, then it’s perhaps not surprising if you conclude that the use of mathematics in science by ancients such as Plato and the Pythagoreans was ‘childish’. Again we have to understand that, while a remark like this coming from an undergraduate would simply indicate ignorance, from Weinberg it connotes something else. I am quite sure that he knows how incendiary such a claim is. But I fear that, in making it, he comes across like James Watson, evidently thinking that by saying the ‘outrageous’ he is revealing himself as a bold and outspoken thinker, whereas in fact he just sounds silly.

More here.