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Weinberg is right, historians are wrong

Hindsight and modern knowledge essential for a sensible evaluation of thinkers of the past

In Science News, Tom Siegfried reviews the (otherwise ordinary) 2015 book "To Explain the World" by Steven Weinberg

Physicist’s story of science breaks historians’ rules
in an interesting way, as an intellectual confrontation about the meaning of the history of science between scientists as represented by Weinberg and the historians of science as represented by more mediocre scholars without famous names.

The basic difference is the following. The historians are obsessed with the history so they insist on the causality: the acts and ideas of the people in the past may only be evaluated according to the habits and knowledge that were available at that time, historians argue. We don't want to hear the history from the winners' viewpoint only, they scream.

But Weinberg disagrees: When we discuss the history of science, we need to use the knowledge that is only available today – which includes the ideas of the winners of the past – to meaningfully classify who was right, who was wrong, and what was important. I agree with Weinberg.

At the end, as Siegfried points out, the disagreement between Weinberg and the historians is all about the historians' denial of the very concept of "progress in science". But in science, the progress is self-evident and only idiots may deny it. When you compare the ideas in two centuries, the newer ideas are bound to be "much closer to the exact objective truth about the world". And, as Weinberg wisely says:
But the point of scientific work is not to solve the problems that happen to be fashionable in your own day — it is to learn about the world.
Because pretty much by definition, the ultimate purpose of scientific research transcends your everyday life, your culture, and your epoch, these criteria that stand "above your time" – and that will become more obvious in the future – are always essential for the evaluation of people's role in the history of science.

In the same way, only the thinking people in a sufficiently distant future will be the fair enough judges who may issue justifiable verdicts about the disagreements that exist in science today.

Historians only want the past scientists to be looked at as "people who were solving problems considered relevant by themselves and the culture of their time". This is the homework they should be graded for according to the historians. But this is exactly the part of the story that is not too important or interesting from Weinberg's (or my) perspective. The essential evolution was the evolution of the scholars' changing attitudes about the most conceptual issues, the changing understanding what we should do to understand Nature or to be wise, or what science is.

In other words, the historians often end up being people from the "humanities" who worship the complete moral relativism and equality between everyone. But from this perspective, all the events of the past are just meaningless chaos.

Gabriela Soukalová (CZ) took the biathlon World Cup on Saturday.

Because Weinberg's and historians' different relationship to the history boils down to the inequality of views and the existence of progress (Weinberg finds those important while the historians want to deny both), one may also observe that when we study the history of other things where the "objective character of progress" isn't that obvious, the historians' attitude could be more justifiable.

The most obvious example is the history of the arrangements in the whole society. For example, should we have a big government that redistributes and regulates? Clearly, people still disagree and they have disagreed about these matters at all times (except for times when those who disagreed were quickly executed). And these different views implied different ideas about "what is progress" or, more generally (we need to avoid the word "progress" because it's been largely hijacked by one side), "what is an improvement". For us, the society gets better when we reduce the government and regulation and redistribution, among other things. But whether we beat the leftists is a matter of rather chaotic social dynamics, not an objective question decided by the "location of the objective truth". The truth about politics is ultimately subjective because it depends on values (which enter as input) and those always have some subjective aspects.

Indeed, when it comes to ordinary politics, the history may be rewritten by the winners and this rewriting may always be viewed as a distortion of a sort. But then there are fields like science where the "winners" are not decided about chaotically because the winners' theories and ideas end up being so vastly superior relatively to the losers' theories and ideas that their being winners becomes an objective truth of a sort. It's right to prefer the perspective of the winners because their being winners is approximately an objective fact.

I cannot resist to copy-and-paste the final paragraph from Siegfried's article. Weinberg said:
The real story is the progress of science from an earlier day when the most intelligent and well-informed people in the world did not know how to address the mysteries of nature. We’re certainly not finished, and we’re undoubtedly still making mistakes. But we have amassed a large amount of reliable knowledge, and more important we have developed techniques for deciding when knowledge really is knowledge or just a mistake. It is a great story. It’s not at an end. But we have learned some things, and if we don’t use the things that we have learned, then the story we tell has no point.
Amen to that. If we never took the results of our research into account – e.g. while thinking about the contributions of different scientists in the past – then our own research would be worthless as well because it would be destined not to be used in the future. But scientists do their work exactly because they want to improve their knowledge and sharpen their perspectives in the future – which is why they are doing these things, indeed.

By the way, much of this disagreement may be personified.

Historians of science simply want to eternally worship many people, e.g. Plato (the old chap) and Aristotle (the younger chap, Plato's student; Socrates was even older than Plato). They seemed super-smart at their time so they must be interpreted in this way forever.

But Weinberg's and science's attitude is very different. Many of Plato's and Aristotle's opinions about the right "scientific method" were just damn stupid and it is absolutely essential for scientifically literate people who live millenniums later to be well aware of these big limitations of the famous thinkers of the past.

The scientific attitude to knowledge simply doesn't involve the mindless, uncritical, and eternal worshiping of any people. It is the search for the truth and as the progress continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the celebrated people in the past were further from the truth than previously thought. In particular, the scientific revolution was a damn real and important paradigm shift and the thinkers before that revolution just can't get an "A" from science. Many of those great men were monster minds who were trying to find knowledge whose power would go well beyond their own culture or epoch; but many of them were simply building on assumptions and methods that weren't viable at all.

Science is more than just a set of conventions or a social construct. This fact is fundamental and must help to shape an intelligent person's opinions about the world including its history.

I have mentioned Plato and Aristotle as the examples of men who could be considered "infallible" by the historians of science. Bacon and Descartes receive much worse grades from Weinberg than from most historians, too. But a similar theme gets repeated by "slightly less humanities-oriented" communities who look at "slightly less ancient" thinkers.

So some people who consider themselves physics fans or amateur physicists (and maybe some professional physicists) would like to include the cult of an infallible Albert Einstein into the "occupation of being a physicist". But like Plato and Aristotle, Einstein wasn't infallible, either. He was wrong about many things – especially about the validity and completeness of quantum mechanics. The progress of physics since Einstein's years may look somewhat less obvious than the progress since Plato's or Aristotle's times. But it's been huge and obvious, too. Any effort to declare Einstein infallible is an effort to deny or reverse a century of progress.

And yes, I could continue with those who want to declare the physical views of the 1970s as "forever perfect". These people are e.g. inflation and string theory denialists. As clocks tick and no new evidence supporting their old picture emerges, these people's ideas become similarly outdated and indefensible as the ideas of people who want to force contemporary physics to work according to the rules of Plato, Aristotle, or Einstein. Physics just can't and won't do that. That's a basic feature of science by which it differs from religions that tend to worship assorted hippies and pedophiles permanently (although Christianity has clearly become much more compatible with progress than the Islam).

A rather fascinating March 2016 APS selfie. Maria Spiropulu (CERN), David Gross, ... Dennis Overbye (NYT), Emily Conover, and the guy in the middle. Whom he looks like? Yes, he looks like Fidel Castro because he's Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart (son), a physicist of a Cuban sort.

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