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Apr 23 2011

The naming of things

This post is a response to one of the points Rebekah Higgit makes over at “Whewell’s Ghost” on “Dos and Don’ts of history of science”. It’s all about scientists:

1) Do not ever call anyone a scientist who would not have recognised the term. The word was not coined until the 1830s (by William Whewell himself) but a) he meant something rather different by it and b) the word was not actually used until the 1870s. If we use the term to describe anyone before this date we risk loading their views, status, career, ambitions and work with associations that just do not exist before this date.I may know what I mean if it slips out in my description of an 18th-century astronomy, but the person listening to me will hear all sorts of other things. It too easily glides over points such as the fact that individuals probably did something else to make their living, or were personally wealthy. Science was not a career, or a vocation. I could give many further examples, and expand this rule into to using actors’ categories elsewhere, but this is the fundamental point. Not only did the word not, essentially, exist pre-1870 but there was no equivalent and no such idea. Awkward as it can sometimes be, man of science, natural philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, physician, naturalist or whatever should always be used instead.

I disagree with this. I should point out that I don’t consider this a Marmite* argument: the point Rebekah makes is not unreasonable and arguing serves to reinforce the point she is making. That the lives of “scientists” in the past were very different from the lives of most modern “scientists” is an entirely fair point, and is perhaps what the history of science is all about.

Since Rebekah is a professional historian of science, I feel my best approach is to argue this point on linguistic and scientific grounds, since I am a scientist not a historian. The OED says a scientist is:

  1. A person with expert knowledge of a science; a person using scientific methods.

it goes on to describe its coining via almost joking discussions over the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1834 to Whewell’s use in 1840.

Precluding the use of the word “scientist” from application to people living before it was introduced seems to rather limit our options – how far must this sanitisation of language extend? Our use of words evolves in time. There are parallels here with Maxwell’s equations: in the mathematical language of his time his equations were clumsy and verbose, in more modern notation they are much more compact (and to overuse a word “elegant”). Working scientists don’t use Maxwell’s original notation, they use the modern notation because it captures the essential elements of the original work but is easier to use.

In my view the heart of the issue is the way in which we define scientists, to me being a scientist is defined operationally: by what I do in applying the scientific method, and by inference what people did in the past. Rather than socially or economically: what I have been trained to do or what people would pay me to do. I would still be a scientist if I were not paid for it, and hadn’t been trained. In both cases I might be poorer, but in different senses of the word!

There is also a point about communication here too: using a word for which you and your colleagues hold a specialist, narrow meaning may be “correct” but not help with communication. Knowing that your definition and the definition your audience hold is different is important but does not mean you should hold your definition sacrosanct – I face the same issue communicating my specialist area of science.

Perhaps the issue here is that Rebekah takes scientist to mean “modern professional scientist” whilst my definition is more catholic.

This does lead to the question: should I describe myself as a historian?

*Appropriate here since I work for the company that makes Marmite.

5 comments

  1. innerbrat

    Wheaton's Law: "Don't be a dick!"

    There's plenty of ways that this can be codified, but when it comes to the naming of things, where 'things' are 'people', I tend to follow the simple rule:

    Never use assign a label to a person they wouldn't use on themselves.

    It may matter less if the person in question is dead, but it's true so generally it's worth taking as red: Calling someone a name they wouldn't use on themselves is, in fact, name calling, and unhelpful.

    And no, of course you shouldn't describe yourself as "a historian." You should describe yourself as "an historian."

  2. SomeBeans

    Okay – I won't call myself "a historian".

    I appreciate that calling people by names they do not choose can be offensive but I struggle to see that this is one of those occasions.

  3. beckyfh

    Thanks, Ian, for giving me an idea of where you're coming from on this. In fact, I think that some of you points are grist to my mill. For example, while working scientists would never use Maxwell's notation, it would be a very bad idea for historians to make use of modern notation in trying to understand the beginnings and early spread of Maxwell's ideas.

    Saying being a scientist is "what I do in applying the scientific method" is hugely problematic, not least because no sociologist or philosopher of science would agree that there is a single method, and no historian would agree that this or these methods have been continuous and unchanging over time. We need to be more flexible than this to make sense of how science happened in the past.

    Your points about where would we stop in this issue with appropriate terminology and – in tension with this – how we ensure good communication, are the nub of the issue. In academic contexts we historians can go to town with making use of actors' categories, but this is at the expense of making ourselves comprehensible.

    For me, being careful with 'scientist' is the compromise. It is the simplest means I can think of for helping people to understand that science has a history, and is part of history and human culture. It has not always been the same, pursued by the same kinds of people, for the same kinds of people or for the same reasons. If this is the single point my audience take away with them then I am pretty content.

  4. SomeBeans

    I see where you're coming from, and perhaps why we differ on this: to you the history of science is something you look into, for me it's something I am inside. This means I tend to seek out the similarities with my scientific ancestors, I don't want to be cut off from them with a trick of the tongue!

    The "scientific method" does change through time but I'd argue that this change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. (And I appreciate that this picking out of threads into the past is one of your other big "don'ts"!)

    I suspect you're using the term "actors' categories" in a technical sense which I don't understand properly.

  5. beckyfh

    Yes: I think this is the nub of the issue. You saying "I tend to seek out the similarities with my scientific ancestors" makes a lot of sense regarding your interests and motivation, and speaks exactly to how history of science was and, outside academia, very often is still written.

    It is, of course, fundamentally ahistorical and is what we trained historians of science are anxious to challenge. The trouble is, it creates a false sense of familiarity with past science and its practitioners and tends to write out everything that actually made science happen.

    I would argue that a sounder historiography is good for scientists too, especially in terms of communication with a wider public. It shows that science is not eternal and outside culture, but part of it, affecting and being affected by non-scientists – it's worth knowing about, rather than just letting the scientists get on with it on their own and discuss it amongst themselves.

    The term actors' categories is jargon, I suppose, but it's not very technical. It essentially just means avoiding the use of terms or explanatory frameworks that ride roughshod over the people you are writing about would have understood.

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