The planet that could only be seen from France

The most important advance in nineteenth-century astronomy was the discovery of a new element in the solar system. Since 1781, when Laplace had hypothesized that this new element was a planet called Uranus, astronomers had observed deviations by the planet from its predicted orbit. In the early decades of the next century, a number of scientists suspected that these deviations might be due to another, hitherto undiscovered, planet. In 1845, a student at Cambridge, John Adams, calculated the orbit of this hypothetical planet and reported his findings to the Greenwich Observatory, which was nevertheless unable to detect it by telescope. In the meantime, the director of the Astronomical Observatory of Paris, Urban Jean Le Verrier, had independently reached the same conclusions and in 1846 announced the discovery of a new planet, to which the name of Neptune was given. The discovery was hailed as a triumph by the French scientific community, which used it as a watchword in its struggle against the Church for the monopoly of knowledge about nature. Then, however, the American astronomer Walker calculated a new orbit for Neptune which was entirely different from the one worked out by Adams and Le Verrier. Was this the orbit of the same planet or of a different one? For the American astronomers it was a different one; for the French astronomers, who had made massive investments in terms of their public image and scientific authority in Le Verrier's discovery, it could only be Neptune, and the different orbits could only be due to errors of calculation (Shapin, 1982).

The controversy over Neptune's orbit is typical of the cases examined by the tradition of science studies carried forward by the so-called 'Edinburgh School'. After its foundation in 1966 by the astronomer David Edge, the Science Studies Unit of Edinburgh moved rapidly to the forefront in the social studies of science. Since then, Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Donald MacKenzie, Steven Shapin and Andrew Pickering are some of the scholars who have worked at the Unit. When first developing their approach to the sociology of science, the firm intention of these scholars was to oppose the institutional sociology of science that had become established in the US since the Second World War. The punctilious definition given to their subject of study as the 'sociology of scientific knowledge' (SSK), rather than simply as 'sociology of science', was an explicit declaration of intent to open the 'black box' of science which, in the opinion of the Unit's members, the institutionalized approach had left largely intact, doing no more than examine its external features.

Whereas the approach of Merton and his followers belonged largely within the sociological mainstream, the approach of the Edinburgh School has been clearly interdisciplinary from the outset. It makes extensive use of materials from the history of science (as well as conducting original case studies, although almost always from a historical perspective) and it engages in constant dialogue - albeit often critically - with the philosophy of science.

It should be emphasized that the SSK theorized at Edinburgh is based on case studies, and that it has simultaneously stimulated a large body of work by sociologists and historians of science. A valuable essay by Steven Shapin has organized this mass of studies into four broad areas on the basis of the analytical aims and significance of each of them.

The first area comprises studies that highlight the contingent nature of the production and evaluation of scientific findings. In other words, these are studies which reveal the existence of a 'grey area' between what nature offers to researchers and their accounts of it, and that this grey area may, in principle, comprise factors of a social nature.

For example, in 1860 the English biologist T.H. Huxley announced the discovery of a primitive form of protoplasm which he called Bathybius Haeckelii. His discovery was soon confirmed by other scholars, and the Bathybius was, for a long time, considered to be a 'fact', being cited in support of the nebular hypothesis of planetary evolution by numerous Darwinians, as well as by Huxley and Haeckel themselves. The Bathybius was taken to constitute proof of the continuity between non-living forms and living beings. Only subsequently did certain biologists begin to argue that the Bathybius was an artefact bred from a combination of 'observers' imagination and the precipitating effect of alcohol on ooze' (Shapin, 1982: 160).

In entirely similar manner, cellular meiosis was observed or denied by various groups of researchers until - following 'rediscovery' of Mendel's theories in the early twentieth century - chromosomic theory came up with an interpretative grid able to accommodate cytological observations. Golgi's corpuscle is another fact/artefact that has long made cyclical appearances and disappearances in observations by cellular biologists (Droscher, 1998).

Shapin himself, however, admits that these studies open the way to a sociology of scientific knowledge [but] they do not by themselves constitute such a sociology. An empirical sociology of knowledge has to do more than demonstrate the underdetermination of scientific accounts and judgements; it has to go on to show why particular accounts were produced .. . and it has to do this by displaying the historically contingent connections between knowledge and the concerns of various social groups in their intellectual and social settings.

(Shapin, 1982: 164, my italics)

This goal is achieved, according to Shapin, by the studies belonging to the second area - the one which uses professional interests as an element in sociological explanation. In the already cited case of the Gilia inconspicua (see Chapter 2), the criteria used by both sides to argue for the superiority of its own classification of the plant can be related to the desire of each to protect its conspicuous investments in learning, publications and reputation. The hypothesis that there exist tumour-provoking viruses - which subsequently won Temin, Baltimore and Dulbecco the Nobel prize for their discovery of the reverse transcriptase enzyme - inevitably provoked the scepticism of scientists who had spent lifetimes working under the 'dogma' that RNA could never generate DNA (Kevles, 1999). It is not rare for such conflicts to arise among scientists of different scientific affiliations. English biologists, unlike geologists, had been inclined to abandon a teleological view of natural history already before publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859).

A theory that the adaptation of living beings was governed by biological laws, and not by a divine plan or by simple environmental determinism, enabled biology to free itself from the sway of geology; for geologists, by contrast, a teleological account enabled them to treat geological change as primary and that of living beings as its consequence (Ospovat, 1978, cf. Shapin, 1982). When the dispute erupted over the alleged discovery of cold fusion by Pons and

Fleischmann in 1989, chemists and physicists were not only in conflict over their respective purviews (who should study the phenomenon) but also over which signals constituted 'proof' that fusion had occurred: the production of heat according to the chemists, the emission of neutrons according to the physicists (Lewenstein, 1992a; Bucchi, 1996). During the already-mentioned controversy over zymase,1 industrial mycologists were uninterested in detailed analysis of the cell's inner functions, which were of little relevance to their work; while those who had publicly supported the protoplasm theory were strenuously opposed to any recognition at all of zymase. From a theoretical point of view, the new results could be reinterpreted in the light of the old protoplasm theory, adapted so that a role could be given to enzymes. Yet, in the social domain the debate had by now polarized between two irreconcilable camps, with zymase being brandished by the biochemists as the symbol of a new era and of the struggle against the old establishment (Kohler, 1972).

According to SSK, what scientists 'see' and the explanations they give for it relate more generally to the role of science and scientists at a given historical moment, and to the level of professionalization and separation between experts and non-experts. This is the theme of the third area of studies singled out by Shapin. In the seventeenth century, French academics were reluctant to accept that meteorites came from the sky because accounts of their fall very often originated from peasants, or at any rate from 'non-professionals'. They were consequently deemed unreliable. Following the Revolution and, consequently, the change in attitude among intellectuals towards the common people, scientists began seriously to consider the connection between meteor showers and the fall of rocky objects in the countryside.

The fourth group of studies cited by Shapin enable him to argue that the role of social factors does not stop when scientific activity has been professionalized. In fact, it is possible to show that scientists make much use of images, models and metaphors from the more general culture at large. The source of these images may be for instance technological (an example being the mechanical pumps to which Harvey compared the heart) or political culture. The great biologist and political activist Virchow, for example, presented his conception of the organism made up of cells through analogy with his solidarist conception of a society in which individual citizens cooperate in the collective interest (Mazzolini, 1988). Better known and more widely studied is the influence exerted by Malthus' theory of social competition and individualism - ideas which pervaded Victorian society - on Darwin's development of his evolutionary theory (Gale, 1972; Young, 1973). George Poulett Scrope, one of the first geologists to hypothesize constant and long-period geological processes - thereby helping to discredit 'diluvial' explanations - also studied and wrote about political economy. His use in geology of the concept of time as an explanatory factor - 'neutral' with respect to other events, and potentially infinite - derived from his view of money as a means of circulation and exchange bereft of any intrinsic value (Rudwick, 1974).

Evelyn Fox Keller (1995) has described the history of biology in the twentieth century as the shift between two paradigmatic 'metaphors': a transition, that is, from a metaphor centred on the embryo and the organism's gradual development to one attributing to the gene - equivalent to the atom in physics - the capacity to 'construct' the organism on a predefined template. The former metaphor has been dominated by embryology; the latter has been characterized by the rise to predominance of genetics. This transition can be interpreted at various levels. One of them is specifically technical and has radically transformed the conditions and potential of biological research; the other is political and concerns the opposition and subsequent reconciliation between Germany - where the embryological paradigm held sway - and the US, where the genetic paradigm rapidly rose to dominance. At the cultural level, the genetic paradigm owes a great deal to the concept of information developed in cybernetics. And at an even broader cultural level, the waning of genetic determinism and the rediscovered importance of the 'cytoplasm' - the female part of the cell - owe a great deal to the feminist movement of the second half of the twentieth century.

The process also operates in reverse: images and concepts from science may be transferred into the political and social spheres. According to the SSK approach, the theories or explanations selected for such transfer depend on the specific circumstances of certain social groups, and on the specific strategies pursued by them.

An example is provided by phrenology. Developed during the nineteenth century from the work of the German doctor Franz Joseph Gall, this doctrine maintained that a person's psychological characteristics are located in specific zones of the brain, to which correspond bumps on the cranium. In the years around 1820, the theory provoked heated debate at Edinburgh University between phrenologists and anatomy lecturers. The dispute centred on different conceptions of the brain. This the university anatomists viewed as a unitary whole, whereas the phrenologists believed that it was an assembly of parts corresponding to different intellectual faculties. Both groups were made up of distinguished anatomists, and both groups performed careful dissections and examinations of the brain. For Shapin, phrenology gave the mercantile class the ideal means with which to challenge the academic elites. By turning phrenology into a dynamic theory of heredity, they could use it to highlight, besides the existence of certain traits inherent to the individual, also the possibility of altering or changing those traits by means of social reform. Not coincidentally, this view of heredity grew more entrenched as the bourgeoisie found itself having to cope more and more with the working class's demands for reform, and shifted its favour to eugenic theories in consequence (MacKenzie, 1976).

Thus, what Shapin calls full circle is achieved: 'connecting interests in the wider society to judgements of the adequacy and validity of esoteric mathematical formulations' (Shapin, 1982: 191). It is wrong, Shapin maintains, to yield to the temptation of separating the strictly technical component of a controversy from its 'cosmopolitan and methodological' ones.

Anti-phrenologists' insistence that cranial bones in the region of the frontal sinuses were not parallel was explicitly connected to their claim that phrenological character diagnosis was impossible; phrenologists' assertion that the cerebral convolutions might show standard pattern and morphological differentiation was explicitly related to their view that mental faculties were subserved by distinct cerebral areas.

We may likewise read the controversy on heredity that broke out in the early twentieth century between the biometrics school and the Mendelians. While the former propounded a rigid Darwinism, whereby evolution was the constant selection of minuscule differences, the latter embraced Mendel's recently rediscovered theories and their underlying hypothesis of more abrupt and discontinuous changes. According to Barnes and MacKenzie, this contrast reflected not only different technical competences and resources - for example, the biometricians made much use of mathematical-statistical tools -but also more general political and social attitudes. The biometric approach was compatible with the eugenic convictions and social reformism of the middle class, which pressed for political measures capable of shaping the development of society. The Mendelian approach instead reflected the conservative and non-interventionist views of the more reactionary classes (Barnes and MacKenzie, 1979).

These dynamics have also been used to analyse the controversy in statistics between Pearson - the leader of the biometrics school - and Yule. The dispute centred on the most appropriate correlation indicator for nominal statistical variables like 'living/dead' or 'high/low'. The index proposed by Pearson - rt - was based on the hypothesis that such variables can be considered products of a bivariate normal distribution. Yule instead developed another index - Q - which dispensed with that assumption. In this case, too, the incompatible positions taken up (and backed by opposing 'networks' in the British academic community) can be linked with the different goals that Pearson and Yule believed that statistical theory should pursue. What was assumed to be 'normality', however, depended on the scientist's broader vision of society - which in Pearson's case was centred on eugenics and Fabian socialism (MacKenzie, 1978).

A further example is provided by the history of Italian mathematics and concerns one of the last of Italy's mathematical 'duels', which was held in Naples in 1839. The tradition of mathematical duels dated back to the Renaissance, when they were frequently used to settle scholarly disputes. Originally watched by a crowd of spectators as two or more mathematicians strove to solve the same problems, with time these duels came to be conducted by correspondence or in the columns of learned journals. The duel in Naples resulted from a challenge issued by the mathematician Vincenzo Flauti against members of the 'analytic' school, whom he invited to solve three problems of geometry. A professor at the University of Naples and secretary to the Royal Academy of Science, Flauti was the leading exponent of the 'synthetic' school, whose teaching centred on pure geometry and the methods of classical mathematics. The founder of the school, Vincenzo Fergola, a fervent Catholic and the author inter alia of essays which asserted the effectively miraculous nature of the liquefaction of Saint Januarius' blood, considered mathematics to be a 'spiritual science', on the grounds that it was pure, and consequently insisted that it should not be contaminated with practical applications. The analytic school was institutionally associated with the Scuola di Applicazione del Corpo di Ingegneri di Ponti e Strade, which trained bridge and road engineers, and was therefore more concerned with geometrical analysis and the application of calculus to empirical problems. The two schools had been at loggerheads since the beginning of the century, with the 'analyticists' accusing the 'syntheticists' of anti-scientific behaviour because they had ignored the algebraic revolution in French mathematics; while the syntheticists responded in kind, going even so far as to accuse their rivals of moral depravity.

In the end, the mathematics section of the Royal Academy, which was given the task of adjudicating the duel and awarding a monetary prize to the winner, pronounced against the analytic school: a judgement prompted, according to several scholars, by the closer compatibility of the synthetic school with the counter-revolutionary policy of the Bourbons and the Catholic Church (Mazzotti, 1998).

What conclusions can we draw from these various examples? Shapin warns against adopting the unsatisfactory and caricatured version of the sociology of knowledge which he calls the 'coercive model'. This model, in fact:

a claims that sociology asserts that all individuals in a certain social situation will adopt a certain intellectual belief; b treats the social as a mere aggregation of individuals; c establishes a deterministic relationship between social situation and beliefs;

d views sociological explanation as concerned with 'external'

macrosociological factors; e opposes sociological explanation to the assertion that scientific knowledge is empirically grounded on sensory inputs from natural reality.

None of these statements reflects the SSK approach and its thesis that 'people produce knowledge against the background of their culture's inherited knowledge, their collectively situated purposes, and the information they receive from natural reality'. In this regard, the exponents of the SSK have taken especial pains - and here again they depart sharply from the Mertonian tradition - to reconstruct in detail the activities, methods and concrete experimental practices of scientists. Many of the members of the Science Studies Unit, moreover, had scientific backgrounds: Edge came to it from astronomy, Barnes from physics and Bloor from cognitive science. 'The role of the social' concludes Shapin 'is to prestructure [scientist's] choice, not to preclude choice' (Shapin, 1982: 196, 198).

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