Last June I was in Vienna for the fifth conference on Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (&HPS5). It was an immensely enjoyable event. Towards the end of the conference, during the very last talk that I saw before I had to leave for the airport, I rediscovered my love for HPS. Here’s how it happened.
The beginning was inauspicious. The speaker had made slides with LaTeX, so they were heavy on text.1 What is more, she recited those slides word for word, which is usually considered bad presentation technique. But here’s the surprising thing: it worked brilliantly. Because of the exact parallelism between the slides and the spoken word, it was easy to follow the speaker’s arguments and evidence. Many presentations go off the rails because the audience doesn’t know whether to focus on the slides or the spoken word. That wasn’t a problem in this case.
The story started simply enough. There’s a famous biomedical discovery from the 1980s that led to a Nobel prize: the fact that gastric ulcers are caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori. The episode is reasonably well researched in HPS, so we know something about who discovered what, when, and where, and how additional research established the finding beyond reasonable doubt. But the speaker asked an interesting counterfactual question: Why was the discovery not made before the 1980s? The conditions should have been right earlier. On the face of it, there was no good reason for the delay. In terms of concepts and methods, the discovery could have been made in the 1950s. So why wasn’t it?
Here’s where things became interesting. A big part of the problem was a mistaken assumption: that the stomach is sterile because of its high acid content. The speaker began by asking the most obvious questions. Perhaps there was good empirical warrant for believing in a sterile stomach? Perhaps the techniques for detecting certain types of bacteria did not exist prior to the 1980s? Or if they existed, perhaps they were not routinely used? Perhaps an earlier study had made other causes of gastric ulcers very likely? These are good, solid epistemological question that, I think, must always be asked first. In general, scientists are good at science.
But when none of these explanations seemed right, she opened up the list of possibilities. Could it be that we have an instance here of a sociological rather than an epistemological process? Maybe epidemiologists in the 1950s felt that the search for infectious etiologies belonged to an “old paradigm” and was no longer worth pursuing? Or perhaps some gastroenterologists who rejected the infectious etiology of gastric ulcers had undue influence? Could it be that a study claiming that the stomach is sterile was cited more and more but questioned less and less? Or maybe the treatment of gastric ulcers only became big business in the 1980s, which made it more attractive to do research on the disease? Clearly, there are many non-epistemic consideration that may have been in play.
I like this plurality of questions. Historians of science remain (on the whole) captivated by the social conditions of science, while philosophers are (on the whole) enraptured by highly abstract formal problems. It is up to HPS to ask the whole range of pertinent questions about the scientific process: to produce an adequate understanding of how science actually works, from the epistemology of experiments to the social organization of inquiry. To me, this is what HPS is all about. I left Vienna at peace with my discipline.2
If you are interested, the talk was based on a paper by Dunja Šešelja and Christian Straßer which is now published in Acta Biotheoretica. Note: The paper’s focus differs from the talk; it is mostly about whether the bacterial hypothesis of ulcer causation was “worthy of pursuit” from the 1950s to the 1980s, with much less focus on broader questions discussed above.
- I think LaTeX is great for writing essays, papers and books — I even force my students to learn the system as a kind of tough love measure. But I don’t think it’s a good tool for presentations: it’s not sufficiently visual to produce interesting results, and it encourages a number of bad presentation habits.
- Of course, I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm – and Popper (not yet Sir Karl) telling you how science is really done.