What can we learn from the past?

Graduate: 4/28
Undergrad: 4/29


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History may turn out to be a crucial tool for learning how to proceed in the future. One thing that careful historical work helps undermine is the sense of the inevitability of the development of science and technology. This sense is bolstered by existing dogmatism about the achievements of science and technology, the existing standards, conventions, and ideas in those fields. This dogmatism serves a valuable role in restricting the range of possible questions at the forefront of the field to something manageable, something on which scientists, engineers, and technologists might hope to make progress. At the same time, we may be left with the false sense that science and technology follow a determined path, governed only by rationality, truth, and efficiency, and that there is no room for choice or for values in that assessment.

Hasok Chang conceives of the work of history and philosophy of science in precisely these terms as complementary science. “Complementary science,” he tells us, “asks scientific questions that are excluded from current specialist science.” Chang believes in doing so that we can produce a kind of scientific knowledge that is excluded from, but complementary to, current scientific knowledge. Perhaps, in the long run, history and philosophy of science could thus create positive transformation in science itself. Likewise, we might examine the history of technology, including the many possibilities left unexplored, to conceive of alternative, complementary technological developments that might improve our current world.

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