Thursday, May 15, 2003

Another Waste of Public Library Shelf Space

I turned up a copy of Keith Windschuttle's The Killing of History (How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists) at my local library on Sunday. What I really wanted of course was a copy of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History but that doesn't appear to have arrived on the shelves yet. So I settled for The Killing of History (etc): I though reading it might help me catch up a little on the current state of received opinion.

It's an irritating read, especially Chapter 7 "History as a Social Science", where Windschuttle presents an extended rebuttal of Kuhn, Popper et al drawing heavily on the work of David Stove, who is to Windschuttle as SL MacGregor Mathers is to Aleister Crowley. I have to admit here that it pisses me off when historians and philosophers pontificate about science in a way that makes it perfectly obvious that they know jack shit about that whereof they speak. Reading this chapter is as agonising as watching some klutz with a hair-triggered Uzi point it playfully at his own feet.

Chapter 7 begins:

History is a discipline that straddles both the humanities and the social sciences. History's credentials as a science derive from three of its objectives: first, it aims to record the truth about what happened in the past; second, it aims to build a body of knowledge about the past; third, it aims to study the past through a disciplined methodology, using techniques and sources that are accessible to others in the field.

This bold claim is what leads Windschuttle, the apostle of history as science to his disastrous excursion into the history and philosophy of science. After David Stove, Windschuttle takes Kuhn, Popper et al to task for using causal [sic] expressions (such as 'is defeated', 'is removed') as if they were logical expressions, such as 'is refuted' (p 201). This is shortly followed by a spectacular howler (the first of several):

... By applying Stove's distinctions to the most common example used by the radical sceptics, we can put these myths in their place. Even though the Copernicus [1473 - 1543] -Galileo-Kepler theory that the Earth and the planets orbit the Sun has now been replaced (a sociological concept [sic]) by far more sophisticated and adventurous Einsteinian theories of cosmology, the central findings of the seventeenth century [sic] thesis have not been refuted (a logical concept) by the newer theories. The planets still orbit the Sun, just as the scientists of the Renaissance discovered 350 years ago ... [my emphasis]

Here Windschuttle has tripped over his own petard. Earlier in the chapter he has denounced Kuhn, Popper et al for:

... their attempt to resolve questions of logical value by appealing to matters of historical fact.

There's also an obvious logical howler here: if modern cosmology fails to refute Copernicus, then equally, Copernican cosmology failed to refute Ptolemaic cosmology, or Tycho Brahe's alternative geocentric cosmology.

Reading further in Windschuttle's defence (after Stove) of Knowledge accumulation, we find this bold statement:

Even if we concede to Feyerabend that Einstein's theory does not share a single statement with its predecessor, this is not an argument against the accumulation of knowledge. Einstein, as a matter of historical fact, wrote his theory of relativity in response to Newton's mechanics.

I'm not sure where Windschuttle got this historical fact from, but it's a gross oversimplification: for one thing it ignores the importance of James Clark Maxwell's electrodynamics to Einstein's theory: it was from Maxwell, not Newton, that Einstein got the idea that the speed of light was constant in all frames of reference.

One last example (because I'm getting as bored by this as you probably are by now): at the bottom of page 202, we get this:

Another furphy in this debate is the claim that all observation statements are already preladen with theory. Now, if all observations were laden with theory, we could ask of any observation which particular theory it is laden with. Once we do this, it becomes apparent that the claim cannot be sustained. Consider the case of Galileo's observation through a telescope of the planet Jupiter and its moons in 1609. ... would anyone imagine that if a supporter of the old Ptolemaic theory of astronomy had looked through a telescope at the same time he would have seen anything different? Would we expect the Ptolemaic theorist to see the moons not in orbit but roaming the skies above Jupiter as his own theory might have expected ... ?

Once again Windschuttle is resorting to historical example as a substitute for logical argument. Worse, as a soi-pissant historian, he is ignoring the social, intellectual and above all technological context in which Galileo made his observations. Windschuttle also conflates what Galileo saw with what he inferred from what he saw. It's not as if Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and saw the moons whizzing around the planet at amazing speed. A Ptolemaist would have seen precisely what Galileo saw through his telescope: most likely a vague greenish dot (Jupiter) with some smaller dots (the moons) around it. What he might infer from that observation is anyone's guess: possibly that Jupiter was falling apart and that the end of the world was nigh. As most of Galileo's contemporaries preferred Tycho Brahe's cosmology, the point is moot anyway.

In his introduction (p 4), Windschuttle tells us how he intends to defend history from the murderous hordes of literary critics and social theorists:

Apart from the first, introductory chapter of this book, each of the others can be regarded as a road test of one or more of the latest season's theoretical models to see, first, how it handles the rougher terrain of actual historical subject matter, and second, how it stands up to competition over the same ground from those empirical jalopies that the new crew want to consign to the junk yard.

I think Keith drove his own anti-theoretical Land Cruiser into a tree and wrote it off.

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