Interview with Geert Somsen, a historian of science at Maastricht University.
GEERT SOMSEN is a historian of science with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He currently directs his faculty’s Graduate School and teaches in several bachelor’s and master’s programmes. He graduated in Chemistry but switched to historical research about 20 years ago. Within this field, he has become increasingly interested in the status of science in general. How has science been characterised in the past? What have scientific approaches been meant to supplant? How has science figured in self-portrayals of the West as compared to ‘the rest’? A training in science and technology studies (STS), meanwhile, prevents him from taking the advertised image of science for the actual product.
Somsen discusses with Pankaj Sekhsaria, of the Pune-based Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, his views on interdisciplinarity, his more recent work on ‘scientific internationalism’, ‘politically active’ scientists and his travel to India and Central Asia to look at old traditions of astronomy and science in these parts of the world. Excerpts from a free-ranging interview:
From an undergraduate degree in chemistry to a Ph.D. in the History of Science and finally into inter-disciplinary studies, your academic journey is quite an interesting one.
I graduated in 1992 in Chemistry but I had always liked subjects such as Science and Society, Philosophy of Science, and in the third year of graduation, we had History of Science which I really liked. I then did my Ph.D. in History of Science at the Institute for the History of Science in Utrecht [in the Netherlands] and there was a huge mental transformation from being a natural scientist to being a historian.
My interest in philosophical issues continued and I got more and more fascinated by constructivist approaches. So, during my Ph.D. I did an internship at the University of California, San Diego, in the United States. At that time they had what was called the Science Studies programme – an interdisciplinary graduate programme of history, philosophy and sociology of science. And they had all these stellar names then – Bruno Latour, Steven Shapin, and in philosophy Philip Kicher was there, Chandra Mukerji…. It was really exciting, especially when all these people got together every week in their colloquiums and the poor speakers were completely grilled [laughs]. They would fly in speakers from all over the country, sometimes from all over the world, so it was really great.
I then did a postdoc in Philadelphia, was in Cambridge in England for a while too, and then landed here in Maastricht. Our faculty is very interdisciplinary in research, but especially teaching, and I became even more interdisciplinary here. So I was a historian of science and an STS studies person even before I came, and here I also got involved in courses on avant-garde movements, political ideologies, on all sorts of things.
Do you look at yourself then as a historian or as a scientist?
Historian, definitely not a scientist. I mean, scientists study nature and STS people study science, right? So the object of study is different. People in STS, I think, are from the humanities and social sciences because the object of the study is what scientists do. What scientists do is study rabbits, stars and DNA [laughs] and that is very different. So, I was trained in that [science], and it helps to have some inside knowledge, but I had to sort of make a mental switch.
I also have that experience, then, of what it means to be a scientist. An anthropologist, for instance, needs to acquire some inside knowledge of the culture he is studying. Now, I come from that culture. I only have to step back and look at what scientists are doing. I think it is helpful because it makes me able to deal with more technical issues.Whereas, if I would have been trained in history, I wouldn’t have been able to study what chemists are talking about, because I wouldn’t understand it.
Would you agree that historical investigation is perhaps the best starting point for interdisciplinary and STS kind of work.
When you look at Thomas Kuhn, for example, I think that is certainly the case. He was a sort of a philosopher who was very interested in history and he had much more of a relativist look. It started for him with an appreciation that Aristotelian physics, which we regard as no longer valid, in itself is completely valid. It was a different way of looking at the world and that brought Kuhn to a sort of relativism, which then made him theorise about scientific change. That Kuhnian turn, then, has partly come out of history.
As a historian do you find yourself better placed to work in this field?
No, not really. I see myself on par with sociologists and anthropologists.
So there is no particular advantage that you bring because you are a historian?
Sure. History of science has its own advantage and I really like it. That doesn’t however mean that I am better at STS studies than sociologists or anthropologists are.
You do not feel privileged in any way of being a historian…?
No, but what I think it does is that it brings a sort of a relativism with it, which is a privilege. And that is what the historians have from the outset, but that then is also true of an anthropologist.
So what then are the biggest challenges and advantages of doing interdisciplinary work?
Well of course, it is always combining perspectives that is difficult, especially because they are not always compatible. But that’s when it is interesting. Take, for example, a philosopher’s and a historian’s perspective on how knowledge is produced. A philosopher will always tend to have some sort of a formalised, generalised account that is ideally true even if it is not how it works in practice, whereas, a historian or a sociologist or an anthropologist doesn’t care about how it should be.
It will be the specific thing that they are looking at …
Yes. So a major advantage [of interdisciplinarity] is that as a practitioner, especially if you come from one background, it makes you very aware of the limitations of your own perspective. It makes you aware that there are other perspectives that are also legitimate and interesting. If you are trained within only one discipline then there is a chance that you begin to believe that your perspective is the perspective of the world and this is the way it all is. It can become very parochial in a way and interdisciplinarity makes you lose that. It makes you a little more modest. I think it’s a good thing.
Science & Ideology
And what is the relevance of interdisciplinary and STS studies in today’s context?
I think I have an original answer here [laughs]. I totally agree that the relevance of STS is that it brings about a better understanding of the workings of science and technology. But there is also a cultural part and I think you don’t hear that very often but it is relevant – that science and technology also have an ideological importance.I can see it in my reading for the course I am teaching, the ‘Idea of Europe’, a sort of general history course.
Technology, particularly science, comes in often into this idea. Science has been an important component of the self-image of the West or of Europe or of the modern world, right? Why are we modern and why aren’t others? Historians and other people have pointed to democracy and things like freedoms, human rights, but most often it is because we have modern science, right? So, we’ve invented this sort of method or trick, or whatever it is, that made it possible for us to understand and control the natural world and nobody else has ever invented that. Now whether this is true or not is one question… what is more important is that this figures in several representations of the West to sort of legitimate a hierarchy between the West and other people.
I just read a quote by Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor of the U.S. during the Vietnam war. He says about the underdeveloped world: that they haven’t had the Newtonian revolution, so they never learnt to think in a scientific way; they can’t really understand things, so they need us to do it for them. I think this is very common since the Enlightenment – the idea that we have learnt how to think scientifically and they, whatever they is, haven’t. Therefore, justifying our dominant position in the world.
So there is a purpose to this deconstruction. Does one also have an end in mind when one seeks to deconstruct these ways of looking? Or is that not important?
Inside Ulugh Bek’s observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, which is now a museum.
To what end? I think that’s a very good question. One answer would be exposure [laughs], showing that these are not inevitable truths but particular choices.
There is a lot of talk, ideological talk, about what science is and what science does, and like I said, about the superiority of the ways of the West. I think the relevance for STS people or for historians of science like me is to unravel this – to take away some Western arrogance and to undermine this argument of superiority – to make the public aware that all sorts of undertakings that claim to be scientific are in fact also political projects whether you like them or not.
For example, look at current psychology, which has become very mechanistic again. It is very much about cognitive science and brain research. Now I am not against that at all, but we need to keep in mind that this is not objective science but is very much based on a particular view of man, which is an ideological view. I think people need to be aware of that.
Can you tell us about your work on scientific internationalism…
A widespread idea is that science by its very nature is international, that scientists all over are doing, more or less, the same things and therefore form a global community – a republic of letters. Of course this is a very idealised view, because science and scientists, in fact, are just like anybody else.
Brigitte Schroeder Gudehus, for instance, has shown that after the First World War scientists were actually even more nationalist [laughs] than non-scientists. But what I am interested is not whether the idealised view is true or not, but how it is being used, how science as a champion of international cooperation is being mobilised ideologically. And you see that happening in various other ways too, for example in the pacifist movements around the 1900s that led to the establishment of the international court of arbitration in The Hague and later to the League of Nations and the United Nations. Science was held up as the sort of area where this had already happened, where there was already this kind of cooperation.
What I have found interesting is to see what this comes from. It’s from a particular group, the progressive liberals, who around 1900 were associated with the progressive movement in the U.S. that advanced this idea. Science was connected to another kind of internationalism during the Cold War. Gavin de Beer wrote this famous book called The Sciences Were Never At War. He is basically saying that nations have their battles, but scientists are always cooperating and he tries to show it historically.
His point, however, is a Cold War point that we should uphold these ideals of scientific internationalism because they are under attack. And who is attacking them? The Communists of course. So you see that these expressions of internationalism seem very lofty and great but you can unearth the politics behind it.
But then in this ideal form, is scientific internationalism achievable, is it desirable?
Yes, of course, it is desirable, but achievable, I am not so sure. It’s like what Gandhi said about Western civilisation – it would be a good idea [laughs]…. no, I’m less sceptical, – sure it’s desirable.
Then also your other work about politically active scientists…
Yes, this is the other thing that I have been looking at – the ideological uses of science mainly by left-wing scientists….
It is largely left-wing scientists?
Yes, it doesn’t need to be, but it is. The most famous politically active scientists were the so-called red professors in Cambridge in the 1930s – a lot of Communist scientists then, and they really took their Communism to their science. They said that in a capitalist society, science is used for the wrong ends and that we need to change this. We need to have much more planning of science so that it is used for the right ends, and we also need to use science in planning society so that we don’t leave questions of housing, food, etc., to the market mechanism but investigate and plan it scientifically. Well, that might be a nice idea, but there is also something scary about the planning. Critics say you are creating a total tyrannical regime and I think they were not completely wrong about that.
You have travelled to India too…
Yes, I have always been interested in non-Western science and its history. Most history of science is very Western-oriented. There is literature about other things, but it is on the fringe. I thought it would be nice to find out more about this, also to get a more balanced picture of development of science in the world.
We decided to look at astronomy because it is a sort of ubiquitous science – any civilisation has astronomy, if only because it needed to make a calendar and predictions and things. In Uzbekistan, we went to an observatory in Samarkand. It was created in the 15th century, used for a few years, and then gone. It was in the early 20th century that a Soviet archaeologist dug it up. It is a gigantic observatory, much bigger than anything in Europe at that time, and they could make very accurate measurements here. It was constructed by Ulugh Bek, the local ruler. His observations were very authoritative and also known in the West. And this was created in a civilisation, the Timurite empire, that I had never heard of before. Then we went to India… several observatories built, of course, by Jaisingh.
In Jaipur and Delhi…
Right. So this was a maharaja in the 18th century who built all these observatories, the best surviving ones are in Jaipur and Delhi. These are very interesting because first of all they are totally different from Western observatories, they look like skateboard tracks [laughs], they are very beautiful and second, they were built at a time that the standard in the West was telescopes – the telescopic observatory with a dome and a slit with a telescope.
Jaisingh knew this, he himself had a telescope, but he still built complete different ones, why? There was a question and what did he want? What was he trying to do? He spent loads of money on these things, as much on his palaces, which are enormous. I still can’t answer that question [laughs], but you realise that there are things in science going on there, all kinds of science for other means.
We talked actually to the current director of the observatory in Jaipur and he said that every year a Brahmin priest comes and draws a horoscope based on the measurements that they make. And I just bought one.
It’s called the ‘panchang’.
Oh, is that what it is?
But this also brings up the question of the interface of astrology with astronomy. There is an ongoing debate in India whether astrology is a science, and that it draws from astronomy.
But that’s also true for a lot of Western astronomy, that it was intimately connected with astrology, also during the times of modern science. You have to ask not just what was contributed by astronomers but also why were these observatories built? They cost a lot of money and usually they were built not by astronomers, but by some local ruler or state. What did they want? Well, to calculate dates and things like that – later they were for precision measurement for cartography and surveying purposes – for setting exact time and all that sort of stuff. But in the early modern period, astronomy was also very much used for astrology, to tell a king when to go to war, when to have an operation. So the combination of astronomy and astrology has been a common one, also in the West.
The point, however, is something I made earlier and I’d like to stress it again. It is not whether this use of science or that use is right. That is not at the crux of what I am looking at or am interested in. What interests me is to see and find out how science which is considered neutral and objective actually isn’t, and how all sorts of people use it to meet their agendas and serve different purposes. It’s extremely important that we be aware of this reality of science and its use, actually various uses.
Calling a claim scientific, and therefore apolitical, is a very political move in itself, and one that can lead to the exclusion of other points of view from the discussion. Now I am not saying that all points of view are always equally worthy of consideration, but the scientific ones often need a little unpacking, and their politics should not be obscured.