Science is practised amid folklore and ideology, and it is foolishly romantic to imagine that the scientist conducts his professional affairs on a high plateau of reason untainted by the miasmous exhalations of ordinary life. It is equally foolish to suppose that science is and can be nothing more than a cunning defence of the 'dominant ideology' of the society within whose bounds it happens to be pursued. But it is plausible - even platitudinous - to think that the scientist may be influenced, in unconscious acquiescence or conscious reaction, by the unscientific ideas prevalent in his society. That platitude generates a host of particular questions for the historian of science. How far was this astronomer influenced by the astrological beliefs of his contemporaries? How far was that botanist moved by the accumulated wisdom of country folk? How far did this biologist escape from the anthropocentric prejudices of his society? If we are interested in Kepler or in Newton, it will matter that the one was a devotee of astrology, the other of alchemy. But those dispiriting facts impinge upon the history of science only to the extent that Kepler's astrology disoriented his star-map or Newton's alchemy upset his calculations. The general form of the questions, in short, is this: how far did items of folklore or of ideology affect science?
LRB 16 February 1984 | PDF Download