6th April 2001 at 01:00
WAYS OF KNOWING: A new history of science, technology and medicine. By John V Pickstone. Manchester University Press. pound;40 hbk, pound;9.99 pbk.

How do you know what you know? Taking time to reflect on the way understanding has been constructed is like making a will: you know it is worth doing, but you never quite manage it until you have to.

Classroom treatment of the historical development of ideas has tended towards the tokenistic. Ideas about changing cosmologies are briefly trotted out in physics, while geographers mention catastrophism only as an object of ridicule before lessons on the all-conquering theory of plate tectonics.

Now, with shiny new A-level sciences in place and topics such as "scientific horizons" included in general studies, science teachers at least are obliged to give the subject matter more than a bit-part in the curriculum. Teachers of any subject where knowledge "progresses" could usefully follow their lead.

There are many histories of science, technology and medicine, but Pickstone's offering is demonstrably different in that it studiously avoids the parochialism other authors are sometimes guilty of. He takes a long timescale, working through the past 300 years of Western science and considering an ambitious range of examples, although by his own admission he neglects mathematics.

The thread running through his discussion is that of three "ways of knowing". Science was, he argues, a matter of "natural history" in the 18th century, when museums were stashed with the spoils of imperialist exploration. Then, in the 19th century, "analysis" became ascendant. It was the age of positivism, epitomised by German chemists and rapid industrialisation.

"Experimentation" became the dominant way of knowing in the 20th century, and this has bred the creature known as "technoscience" (big, expensive, and rather remote science, much of it a product of military endeavour and Cold War one-upmanshi).

Pickstone claims that the various branches of science, technology and medicine (with other subjects, including the social "sciences") demonstrate these ways of knowing to varying degrees.

The book is more a academic work on the theory of knowledge than a sourcebook for classroom practitioners. The final chapter is the most relevant to the general reader; the author focuses on public understanding of science in the UK, an area where science is "dominated by industrial academic governmental networks that manufacture knowledge-based commodities".

He argues that public understanding must be more than scientific PR and that, perhaps, we should shift the focus on to a "wider and stronger understanding of science for the public (his italics) - the roles that science, technology and medicineI should play in the defence and development of public interest."

He discusses the apparent paradox affecting science in the UK: our scientific understanding is immeasurably better than ever before and yet science and high-tech medicine are increasingly mistrusted. Our higher education system is burgeoning mainly on the other side of the science humanities divide.

Unfortunately Pickstone has few solutions beyond appeals for improved regulation of the technoscience beast and for governments to fund studies that may go against their own interests.

For those without a consuming interest in the history and philosophy of science, the book will have limited appeal. Pickstone has tried to decompartmentalise the history of science and to put it into appropriate social contexts. These are worthy goals but the undertaking is too big. He is economic with the sketches and anecdotes that good teachers borrow to enliven lessons. For many, it will not offer a good enough return on the investment of time spent struggling through.


Ian Francis teaches physics at Parmiter's school, Garston, Hertfordshire

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