Why study the history of science?
We live in a world which is deeply shaped by science and science-based technology. We depend on cell phones, computers, antibiotics, CT scanners, nuclear power plants, and countless other technologies. We hear all sorts of statements which claim to be "scientific": Pesticides cause cancer; red wine prevents heart disease; acid rain destroys lakes; auto emissions cause global warming — or global cooling.
In order to live effectively in such a world, some basic knowledge of science is indispensable, and learning about the history of science can be an exciting way of increasing our knowledge of science itself.
According to some educators, the best way to teach science to schoolchildren is in chronological order, with the early scientific discoveries taught first, and the following discoveries taught later. Most of us did not learn science this way in school (I know I didn't), but perhaps it's not too late for us to go back as adults and reground our knowledge of science by studying its history.
The history of science has many lessons for us about science in general. Such lessons include:
- Science is cumulative, with later discoveries usually depending on earlier ones.
- Science is based ultimately on careful observations of the physical world.
- Science can make mistakes, but well-grounded scientific conclusions can justify our confidence in them.
- There are many historical factors which can influence the development of science in a culture, including the dominant philosophy, the level of material prosperity, the political conditions, and the existence of certain unique individuals.