The origins of open science

I’ve been reading an interesting – and much too long – paper by Paul David on the historical origins of ‘open science (pdf).  It is fascinating and deserves a more serious post than this – but I don’t have the time.  What’s prompted this rush into cyberprint is finding a skerrick of corroborating evidence – of which more in a minute.

Anyway the problem is this?  Science emerged from various places but many of them valued secrecy – military technology and alchemy for instance.  So, to quote one of my all time favourite passages of philosophy radically out of context “In view of this, whence in all the world comes the urge for truth?” Where did the mores of open science – open publication and justification and glory by peer review – come from.

Paul David’s thesis is that the forces of demand and supply met each other in a surprising way. The princes of Europe competed with each other for courts that would attract glory to them. They were OK at judging the great artists of the time but it’s not that easy to do with science. If a prince might be OK at picking a Caravaggio or Michaelangelo from a Vasari he might find it hard to pick a Galileo from Jeremy Thacker. Who is Jeremy Thacker I hear you cry. Well Jeremy Thacker was a scientific hoaxer. In fact he was a hoax himself for whom modern scholars and journalists have fallen, though he was most active in 1714 – that was when the prize for longditude was made available and the entries started rolling in. And some hoaxters made up Jeremy.

David’s article is a hundred odd pages long, (85 more densely packed ones in the copy I’ve found on the net) but I didn’t find hoaxes mentioned when reading it, and can’t find ‘hoax’ using a word search. But if his explanation is right you’d expect that the issue of hoaxes would raise its head. And so I was intrigued to see that Jeremy Thacker was a non-existent person who successfully fooled a lot of people including the author of the book on longditude Dana Sobel by entering The Longitudes Examind, attributed to Jeremy Thacker of Beverley, who signs his opening epistle to the Longitudinarians with the additional phrase Philomath. Well-wisher to the Twenty Thousand Pounds. Times online takes up the story.

Warning, I’m not my argument about the relevance of the latter fact to the earlier thesis is all that strong, but there you go – one reminded me of the other and at least it got me to register the David thesis which is an interesting one. Ken Arrow has a commentary on it which is more interesting and a damn site shorter than David’s article, but I couldn’t find it. I expect it’s not that hard to find and perhaps someone will google it up and link to it in comments.

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Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
13 years ago

On the theme of the fragmentation of political authority between rival courts, this is one aspect of the “European miracle” described by Gerard Radditzky in a very dense paper.

He attributed the rise of the west to three pillars: in the economy, the market order; in the political sphere, the taming of the State; in intellectual life, autonomous science. His pointed to a number of factors which decentralised political power in Europe in contrast with the despotisms in Asia and Islam.

By contrast to the conditions which Asian and Islamic rulers were confronted with, European geography soils, geology, climates, etc. varies from place to place and core-areas are comparatively small. For European rulers it was far more difficult to project military power from the core-area to the periphery. Hence, the European states faced neighbors with roughly equal military capabilities, and the international game of power was characterized by a permanent and fierce competition (cf. Weede 1987, Eurosclerosis…; 1987, Ideas…; 1988, Sonderweg…). Competition in economic markets provided the need for an autonomy of technology and later of science. Historical accidents reinforced that development and one important factor was the power struggle between the State and the Church Competition between states together with practicable opportunities to exit facilitated the spread of innovations throughout Europe.

13 years ago

It’s hard to argue against the clear correlation between warfare and technological progress. The “Guns, Germs and Steel” book came to pretty much the same conclusion about Europe — interconnected enough for new ideas (and disease) to spread but with enough geographic divisions to make it impossible to fall into stagnation under a central government.

It should be noted that the seat of scientific progress has moved around quite a lot. The Arab world can be thanked for fractional distillation to produce petroleum products, and for our numbering system. The Chinese invented gunpowder, probably the idea travelled to Europe via the Arab traders, while the French gunsmiths greatly refined its use with convenient pre-packaged brass cartridges, and I believe it was Benjamin Robins (an Englishman) who published “New Principles in Gunnery” advocating the use of a parabellum with rifled barrel.

Eventually Europe’s penchant for warfare resulted in the destruction of WWI and WWII, which left the refugees running to America and starting a whole new run of scientific and technological discovery.

I often think that the modern rediscovery of crystal gazing and abstract spirituality is not because people think that science doesn’t work, but because they clearly understand how damn well it does work and they are trying to run the other way.