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Review of Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

Never Pure, the title of Steven Shapin’s new collection of essays, refers to the fact that science always has been tainted inescapably by politics, morality, cultural subjectivity and the influence of elites. The subtitle, meandering and humorous, is a declarative underscoring of the author’s intent: to disabuse his audience of the idealized notion that pure adherence to scientific objectives yields ingenious discoveries of scientific fact.

The reprint of a 17th century painting of an alchemical laboratory on the cover suggests the point of departure for his work – a unified science revealing universal truths. It may well allude to Robert Boyle, father of modern chemistry, supplanting the name alchemy with chemistry but reportedly clinging to alchemy’s principles in practice and doctrine. The humor and grammatical impreci subtitle expresses Shapin’s overarching attitude about the aim of the science historian – to lower the tone of writing about the history of science. Shapin’s primary form of tone-lowering is to disassemble “genius”, display its parts, lecture on the function of each, then reassemble them as rapidly as a deft mechanic might.

Shapin, an historian of science, participates in a long, steady trend away from philosophy of science and toward the sociology of scientific knowledge. Earlier historians and philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, were on a quest to find one universal scientific method that would clarify and sanctify the distinction between science and non-science, and then apply this distinction to the science of the past. Shapin departs from both predecessors, taking an almost aerial perspective of the philosophy and history of science. Probing well beyond Popper’s epistemological examination of science and Kuhn’s suggestive but unsystematic considerations of how scientists function as a social group, Shapin opens absolutely all aspects of the production of scientific knowledge to sociological analysis.

While skirting the anarchist deconstructionist approach that Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method took, Never Pure does demote scientific knowledge to a status no better other forms of knowledge by critiquing the key premise upon which the search for a universal scientific method is based – observation. Shapin argues that credibility depends not only upon the method by which observation is conducted, but also on who is doing the observing, with whom they are in league, and how the results of observation are presented. In pushing the boundaries of the sociology of scientific knowledge, Shapin exceeds Robert Merton whose inquiries in sociology of science left scientific knowledge per se untouched, but stops short of David Bloor who radically posits that scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Whereas Bloor asserts that the theories upon which scientific experimentation is based are themselves shaped by social class, ideology and laboratory politics, Shapin begins from the position that nature and natural phenomenon do in fact exist, but that the facts generated about them are, or become, believable depending on a complex set of social factors.

Never Pure is Shapin’s venture to explain this perspective to those outside of the inner sanctums of the scientific community. Throughout the book chapter titles and introductions characterize the content, a technique aimed at inviting in the layman. His densely packed prose, brimming with arcane references, belies this effort. Nevertheless, such chapters as “Pump and Circumstance” will appeal to readers across many academic disciplines. This essay attempts to unlock the mystery of fact-making by shedding subversive light on the connection between the production of knowledge and the communication of knowledge.

Shapin argues “speech about natural reality is a means of generating knowledge about reality, of securing assent to that knowledge and of bounding domains of certain knowledge from areas of less certain knowledge.” The chapter reveals that Robert Boyle’s air pump experiments were by turns thwarted or supported by the process of displaying experimental ‘facts’ in such a way that multiple witnesses might legitimize his findings. University researchers especially will be intrigued by the history of the origins of the many checks and balances (such as dissertation committees and peer-review boards) that govern publication of research findings today – particularly since Shapin delivers this history with colorful details of the often peculiar characters who initiated the processes.

Never Pure takes the reader from the gentleman’s laboratory in his private home to the even more private laboratories housed in public spaces, such as universities, then ushers him into the present with a peek at the evolution of the tensions between research and industry in corporate megaliths such as Du Pont, RCA and Bell Labs. We learn why it is a compliment to be called a gentleman and a scholar and how more abstract criteria for measuring credibility emerge. Alongside the historical, cultural and moral situatedness of scientific research, Shapin delves into personal preferences and habits of scientists themselves.

Shapin treats Robert Hooke, assistant to Robert Boyle and curator at the Royal Society, an atypical example of the ‘late 17th Century `experimental philosopher’ – a uniquely creative individual unaffected by convention even in his most mundane activities. Shapin uses the device of a foray into a day in Hooke’s life to illustrate that Hooke’s tendency toward privacy rendered him out of sync with the historical movement toward a gentleman’s society of research scientists who, unlike alchemists, opened their laboratories to the public.

Other chapters scour dietetics and morality, health, philosophical purity and intelligence. Shapin devotes two chapters to situating science in the bodies of men puzzling over the great questions – understandably, given his portrait of the scientist as lost in thought. There are memorable anecdotes sprinkled throughout, such as Newton’s dinner companion who sat waiting a considerable time in Sir Isaac’s dining room and, growing impatient, helped himself to the chicken which he ate in its entirety, replacing the bones under the cover. When Newton entered the room, sat down at the table and saw nothing but bones under the cover he remarked, “How absent we philosophers are. I really thought that I had not dined.”

Shapin has a magnificent eye for detail, an admirable facility with anecdotes and his informative text is seasoned with humor. At a time when scientific integrity has become even more important in public culture – given recent reports on commercially and politically induced bias and violations of research independence, and rampant pharmaceutical industry backing of medical research – Shapin’s book is a welcome aid in developing the skill of appraising scientific discoveries that define our world. An enjoyable read if one has the dedication to cut through the thicket of prose.

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