by Ievgen Bilyk
An interview with Geert Somsen, a senior lecturer of the history of science at Maastricht University’s History Department. He was taught at the Free University, Amsterdam (MSc chemistry), Utrecht University (PhD history of science), and the University of California, San Diego (Science Studies Program). He has been a postdoc at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Uppsala, Sweden.
What kind of history are you involved in?
I run two courses at Maastricht University: one on science and modernity for bachelors of Arts and Culture (called Knowledge and Criticism) and one on history of science and technology for the ESST masters. These courses differ a lot, since it is a general history in the first case, and historiography – in the second.
Besides teaching, my research is on public discourse on science: how people talk about it, and what it means in various places and times. Especially, I am focused on political interpretation of this domain.
How much can a historian tell about science?
Actually, a lot. Think for a moment: people often say that science created the modern world. I assess it not as a fact, but as a perception: how it came that we started granting this sphere such an influential role in the society.
For example, many prominent figures in Western society, such as H.G. Wells in his The Time Machine, claimed and continue claiming that the best government should consist of scientists. Even world government led by them is often proposed as truly global and peaceful. It is notorious that such calls for technocracy as solving all our problems constantly repeat in certain periods of time throughout history, and I investigate why.
Well, technocracy sounds promising…
Just as promising as naïve. It is a quite Taylorist perspective that the only solution exists. In practice, even science offers many views. One famous story happened when A. Huxley demonstrated how terrible and scary the technocratic society might look, parodying Wells’ novel in Brave New World by turning his optimism into pessimism about the same developments. Having studied this issue, I can say that Wells was motivated by a left-wing agenda, whereas Huxley tended to be more conservative, and they knew each other.
What is really intriguing is that history shows a wide variety of such perceptions. Similar technocratic ideas would be manipulated by both conservatives and liberals at different times.
What is your motivation in doing this kind of research?
My interest is not to dismiss ideas, but to reveal why people thought in a specific way at some point of history. It is not an issue of whether science is right or wrong, but of why it is credited with so much importance. The representation and perception of scientific evidence are much colored with political and ideological agenda.
Also, I have a background in chemistry, and used to take courses on its history during my bachelors degree. Eventually, history turned out to be more attractive for me. So, I am a chemist who made a conscious transition to humanities in order to address some problems of natural sciences.
How would you explain that science can be used in diverse ways?
What people think of science is connected to cultural perspectives. Particularly, in Western world, science is a part of identity discourse. Its central place in our self-perception continues that of Christianity.
In general, religious, political, social and many other sides of science can be studied. There is a lot to be done in the future to move away from positivistic views about this domain, acknowledging its embeddedness into society.
Does a pure science exist at all?
It is not my focus, but I do not think so. It is a subsystem of the society. What we call ‘a scientific fact’ is produced by looking at the world through a certain social frame. Perspectives and interpretations play a huge role for what is true over place and time.
Which topic would be interesting for you to investigate in the future?
For instance, how Darwinism is perceived and used in Islamic countries. Fascinating issue!