[OPE-L] (new book) Clifford D. Conner _A People's History of Science_

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Dec 12 2006 - 08:46:51 EST

The author of this book is an old comrade and friend from the
1970's. A short book desciption and interview with the author

The web site for the book is, which includes a sample chapter, is:

Considering its length (424 pages), it is surprisingly affordable
(US$17.95) -- although that's altogether fitting for a book on the
subject.  The potential audience is, after all, quite large.

Cliff said that the last chapter has a bit on Keynesianism and
he would appreciate feedback from radical economists about what was
written there.  Maybe I'll ask him if he can send us an excerpt
from the chapter which deals with this topic so it can be posted
to the list.

If any of you have read the book, I'm sure the author would like to
hear what you think about it.

In solidarity, Jerry

           [about the book]

            The history of science is more complex and collaborative than
the traditional heroic narratives of Galileo, Newton, Darwin,
and Einstein suggest. Expanding on Howard Zinn's concept of a
people's history, Clifford D. Conner has written his own
populist take on the history of science. A People's History of
Science offers a broad survey of the history of science
“from the bottom up,” covering the entire globe and
spanning the Paleolithic to the postmodern eras. His thesis is
to demonstrate that science—the knowledge of nature—did
not emerge from the brains of “Great Geniuses” with
“Great Ideas,” but from the collective experience of
working people—artisans, miners, sailors, peasant farmers,
and others—whose struggle for survival forced them into
close contact with nature on a daily basis.

            In A People's History of Science, Conner demystifies science
by locating its origins and development in the productive
activities of working people. He also persuasively argues that
the increasing specialization of the sciences in universities
and medical faculties has more often retarded rather than
advanced the growth of knowledge.

            Conner also establishes that:

              a.. Medical science began with knowledge of plants'
therapeutic properties discovered by preliterate ancient
              b.. Chemistry and metallurgy originated with ancient miners,
smiths, and potters; geology and archaeology were also born
in the mines.
              c.. Mathematics owes its existence and a great deal of its
development to surveyors, merchants, clerk-accountants, and
mechanics of many millennia.
              d.. The experimental method that characterized the
Scientific Revolution, as well as the mass of scientific
data upon which it built, emerged from the workshops of
European artisans.
              e.. The emergence of computer science from the garages and
attics of college dropouts demonstrates that even in recent
times the most important scientific innovations have not
always been produced by a professional scientific elite.
              f.. The mystique of modern science proclaims it to be a
superior form of knowledge, but in fact its trustworthiness
has been thoroughly undermined by the self-interest of
corporations that hire the scientists and manipulate their
research findings.
            [interview with cliff conner]

            On March 8, 2006, Cliff Conner addressed an audience at
Rockefeller University in Manhattan, an institution devoted to
research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences.
After the talk he was interviewed by José F. Morales and
Allan Coop for the April issue of the campus newsletter,
Natural Selections.

            NS: Why this book now?

            Clifford Conner: I was motivated to do the book because I felt
there was something missing in the way most people understand
the history of science. I know from my graduate training that
there is a lot of information out there about the history of
science that doesn't get to the general reading public. The
goal of writing the book was to take this information and try
to make it interesting for a general reading audience.

            NS: What is your definition of science and why do you use it?

            CC: This is a controversial question. I use what I consider to
be the simplest possible definition, also used by J.D. Bernal
in his wonderful four-volume history of science: “knowledge
of nature and the processes we have to go through to get that

            NS: What is the relation between the “great man” in
science and the people?

            CC: One of the reviewers of my book said that I was replacing
the “great man” theory with the “great mass” theory.
Well, I'm not, really. The central focus of my book —
although I tried to at least give an outline of how the
knowledge of nature developed throughout the whole scope of
tens of thousands of years of human history — is on what is
called the Scientific Revolution. That occurred in Europe in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What we call modern
science today had its origins there. Most books in the past
that have been written about the Scientific Revolution only
focused on theoretical astronomy and theoretical physics, and
therefore only paid attention to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo,
and Newton, and how their ideas flowed into each other. But
much more important at that time was the transformation of
scientific method. For thousands of years, the people who
claimed to be the arbiters of knowledge of nature were the
elite scholars in the universities. If you went to them with a
question, how would they try to answer it? Well, they'd go to
the books of Aristotle or Avicenna or some other ancient
authority and try to find the answer in the books, and if they
couldn't find the answer, they would try to find some general
principle that, through deductive Aristotelian logic, they
could deduce the answer from. That was what science was until
the Scientific Revolution brought about a new method — the
empirical method, the experimental method. The important thing
that I try to point out is that this did not come from
scholars, but from the workshops of artisans. There were a few
scholars who recognized this, especially Francis Bacon. There
were others — William Gilbert, Robert Boyle, Galileo — who
also noticed that things were happening in the workshops of
the artisans, and they went there to learn. That's the most
important thing about the Scientific Revolution, the thing
that changed the way the whole world now looks at nature and
investigates nature.

            NS: One might observe that there is a parallel between the
elite appropriating and systematizing the knowledge of
craftsmen and artisans back then and lab heads today
appropriating and/or taking credit for the work of
technicians, grad students, postdocs. Would you care to
comment on that?

            CC: Yes, I have a very interesting example of that in the
book. Robert Boyle is considered one of the great heroes of
science, but it's quite clear if you investigate it, that a
lot of the things Boyle is credited with were done by people
he hired to be his so-called assistants. Some of them have
even gained recognition in the history of science themselves,
like Robert Hooke. But in their time, they were subordinate to
Boyle because he was an aristocrat and a very wealthy man. So,
at the time, they didn't get the credit they deserved, and for
the most part still don't.   One of the things I mention is
that there is a pretty good chance that even Boyle's Law was
determined by experimentation by other people that he hired,
and they even wrote it up, but we call it Boyle's Law. The
question is, why? In those days, especially, you had to be of
the class of gentlemen in order to publish something that
other people would read and consider to be truth about
science. You might have a similar thing happening today with
lab heads, but maybe it's not done quite as consciously as in
Boyle's day. Back then it went without saying that if Robert
Boyle hired you, anything you discovered was his intellectual
property. I don't think it would be quite the same today, yet
sometimes it works out like that.

            NS: We sign a contract which says that The Rockefeller
University owns any intellectual property we create while
employed by the university [as is now required for federally
funded research in US universities]. So things haven't changed
that much.

            CC: That's right. Maybe we think about it differently, but it
works out the same in the end.

            NS: What would your ideal high school science textbook look like?

            CC: I think the main thing I would stress is that there is
more to science than theory. The other thing I would stress in
a high school textbook is that the relationship between
science and technology is not what we have been led to believe
by our modern experience. Our modern experience teaches us
that science comes before technology. Today scientists in
laboratories theorize and come up with theories that are then
applied to create new technologies. But that's a fairly new
thing in history. For tens of thousands of years, the
relationship was exactly the opposite. Historically, the
relationship has always been technology first and then
science. The classic example is the steam engine. One might
think that it was created by theorists who developed the laws
of thermodynamics and then applied those laws to create the
steam engine. But it was quite the opposite. The steam engine
was created by artisans, tinkerers, and inventors . . .
“lower-class” people. Scientists began to study the steam
engine, because it was such an important part of the economy,
to find out how it worked. By studying and analyzing it,
eventually the laws of thermodynamics were formulated. So that
is the true relationship historically, almost always, between
science and technology. First the technology was created by
artisans and people working with their hands, and
experimenting, and so forth. Then the scientists, by analyzing
the products of the artisans — the technology — developed
the theories and laws. You can't speak of the history of
science as being only theory because you have to start with
where it all comes from: technology and the contributions of
the artisans.

            NS: So you are suggesting that now things have changed in that

            CC: Oh, yes. Let's take the biggest example of all, the
Manhattan Project, where a practical result was developed from
abstract scientific theories about nuclear physics. Those
theories resulted in atomic and hydrogen bombs in the
mid-twentieth century. You can actually go back to the late
nineteenth century, when the first real examples of
technologies created on the basis of theories were probably
the ones developed from the theories of electricity. From the
modern experience, people falsely generalize that that is the
essential relationship between science and technology; that
scientific theories come first and technology follows. But
historically, at least until the late nineteenth century, it
has been the other way around. A good example even in the
early twentieth century is the airplane. The airplane wasn't
developed from theories of aerodynamics. A couple of bicycle
mechanics from North Carolina did what the theoreticians said
was impossible and created an airplane. And keep in mind that
even though those theoreticians were physicists in the era of
quantum theory and relativity theory, aerodynamics developed
on the basis of an artisanal contribution, the practical
technology of the airplane.

            NS: How would you respond to this critique of your position?
Artisans are like technicians; they really don't understand
what they are doing and they need the scientist to get at what
is really going on. They're just hands and they produce useful
things, but they don't have a full understanding of what
they're doing.

            CC: Again, there's a difference between today and most of
history. Today there might be some justification for someone
saying that. Although I suspect that if they did, what's
really going on in their mind is, “I'm smart, I'm superior,
I'm better than these people that work with their hands.”
But historically it has usually been the other way around. At
the time of the Scientific Revolution, the artisans knew what
they were doing, knew what they wanted to do. The
university-trained intellectuals — calling them
“scientists” is a bit anachronistic — were like
butterflies, dilettantes. They called themselves the
“virtuosi,” and they would go into the artisans' workshops
and try to exhibit their knowledge, but they rarely knew what
they were talking about. In the nineteenth century and earlier
it was typically the case that the artisans were the people
who knew things, and the “virtuosi” who were trying to
develop theories were just there to pick their brains.

            NS: You talk about how social elites have appropriated science
as a source of authority and have commodified it. It's these
same forces that Chris Mooney identifies in his book The
Republican War on Science as anti-science and for whom new
knowledge may be a threat. How do you reconcile this apparent

            CC: Well, the corporate elite needs the new knowledge. They
need it because their economic system depends on it. It's like
the man on the bicycle: if he stops, he falls over. They have
to keep growing and growing and growing. They need new
products, new science, new technology, but at the same time
they fear some of the science as damaging to their profit
interests. The best example is global warming. So it's more
than an apparent contradiction; it's a real contradiction. But
it's their contradiction.

            NS: You contend that the undermining of science's authority
stems from “whoever pays the piper, calls the tune,” and
you point out that a lot of science is conducted by
corporations. However, the vast majority of basic research in
biomedicine, for example, is in fact funded by the social
wealth represented by taxes. So would you say that tax-funded
research is people's science?

            CC: No, but I certainly agree that that's the way it should
be. Unfortunately, the government has defaulted on its
responsibilities in this regard, and tax-funded research has
become just another facet of the “scientific-industrial
complex.” In most biomedical research, “Big Pharma”
calls the tune, directly or indirectly, and that's the piper
that has to be paid.

            NS: Do you think that ordinary people can still make
discoveries in an era of heavily funded science? If not, what
prevents them?

            CC: Well I think there's a lot that tends to prevent that —
the great rise of specialization, the immense amount of money
it takes to do research these days — but the answer to your
first question is, yes, I think it's still possible for
scientific outsiders to make momentous contributions to
science.   It's not likely, and it's not going to happen
often, but it can happen and we shouldn't be shocked when it
does. The best example I can think of is the personal computer
revolution. “Big Science” had developed the electronic
digital computer, but at first they were huge machines used by
the military-industrial complex to crunch numbers. But then
some kids got interested in it and formed computer clubs all
around the country. It was a social movement, and these
high-school kids and college dropouts developed an alternative
that democratized computer science. This is one of the
greatest scientific innovations that's happened in our
lifetime. It just goes to show that “Big Science” is very
dominant and very powerful, which makes it very unlikely that
many scientific advances will come from the outside, but . . .
you can't write-off the possibility.

            NS: You have mentioned a variety of instances in history where
social elites in fact inhibited the development of science
(e.g., the introduction of Arabic numerals in Europe). Is the
current corporate integration into science, with prohibitively
expensive technologies, a parallel to the elite inhibition of
access to tools that could advance science?

            CC: Yes, that's one of the reasons that I focus on this so
much in the book, because I think there's an important lesson
in it for today. When people set themselves up as authorities
and say, “I speak in the name of science,” it's worth
remembering that historically a lot of scientific authorities
actually retarded the development of science. The two biggest
examples I cite in the book — and there are thousands, big
and little — are, first, the retardation of science by the
scientific elite of ancient Greece as institutionalized in
Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. The kind of science
they started became solidified and ossified, and led science
into a blind alley for two thousand years, until the
Scientific Revolution. And the other example I cite is the
intellectual elite of China, the mandarins who were the
administrators of the imperial bureaucracy. They did
everything they could to prevent the development of science
and most technology, which is why science was slow to develop
in China. I give some cogent examples of that, especially in
maritime technology and the navigational sciences. China's
naval superiority in the fourteenth century put it in a
position to rule the world, but the Emperor arbitrarily drew
back, because the mandarins decided that it was a threat to
their social stability and put the kibosh on it.

            NS: Do you think that the process of democratization of
science is going on or is it actually being retarded at the
moment by the attack on science?

            CC: To use a Hegelian phrase, it's a dialectic. It is going on
and at the same time it's being pushed back. A good example is
the rise of the Internet in China. I read in today's paper
that there are now something like 110 million people on the
Internet in China, doing all kinds of things. Meanwhile, the
Chinese government is trying its best to keep what's called
“the Great Firewall of China” in place, to try to keep
dissidents from linking up with each other, you know, in a
democratic way. So there's this great surge of democratization
through the Internet and at the same time there's a tremendous
police power pushing back against them. Right now it seems the
government is still a step ahead of the dissidents in China.

            by Clifford D. Conner
            Nation Books
            $17.95 U.S.
            424 pages
            ISBN # 1-5602-5748-2

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