Can science be taken on trust? Why do different publics trust science at all? What can scientists do now, and what have they done in the past, to foster trust in their work? Historian Steven Shapin analysed ‘trust’ in order to understand the early work of the Royal Society of London. He indicated the need for trust, and the difficulty of sustaining it, when early Fellows received testimony of scientific work carried out at a distance—geographically and, one might say, culturally—by men and women of uncertain status and unfamiliar credentials. Central to the President's Address with which this June 2015 issue of Notes and Records ends is the theme of ‘trust in science’, underpinned by effective communication. The issue ranges widely in time and territory. The papers illustrate in very different ways themes, like trust, that are equally crucial to science past and present.
Rather than rely on accounts of work at a distance, of course, one might travel in person to observe and collect in the field. James Cuninghame's voyage to China and his collection of natural historical specimens shows that travel with a scientific agenda might have been possible but it was not exactly easy. The exotic objects cherished by gentlemanly collectors in London, and discussed at the Royal Society, were hard to come by—especially when the acquisition of those objects meant circumventing the considerable powers of the East India Company traders, voyaging not under the EIC's care but on an ‘interloper’ vessel, the Tuscan.
When James Gregory lobbied supporters in and beyond St Andrews for a fine well-equipped observatory at the university, he relied on the expert and trusted guidance of the future Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed. Whereas Scotland lacked the critical mass to support a developed trade in scientific instruments, London could provide. It was there that Gregory went to purchase philosophical apparatus for an observatory that would have pre-dated and might well have rivalled the Royal Observatory at Greenwich—but which, for reasons obscure, never became the magnet for scientific work that Gregory envisaged. This paper illustrates the value of studying projects, even failed ones, which reveal the practice of science and which place material objects in the foreground.
Charles Darwin's life was transformed by voyages more audacious even than Cuninghame's and by his experiences as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, where Gregory had finished his career. To say something new about Darwin's work is quite an achievement, especially where Darwin himself had incentives to edit or expurgate reports of his early influences to foster the wider acceptance of his later theories. Was Darwin selectively silent when reflecting upon the radical science of Edinburgh in the 1820s and 1830s and, especially, the transformist (evolutionary) theories hotly discussed by his contemporaries? Henry H. Cheek turns out to be a surprisingly well-documented Edinburgh-trained transformist, close to Darwin in age and medical education, whose writings show the evolutionary options then available to a similarly bright, vocal and eclectic figure.
Oceans of ink have been expended in discussing the impacts of evolutionary theories, from Darwin and Spencer onwards, in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The influence of evolution and of anthropological theory on the psychoanalytic writings of Freud and Jung has often been asserted, those subjects being taken as evidence especially of Freud's omnivorous lifelong literary consumption. A careful reassessment suggests, however, that Freud and Jung were deeply and productively affected by the challenge voiced by Franz Boas in 1909: Boas wanted a closer engagement of psychological theory with contemporary anthropology, one that re-evaluated the relationship between the evolution of the human mind and human civilization. It was after 1909, not before, that Freud's sustained engagement with anthropology, mythology and comparative religion showed itself, in new work and also in revisions to earlier writings that emphasized, retrospectively, the role of such connections.
Freud built bridges between and beyond scientific disciplines, and that theme of connecting disparate fields is prominent in the rich discussion here of the appointment of George Porter to the Royal Institution. The chemist, novelist and technocrat C. P. Snow is remembered for the claim that ‘Two Cultures’ describe and divide the sciences and the humanities. In this issue of Notes and Records we learn that the Royal Institution's choice of George Porter was heavily influenced by the belief that Porter was the right person to take the RI forward as a centre of what we might now call public engagement with science—and to lessen that alleged divide. Though many doubted, and some ridiculed, Snow's insight in formulating ‘the problem’, Porter was keen to offer ‘the solution’, enhancing scientific understanding through media work, lectures in schools—and dedicated sessions for the civil service to make them more informed policy-makers.
In the President's Address we return to the matter of trust in, and trust of, science: that central matter which, in different ways, inflects the accounts presented elsewhere in this issue. The Address raises multiple questions about contemporary science, its values, its methods and its engagement with broader publics, which might equally be asked of past science. Has science proceeded, as Karl Popper claimed, by trial and error? Have norms of behaviour, often enshrined in specialist societies, and including freedom and openness, effectively regulated the varied work of scientific communities? What are, and what have been, the sources of scientific authority and why has science been so conspicuously effective at generating ‘reliable knowledge’? How do scientists now balance, and how have they in the past balanced, trust in their productions and their methods—when faced with the urgent pressures of diverse, demanding and necessary partners in commerce, government and the public sphere? Few could argue against the proposal that what is needed is effective communication of science and, indeed, effective communication within scientific communities. But then Robert Boyle, that most active of the early Fellows of the Royal Society, knew that to engender trust in matters of scientific fact one route was to write accounts of experimental work in a plain style that did nothing to disguise dead-ends.
More than a word of thanks should here go to Professor Robert Fox, under whose expert guidance Notes and Records has gone from strength to strength. Under its new editor, the journal intends to build on Robert's success while maintaining his scholarly values. The journal looks forward to receiving more work that considers the kinds of engagements so ably illustrated in the present issue: encounters between different types, and cultures, of scientific practice; the objects (or material culture) of science; the relationship between individuals in science and their chosen scientific institutions; fresh light on scientific luminaries and on their shadowy but no less interesting contemporaries; hybrid relationships between different sciences; and the connection of science to its continually changing publics, consumers—and supporters.
- © 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.