Concentrating in History and Science at Harvard

This post was originally at my Harvard Law / Berkman Center blog, but has since been removed. Though it is certainly outdated with respect to the current practices and personalities of the History of Science department, it still may hold some value for prospective students. I originally wrote it as advice to my younger self, and I think it might be particularly useful to undergraduates who share some biases, conceits, and preferences with that past self.

What you should know before undertaking an undergraduate concentration in History and Science at Harvard

Thu, May 6, 2004; by Randall Lucas.

Draft, 06 May 2004


Having completed an A.B. in History and Science, I wish I’d known the following before beginning:

1.You will not receive a thorough background in the history of science before being assigned work presupposing such knowledge. You must undertake to educate yourself with a foundational knowledge if you wish fully to understand and gain from the coursework.

2.You will be in a class with a large contingent of pre-med students who bring a potentially undesirable ethic to the department. You should carefully consider whether you want these people to be your peers for three years.

3.The influence of identity politics and philosophies hostile to science will be significant and may emphasize criticism and polemic. You should understand the “Science Wars” and their implications before you choose the concentration.

4.The department’s faculty is brilliant, but the ideology and personality of individual persons with whom you work will inordinately influence your learning, enjoyment, and grades. You must research the individuals within the department with whom you consider working.

5.MIT is available to you and has a science studies program with excellent faculty. You should seriously consider the MIT offerings for adding breadth and diversity to your coursework.

6.The History of Science Department is in the Science Center, the most dismal place known to man. You must convince your colleagues to flee that decrepit building at every chance.


I chose to concentrate in History and Science as an undergraduate (class of 2001) because of my interest in both fields of inquiry and in their intersection. Despite an intense interest, however, I became fundamentally unsatisfied with and alienated by my experience in the department, and sought out other areas in which to focus my energy, causing my grades and level of achievement in my concentration to suffer. Looking back on reasons for this dissatisfaction, and seeking to help others avoid it, I have identified the caveats that follow.

The following points will likely be useful mainly to that minority of students who share certain of my preferences; there are certainly many people who enjoy and thrive on the status quo. However, if the numbered synopsis resonates with you, the entire article is likely worth reading.

While the intended audience of this paper is students considering, or struggling with, a concentration in History and Science, I hope it may be useful to those seeking to reform the department, or indeed, undergraduate education in general. Such readers should note that I take full personal responsibility for my past performance within the department while remaining critical of the defects I describe below.


1. You will not receive a thorough background in the philosophy of science, nor in the historiography of science, nor in the actual history of science. Although a sophomore tutorial includes selected works relevant to all three of those disciplines, it provides a solid grounding in none of them. The remainder of the curriculum tends toward rather specific inquiries into the specialty fields of faculty members.

The History of Science Department (HSD) at Harvard is a meeting place of a number of overlapping subject areas (“related disciplines”) that might at another school be called Science Studies. The natural focus is on the history of science, but both critiques of how the history of science has been written in the past (the historiography of science) and studies relevant to the nature of scientific knowledge and its place in the world of knowledge (the philosophy of science) go on alongside and mixed in with the historical studies. These three areas are largely interrelated in practice, and some synthesis of these is usually expected in students’ work.

However, most courses offered in the HSD analyze a relatively narrow piece of history that a faculty member has staked out, organized typically along the lines of geography, time, and / or scientific discipline. These courses are excellent for “drilling-down” into the subject matter given, can be intellectually satisfying in their depth, and often make points of departure for senior theses. However, with regard to the three related disciplines (history, historiography, and philosophy), these drill-down courses offer only a “case study” approach and do not provide any systematic way to cover the related disciplines.

The sophomore tutorial (as I observed it in 1999) seems nominally to be addressed towards this problem of laying the foundation in the related disciplines. However, it suffers from an even worse defect in this mission than does a drill-down course: in effect, the tutorial comprises a number of micro-case studies, thereby sacrificing the systematicity of a survey, yet covers each so superficially as to lose the benefits of in-depth study. The sophomore tutorial is centered around a series of reading selections in all three disciplines, typically with three or so selections (often, but not always, related) to be assigned and discussed in a week. Many of these are excerpts or single examples of primary sources (e.g., Copernicus, Sarton, Feyerabend, in history, historiography, and philosophy, respectively) and are presented as exercises in “close reading.” Such a series of assignments, without an underlying framework and system, is a recipe for a patchwork understanding.

The problem is that close reading and criticism, which are the focus of the later drill-down courses where it is appropriate to focus on a narrow field of inquiry, is an inappropriate starting point. The tutorial fails to give a general and comprehensive background in what, overall, Copernicus, Sarton, or Feyerabend did and said, and how that relates to the other major figures in those fields. What is desperately needed by the underclassman is a solid foundation in the disciplines themselves, not in “close reading” or criticizing the foundational knowledge. How can one be expected to say anything of worth about a closely read page on the philosophy of science, when the sum of one’s instruction in the philosophy of science has been three or four such closely read articles? How can a primary source reading from an ancient astronomer be helpful when one has not mastered at least the narrative history of that astronomer, his forebears and successors, and his work’s relation to that which went before and after?

Only a remarkably arrogant blend of sophistry and ignorance permits the sophomore who has only the tutorial as his guide to speak or write critically on the contentious ideas of, for example, Feyerabend, yet that is exactly what we ask him to do. Harvard undergraduates may be famous for their arrogance and sophistry, but we need not countenance ignorance.

Another problem with prematurely engaging in close, critical readings of primary sources is that, like in many academic fields, there is a lot of cultural context to the practice of History of Science. To produce work that engages the scholarship in the field surrounding it, one must first learn and apply the conventions and tradecraft of History of Science practitioners. Ideally, this, too would be formally taught in a systematic manner, but if it must be absorbed implicitly rather than explicitly, it can be gained effectively only from secondary sources, not primary sources.

I do not claim that my (professedly inadequate) History of Science education qualifies me to prescribe a detailed syllabus, but I can propose a very general prototype that would at least be superior to the current state of affairs. I propose that the sophomore tutorial be replaced with two semesters: first, a roughly chronological survey of science from antiquity to mid-20th century, and second, a full semester on the historiography and philosophy of science, covering Greek thought as a basis and beginning seriously with the renaissance, up through the “Science Wars” of the 90s (see below). The historical survey will not aim to criticize or challenge the “received history” — precisely because the “received history” must first be presented and known before it can thoughtfully be challenged. The second semester of historiography and philosophy will begin the questioning process in a systematic manner, asking the foundational questions such as: What is science, anyhow? How is it different from other forms of knowledge? Who has heretofore written the history of science, and with what biases, and what criticisms have been directed at the historical record? In both of these courses, focus will be away from the performance of actual historical research or philosophical criticism, and directed instead toward a broad, systematic understanding of the received history, the major schools of thought, and the historiographic issues at hand. The student will have two more years to engage these ideas in the performance of research and criticism, but will be much better prepared to do so.

(The inclusion of “Greek thought as a basis” is not meant to exclude the possibility of augmenting or replacing it with other times’ or cultures’ contributions. However, I reject categorically the suggestion that no foundation is proper because it may be biased. In other words, should it be determined that Arab science is the best starting place from which to build a foundational understanding for undergraduate history of science education, then make it so — but such a foundation must be built.)

This idea — that there is at least a general “canon” that one ought to know and that schools should try to cover systematically — has been out of favor for many years. President Summers is demanding of the faculty a reexamination of this issue, which reexamination is in order and indeed overdue.

In the event that you decide to concentrate in History and Science, and the department has not yet adopted measures similar to those I describe above, I highly recommend that you take measures to broaden and systematize your history and philosophy of science education before you enter the sophomore tutorial. Examine reading lists of science studies courses from other universities, acquire some of their recommended general texts, and read these prior to your sophomore year. If you can manage to read a good selection of secondary sources that aim to survey the field prior to your sophomore tutorial, you will be much better able to understand and put to use the ?close reading? materials that the remainder of your course of study in the HSD will comprise.

2. You will be in a class with a large contingent of pre-med students who are seeking a way to combine their pre-med requirements with a humanities degree. These people will bring a potentially undesirable ethic to the department that it likely would not otherwise have.

The tenor of your HSD experience will be substantially influenced by the pre-med ethic. The following are attitudes characteristic of this ethic, and you may find them undesirable:

– Grades are of utmost importance, and certainly are of more importance than developing deep understanding or doing good work.
– Challenging of professors, instructors, or received ideas is virtually unknown (note that I exclude instructor-assigned “challenges” to straw-man notions of received ideas).
– Candor in discussions is unknown, replaced instead by the extremes of “flexing” or meek acquiescence.

If you are pre-med, you may want to reconsider surrounding yourself with so many folks on a similar path (remember, if your plan works out, you’ll be spending many, many years with those people anyhow). Furthermore, athletes should take special note that the HSD is not one of the traditionally athlete-friendly departments, and your colleagues and instructors may be nonplussed at the notion of rescheduling for practices or meets.

3. The influence of identity politics (gender, race, class) will be substantial, as will the influence of philosophies that count science as epistemologically non-exceptional. One result is that criticism and polemic will be prominent and may be emphasized over mastery.

You will likely be expected to include substantial criticism of gender, race, class, and similar issues in some of your work in the department, both implicitly by the nature of the coursework and the interests of your instructors, and explicitly by your coursework. To be sure: often, gender, race, and class considerations can be meaningful, helpful, and interesting to a thorough analysis. However, focusing on these issues tends to emphasize the polemical, and is often orthogonal to the main inquiry. If your interest is in the history of science or philosophy of science, rather than historical criticism or philosophical criticism of and through science, you may not appreciate that shift. If you are working with people (instructors, or classmates, in the case of discussion sections) who are particularly interested in this type of work, you might find the emphasis placed on these issues to be frustrating.

By way of introduction to the second part of this caveat (what I call scientific non-exceptionalism), let me explain very briefly and very generally a phenomenon known as “Science Wars.” Over the better part of the twentieth century, an intellectual current that might be described as a backlash to the notion of the triumphant march of technological progress came into fashion among academics, especially on the left. Work in this vein tends to be critical of scientific authority as an instrument of power, and tends to share methods and language with Marxism, feminism, and literary criticism. Let us call this side “group A.” Group A, along with raising legitimate concerns, tended to attack a straw-man version of “Science” due to their generally not understanding it very rigorously. At the same time, a “group B” took to what it imagined was a defense of science. Predictably, group B made some good points but largely argued right past group A, attacking a straw-man version of “anti-Science” because group B didn’t really understand the specialized critical language of group A. Group A imagined that group B was all about the Manhattan Project, eugenics, and Star Wars, while group B imagined that group A was in favor of astrology, having polio, and replacing Newton with a carved wooden fetish. Things got sillier and sillier until the mid nineties when a physicist named Sokal duped some second-stringer academics into publishing a goofy hoax about how physics was just a matter of subjective interpretation in an attempt to discredit group A. This radicalized folks, who either got angry about Sokal’s deceit or saw it as a debunking of group A.

“Science Wars” continues to this day, although it seems to be somewhat toned down from its peak. The main point of contention between the belligerents is whether science is exceptional; that is, whether science provides a way of knowing or a route to knowledge that is, like revelation is to the faithful, privileged and specially trustworthy. (Full disclosure: as the reader may have surmised, I believe in a limited scientific exceptionalism, but not without noting that, to paraphrase Derrida on philosophy, science appropriates for itself the dialog or process that defines it [e.g., if a supernatural phenomenon such as ESP is observed and documented and measured, it will come to be considered no longer “supernatural” but a scientifically explained phenomenon].)

While it is necessary not to conflate historical with modern science while working on a purely historical topic, the question of exceptionalism will arise in any consideration of modern or historical philosophy of science. In the HSD, if your work relates to the place of science in an epistemology, you will likely be expected to hedge your arguments with reference to the non-exceptionalist ideas. Especially for those of you who engage seriously both with the philosophical question of the place of science and with your science coursework, you may find this expectation troublesome.

Like the presence of the pre-meds, this is more a cultural issue than a structural one, so these are less recommendation for specific changes than advance warnings to students about cultural issues to expect. In fact, I would not recommend any specific changes which would require coercion of persons on these dug-in and contentious topics. However, prospective students should be alert that the “Science Wars” are still smoldering, and that the environment that creates may be unpleasant.

4. The department’s faculty is packed with some of the most brilliant minds you can imagine, but you won’t pick the right courses (that is, the right people) based on the descriptions in Courses of Instruction. Therefore, you must research the individual persons with whom you wish to work.

This point in fact probably extends to all of Harvard. Alas, you are cursed with riches: the HSD has some truly brilliant and fascinating minds at work in its faculty, but you can only work with a few of them in your allotted time. What’s worse, the conventional course selection method is to read a paragraph, perhaps also read the CUE guide, shop a course (in the HSD, often one weekly meeting) and then commit to spend a whole semester on it. This is very risky, and you need to mitigate this risk by researching the individual style, interests, and ideology of the prospective instructors.

The HSD courses are intensely dependent on the personality and interests of the faculty instructors. It is very important for your enjoyment and for what you will ultimately take away from the concentration that you very carefully select the faculty with whom you work. I recommend reading as much as possible of the works of, and about the ideology of, any faculty member whose course you intend on taking.

By an instructor’s ideology, I mean his more or less comprehensive system of ideas about the topic, which can include the critical and polemical ideas I discuss above, but also includes his value judgments on what is interesting (and what is deathly boring) and what is good quality. The paragraph in Courses of Instruction will but hint at this ideology, and your first shopping period section will reveal little more. Your departmental advisors, such as they are, may be helpful for this — I found the departmental advisors of my day to be more of functionaries for processing undergraduates’ papers en masse than legitimately useful. You really must read about your instructors, including their relevant published work on the topic at hand, in order to decide if you want to work with them.

Unlike much of the rest of your education, this will not be a science course, and mental horsepower alone will not see you through: there are no objective exams, and you must be aligned with the ideology and personality of the professor in order that his instruction should prove to you satisfactory and that your work should prove likewise to him.

Although carrying out this recommendation takes time, consider: you are investing a lot in this degree, and you must do your due diligence before investing your precious time in an instructor. Better to lose a few hours in preliminary research than to lose a semester.

5. MIT is available to you and has a science studies program with excellent faculty.

The Science, Technology, and Society program at MIT is a mere two T stops away by train, but a world apart in terms of certain attitudes. If you find yourself dissatisfied with the HSD, or if you are having any hesitations about limiting your courses to those offered in the department, at the very least examine the MIT offerings. Although I discovered them late in my undergraduate career, the MIT courses were a wonderfully refreshing change of attitude.

6. The History of Science Department is in the Science Center, the most dismal place known to man.

Unfinished concrete, exposed ducts and wiring, cheap carpets and furniture, and radical, discomforting swings in temperature will be the hallmarks of your physical experience in the building housing the department. Happily, you are not require to spend much time there, and reasonable measures can be taken to mitigate the time that you must spend there. If your instructors or classmates propose to hold meetings in the Science Center, make every effort to dissuade them. There is plenty of decent real estate on and around campus, and unpleasant physical surroundings are not conducive to good learning.


I understand that this document jumps from broad theoretical issues to narrow practical ones and therefore makes for a poor plan of action for reform of the department. Such a plan is not my objective. Of utmost importance is enabling good choices by undergraduates, and offering concrete strategies for dealing with existing deficiencies.

If any of these points resonate with you, I urge you to consider my recommendations, and to contribute any ideas or strategies you have for dealing with the problems of the department, by way of publishing your own suggestions or by commenting on an interactive electronic version of this document.

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