My 2006 review of Clifford Conner’s “A People’s History of Science”

A People’s History of Science by Clifford D. Conner is an important book. For those interested in the history of science, it is an essential read. For those interested in social transformation but not science, it is a wonderful introduction to the political importance of science.

For those of you who, like me, went through high school and college feeling like you came in at the middle of the play, this book will clarify much of your experience.

Some of the most important political issues today are also scientific matters—global warming and all of the problems of the environment, evolution vs. creationism, stem cell research, genetic engineering. Medical science alone has a wide range of problems to be addressed, from the so-called war on cancer to the causes and treatment of AIDS.

But science education, at least in the U.S., is of poor quality, and scientific knowledge is popularly viewed as inaccessible—even inscrutable—to those without formal training. It is presented as an elitist pursuit requiring genius.

Of all the sciences, physics and mathematics have been particularly subject to mystification. Popular presentations of physics like the film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” boldly present a religious interpretation of physics relying on this pervasive and widespread ignorance of science. In fact, many physicists (notably but not only Fritjof Capra, in “The Tao of Physics”) have written books directly tying physics to a metaphysical view of life.

During the l960s and l970s radical scholars coming out of the newly established Black and women’s studies departments began to challenge the orthodoxies and the Authorized Version of history. Their criticisms had more influence because of the tremendous weight of the social movements behind them. This book is of that genre of radical social critique but focusing on some of the most basic concepts of our view of science.

As Conner’s bibliography (which is a gold mine for those interested in the subject) shows, he is not the first or alone in challenging the orthodoxies of science—but his is one of the best-argued books. A People’s History centers on the canonical concepts in scientific knowledge that we have been raised on—particularly elitism and the cult of genius, philosophical idealism, the counterposition of theory and practice, and Eurocentrism.

It comprehensively, beginning with forager societies and moving to the present day, disputes the fictitious and alienating tradition we have been bred on. (We have all been taught the cult of genius, i.e., every scientific advance has been introduced by some luminary figure—Aristotle, Bacon, Newton, Einstein—thinking great thoughts.)

A People’s History examines the central (not peripheral) role of artisans in the acquisition of scientific knowledge and in developing the empirical method itself. Science is depicted not as the work of an individual superstar but as “a social activity by emphasizing the collective nature of the production of scientific knowledge.”

The elitist caricature has intellectual implications that have been an impediment in scientific education and achievement for the past several hundred years. This is most evident in the exalting of theory over practice. “A People’s History” shows quite convincingly that the dichotomy between elite and popular knowledge is based on contempt for manual labor originating in class differentiation.

These distinctions, particularly destructive in mathematics, and so conducive to Platonist idealism, are at last finally being challenged.

Much of A People’s History focuses on the Eurocentrism of the history of science we have been taught and discusses the actual Afro-Asiatic origins of scientific knowledge. The touted classical curriculum has now degenerated into some elective Latin courses, but the general Eurocentric notion that the only body of science and literature worth knowing is that of European culture is as strong as when it was first propagated in the Renaissance.

Correcting the historical record by presenting the Afro-Asiatic roots of scientific knowledge has now generated a few decades of vitriolic debate. A People’s History does a good job of showing how the classical curriculum is really a fictitious tradition with a hidden agenda of not just ethnocentrism but white supremacy.

One of the parts I most liked about this book is the explication of Plato’s ideas. Ironically, although Aristotle and Plato are still held up as the greatest classical thinkers, there is no place outside of a few philosophy courses where one studies their writings or gets introduced to their ideas. We read that so-and-so was an Aristotelian, or so-and-so a Platonist but we aren’t offered a clue as to what that means.

We are certainly not taught the distinctions between philosophical idealism and materialism. The discussion here of Plato’s ideology—its elitism, antidemocratic nature, and metaphysical character—clarifies a central problem plaguing science and especially mathematics up to today.

Another of my favorite sections is the two chapters dealing with the Scientific Revolution. In these chapters the Zilsel Thesis is presented.

According to Edgar Zilsel, modern science arose in Europe as a result of collaboration between artisans and scholars. The experimental method that characterizes modern science originated not from individual geniuses but in the collective efforts of anonymous workers. Modern science was born when academics adopted the methods of craftsmen, not when craftsmen followed the theories of abstract theorists.

So many of today’s political problems require scientific knowledge. Cafés Scientifiques originated in England several years back and have proliferated in U.S. cities. This is a salon concept, where those interested in scientific issues gather to educate themselves. Their continued growth indicates the interest and concern thoughtful people have about scientific issues.

A People’s History will not make you a physicist or a mathematician, but it is an essential guide in understanding the conceptual framework of these sciences. I loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.