The recent discussions on the practical relevance of history and philosophy of science brought to mind this great Ezra Klein column. Klein attended the American Political Science Association conference where one of the conference highlights was a panel titled “Is Political Science Relevant?” Sound familiar?
Klein asked several attendees what they wished politicians knew about politics. The responses are illuminating for two reasons. In and of itself, it’s interesting to see that presidential speeches don’t move public opinion, lobbyists don’t matter as much as we might think, citizen-legislators actually empower special interests, and (of course!) politicians should speak more to political scientists. Now the implications of these findings are by no means straightforward, and we cannot simply apply them them to the rough-and-tumble world of practicing politicians. But they are illuminating nonetheless.
Perhaps the more important take away here is that there were any responses at all to Klein’s question. Practicing political scientists were prepared to discuss the key insights their field had for politics, and Klein was able to tease out some broad themes. Would this be possible with the history and philosophy of science? Even if we relax the assumption of policy-relevance, what are the key findings of HPS/STS? That is, what would you include in an introductory college seminar? Are there standard texts like there are in physics? Given that scientists are prepared to answer such questions, it’s incumbent upon the historians, etc. to be likewise prepared.