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27 March 2018 @ 01:16 am
A response to Crash Course History of Science Video #1  
I have been watching Crash Course a series of educational Youtube videos for the past year or two and each is an interesting dive into several topics. I often no little about these topics, so I have trouble judging the accuracy of the ideas, I had a few thoughts about some of the more historical aspects of Crash Course computer science. In past months I have been anticipating their series on something I knew a lot about, the History of Science. The first episode dropped on March 26. So I thought I would share some reactions.

I was initially worried by the preview for this series when the host, Hank Green, talked of The Scientific Method, since there is not one single scientific method. However in this first episode Hank Green makes clear that "science is not a single thing", I am glad this is being recognized by the series. I recognize that Crash Course is aimed at a basic level and I expect that there will be stuff I find too simplistic or disagree with, but it is nice to acknowledge this basic truth.

One theme would seem to be the dramatic impact of science and technology on human life, but the series is not going to end there. Apparently a theme of the series is going to be the way that cultures and historical context have shaped science, which I think is an important theme. It suggests they will at least try to tackle the fact that science has a history that its nature has changed over time in response to various factors. They make a good start in this episode touching on how the very term scientist is only coined in the 1830s (a favourite bit of intro history of science). They make a point that the older term natural philosophy has a somewhat different set of implications than science (including philosophical and a sprinkling of religious concerns). They also made a point of how one early scientific society the British Royal Society was created by a set of British gentlemen with various technical interests from medicine to alchemy, but a rather uniform class, race and nationality, a nice illustration of the way that the practice of science reflect the society it is going on in.

That being said I notice perhaps an idealized drive to reduce science to some key maxims and ideals. For this episode it was the motto of the Royal Society "Nullius in verba" (On no one's word). There is an obvious tension because part of the Royal Society's work was trying to come up with ways to reliably tell people about the results of experiments and other empirical matters. I would warn against expecting a simple idealized pure definition of science. For example they divide scientific research into observation and experiment, which I think may underplay the role of theory and being systematic in science.

The series seems to be starting with rather traditional Western Science topics (in this episode the Royal Society, in the next the Presocratics), the plan is to cover at least some non-Western knowledge and technology, so that could be a welcome look at some stuff.

Interestingly judging from the statements about future topics the show will be jumping between traditional scientific topics and technological topics. Yet later in the video the Hank Green talks about science and technology as separate things. There are many arguments for viewing technology and science as a singular thing and in my own work on the use of computers in science I certainly do not see a clear line in many cases. However at the same time the difficulty and complexity of questions like how (or even if) science ends up applied in technology, suggests that the things we identify as science and technology can often be very distinct in terms of practices and products. Perhaps the series will address how it is carving this turkey in a later video...

Hank Green talks about celebrating the death of phlogiston, I'm worried he is not exercising the ideal level of detachment from the subject matter, historians should not be cheerleaders for one side or the other. Although earlier he made the point the history of science is not some simple linear narrative of the movement from ignorance to knowledge.

Anyway I often enjoy getting a new perspective on stuff I already know something about, this sort of series is intended to be a rather light introduction to the topic. Judging from this first episode I am optimistic this series will provide me with some fresh perspective and hopefully not too much reason to yell at my video screen.

Current Location: Oakville, Ontario
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