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Michael M. Sokal

President Elect, History of Science Society

An Interview by Ray Bert '93

Last fall, Michael Sokal, professor of history at WPI since 1970, was elected to the presidency of the History of Science Society (HSS), which he says is the greatest honor he has ever received. He begins a two-year term as vice president in January 2002, and will serve as president in 2004 and 2005. Sokal spoke with the Transformations about his field and what we can learn from it.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new post?

I hope to help the society serve its members as teachers and scholars by helping ensure that HSS has the resources--both human and financial--that it needs. I do not plan to set any teaching or pedagogical agenda; it's quite clear that there is a lot of excellent teaching going on and a lot of interest in the field. But I hope to help the field expand its influence outside academia, in part by promoting the efforts of those who call themselves public historians and independent scholars.

Why is it important to study the history of science and technology?

Here's one of my favorite examples: In teaching Introduction to the History of Technology and tracing the roots of the Industrial Revolution, I start with King Henry VIII wanting to divorce his wife. Because Roman Catholicism wouldn't allow this, he converted to Protestantism and created the Church of England, thereby promoting in England the "Protestant ethic" that some historians believe was the most important factor in the rise of a capitalist society. If one looks for the root causes only in technology, while ignoring large social changes, one misses a lot of the story. The two are inextricably intertwined. This is, of course, why WPI requires students to complete the Interactive Project.

Can looking to the past help us grapple with current issues in science and technology?

Too many people in Congress are either anti-science, or think it can do anything. That split plays out in some current issues, such as the much discussed missile defense shield. Both sides of that debate--the side that says it is absolutely necessary and certain to be effective, and the side that says that it is a useless exercise that will serve only to line people's pockets--are vastly oversimplified. In terms of stem cells, we can show considerable evidence that past attempts to limit research for political reasons have been counterproductive; not only does the field suffer, but the ethical concerns that prompted the limits aren't addressed. There are other ways to ensure that research is conducted ethically. We believe strongly that our field has a lot to say to policymakers, and that the history of science can be--and has been--used in a way that can benefit the country.

Are policymakers the only ones who can benefit from an understanding of the history of science?

My discipline has a lot to offer the general public, as well. Introducing non-science people to the nature of science helps pro-duce more educated citizens. An example is Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1963, which introduced the concept of the paradigm. Kuhn was a former HSS president, and his work educated a lot of Americans on what is involved in the development of science and more general intellectual change.

Can the historian's perspective help us deal with the issues left in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks?

As a historian, I try to take a long and broad view of the events of Sept. 11. I question any explanation that relies simply on narrow and short-term factors and influences. As I hear commentators speculate as to the immediate causes of these events, I'm led to consider the centuries-long relationships between Islamic civilization and the rest of the world, and between the United States and the rest of the world. It's important to understand how these relationships have evolved and how one has helped shape the other. When asked, "What can history teach us?" I respond that although many believe that history cannot teach us what to do, it can teach us what strategies and tactics have failed in the past, and why they failed. We ignore the past, and historians' analyses of the past, at our peril.

How will your term as HSS president help WPI?

My serving as president of a national humanities society will give outsiders an idea of how the university has evolved --that WPI is something broader than it used to be. But it may also help change the institution's image of itself.

Does WPI's unique approach to education have anything to offer your field?

Quite clearly, science historians today know about WPI, which wasn't the case when I started here 30 years ago. A big part of that is the Sufficiency program, which could serve as a model for any school for introduc-ing students to ways of thinking different from their main field. It says there are other ways of understanding the world, of coming to grips with reality. The skills that scientists and engineers at WPI develop in the humanities are useful across the board.

-- Bert is a freelance writer living in Maryland.
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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 16:04 EDT
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