Systems Science Friday Noon Seminar Series



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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817) described the "suspension of disbelief" as a sort of bargain between the author and the audience necessary to creative literature. Conversely, one might describe the "suspension of belief" as a necessary element of doing the history of science. In modern civilization, science counts as the social institution which delineates the boundaries of knowledge per se, as opposed to belief, opinion, etc. We might describe this as the cultural myth of science--not in the sense of judging its truth or falsehood, but rather in the sense of its being foundational and largely unquestioned in modern society. Yet a historical account of how science developed requires that we suspend our current state of knowledge as a relevant factor, unless we are prepared to claim, teleologically, that this current state of knowledge played a causative role in past developments. Two aspects of the cultural myth of science have seemed to me particularly persistent and needing of suspension in order to create a cogent historical account: 1) an almost overwhelming tendency to interpret historical significance (exclusively) from the perspective of the known "winners"; 2) Uncritical belief in pure science or "knowledge for its own sake" which casts any kind of economic, political, or other "external" involvement as necessarily deterimental to the scientific enterprise.

Biographical Information

Richard Beyler received his Ph.D. in history of science from Harvard University in 1994. After post-doctoral fellowships in Berlin and in Washington, he came to Portland State University in 1996, where he is associate professor of history. His teaching fields are history of science, European intellectual history, and German history. His current research follows two main tracks: biophysics in the 1920s and 1930s, and the political realignment of German scientific institutions before and after World War II.


Science -- History, History -- Methodology, History -- Philosophy, Myth -- Social aspects


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine

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Doing the History of Science and the Suspension of Belief