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Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments.

Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. By Davis Baird. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xxi, 273. $65.00.)

The author of this book, a philosopher, seeks to present a "materialist conception of knowledge" in contrast to the traditional focus on theories as the centerpiece of scientific advance (1). Of particular concern to Davis Baird is the lack of attention paid by historians to the role of instruments in the advance of science, which blinds these scholars to the fact that things (instruments) perform epistemological work and, as much as theories, constitute knowledge of the world.

Physical models play an important role in the pursuit of knowledge, making them central to Baird's concept of "thing knowledge." They, like theories, can provide explanations and predictions and can be refuted by demonstration. The famous DNA model constructed by James Watson and Francis Crick not only allowed them to "see" how the molecule might be put together, but it also provided a predictive component in that it could explain replication, thus serving a function usually associated with theories. "Working knowledge" is another type of "thing knowledge," exemplified by the cyclotron that serves as a site for the development of material knowledge such as vacuum systems and radio frequency electronics. Measuring instruments are a third type of "thing knowledge," specifically "instrumentally encapsulated knowledge" (68). By the mid-twentieth century, a "scientific instrumentation revolution" had emerged (89). As the cyclotron and analytical chemistry instruments have shown, "building a new instrument can teach us about the world, just as devising a new theory can" (90). Baird argues that this development qualifies as a major intellectual shift on the same level as the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as instruments are now central in virtually all scientific fields.

This instrumental revolution (and "thing knowledge" generally) had a major impact on the concept of objectivity. Automatic measuring instruments eliminated the need for active human involvement. Therefore, objectivity could be defined as the lack of human error because humans were not involved. The author concludes his discussion by emphasizing that "thing knowledge" has also had a major impact on the concept of knowledge itself. According to Baird, knowledge is a gift to be shared, rather than a commodity to be bought and sold. However, because "thing knowledge" requires an investment in equipment the investors expect a return. Thus, the conundrum of knowledge as a gift versus knowledge as a commodity has become more difficult to solve in the contemporary, high technology, "thing-knowledge world" (237).

Historians will find much of interest in this volume, although they will likely find much of the philosophical jargon unfamiliar. The author's discussions of the historical aspects of the scientific and instrumental developments central to his arguments, however, are very well done. Baird has made his point that instruments have played an important role in science that needs to be considered more fully. Whether "thing knowledge" is as important as theory in the development of a better understanding of nature, though, remains an open question.

George E. Webb

Tennessee Technological University

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Author:Webb, George E.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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