STS Circle at Harvard
John P. McCaskey, Department of History, Columbia University, will discuss “Universal Laws and the Case of Cholera" as part of the STS Circle at Harvard lecture series.
Sandwich lunches are provided. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday at 5PM the week before.
Abstract: Supposedly, induction cannot produce universal scientific laws. But here is a case where it did. In the 1800s, cholera epidemics could be devastating. Physicians could make general statements about the disease, but few universal ones. When there was an outbreak in Egypt in 1883, Germany sent Robert Koch to help. He was soon conﬁdent he had identified the cause—bacteria of a distinct shape. But other researchers could not confirm Koch’s findings. He replied that they were failing to identify “real” cholera. Community by community, physicians adopted Koch’s position: If it was not caused by this bacteria, it was not really cholera. Universal scientific laws about cholera came to be true by definition. But there was nothing subjective about this. Lives were saved. How should we think about cases where a scientific community defines certainty into its laws? How and why does the consensus emerge? Is it a good thing?
Biography: John P. McCaskey (Columbia University, History), earned his PhD in history of science at Stanford University in 2006. Then and since he has researched the history of the philosophy of induction, developing the view that the “problem of induction” is an artifact of what we now mean by “induction.” McCaskey’s most recent major publication is a Latin translation and the first English translation of Jacopo Zabarella’s On Methods and On Regressus (Harvard University Press, 2014). He is now completing a comprehensive history of induction from Socrates to the twentieth century.
The Harvard STS Circle is co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The STS Circle at Harvard is a group of doctoral students and recent PhDs who are interested in creating a space for interdisciplinary conversations about contemporary issues in science and technology that are relevant to people in fields such as anthropology, history of science, sociology, STS, law, government, public policy, and the natural sciences. We want to engage not only those who are working on intersections of science, politics, and public policy, but also those in the natural sciences, engineering, and architecture who have serious interest in exploring these areas together with social scientists and humanists.
There has been growing interest among graduate students and postdocs at Harvard in more systematic discussions related to STS. More and more dissertation writers and recent graduates find themselves working on exciting topics that intersect with STS at the edges of their respective home disciplines, and they are asking questions that often require new analytic tools that the conventional disciplines don’t necessarily offer. They would also like wider exposure to emerging STS scholarship that is not well-represented or organized at most universities, including Harvard. Our aim is to try to serve those interests through a series of activities throughout the academic year.