Psst! Do you want to know a secret?
If you promise not to tell anyone, then I will let you in on something that only select people know. Promise? All right then, here it is: the papers of the special issue of the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS) on “States of Secrecy “ are being made free to all. Don’t tell a soul. And read on…
Secrets and secrecy have been gathering renewed attention from historians of science recently. Science, it was claimed, has an ambivalent relationship to secrets: on one hand there is a powerful and sometimes prevailing image of science as a process of revelation, of uncovering nature’s secrets. Science as an institution that generates reliable knowledge can only work, said Robert Merton in the mid-twentieth century, when knowledge claims are made and assessed openly. Yet, on the other hand, scientific secrets have always been kept, whether reasons of commerce, craft or state. There is a fascinating tension here.
The editors of the “States of Secrecy “ special issue, Koen Vermeir and Daniel Margócsy, have brought together a set of papers on diverse aspects of the topic, but all with the aim of pushing the historiographical debate further. In particular they call attention to the wider consequences of secrecy (rather than the contents of secrets) for the social history of science. Secrecy draws people together as much as it separates.
Koen Vermeir, in his individual contribution, argues, indeed, that we should be sceptical of traditional opposition of secrecy and openness. Instead, he finds, there are different positive kinds of secrecy at work in early modern culture. Vera Keller, examining metaphors of mining from the same period, finds parallels between Francis Bacon’s political and philosophical projects. Mario Biagoli, like Vermeir, identifies different ways of being secret, in his cases with respect to securing priority claims. Peter Galison draws parallels between censorship of Freud’s letters and suppression of unconscious ideas. Finally, Stephen Hilgartner, examining contemporary genome research, also rejects the secrecy/openness dichotomy arguing that revelation and concealment can be theatrical and aimed at an audience.
Dr Jon Agar
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