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Orientations and disorientations in the history of science

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Historians of the sciences have paid great attention to the ways faith in what has been called the quantitative spirit emerged as a dominant feature of the politics of science, a theme of obvious salience in current epidemiological and climate crises. There are instructive connexions between measurement practices and orientation towards other cultures - as though scientific modernity somehow appeared through robust quantification’s primacy over subaltern, past and exotic worlds, where merely provisional judgment allegedly still operated. This highly simplistic orientalist distinction accompanied assumptions that the remote was best understood as the ancient, a viewpoint common at the same late enlightenment moment as the apparent institutionalisation of the regime of the exact sciences within European polities. Under this regime, precision surveys - the way the state saw - have often been understood as integral for European societies and even more so in colonised territories. This version of what might be called metrological orientalism can be disoriented through excellent recent scholarship that explores complex entanglements of measurement practices circulating across very different scientific cultures; and that shows how precision devices that claimed merely to represent phenomena often helped produce them. Studies of select cases of relations between European practitioners and indigenous experts, in fields such as Egyptian hydraulics or south Pacific surveys, can reveal even more: the role that judgment and exactitude played in forging very different, politically significant, versions of the past history of the sciences. These disorientations can aid novel forms of historical understanding of the politics of science.

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1600-0498

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John Wiley and Sons

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