Margaret C. Jacob is an American historian of science and Distinguished Professor of Research at UCLA. Among her recent books are: "The First Knowledge Economy. Human Capital and Economic Development" 1750–1850. Cambridge University Press. 2014; "The Scientific Revolution: A Brief History with Documents" Bedford Books, 2010; "The Secular Enlightenment" Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press. 2019.
We have asked her opinion about changes in the open communication of science associated with the Scientific Revolution, starting from the 16th century.
We must keep in mind that any changes in communication of scientific knowledge were not the results of conscious efforts to make it more open and that when knowledge was seen to be capable of producing practical applications the situation was different that in the case of astronomy or of studies of frogs and birds.
National rivalries, often cultivated by court centered governments, made scientists cautious, even secretive. Colbert (the French Minister that proposed the institution of the Académie Royale des Sciences) watched for any intellectual developments that would give the English an advantage. Without any prodding from the state, Isaac Newton distrusted all potential rivals. By the second half of the 18th century, when the economic advantages to be realized by the application of mechanical science were clear, early industrialists watched carefully when foreign engineers (often spies) turned up to visit their machines. James Watt would not admit certain French visitors to his factory. Both egotistic prestige and coveted profit became impulses that inhibited what we could falsely imagine was “open science” singularly at work in the Scientific Revolution.
Yet there was a market for science, particularly when it became clear that scientific knowledge had applications. Itinerant scientific lecturers made their living by teaching the latest developments and they could be found from the late 17th century onward in cities from Paris to Amsterdam, from London to Newcastle. These were exclusively masculine spaces although there were a very few women who laid claim to some of these innovations. The Dutch in 1700 were publishing 50% of all the books in Europe, in part because Dutch censorship was almost not existent for books not in Dutch. It was a capitalist engine; the purpose was to make money selling books in many different languages.
We should also remember that religious authorities watched the new science very carefully. Newton thought that Descartes’ philosophy could lead to atheism. Yet in the hands of the next generation of Newtonians, like Maupertuis, the materialist implications of the master’s science were clear and accepted. All forms of new knowledge can elicit fear.
We also discussed topics that might be revisited after wider consultations and research, including the secrecy norms of the alchemists at the time of the Scientific Revolution. It might also be worthwhile to consider further the possible societal effects if AI methods employed by large companies when dealing with scientific matters are not disclosed, and therefore cannot be independently replicated by academic scientists; this might diminish trust in science. In the past religion provided a socially accepted common basis for knowledge, which was later substituted by science, for some people completely while for others only in its separate field. It is not easy to think what could replace science if it is undermined.