'External' Influences on the Meteorite Controversy

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Thus far we have been concerned with the internal 'logic' of scientific discovery. Were forces external to the scientific community also at work ? n1A recent summary of literature on 'internal' versus 'external' causation in scientific discovery can be found in R. MacLeod, 'Changing Perspectives in the Social History of Science', in I. Spiegel-Rösing and D. de Solla Price (eds), Science, Technology and Society: A Cross Disciplinary Perspective (London: Sage Publications, 1977), 149-95. One external factor which clearly was present was the reports of meteorite falls, which largely originated outside the scientific community. Belief in the falling stones gained currency outside the scientific community before it gained currency inside it; in fact, the external belief and reports were eventually to bring about the internal recognition. But this is not the sort of 'external' factor which would ordinarily be of interest to the sociologist of knowledge. Were social interests affected by the meteorite controversy? Was any particular body of people inside the scientific community identified with belief in meteorites or with doubt about them? The controversy occurs, for instance, virtually in the middle of the French Revolution, which brought enormous changes to the structure of the French scientific community, including the humiliation of the Académie des Sciences and its eventual absorption into the Institut de France s1See R. Hahn, The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666-1803 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1971).. Surely the meteorites, which were seen mostly by the common people, were exactly the sort of thing that 'Jacobin science' would want to uphold against more theoretical science s2C. C. Gillispie, 'Science in the French Revolution', in Barber and Hirsch (eds), op. cit. note 71, 89-97.. Was not Chladni, who did not hold a university post or membership in a prestigious academy, an excellent example of a 'marginal man'?

Unfortunately, this hypothesis will not go very far in helping us understand the acceptance of meteorites. To begin with, the controversy was not merely French, although France was perceived as its centre. The Royal Society of London took part in it, the Genevan journal Bibliothèque Brittanique carried much of the disputation, and articles by Chladni and others were published in German journals. Important falls took place in France (Barbotan 1790, Villefranche 1798, and l'Aigle 1803) but they also took place in Italy (Siena 1794), England (Wold Cottage 1795), and India (Benares 1798). Chladni was a marginal figure only from an institutional point of view; he was highly respected intellectually. His major opponents in the controversy were the brothers G. A. and J. A. DeLuc s3Chladni, op. cit. note 12, at 9. J. A. DeLuc was nonetheless a foreign correspondent of the Academy of Sciences., both Swiss. E.-M.-L. Patrin, a member of the Academy, who disputed both Chladni's theories and Howard's results, never did so in an official capacity, but as an individual savant. While the Academy, thanks to the rejection of the Luce stone in 1772, was identified with a negative attitude toward meteorites, it did very little from 1772 until the last years of the controversy.

The events which led to Biot's investigation of the l'Aigle fall in 1803 (which was to prove the final piece of conviction in the controversy) are interesting in themselves. News of the l'Aigle fall reached Paris relatively quickly. The 'stones from the moon' were displayed in the public gardens, sold by natural history dealers, and sung in the streets s4C. P. Brard, article on 'Meteorite', in Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles, Vol. 30 (Strasbourg: Levrault, 1824), 334-58, at 345.. When Chaptal, Minister of the Interior and President of the scientific section of the Institut, asked for an investigation, it is not certain that he actually believed that any real event would be discovered. He may simply have been eager to put an end to the public clamour. Here certainly was an external influence, although of a very transient sort.

Now of course it is possible that the events of the Revolution had made such a strong impression on the mind of the Academicians that they were now willing to accept the stones, although they would not have been willing to do so otherwise. And perhaps Chaptal was more responsive to the public's interest than he would have been before because of his own experiences during the Revolution. Yet it is hard to believe that Biot would not have been sent to l'Aigle in any case, given his own previously expressed views s5 Biot, op. cit. note 25., the controversy, and the short distance of l'Aigle from Paris.

There are also other indications. If Revolutionary influences were responsible, one would have thought that the Academicians would have seized every opportunity to laud the intelligence of the common people. This simply did not happen. In Biot's memoir, for instance, the 'peu de lumières' of the rural population is treated in a straightforward naturalistic manner; it is neither scorned nor applauded s6 Biot, op. cit. note 26, 7-8.. In an earlier paper by Patrin, however, in which he questioned the work of Howard and deBournon, he stated that the testimonies to the falls were based on 'hearsay from individuals who are not named, and whose testimony is for the most part insignificant' s7Patrin, op. cit. note 60, at 377. (Emphasis in original.). At least in the Academicians' writings, there was no attempt to flatter the pride of the masses. Here the 'external causation' hypothesis fails for lack of evidence.

If we pose the question in a different way, however, we can see that some external influences were important. If we consider western Europe as a whole, we can see that the meteorite controversy was intimately connected to the problem of the autonomy of science. How could science resist penetration by faulty accounts of natural phenomena transmitted through the social intelligence system? The scientific community had a vested interest in not admitting data which it could not check, for to do so would have been to compromise its institutional autonomy. The meteorite controversy presents us not so much with the effect of external forces on the content of science, but rather with the scientific community's attempt to defend itself against such external pressures. The response to these pressures was favourable only when science found a criterion for deciding which data should be accepted, and the process of data acquisition was again placed firmly under scientific control.

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