‘One famous scholar published a review with quotes from my book that he had made up’

Books interview: Karen Shook speaks to David Wootton, author of The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

September 14, 2015

Richard Joyner reviews The Invention of Science by David Wootton

“My home is in a village in Leicestershire, halfway between London, where my wife works, and York, where I work,” says David Wootton, anniversary professor of history at the University of York, whose high-profile monographs include the controversial Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates (2006) and his latest, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution.

“We have three dogs, two beautiful blonde lurchers, Phoebe and Flora, and the youngest, Poppy, an unbelievably bossy Jack Russell. My wife is a psychotherapist, and used to teach English literature. She is, to quote Treasure Island, ‘as smart as paint’.”

The child of missionaries, Wootton “was born in England but raised until I was eight in Pakistan. My mother had lost her first child in Pakistan, so came back to England to give birth to me. I think if you are raised abroad, or move a lot in childhood (my wife comes from an army family) you find it hard to settle and feel at home. Perhaps that is one reason why I am intellectually nomadic, moving from one subject to another.”

Of his return to England, Wootton recalls: “I came from a world of vultures and water buffalo, a world in which converts to Christianity were murdered by their relatives, and found myself in a prep school in Worthing. I was completely disorientated.

“In Pakistan I’d been able to study the stars through a little telescope; in England there were clouds and streetlights and every season was the rainy season. But I do remember my excitement at seeing a hoopoe in Worthing: an Indian bird in England. Who would have thought it possible!”

Asked to name the adults who played a key role in his interest in the life of the mind, Wootton names “a wonderful history teacher at City of London School, Joe Hunt, who was much loved by generations of students. He thought I had the makings of an historian. Goodness knows why. I wanted to study English or philosophy, and I still work across those disciplines. But it is entirely thanks to him that I ended up in history. I still remember him writing on one of my essays when I was 14: ‘Yes, but this would be true of anyone, at any time, in any place.’ So I can’t imagine why he thought I should be an historian!

“My obvious debt to my parents is that I rejected everything they stood for, which is why I worked for so many years on atheism, and why it is still so important to me to argue that science is a rational way of understanding the world, quite unlike religion.

“But of course one’s relationship to one’s parents is never straightforward. My father was an exceptionally gifted linguist (which I am not); and my new book is in large part about the language of science, so there is something from him in it.”

Wootton took his undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge. Prior to that, he had spent “six months on a scholarship in France and three months in Italy; by the time I came to Cambridge I was still only 17, but I had read Foucault and Lévi-Strauss, and I found Cambridge history terribly old-fashioned and narrow-minded.

“But I was also a lost boy, rootless and unsure of myself, and I was very lucky that Maurice Cowling, who was in charge of my education, and who was the worst sort of reactionary Conservative (as I saw it then), treated me with great kindness and consideration.”

A student in an era marked by radicalism, Wootton says: “I was a student radical myself. I still find that I have an instinctive tendency to question authority. But I have, perhaps, grown wiser as well as older over the years.”

He has lectured at universities in Canada as well as in the UK. “I loved Canada – I worked in Montreal, Halifax, London, Victoria, so right across the country. And I had many wonderful students everywhere. But I never quite became a Canadian; anglophone Canada is a bit of a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil culture, and that didn’t suit me. But I would still be there but for my daughter, who got herself a scholarship to an English boarding school at 16: she was the one who prompted my return.”

Of his current institution, Wootton observes that “the history department at York is a great place – I’ve been able to work through my ideas with clever students, and our sabbatical system gives research leave in big chunks, which means you can really immerse yourself in a project. I’m not sure there is anywhere else in the country where you could write a book on this scale without external funding (which I didn’t have for this project – the wonderful Leverhulme funded the one before and they are funding the next one, so I’ve no complaints on that score!)”

His provocatively titled 2006 book Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates, received widespread acclaim – as well as some savage criticism from fellow scholars. Does he fear his latest will attract the same?

“I don’t mind disagreement: there would be no interest in any intellectual discussion if there were no disagreement. I welcome disagreement. I hate – everyone hates – being misrepresented. The first book I wrote, when I was starting on my academic career, was much attacked and sometimes praised. One famous scholar, now dead, published a review that was packed with errors and misrepresentations, including supposed quotes from the book that he had made up wholesale, and that cost me a job I really wanted; but now I am settled I don’t have to fear the consequences of hostile reviews, and I am sure this book will get some – and I hope too that I will learn something from my critics; I certainly learned a great deal from people who read the book in draft, who disagreed vigorously with me, and who persuaded me to change my mind on lots of key issues.

“Of course, discovering you are wrong before you go into print is one thing; discovering it afterwards is another. But I remember my doctoral supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, saying that people who published and were wrong advanced the discipline, while people who didn’t publish because they were afraid they might not be right were of no help to anyone. That, of course, was in the days when Oxford and Cambridge were full of academics who never published – the world has changed since then.”

What gives him hope?

“I just want my luck to hold. Up until my early forties I lived on hope, always hoping for something that never seemed to arrive; then I met my wife, and ever since then I have known I’m a lucky man.

“Do I have hope for our culture and society? There’s a short story by Voltaire, Scarmentado, about someone who travels around the world in the worst year of all human history – I think it is 1619. These aren’t the worst of times, but neither are they the best of times; I tend to think things will get worse before they get better.”

In the meantime, there are still further journeys to be made. Wootton has had, he says, “a lifelong fascination with boats and the sea: I have a narrowboat, and I’ve worked on Venetian history, and I’ve just acquired a shed to write in which we call the Boathouse, because it has a beautiful vintage pond yacht hull in it. It’s no coincidence that this book begins with Columbus setting out across an ocean into the unknown.”

Karen Shook is Times Higher Education's books editor.

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