, Volume 54, Issue 3, pp 353–373 | Cite as

What’s Wrong with Talking About the Scientific Revolution? Applying Lessons from History of Science to Applied Fields of Science Studies

  • Lindy A. OrthiaEmail author
Essay Review


Since the mid-twentieth century, the ‘Scientific Revolution’ has arguably occupied centre stage in most Westerners’, and many non-Westerners’, conceptions of science history. Yet among history of science specialists that position has been profoundly contested. Most radically, historians Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams in 1993 proposed to demolish the prevailing ‘big picture’ which posited that the Scientific Revolution marked the origin of modern science. They proposed a new big picture in which science is seen as a distinctly modern, western phenomenon rather than a human universal, that it was invented in the Age of Revolutions 1760–1848, and that science be de-centred within the new big picture: treated as just one of many forms of human knowledge-seeking activity. Their paper is one of the most highly cited in the history of science field, and has the potential to transform the way that science educators, science communicators, science policy-makers and scientists view science. Yet the paper and historians’ scholarly response to it are not well-known outside the history discipline. Here I attempt to bridge that disciplinary gap with a review of scholarly papers published 1994–2014 that cited Cunningham and Williams or otherwise discussed the Scientific Revolution, to gauge the extent of support for the old and new big pictures. I find that the old big picture is disintegrating and lacks active defenders, while many scholars support aspects of the new big picture. I discuss the significance of this for scholars in ‘applied’ fields of science studies such as education, communication and policy.


History of knowledge History of science Non-western science Science communication Science education Science policy 



The author would like to thank Alex Cook, Blake Singley and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

The author declares she has no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11024_2016_9299_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (242 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 243 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of ScienceThe Australian National UniversityActonAustralia

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