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Historians as Mediators (Isis Pt. 5) July 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I just didn’t get Katherine Pandora and Karen Rader’s “Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter”. I don’t want to be too hard on the article, because I think it really is just a symptom of a malady that’s plaguing our profession, which I’d describe as an unwitting disciplinary arrogance. It’s hard to define, but it relates to us somehow thinking that we are the only people who really think about science and its place in society. Or at least there seems to be an implicit assumption that we’re unusually good at it. And this is common. In my look at the last focus section of Isis, for example, I responded to some of Galison’s questions about science and technology policy and ethics by wondering whether or not historians had any special perspective on the issues he mentioned (see #5, #6, and #10) versus other professions and discplines.

Here Pandora and Rader base their claims on the notion that there is a need to bridge the “scientist/nonscientist” divide, an argument that is pretty much a direct echo of C. P. Snow’s 1959 “two cultures” argument, which was bogus then, and is five times as wrong now. Basically, Pandora and Rader pretend as though “scientists” occasionally leave their “temple” to engage with “modern ‘publics'” (through popular presentations, through museums, and through educational offerings, like “Mr. Science” TV shows), and that this pretty-well unmoderated interchange can be clumsy and could benefit from some “humanistic knowledge”. We historians might have something to say—nay, our work “provides a crucial resource for professional scientists”—concerning public science issues, um, because we’ve written some books and articles about just such interactions as they took place between 50 to 150 years ago.

I found their point about museums totally baffling, since a good portion of the historians of science and technology I know actually are science and technology museum curators. Yet: “because they often ignore the educational functions of so-called new museums … historians of science have missed an important chance to understand how these complex institutions are important, if contested, sites for communicating ideas about nature and the process of science to diverse publics.” Would we actually have to take over the entire museum industry before we could claim not to have missed our big chance? (Check out the Copenhagen Medical Museion blog, by the way, for a portal into the pretty detailed conversations that are taking place on just this kind of topic right now).

Worse, though, is Pandora and Rader’s failure even to acknowledge the vast industry of science communication that exists today, and the thinking that goes on within this industry. Science journalism has existed, more or less as we know it, for 150 years, and now encompasses a vast array of publications from the superficial to the very involved. I’m not particularly taken with the quality of some of the more popular science journalism, but I wouldn’t pretend I would be much better at it (and I understand that at least some science journalists are history of science graduates).

Moreover, major professional societies devote substantial resources to communicating science and its importance to a variety of audiences. For example, my home base, the AIP History Center, is a part of a sizeable arm of the AIP called the Physics Resource Center, which has divisions dedicated to government relations, media relations, industrial outreach, education, and statistical resources, in addition to history.

I really don’t think we can even begin to have an intelligent conversation about how we can contribute to the communication of science to its modern publics without evaluating how our contributions would stack up against the work of the professional resources that already exist. It’s my fear that to not even mention the existence of these professionals in these conversations will only serve to sink our discipline further into delusion about the quality and relevance of our work, and the amount of awareness of late-20th and 21st-century science and scientific culture that we still require before we can seriously consider our work relevant to science today.



1. Michael Robinson - August 1, 2008

Now I have to read Isis this month. I can’t speak to the Pandora article, but it seems to me that your point is borne out by many forms of science communication, not the least of which are the terrific ScienceBlogs writers who are bringing their lab experiences to the broader public, often in very nuanced ways. I’ve been poking around at Brian Switek’s site Laelaps and some of the blogs he links with. Pretty impressive stuff some of it.

2. Isis Review: Science in the Everyday World « Time to Eat the Dogs - August 3, 2008

[…] with this in mind, I am grateful to Will Thomas, historian of science, for profiling Isis articles on his blog Ether Wave Propaganda. In this pursuit, he has become my intellectual trainer, forcing […]

3. Alexis - August 6, 2008

My initial response is that you’ve read this article completely wrong (though I imagine I’ll have more for you after I ruminate a bit further). They accused both scientists AND historians of being guilty of specialization to the exclusion of the populace. They aren’t shaking your hand. They’re biting it.

Specifically, they weren’t positing that history has something to offer science because history is better, and they certainly weren’t setting up Snow’s two-worlds dichotomy. They were positing that studying popular culture has something to offer the specialist – and they’re including all academics under that umbrella – not because one or the other is “better,” but because a solid understanding of it (or lack thereof) is currently a blindspot in the study of history, science, AND history of science.

Their entire argument centers around the foundation that a diversity of opinion is necessary to have knowledge that is complete and robust as possible (different disciplines bring different things to the table, yadda yadda). It would be self-defeating for them to then say that one of those disciplines is better or has more to offer than the other. Which is why they don’t say that. They say that a discipline ignores alternative sources of knowledge at their peril.

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