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History in Perspective (Isis Pt. 6) August 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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What I enjoyed most about Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes’ “History of Science and American Science Policy” is its sense of perspective and frankness about the place of history in science policy-making.  They begin with a well-chosen 1986 quote from Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May from a study on the “uses of history”: “…despite themselves Washington decision-makers actually used history in their decisions … whether they knew it or not.”  I think this is true: action is based on tradition and our understanding of decisions made in the past.  Therefore, a proper understanding of past events is helpful in making decisions.  So, the historian should be actively involved, yes?  Wang and Oreskes go on to quote John Heilbron, also from 1986: absolutely, we should “build the channels through which relevant and relevantly packaged research results of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science and technology may flow to policy makers. …  Let us come to the aid of our perplexed bretheren in the sciences.”

Not so fast.  While Wang and Oreskes remain upbeat, they urge caution: “opportunities for direct involvement in science policy have remained scarce.  Experience further suggests that historians who have taken up the demand have struggled to balance subtlety with clarity, nuanced appraisal with straight talk.  Authentic policy-relevant history is not an oxymoron, but it is a challenge.”  While it is true that historical lessons are frequently mis-interpreted (Wang presents evidence from his research on scientists who advised the President), the idea of historians of science themselves intervening is not so straight-forward as providing more informed interpretations.

Typically, Wang shows us, whenever historians have intervened in the political process, they have tried to strike an independent stance from both scientists and policymakers, but their testimony is usually called upon to take a side on pre-determined but clashing points of view.  For example, when A. Hunter Dupree testified before Congress about whether it was necessary to create a Department of Science and Technology, he spoke against some scientists who argued that it was, but his view was accordant with others, including the prevailing view in the Eisenhower administration.  Thus it is difficult to gauge the importance of his testimony.  Others: Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Haskell, and Dan Kevles have had similar experiences.

Naomi Oreskes has faced down the political and media process as much as anyone.  (Again, I should point out that I’m working on a project that she and physicist/policy researcher Michael Oppenheimer are directing on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet–in fact, I’m leaving on an oral history interview trip for this tomorrow, so I might be incommunicado until late next week).  Having studied the history of climate change science as well as the depth and structure of the current contentious debates surrounding the issue, she’s had an opportunity to see how the process of informing other peoples’ thoughts works up close.  Al Gore, obviously a receptive audience, made use of some of her research on climate change consensus in his An Inconvenient Truth; and she testified before Congress on the issue in 2006.  She reports being a little amazed at the degree to which Congressional hearings are places of posturing rather than information-seeking.  And, she has also been targeted by the Disinformation/Slime Machine (see physicist Luboš Motl ‘s blog, back from when he was at Harvard; as well as the comments on this YouTube video, for a sample of what life is like on the low road).

So, how to define the “challenge” of historians’ participation?  If decision-making is inevitably historical in character, and if advising on major decisions basically relates to testifying for or against pre-defined choices, the best bet seems to be in our ability to define the concepts underlying those choices.  But we need to remember that our perspective isn’t privileged.  Natural and social scientists, economists, administrators, and journalists also take part in the task of concept definition.  History is inevitably used, but more as a source of raw materials for concepts.  Whether or not this or that historical event or trend is interpreted properly is less important than whether or not the concepts we refine out of history and experience are robust approaches to acting in the world we live in.

Fortunately, venues already exist where we can–and do–participate in the behind-the-scenes process.  As Wang and Oreskes point out, one of the most important is the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Congressional Fellows Program, in which such historians as Jane Maienschein, Jeffrey Stine, and James Fleming have participated.

To imagine that historians can enlighten on the basis of our everyday work is as naive as imagining that scientists have unique access to a special process that produces “truth” (or imagining that they have imagined they do).  If we really want to be relevant we have to study up on areas and serious arguments that do not fall within the usual history of science literature.  Wang and Oreskes do us a service by discussing historians who have participated in this way, both historically and recently, and a greater service by telling us not to get our hopes up too high.

The photo of Naomi is from the UCSD web site.  Click on it to be taken to the web site it’s taken from, where there is also a link to video of her testimony.


1. Will Thomas - August 4, 2008

Here’s an interesting take on this article from the other side of the fence.

2. Michael Robinson - August 5, 2008

Will, you’ve started quite a vibrant discussion. If you haven’t seen them yet, check out Stranger Fruit and The World’s Fair. Well done!

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