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Isis Round-Up, Pt. 1 August 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

In the intro to this last Isis focus section, Jane Maienschein and George Smith wrote that they intended for the section to be “a start for what we hope will be a continuing and lively conversation.”  Outside of niche areas, I’m not 100% sure what the last big conversation in our profession was, at least a conversation with more than one side.  If there is to be such a conversation, the existential one about the use of our profession is a well-chosen place to begin.  

The first problem is: how can such a conversation take place?  Ben Cohen at World’s Fair wondered about just this point; John Lynch (who co-wrote the piece on science and education) replied in the comments that there was some thoughts to creating online fora, or maybe an HSS session, but that it seems to be “down to the blogs”.  (John also asked the crucial question at Stranger Fruit: who in the history of science is blogging? which seems to have led, among other things, to much higher hit counts back here).  Unsurprisingly, I’m a big supporter of the blog option.  To me, a blogging community is sort of like a laboratory of culture and methodology.  It’s less formal and less final than a journal or a conference.  It’s harder to let points drop on account of the fact that any replies will be months-off.  It’s more inclusive to any who are interested in participating.  It can also support different rules of argumentation (more on this soon).

A community of science blogs took up the Focus section heartily, with discussion revolving primarily around to what extent the history of science can provide valuable context and a sense of motivation to scientific work, especially in scientific education, to help them see science as more than a collection of facts to memorize.  See A Blog Around the Clock, “Hopeful Monster” at Chance and Necessity, David Ng at World’s Fair, and Brian Switek at Laelaps, and the comments section in all.  All of these basically deal with the need for perspective on what it means to do science, focusing mostly on the Gooday/Lynch/Wilson/Barsky article on history in science education.  My own take on this was that history of science was being viewed as a salve for inadequacies in current science education.  I acknowledged that we could help, but, having had some exposure to history of science courses, I wondered whether just any history of science course would do.  I tend to think that the value of any one-off exposure to history of science (or any humanities course) would be less useful than a history of science course specifically tailored to the problem, particularly one with technical material that runs parallel to a more practical course on the same subject (I don’t think I made this point particularly clearly).  Such courses are currently rare, in my experience anyway, because historians these days tend to have such different concerns from scientists.

One thematic concern I had throughout the Isis series was that “history” was being used as a stand-in for a well-crafted solution to whatever ailments there might be in other areas: the exposure to history causing scientists to recognize their social contexts, to question their working assumptions, or even the utility of their work.  When we say “history” do we really mean “philosophy”, “sociology”, or “methodological introspection”?  Why introduce history into the debate over DNA barcoding, when the historical argument is weaker than the (quite strong) philosophical one?  (More on this at a later date).  Why consider history a boon to scientists who need to reflect more on the basis of their methodology, when systematic scrutiny is what is being called for?  These uses of history place it more in the tradition of “inspirational literature” than analysis.  Is history simply a back door into more forbidding, but more fundamental literatures?  Farbeit for me to discount the usefulness of my own profession, but it seems more like our neighbors in the philosophy and sociology of science might have more of a direct role to play than we do.  Of course, we most definitely inform sociological and philosophical discussions, but no one (including myself) really addressed that point (but see John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts).  But does “history-as-history” have a role to play?  Food for future thought.  (I suggested one possibility, but am not necessarily enthusiastic).

All this points to what fellow-Ether Wave Propagandist Christopher might refer to as a “hierarchy of historical needs”.  Assume that historians have the highest needs for historical understanding.  I would say this blog is an attempt to address this need: what literary, pedagogical, and analytical methodologies can we use to understand history better?  Philosophers and sociologists seem to require historical study more as case-studies to inform their own debates.  Scientists, policymakers, and the public have still other historical needs that ought to be much more carefully identified. 

This was, I think, the point that emerged in my quick back-and-forth with John Lynch on the ID/evolution debate.  I thought our skills did not translate especially well into heavily moralistic, slogan-based political debates.  We can and even should participate where we can, but we should not expect to be especially effectual, because voters concerned with the issue are more worried about the moral education of their children rather than the historical details.  (I view it as sort of being like a trench soldier in World War I, i.e. laudable but more-or-less pointless).  John agreed that the task was “Sisyphean” but he thought it necessary.  Resolving the tensions between those views seems like one possible avenue for further discussion.

It’s in this way that I think blogs and other internet resources can create exciting new avenues forward, helping us get down to the issues at hand.  In Part 2 of this post, I look at how this can happen, and why the diversified moral economy of history-writing that can exist on the internet may be a major factor in helping the process along.



1. terrence bucker - August 11, 2008

How about the inverse. Instead of considering the history of science as a tool with which to engineer good (is that really what we want out of the profession? what are the assumptions contained in such an idea?), at least it hinders the use of certain tools (such as contrived history) to engineer bad (such as untruth). If politicians etc. get away with abusing history now, think of how much more they could get away with if there were no history of science as a profession. That is, the existence of the profession provides real constraints on one’s ability to fabricate history — to a greater or lesser extent depending on the audience. That’s a minimum “usefulness,” though — happily — such “use,” which can be thought of as a power, by its nature cannot be wielded by an individual.

2. Will Thomas - August 11, 2008

That’s a good point, Terrence, and one that John Lynch brings up in the ID debate, and also Zuoyue Wang in his part on historical contributions of historians to policy debates. I’m especially interested in your comment toward the end that this guardian sort of power cannot be wielded by an individual, which I take to mean that the more egregious the historical abuse, the more coherent the protest from historians. This would, possibly, solve the communication problem, which is that no one “owns” history, and therefore, anyone can deploy it. Therefore, by what means can professional historians best exert their influence?

This also bleeds back into the question of our relationship with popular history, which Maienschein and Smith brought up in the intro section. What are the best means of packaging history that retain the essential insights of scholarly research?

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