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Isis Round-Up, Pt. 2 August 13, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a number of scholars, including Steven Shapin, Martin Rudwick, Mario Biagioli, and Raine Daston, demonstrated the clear and powerful links between scientific methods of argumentation and the moral economy in which those arguments took place. That is, scientific arguments obey rules of etiquette (initially derived from courtly and gentlemanly culture) that dictated who could make what kinds of claims and in what manner. Turning this mirror away from science and on ourselves in the history biz, it’s worth asking what our moral economy of argumentation looks like. What follows is speculative.

I’d suggest that our moral economy is heavily influenced by the history of science’s location at an absurdly busy crossroads, through which sociology; philosophy; anthropology; art, architecture, literary, and media studies; gender, race, and colonial history; the history of technology; not to mention scientific practice, science journalism, science heritage, and popular science pass. This confluence of fields provides an enormous richness of argumentative style from which historians may draw. But it also presents some significant challenges in resolving a professional identity for ourselves, since both the moral economy of argumentation and the moral stakes in the debates are so different in each of these areas. I’d speculate that the history of science has accommodated this big tent by developing a sort of standardized critical stance for use in colloquia, conference talks, journal articles, and book reviews that is widely comprehensible and that supports arguments that are easy to agree with; meanwhile, objections are mainly limited to missed references, incorrect factual minutiae, and whiggish tendencies. (Books tend to be less predictable and more informative.)

Crucially, our critical stance is also almost always directed outward rather than inward: past scientific arguments and social arrangements, as well as naive views about things like science’s relationship to its context or the unproblematic nature of its categories, have become the implicit justification for writing. (Distinguish this state of affairs from sociology and philosophy of science, where, as I understand it, inward-directed disputes sometimes become unnecessarily brutal.) The danger is that our outward criticism might not always be justified, in which case the literature becomes not only specious but misleading, even as this justification for writing becomes endemic to our moral economy of history-writing. If this is the case, new critical stances need to be explored.

This was where I was coming from in my post on the Pandora/Rader article. Internally, their argument was perfectly fine, but it was implicitly predicated on a debatable assumption that current science communication is inadequate. It was impossible to gauge whether historians could contribute anything more than well-worn truisms to science communication, because the current extent, diversity, and sophistication of science communication (as well as historians’ current hands-on involvement in it) were ignored in favor of a presumption of a simple model of a science/non-science divide that obviously requires additional bridging.

When one is faced with an internally consistent article that is based on fishy presuppositions, the options are pretty much to nod politely or dismiss its contributions. In an outwardly-critical moral economy, the latter option is gauche, since the presumption is that any contribution to correcting misunderstandings about science should be appreciated: i.e., as long as Richard Dawkins and his clumsy ilk are out there, we’re still needed. Scattered evidence suggests that the gaucheness of attacking the “good side” was responsible for “Isis Pt. 5” rocketing to the status of most-viewed-post-ever on this blog. Scandal was in the air. But my critique was part-and-parcel of my more general historiographical critique against the production of weak arguments against historiographical and societal straw men, which, if left unquestioned, prevent us from assembling more complete pictures of, say, the contemporary world of science communication. I certainly don’t want to start a row; I want to draw attention to common history-writing strategies that could stand some scrutiny. I also don’t want to contribute to the battle against the weakest outward opponents; I want to see if we have anything to add to others’ state-of-the-art.

I found the Wang/Oreskes article refreshing precisely because it did judge historians’ potential contributions in light of both historians’ past and current contributions, as well as existing policymaking practices. However, it is instructive to look at David Bruggeman’s response to Wang/Oreskes at Prometheus: The Science Policy blog. He wondered what us academic STS-types have been up to the last 20 years: are we just “perpetuating ourselves” or are we keeping our valuable wares secret? Was it the science policy crowd’s fault they weren’t benefiting from our contributions? He wasn’t too impressed with Oreskes’ professed naiveté concerning policymaking prior to her encounter with Congress, which should put my admiration for her and Wang’s broad-minded view in perspective.

Part of what we are trying to do here at this blog is to create a more diverse moral economy that can accommodate regular, inward-directed arguments to better identify what is constructive in our work and what is less so. The internet is an ideal place for such argumentation because it allows a selectivity of participation: if we sometimes strike too-dismissive a tone for some, they are, in turn, free to dismiss us as a mere blog. However, it is my conviction that the blogging community can transcend ephemeral observations (what John Lynch ingeniously calls “cute mustelids and rants at creationists”) and become an exciting venue for historiographical development. Part of this project is that we can create a consolidated effort to distill developments in all the areas under the big tent that are useful for historical understanding, while feeling free to flout the rules of the standardized moral economy that have developed to accommodate the contributions from all these various areas. Still, we’re still committed to a professional ethos: no one makes ad hominem attacks, no one willfully misinterprets others, and no legendary academic grudges and scandals will be fomented.

In Pt. 3, I will look at some possible influences on new developments in historiography-blogging, specifically pop culture criticism, blogs from non-academic areas, and the repetitiveness of opinion columnists.

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