A Message from the President July 21, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Bernard Lightman, George Smith, Graeme Gooday, Jane Maienschein, Jed Buchwald, John Lynch, Steve Fuller, Steven Shapin
HSS members have just been alerted that the new e-newsletter is out. First off, I think it’s good the newsletter is only online, but their new floating table of contents is not working for me, because it obscures the text on my computer at work even when the window is fully expanded. You can shrink the screen contents by hitting Ctrl-minus, and that clears it up. Or you can just access the pdf version. This year’s HSS preliminary program is included (look for my session Saturday morning!)
What I want to post about real quick before I take off to Colorado on vacation until next week is Jane Maienschein’s message as outgoing president of HSS. First off, a tip of the hat for the following: “We have to embrace a range of scholarly products, including well-crafted blogs that have more impact and reach a larger audience than the typical academic book, public presentations, and collaborations with scientists.” Quite true, although I would emphasize the possibility for having real-time, open scholarly conversations rather than audience reach.
Second, an important and possibly controversial point: Maienschein observes that a major priority for her was getting the history of science to reconnect with…. the history of science! “I worried that the profession had become so diverse and diffuse that it lacked the energy to carry the field forward. In particular, I saw too much of a swing toward a version of the social history of science that seemed to forget the science. I imagined I might help bring back a balance of interests – science at the core, along with plenty of room for social history, economic history, political history, environmental history, and so many other histories.” Later: “I hoped to bring back scholars who had become disaffected with our swing toward the social and away from the science.”
I think she is quite correct here, particularly in her assessment that a professional field needs to maintain an intellectual core in order to maintain intellectual liveliness. As strange as it might seem to have to defend the notion that science should be that core, it is nevertheless a sore spot that those interested in scientific systematics, argumentation, and heuristics rather than science-as-practice, or science-as-production have long had reason to feel that their work has been consigned to the depths of unfashionability as a form of archaic internalism no matter how often they cover their rears by professing that they fully embrace science’s close connections with the political and the cultural. Their complaints seem like an echo from the past rather than a vision of the future. Who said science studies scholars don’t believe in Enlightenment visions of progress?
Yet, I don’t think anyone has ever taken stock of what would be necessary to reverse the current trend. For example, Maienschein is unwilling to acknowledge the intellectual irrelevance of Isis. The journal is “in solid financial and scholarly shape.” As Maienschein notes, in spite of difficulties, Bernie Lightman has done a great administrative job. I share the sentiment—I’m glad to no longer be receiving issues six months late, and the Focus section has been a good addition. But far from being a place where scholarly issues can be thought through, the section more serves as a space where invitees can riff on some randomly chosen subject for a few pages. Then, safe in the knowledge that the scholarship has been advanced, never return to the matter again.
If we want more “science” in the history of science, cracking the whip on Isis would be a good place to start. Publication in Isis after all remains one of the key standards of professional credibility. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything even approaching technical material in its pages. As long as it remains a source of severely localized case studies that are candy-coated in an easily understood epistemic-imperative shell, it will continue to be a main source of the very trends Maienschein wishes to counteract.
This candy coating is important, though, because it is not the profession’s grasp on history (especially recent history) that is imagined to make it relevant, as one might suppose. Rather, it is its understanding of itself as a source of epistemic enlightenment, particularly the key insight that science is connected to society, that is imagined to make what we do pertinent to others’ concerns.
When we address popular audiences, it is the science that becomes the candy coating for our underlying epistemic message. Unfortunately, we still mustn’t be good enough in talking to audiences beyond ourselves, because every time we try and convince people how epistemically unenlightened they are, they refuse to listen! Taking a page from Steven Shapin, the problem must be that our prose is just too snooty. Per Maienschein, there is a “failure to educate our students to communicate effectively to a wide audience”. This is apparently the key to our reaching out to the public, to government, and to scientists themselves.
The notion that our epistemic insights aren’t actually that interesting or relevant to others’ practical problems doesn’t seem to be a reality we are ready to face. After all, pop science writing and science-in-public is so bad that our message must surely be a huge improvement. “Jed Buchwald and George Smith” (good people to cite when looking for credibility from the technical side of the profession) “both pointed out that it has often been the science writers, journalists, and sometimes scientists who sell books and get press coverage with their histories of science. And, it seemed, that history made popular wasn’t always the best possible history, or the best possible understanding of science”. Or, for further authority, we could cite Simon Schaffer on this late-breaking news flash.
Although I’m not a big Steve Fuller fan, I enjoyed his letter in Isis that John Lynch and Graeme Gooday, in addressing how to bring history of science into science education, “struggle to find an answer that escapes banality.” Their suggested improvements “sets the ambitions … so timorously low that only failed scientists would find it attractive.” It is “remedial science education activism”. The criticism could be of the entire profession. It is the failure of the broader world to speak our language and the persistent existence of failures of the science-society relationship (the persistence of intelligent design, for instance) that allows us to assume a general level of epistemic naiveté that we are obviously in a position to amend.
Maienschein is right in her diagnosis of some the profession’s troubles, but perhaps is not appreciative of how deeply our understanding of what it is we do feeds those troubles. I believe that if we could overcome these deeper issues, and could engage more closely with questions of the actual intellectual content of science (while not neglecting society, etc. etc.) people might start thinking we had something interesting to say about the various sciences and their specific issues. But there is a reason why it’s called a “discipline” and continuing to congratulate ourselves on our most basic intellectual content will not salve our ills.
As a final note, Maienschein also would like us to be employed by non-history departments, which suggests an interesting contrast with the history of economic thought, where the primary employer is economics departments, and where there seems to be a real struggle to cope with how to let social history into a history previously dominated by intellecutal history, and how to be taken seriously in their own departments. The two disciplines have a lot to learn from each others’ travails.