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A Message from the President July 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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!)

Jane Maienschein

Jane Maienschein

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.


1. Thony C. - July 22, 2009

A great post Will, respect.

…severely localized case studies that are candy-coated in an easily understood epistemic-imperative shell…

I wish I had written that or even anything remotely as good!

2. Clement - July 23, 2009

Hey Will,

Nice post, but I think you are too harsh on many points.
– Severely localized case studies? The last issue features a piece on “creativity” which is very wide in its scope. Perusing through the copies I have with me here, I see a paper on endocrinology in USSR (1918-1929), or “seven decades of history of science” through the biography of I.B. Cohen. In addition, you have OSIRIS which role is to cover broad thematic issues.
– Lack of science-in-practice: I have to agree, I mean, I would be very happy to see more papers like the ones of Judy Klein in my favorite journal. But it makes me think: it may be also due to a lack of submissions of papers of this sort? My only clue about that is that if I take history of economics for reference, papers which make room for technical aspects of science are very sparse (Judy Klein that I already mentioned, there is also Pedro Duarte on macroeconomics, but I think of not other obvious candidates for history of economics. Did you think of submitting your own stuff to ISIS?)
– The focus section: it is really great I find. It does not close the discussion, it kick-starts it! You are then free to continue the debate in other forums.
– On the contrast between history of economics and history of science. First, reading Maienschein’s letter, I saw it like you. But then, I thought it was more of a parallel than a contrast. Historians of science just like historians of economics wonder whether they should stay in their department of origins or whether they should go and explore other employment opportunities. Well, that’s a minor point – and I prefer to insist like you do that historians of science and historians of economics do have to learn from each other. Ideally, in my opinion, they should start realizing that they are largely overlapping categories.

3. Will Thomas - July 23, 2009

Clement, thanks for dropping by!

First off, Osiris is a great publication, much like the annual HOPE supplement. That it is only issued annually on one particular topic limits its impact, but it does its job very well.

We’ll probably need to clarify definitions going along. There’s lots of science-as-practice (the studies of “field science”, for example). To try and rearticulate the point about Isis, the papers (and in other journals, too) tend to have detailed and scholarly sound examinations that, even if they do contain some limited technical content, are not connected to technical concerns elsewhere in science. If you go to the intros and conclusions, the papers are instead almost always connected up to some broader problem of “how knowledge is produced” (the epistemic imperative), but the content of the papers is only usable for maybe two or three people in the field.

This is not a problem in itself, but I would appreciate much more discussion about how the content bears on a specifically historical problem, so that I can learn more about parts of history I don’t know about, and what (if anything) is going on in other peoples’ subfields. This is exactly what I liked so well about Schmitt’s Vicq d’Azyr paper. Now Schmitt’s paper is on a “classical” intellectual topic, but I think the general strategy should be transferable to less traditional fields, such as trends in popularizations of science.

Most papers (the endocrinology in the USSR paper included, actually) don’t really make the effort. Instead, I feel like the intro and conclusion are designed to convince me to read about some incident of uncertain importance in a field I don’t study, which shouldn’t have to be the case. I should be obligated to be interested in a wide variety of things.

I suspect there is a perverse incentive to write in this fashion, even if we wouldn’t like to. For example, when Joan Bromberg passed through AIP I asked her about her address of the second Forman thesis in her Isis paper on Marlan Scully and quantum optics. Joan is a great technical scholar (much like Judy Klein), and laughed off her use of Forman. It was (I gather) a concession to put what was otherwise a highly localized study in a prominent journal. She couldn’t connect it up to broader trends in quantum optics (even though this is a field we know virtually nothing about) because it would be very hard to interest others in these medium-scale trends.

(My BJHS paper was initially submitted to Isis; it wasn’t a very good paper at the time and was rejected after the better part of a year. I also wouldn’t say that my papers are in a radically new style—man must eat!—but I do note that they do engage others’ work, which is comparatively rare.)

So why do we instead address an imperative that no one really seems to care deeply about? Based on all my reading, it seems to be because we have this vision that ultimately we will be able to turn all this work on the practice of science, and the relationship between science and society outward to the public, to scientists, etc…. This outward goal may be one reason why there is so little engagement between scholars’ ideas in the journal articles, and why it’s harder to get more “science” in our profession than just saying, “Hey, why don’t we write more about science?”

As to the Economics/ Science situation, we do face analogous situations, but it feels like going opposite ways on the same road. We’ve ventured into “the social” from a prior concern with “commentary on the historical canon” (e.g. the experimentation of Faraday) and are finding it hard to come back to “the technical” (though I don’t think anyone would advocate a return to canon studies, per se). Technical historians of economics (apparently) have a hard time being taken seriously in economics depts.—very few historians of science are, or want to be, taken seriously in science departments—and so are looking to go more where we’ve already been, which is great, but I do advise being sympathetic to the concerns of those who are uncomfortable with the trend (as you all do seem to be over at the Economics Playground).

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