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On the Beeb: Lisa Jardine on Jacob Bronowski December 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Update. Apparently the film is now available for a further week, through the 23rd

One position I hold on this blog is that historians need to worry less about their engagement with the realm of public ideas.  The main reason I hold this position is that I think there is a tendency — albeit by no means a necessary one — to measure the quality of professional work in term of what qualities it possesses that public ideas lack, rather than against its own internal standards.  Another important reason, though, is that I am generally satisfied with the quality of public presentation of science and its history.  Yes, there is much that is of low quality, but nothing I or my colleagues say is going to change that.  In fact, though, here in the UK, rather good history of science seems to be in the media perhaps even more often than the subject actually warrants!

Lisa Jardine, notably, seems to be a very public figure, and, in general, I am a fan.  (I thought this column for bbc.co.uk, wherein she argues that history “reminds us” that real people can get hurt by things, contrary to what budget-cutting politicians may think, was a particularly superficial case for the relevance of history.)  My new fun fact learned this past week is that Jardine is the daughter of Jacob Bronowski.  Bronowski was a mathematician who is best known for popular television programs on science, most notably The Ascent of Man.  She has just made a film about him for the BBC entitled My Father, The Bomb, and Me, which is available online here — but only until December 16th, so hurry!  (I’m not sure if it’s available outside the UK.)  The video below is a hopefully more permanent clip of Bronowski, which I will discuss in conjunction with Jardine’s film after the jump.

Jardine’s film is very good.  I take a personal interest in it because it seems to have been prompted by Jardine’s discovery that her father did “operations research” (OR) on area bombing in World War II.  (I will quibble, first off, that Bronowski seems to have been employed by the Research and Experiments division of the Ministry of Home Security, working on the mathematical theory of bombing.  Such theories did not constitute what the British called “operational research” per se, because, at that time, OR was most associated with field studies and only sometimes advanced theory.)  I’ve done a lot of work in this area of history, and it was pretty strange to see it handled in video (although the related issue of the statistics of bombing also appears prominently in Erroll Morris’s Robert McNamara documentary, The Fog of War).

Now, one should note that Bronowski’s involvement here should not be considered some revelation of a dark secret, contrary to what some viewers might take away from the presentation.  Area bombing was rightly controversial, but as a feature of Allied policy, scientists and mathematicians quite openly participated in its planning alongside military personnel.  (See on this blog my review of Randall Wakelam’s The Science of Bombing; for those interested in wartime perceptions of bombing, the Airminded blog is essential reading).  Rather, it was a revelation to Jardine personally.  Bronowski had, in her memory, always been a champion of science as a humanitarian force, and he had never spoken to her of this work or his postwar survey of atomic bomb damage.

Naturally, it is at this point where we wend our way back to the theodicy of science and modernity.  Jardine spends much time exploring her feelings about her father’s history with warlike science.  Was Bronowski a drone-like participant in modernist evil, or was he conscious of these evils as they occurred?  Was he moved by what he saw in Japan, and, if so, did he feel remorse for his war work?

Beyond Jardine’s personal struggle with the question, though, the film actually does a service in bringing out the extent to which the question is more a matter of 20th-century intellectual history than it is a problem that must dominate historians’ own reading of the history of the 20th century.  Far from dodging the problem to make science look good, Bronowski was an important contributor to the intellectual genre of modernist theodicy.  (See, by the way, the 2009 thesis of Imperial College PhD student Ralph Desmarais on British scientific intellectuals, which discusses Bronowski at length beside George Orwell).

As noted in my post on Toulmin and cosmology and Chris’s comment on it, a large and diverse array of 20th-century intellectuals linked a reductionist scientism with the political dominance of an unreflective technocracy, leading to the incidence of evil.  The Holocaust was often cited by these intellectuals as clear product of technocratic evil.  This was precisely the point that Bronowski was reacting to in the clip above, as he suggested that the Holocaust was a result of a mentality that was at odds with the spirit of science.  It is clear that Bronowski felt he had a deep personal stake in exploring this question, and the moving presentation of this point is one of the great virtues of Jardine’s film.

Now, the question of whether or not “science” or even a reductive “scientism” can be related to a “technocracy” that makes certain evils possible is ultimately a question that I think historians do well to abandon as a mode of analysis.  The question presupposes the objectivity of science, technology, and technocracy as a legitimizing force in public life — or, alternatively, it presupposes the role of science as a peculiar source of skepticism.  As I suggested in the Toulmin post, this whole framing of events seem to me to be a historical canard that downplays the historical importance of political thought in favor of casting science as either a fall-guy or savior.  Far from a coherent representation of how history worked, it was very clearly a polemic used by both conservative and leftist intellectuals in history to argue for the relevance of their work in public life as a means of guarding against future modernistic evil.

I believe historians of science have a choice.  We can make use of the “polemics of science” for ourselves in order to argue for our own relevance in the public sphere.  It is the argument of this blog that even in the way we regularly portray historical topics not directly related to modernist evils, the perceived solution to the problem of modernist evil — i.e. a mature understanding of science and society and their combined history — is almost always present in the analysis.

For my part, I believe such a strategy comes with the price of denying the influence of these polemics in history in favor of portraying reductionism (i.e., a failure of the polemic to be sufficiently important) to be a real force in history.  A better choice is to openly acknowledge the historical importance of this polemic and its terms, and to free our historiography from the need to read history according to those terms.



1. alice - December 12, 2010

Sorry, but I suspect you are drawing on a rather narrow idea of ‘public’, ‘public enagement’, and possibly science and history too. I’d also argue against the very idea that history of science’s own internal standards are the best it can be (wisdom of crowds, etc), or sustainable even in a culture we demands greater engagement and transparency.

Maybe I’m being unfair about that. Care to elaborate, perhaps with some engagement with the scholarly-rooted work on this area?

I don’t know if you have ever read this, for example: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/publicvalueofscience – It’d be interesting to know whether you think this is as applicable to history of science as much as it asks to be applicable to science?

It is a bit of a ‘for dummies’ study on the topic, as I understand sociology of science is slightly outside your area and a lot of the work on this is quite dense. Irwin and Wynne’s ‘Misunderstanding Science’ followed by Irwin’s ‘Citizen Science’ and the slightly more recent Irwin and Micheal ‘Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge’ would provide a slightly more neuanced take on everything.

Or, to put the whole thing much more simply, and possibly topically: what is the jutification for a publicly-funded professionalised study of history of science if it is not a public good?

Will Thomas - December 12, 2010

Hi Alice,

My view that science communication tends to be as good as might be expected is based on a presupposition that expert knowledge is so vast, and problems of public policy so complex, that it is unreasonable to expect anything other than for the relationship between them to be very messy.

Now, I know that you and Brian Wynne (I am unfamiliar with Irwin) would probably disagree. As I understand it, Wynne is centrally concerned that science remains too much a matter of one-way communication, and that a stronger participatory process is required in the formation of policies where expert knowledge plays a strong role, in the prioritization of research funding, and perhaps even in the formulation and conduct of research programs.

I tend to be more complacent here, simply because I think there is a limit to the amount that one can expect various publics to learn, participate, or even care about such a wide array of issues. I found your point about the reluctance of some publics to be participatory in your presentation the other night at UCL very apt.

Now, there is always a question about whether or not states, companies, and other bodies include appropriate stakeholder constituencies on appropriate issues. But I see no lack of interest groups, local coordinating committees, and the like to have me suppose that there is any systematic problem of ideas, such as a widespread attitude toward “science” or “objectivity” in particular, that prevents such apparatuses from working. Nor, as near as I can tell, has such a situation ever really existed.

I’m pretty sure Wynne would disagree here, but if he indeed does, I would argue he is drawing simplistically on earlier intellectuals’ theodicy of modernity – because there are problems, these problems become evidence that there is something wrong with the ideas scientists and politicians use. To me, however, it simply it seems like a matter of selecting out readily available best managerial and publication practices. (Churchman and Ackoff certainly thought so.)

From this perspective, I view your work as setting out a particular theoretical framework, which one can use to express a critique of which practices constitute good ones, and which ones are not so good. Which is fine; I expect there are both academically satisfying problems here, as well as consulting opportunities. It’s simply not my cup of tea because I don’t realistically see room for more than marginal improvements. I could, of course, be wrong.

On the other hand, I think a lot of historians view history as pretty much full-up (either that or desperately, eternally incapable of being anything other than virtually empty), and thus capable of only being improved at the margin. Therefore, they view it as their responsibility to use their work on marginal topics at the margin to make some bigger point, including making points viewed as useful to some ill-defined broader public. Not only do I view this resigned view of the potential of historiography as a scholarly discipline as wrong-headed, I view the resulting attempt to write history around bigger concerns as injurious to productive and correct historiography.

Now, you asked me about the impact agenda a couple of weeks ago, and, as promised, I’ve had my ear to the ground. It turns out there are indeed rumblings. However, I think it’s a pretty common opinion at Imperial CHOSTM that the best way to make history have an impact is to do it well and thoroughly. Trying to force history to be useful by wringing public and political “reminders” out of our studies is a quick way to signal to the powers-that-be that we are more interested in appearing useful by harping on others’ mistakes than we are in actually trying to develop a special historical expertise.

Therefore, I believe it is a good idea to try and forge a distinction — but not a separation — between history of science and science communication. We need internal standards, because right now there really don’t seem to be many, which I believe is injurious to our ability to claim to having a legitimate form of scholarly expertise.

That said, I don’t think it serves us well to be walled-off from the rest of the world for the sake of developing a scholarly body of work. I think some form of crowd-sourcing is useful. My best articulation of this point to-date is in this post.

alice - December 13, 2010

— agree with the messiness. I don’t go in for “science/ hist of science communication is rubbish” statements. On the whole= too broad to have meaning.

— yes, I’d say STS and HPS often seems to see its ability to contribute as a corrector to other pop sci narratives. I personally think that’s limiting (don’t know if you’ve seen most recent post on my blog?).

— broadly correct with that summery of Wynne, Irwin et al largely in agreement with Wynne on this, though I think you’d find if you read through it there is more on the mess (in fact, a lot on the mess in the book with Micheals).

— I’d also agree about the limits of desire for public participation. I should maybe stress I remain quite sceptical about a lot of the “engagement” project. Still, there are ways in which researchers (or professional mediators) can work to help inspire that sort of participation, to think about the ways in which communication (and I mean communication in 2-way process) about their can take place, and benefits for research which can happen because of it.

— for me the trick is to think largely about niche audiences, and to be imaginative about who they might be and where they might dwell. It might be a matter of doing some broader mass-media work or simply some research blogging or putting research free to read online so such audiences will find you.

More interestingly, re impact et al – you want to do it “well and thoroughly”? OK I’d say the same as an academic myself (I sit on the ESRC peer review college, I have to think about this stuff pragmatically as well as intellectually, and in assessing others as well as thinking about myself). However, the point is what do we mean by “well”. You say HoS needs “internal standards”. Again, I’d say OK, maybe it needs to talk more to itself. But I’d also say that it could be strengthened in articulating its aims by talking to people who aren’t historians of science – other scholars but also people outside the academy.

To draw a distinction in front of powers that be between “appearing useful” and “special historical expertise” seems to me to be falling into that old trap of thinking good research is somehow damaged from working outside the lab/ archive/ (the “he’s such a media whore” line of academic snobbery).

This is important because that is the central challenge of public engagement and impact (or whatever you are calling it) – it asks researchers to change their ideas of what counts as good research, to make “good” mean something inherently more open.

So again, I ask the question: what is the justification for a publicly-funded professionalised study of history of science if it is not a public good?

Maybe you can outline other ways in which it might be for a public good without needing to be done in public. I’m open to that. I don’t believe all researchers should be forced to “engage”, or that all fields even. I do think it can be beneficial for the research though. I do also think researchers need to justify their position on the topic, whatever that is.
At the end of the day, impact et al are gradually coming and people are knocking on doors of universities wanting to look in. We can swap whatever intellectual justifications we wish about the need to keep relatively closed or not, and that may well work for a decade or so. After that, be creative and proactive about opening-up or, well, “perish”.

Though if you do enjoy the intellectual end of this, you might enjoy Harry Collins’ 3rd Wave of Sci Studies paper, and some of the spin-offs from that. He disagrees with Wynne.

Will Thomas - December 13, 2010

I suspect we may be closer on this topic than perhaps you would be with a lot of historians of science.

I was a bit off the mark with my comment on the “mess”. Linking that to my later comment about there not being a “problem of ideas”, I would take the Wynne position to be that because there is a flaw in ideas, it is thought that there shouldn’t be a mess, that science communication should be straightforward precisely because it is science. Therefore, a properly STS approach would acknowledge and cope with the fact that it is messy.

As I say, though, it’s not clear to me that such a problem of ideas exists, so it’s not clear to me that this mess can be navigated much more fluidly or maturely than it is.

My opinion is that in trying to lend a popular cogency to their work, historians tend to nod vaguely toward this problem of ideas, claiming their study of, say, the preservation of biological specimens in 19th-century natural history and the economy of correspondence surrounding it, actually has a broad cogency because it shows how grounded science is in its local contexts and in social economies, such as that of letter-writing.

I think you and I agree that these vague sorts of lesson-bearing studies don’t really bear lessons that most people can use.

By contrast, I agree with your emphasis on niche work. I think historians of recent periods ought to be able to offer a service of saying what people hold position A on topic X for reason J, what people hold position A for reason K, and what people hold position B, and how these positions can be explained in terms of their placement in traditions P, Q, and R, which differ in the following respects…. Historians of older periods can help historians of more recent periods understand the ideas informing traditions P, Q, and R (though this should be secondary to their proper work of understanding the periods they study to avoid teleological fallacies).

Replacing all these letters with actual words cogent to the needs of particular niches requires a flexibility that only comes with a broad, detailed, and well-integrated body of knowledge, which cannot be generated so long as historians keep seeking a short path to relevance by envisioning individual studies as having an innate relevance in the realm of public ideas. So, I would say, that historians need to turn inward long enough that they develop that knowledge in sufficient breadth and detail that will give them a real outward relevance. I guess I don’t see an inward turn as antithetical to ultimately holding our work up to the requirements of external niches.

The community studying the history of recent science is so small that such a task almost certainly requires the participation of outside experts.

In this post I noted how Arne Hessenbruch tried and failed to create a project to involve solid state physicists in the construction of their own history.

I think where Arne went wrong is in assuming that solid state physicists would be interested in pursuing a project whose ends were ultimately of interests to completist historians. Scientists (and others) do create lots of history, but they do it in times, places, and manners of their choosing.

My Array of Contemporary American Physicists project was designed to create a flexible, and neutral-ish framework into which these piecemeal contributions could be fit and related to each other and to historians’ work on related topics by means of placing links and references in the proper places.

Also, I wouldn’t equate having internal standards with opacity. I am very much in favor of opening up professional conversation in forums such as this one. This blog, for example, is meant to prod historians toward having more public conversations with each other. When people wax rhapsodic about “the ’80s” it’s often about the pubs, the pubs, the glorious conversations in the pubs! they used to have. That’s great, but it doesn’t help people who didn’t happen to be in the pub. I think it involves more historians, but it also lets others have a look at what we’re up to.

Tangential point #1: I am pretty familiar with the Collins “third wave” work; in fact, I’m on the email list. Ultimately, the work tends to get more into sociological concept-building than I really care to, but I do think it’s heading in the right direction. So, yeah, if I had to pick sides in the Collins-Wynne dispute, I would side with Collins.

Tangential point #2: I don’t have a considered reaction to your Bernalist nightmare post, but I will note that when historian of economics Phil Mirowski gave a talk at the Nat’l Air and Space Museum on his project on neo-liberalism, he suggested that Fuller was the most unflinchingly neo-liberal voice in STS today! (He agrees that STS positions bear an uncanny and uncoincidental resemblance to neo-liberal thought, despite the differing political affiliations of the traditions.)

2. Thony C. - December 12, 2010

During the war Bronowski analysed photos of the explosions of German bombs together with Johnny von Neumann in order to determine whether the Germans had developed new explosives, so at least part of his work was practical rather than theoretical. I’m surprised that Jardine claims her knowledge of her father’s work to be a revelation as he discusses it quite openly in the writen version of The Ascent of Man. In this context Bronowski, who studied philosophy under Bertrand Russell and physics under Albert Einstein, says that von Neumann was the most intelligent men that he ever met!

Will Thomas - December 13, 2010

Thony, that’s really interesting. While I felt that Bronowski’s war work was by no means hidden, I didn’t know that he actually wrote about it in the Ascent of Man book. That sort of puts things in a different light for me.

Jardine makes a big deal of discovering these wartime documents in a box in Bronowski’s closet, and then having to use her historian sleuthing powers, paging through his pocket diary and so forth, looking for clues to his state of mind. This sort of reinforces my thinking about historians intentionally playing down what really already ought to be known about history by anyone paying attention, in order to play up their own role as excavators, and thus licensed interpreters, of the “hidden” aspects of the past, so that what happened in the past can prompt healthy reflection in the present.

On the bombing, thanks for the clarification. There really seems to be no practical distinction between the analytical work he was doing and OR (nor would there have been if he were only doing theoretical work). Nevertheless, I would like to stand by the distinction, because, during the war, OR personnel were clearly defined as personnel who did research on operations as part of an explicitly named “operational research” group or section in direct service to military planners. As people who worked directly for planners, they were understood to be particularly well positioned to connect R&D and abstract theory to the practical needs of the people who actually had to make decisions.

The reason the distinction matters to me is that it is common to apply the term OR to pretty much any science-y work done during the war on tactics and planning. This reinforces a long tradition of taking OR to be the introduction of “science” to military planning, representing a shift in authority. It is important to my argument that these science-y sorts of things were quite common and predated OR, and thus that OR, proper, cannot be said to have introduced scientific reason into the military. It also tends to overlook the very important intermediary role played by OR scientists in favor of assuming the power of, yes, their technocratic methodology.

That OR represented a shift in the relationship between science and the military is a line that we can trace directly to scientist-intellectuals like J. D. Bernal (who also worked for the Ministry of Home Security’s bombing effects survey!). His Marxist ideology insisted that the state had to become more scientific, so it was important for him to marshal practical examples of how this inevitable process was, in fact, occurring.

Will Thomas - December 17, 2010

Thony, I looked up the Ascent of Man book, and Bronowski does indeed discuss his wartime work there in his ruminations on von Neumann. However, it’s a fairly vague discussion, from which one can make out it had something to do with math and “explosions”. Where did you get the rest of your info on his war work? Was it from something JB wrote?

Actually, the discussion of von Neumann is interesting, since JB expresses his disappointment that JvN spent the last years of his life doing so much industrial and military consulting, rather than developing his understanding of his life’s work (including game theory, which JB appears to have admired as a human science). He ascribed to von Neumann a fondness for an “aristocracy of the intellect” versus a “democracy of the intellect” that he preferred. All this jibes nicely with JB’s admiration of the social activist, Szilard.

3. Weekly Roundup | The Bubble Chamber - December 17, 2010

[…] Ether Wave Propaganda, historian of science Will Thomas argues that historians need to worry less about their engagement […]

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