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Strangers and Confidants January 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Much tactile history of science is basically an attempt to get as close to past scientific practices and technical knowledge as possible, so as to transcend the lack of verbalization of tacit knowledge, techniques, material culture, and experience, which we fail to inherit through the textual record alone. Intriguingly, although tactile history is very much the opposite of “playing the stranger”, these motivations are quite similar to those given for treating science with an anthropological remove.

Perhaps our clearest articulation for an anthropological approach is to be found in Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s classic study of a Salk Institute laboratory, Laboratory Life (1979). In their introduction, they make their case for working in an anthropological mode, and are quite clear that this mode is particularly warranted on account of the social fact of the peculiar intellectual power of science, which threatens to subsume any analysis of its culture (29–30, their emphasis on “not”, mine on the last clause):

We take the apparent superiority of the members of our laboratory in technical matters to be insignificant, in the sense that we do not regard prior cognition (or in the case of an ex-participant, prior socialisation) as a necessary prerequisite for understanding scientists’ work. This is similar to an anthropologist’s refusal to bow before the knowledge of a primitive sorcerer. For us, the dangers of ‘going native’ outweigh the possible advantages of ease of access and rapid establishment of rapport with participants. Scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside world. There are, as far as we know, no a priori reasons for supposing that scientists’ practice is any more rational than that of outsiders. We shall therefore attempt to make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted. 

As we have seen, by 1979 there was already precedent in appealing to anthropology as a new way of removing oneself from the intellectual authority of science, so as to better analyze its social-epistemological workings.  (I would actually be interested in charting the invocations of anthropology by historians and sociologists of science — but not today!)  Furthermore, the idea that a realistic appreciation of science must be accompanied by the destruction of a dominant public image of it was behind the widespread media reaction to James Watson’s The Double Helix a full decade earlier.

From this point, we could extrapolate further to observe that it was not simply “science” that was thought to require some articulation of tacit ideas otherwise invisible, or taken “for granted” — one would probably say the same about Foucauldian “discourses”.  Nevertheless, the act of taking for granted has been so consistently identified with “science” (or, more generally, with “modernity” or “rationality”) and its institutional self-interest that it seems pertinent to observe how large of a wedge this has driven between the respective professionalized worlds of the scientist and the historian-anthropologist.

Hostility at this level of divergent professional interests is nicely illustrated in the Latour and Woolgar quote above, and is surely closely connected with the perception that the science studies disciplines are hostile to science, full stop, whatever protests the former might lodge that they are not, that it’s all just a methodological tool to understand science better.  I have also argued (I believe with some novelty) that historians’ vision of themselves as interpreters of neglected aspects of scientific culture creates a perverse incentive for historians to remove scientists’ self-consciousness from the historical record allowing them to use it to inform their own analyses.

In general, though, it seems to me that if we do not believe in the social fact that “science” maintains some sort of hypnotic spell over insiders and outsiders alike, it makes much more sense to become a reflective and articulate confidant of science, than to remain a stranger.  The stranger will always be consigned to fairly superficial observations, which generate only vague statements about the conduct of science, while the confidant can aspire to describe the technical specificities behind, say, why a scientific figure behaved one way rather than another when a choice was available.

From this perspective tactile history is basically an extension of a more detail-oriented history, which can include doing things like working out the equations for oneself, or familiarizing oneself with the other various actors one’s historical subject knew well.  Personally, I have never done anything that could be called tactile history, but I have a strong memory of working out on a train from Washington DC to Charlottesville, VA the following “mathematical recreation” undertaken over lunch by members of the World War II-era Statistical Research Group (SRG):

Given 12 coins, all of the same weight except one, and using only a two-pan balance, find the odd coin and determine whether it is heavier or lighter than the others, making only three weighings.*

I thought I was just wasting time, but it became clear in doing the problem just how efficiently one has to design the weighing procedure, and what efficient use one has to make of the information (and potential information) obtained at each weighing.  Combined with knowledge that the group also developed the “sequential analysis” technique in statistics, the process of working out the problem made me more alive to the degree to which the problem of making best use of the information and opportunity for equipment testing at one’s disposal was to this group, to the point that it even inhabited their lunchtime musings.  This fact, in turn, becomes even more significant if one realizes how many people from the SRG (including Milton Friedman) went on to develop economic models that speculate how market actors process information into the expectations informing their future plans.

(Philip Mirowski has hinted at the connections between wartime experience and postwar economics in his sprawling Machine Dreams (2002), but I think the definitive work is yet to be done.  I will be discussing the “mathematical management of uncertainty” during the war and after at a conference on mathematicians and wars” on 8 February at the CNRS Maison des Sciences de la Communication et de l’Interdisciplinarité in Paris.)

Now, going back to the question of whether some analytical strategies are peculiarly confined to science, it raises the question of whether it could ever be possible to obtain this (admittedly imperfect) degree of familiarity with past practices and thought processes when studying histories other than those of science.  To what extent is it possible to gain such familiarity of past racial or gender experience? of the creative process of an innovate artist at the cusp of an entirely new style? of a politician campaigning for office, or making a choice on policy?

Certainly it must be possible to obtain some degree of empathy, but it seems to me prima facie that, excepting the novelty of the scientific experience (akin to the aforementioned artist’s), immersive experiences like tactile history may well be peculiarly appropriate to the study of science.

*W. Allen Wallis, “The Statistical Research Group, 1942-1945,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 75 (1980): 320-330.

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