jump to navigation

The Empiricist Potential: EWP at 8 January 1, 2016

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
2 comments

I started Ether Wave Propaganda on New Year’s Day 2008 because I felt that historians of science and technology could benefit from more conversation about historical practice that was candid, open, and, above all, rapid.

I hope that EWP has played some role in maintaining the idea of a “loyal opposition” in a profession where objections routinely fade away in the face of a placid politesse. The history of science has for decades now avoided being riven by bitter and absurd disputes. But it has come at the cost of establishing a kind of de facto, hard-to-define orthodoxy or consensus about How Things Are Done, and throwing up barriers that prevent much interaction with disruptive outsiders. 

The point of the blog has always been to assert, first, that it is legitimate to feel uncomfortable with the status quo even if that discontent cannot be precisely defined; and, second, that there may indeed be an alternative way of doing things that is as-yet difficult to imagine.

(more…)

Against Methodology by Cryptic Aphorism December 13, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
9 comments

Although this blog roams freely across the history of science and technology, it is first and foremost a methodology blog. One early conclusion reached here was that historians’ interest in methodology is largely limited to consideration of certain quasi-philosophical problems. By quasi-philosophical, I mean that ostensibly fundamental and thorny conceptual issues are not actually treated with careful language, nor do new conversations build systematically on prior ones.

Instead, these considerations often revolve around free-form discussion of certain cryptic aphorisms. Some examples:

  • Science is socially constructed
  • Science is no different from other forms of culture.
  • Scientific method/the Scientific Revolution is a myth
  • There is no such thing as scientific progress
  • Objectivity is illusory/Claims to objectivity are ideological
  • All technologies embody a politics
  • History is storytelling

All of these statements—which are obviously interrelated through a rejection of realist epistemology—are intentionally provocative, and intended to challenge some purportedly widely held, capital-T Truths.  

These aphorisms do in fact embody valid methodological concepts, which are brought out once the conversation moves from the aphorism to a more in-depth discussion. Typically those discussions date back many decades, with some of the best analyses scattered across articles that might equally well have been written in 1975, 1987, or 2002.

Yet, rather than building on the most advanced discussions available, time and again new conversations—conducted in forums ranging from articles to Tweets to seminar rooms—start fresh from the primitive aphorism.  Why?

(more…)

The Benefits of Technology: Productivity as a Measure July 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
6 comments
Cui bono?

Cui bono?

This post is more a meditation than a proper review of economists’ and historians’ interest in how to evaluate the benefits of technology. It is prompted mainly by recent articles by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times) and Matthew Yglesias (at vox.com) about a current state of stagnating or falling productivity in spite of new technologies being produced. The measurement of the benefits of technology in terms of productivity may seem somewhat odd, narrow, or sinister to some, so I thought it would be useful to look at some of the history of thought surrounding these issues to show why progressive economists and policy wonks regard it as a useful measure.

The benefits of medical technologies—ethical and cost-benefit quandaries in certain cases aside—are relatively easy to measure in terms of their ability to improve health and the efficacy of treatments. However, the benefits of other technologies, marvellous or disruptive as they may be, are harder to evaluate. Because technologies tend to replace other technologies and to alter prior modes of working and living, technological change tends to create both winners and losers, leaving it difficult to determine whether, on balance, the process is beneficial at all.

(more…)

Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015

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

In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.

Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.

Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.

(more…)

Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

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

This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

(more…)

“The Rational Life”: Issues in Quote Truncation March 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , ,
3 comments

rational_life

The specter of rationalism haunts the historiographies of the Cold War-era social sciences, of mid-twentieth-century policy analysis, and, particularly, of the RAND Corporation. The basic idea is that there existed after World War II a belief that scientific method, new technology, logical analysis, and quantitative measurement could be used to find solutions to difficult problems of national policy. While it is generally taken that this belief was widespread within institutions of elite learning, it is regarded as having been particularly concentrated at RAND. And, as a prominent military contractor, RAND is taken to have been a crucial vector for the transmission of this rationalism from the realm of ideas into the corridors of American power.

One compelling illustration of this rationalism has been the opening address given by mathematician Warren Weaver, director of the natural sciences programs at the influential Rockefeller Foundation, at a September 1947 conference sponsored by RAND to recruit social scientists. In his address, Weaver remarked on his belief that the people at the conference were all united in their commitment to what he called “the rational life.”

Journalist Fred Kaplan was the first to quote this line in his 1983 book on American nuclear strategic thought, The Wizards of Armageddon:

(more…)

Rational Action: The Blog March 7, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far
A game of chess in a tourist sleeper, c. 1906. Photograph by George R. Lawrence Co. Source: Library of Congress.

A game of chess in a tourist sleeper, c. 1906. Photograph by George R. Lawrence Co. Source: Library of Congress.

We’re about a month away from the debut of my book, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960. Anyone who has written an academic book knows that this is a very exciting thing for the author, because publishing the book can be almost as long and arduous a process as researching and writing the thing. So, I’m going to be talking about the twentieth century a lot more here.

However, I’ve also created a new Rational Action blog, which will both expand on things found in my book, as well as develop the discussion well beyond the history of the specific fields I concentrate on in the book. My hope is that, by focusing on the historical problem of rationality, as manifested in both theory and practice, I can attract a cross-disciplinary audience interested in everything from optimization algorithms to philosophy of mind. The object will be to create a space where we can do free-form explorations of the affinities between such topics without conflating them into a single “contested history of rationality,” as seems to be the historiographical fashion these days.

I think it will be more useful to create a separate blog, rather than a new post series here, because I don’t want the historiographical excursions that I favor here to alienate readers interested solely in the new blog’s focus. I anticipate there will be some cross-posting, or possibly even two different versions of the same post appearing in each location. In fact, there are a number of archived posts here that I already want to adapt to the new forum.

So, please check out the new blog, and follow me on Twitter to know when I put up a new post either there or here. Also, for American customers, Amazon is offering a discount on pre-orders of my reasonably-priced-but-not-altogether-inexpensive book, and the size of the discount appears to be diminishing as we get closer to release—just saying.

The Culture of Mechanism: Margaret Jacob versus “Proto-Industrialization” February 20, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far
Jacob

Margaret Jacob

Margaret Jacob’s emphasis on “scientific education” as an essential element of industrialization is best understood in view of her ongoing effort to stem the tide of portraits of industrialization that she characterizes as “mechanistic.” Such portraits, she claims, rely exclusively on “economic and social history” to identify certain “factors” as prerequisites of industrialization, which was a process that then developed more or less spontaneously.

Many of the factors comprising the portraits she opposes will be familiar to those who have taken a Western Civ course: regional population pressures, falling family income, labor availability, resource availability (notably coal), the commercialization of agriculture, access to remote markets, and innovations in socio-economic organization (notably the “putting-out system”). In such contexts, the important machines were mainly scientifically unsophisticated devices devised by artisan “tinkerers,” including such famous inventions as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny.

While such historiography of industrialization was venerable, it flourished within an influential theoretical framework provided by Franklin Mendels (1943–1988) in his article, “Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241–261. In The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (1988), Jacob points us to “Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many,” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 435–448, an oft-cited polemical review by D. C. Coleman (1920–1995), covering the concept’s quick proliferation [ngram].

(more…)

The Challenges and Opportunities of Policy Analysis History: Some Notions February 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
add a comment

Historian of economics Beatrice Cherrier has asked what a history of policy analysis might look like. She quite reasonably notes that, as a faculty member at the Centre de Researche en Économie et Management at Rennes, she wants her “students to know why and how the theories, tools and practices they will later use on a daily basis were conceived and spread, and a good 80% of them will participate in a policy evaluation in the next 10 years.”

cover_5_2upI suspect we will be best served in answering this call if we admit the poverty of our current historical knowledge. We have a number of useful historical studies of various bits of policy analysis, and many more dislocated fragments of such a history are also to be found in the practitioner literature. However, I do not think we can even, at this stage, outline what a synthetic history would look like.

I arrive at this conclusion out of lessons learned while researching and writing my book, Rational Action, which is due out in a couple of months (and which I will not attempt to dissuade you from pre-ordering). The book uses 300 pages of text to outline the history of a cluster of influential fields—primarily operations research/management science (OR/MS), systems analysis, and decision theory—that developed in the middle of the twentieth century.

One of the key lessons learned is that many, including most historians, have been too quick to assume that they understood the basic outlines of the story as having primarily to do with these sciences’ attempts to apply “scientific” methodology to the realm of policy. Conceived in this way, the history becomes one of various attempts to define what constitutes a properly scientific approach, and of various attempts to command authority through the application of such an approach. As a consequence, the histories of very different fields become blurred together as part of a general mid-twentieth-century movement to make politics and society more scientific.

(more…)

Book Review: Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers February 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
2 comments

McCray, Visioneers

I have a new book review out in Technology & Culture of Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2012). Access the review here. If you can’t get by the paywall, the “excerpt” constitutes virtually the entire review.

The only section excluded is my suggestion of a number of books that complement McCray’s history. The Visioneers is a very able contribution to a growing historiography of activities and ideas that have existed at the edge of mainstream science and technology, often flitting between legitimate, even groundbreaking work, and sheer fantasy. While the book revolves around Gerard O’Neill’s prospective studies of viable space colonies, and K. Eric Drexler’s interest in the development of molecular machines, it is really about a broad, multifaceted culture of technological enthusiasm, which McCray also explores through his Leaping Robot blog. If you are not aware of the blog, please have a look.

Other entries in this historiography might include:

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006)

Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches from Another Future (2010)

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011)

Helge Kragh’s Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology (2011 – see my Centaurus review)

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011), and

Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (2012).

If you have additional suggestions, please drop them in the comments.