jump to navigation

For My Zilsel Friends, The Boar in the Vineyard: The Anthropology of Napoleon Chagnon April 17, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, History of the Human Sciences, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

The “boar” of the title refers to Martin Luther and his heresy, referring to the famous bull of Pope Leo X.  In the early modern world, the boar stood for the problem of heresy in the faithful church.

I. The “World’s Most Controversial Anthropologist”

Napoleon Chagnon has been christened the “world’s most controversial anthropologist” by the New York Times.  Chagnon enjoys the label, it is on his faculty web site. Why is he the world’s most controversial anthropologist?  I give two reasons.  1) in a book published in 2000, “Darkness in El Dorado,” he was accused with James Neel, a well-regarded epidemiologist, of exacerbating  a measles outbreak in order to test the fitness of tribes of Yanomami in Northern Brazil and Southern  Venezuela. These charges, offered by a journalist, were dismissed by the American Anthropological Association. 2) his linking of social status, with reproductive success or of cultural success with biological success. Chagnon argued, as had his adviser and mentor the geneticist and epidemiologist Jim Neel in the 1970s and 1980 (most explicitly in “On Being Headman” in 1980) that those Yanomami villagers who were good at warfare, good at killing had high social status. Aggression and warlike behavior (through mechanisms not really explained) have become social virtues due to their biological benefits. As a result of their high social status, they enjoyed reproductive success.  They had more children than villagers less adept at warfare. Aggression persists, moreover, because it is evolutionarily adaptive and it is the result of human beings acting rationally, in the pursuit of their own self-interest as well as those of their kin.

(more…)

For My Zilsel Friends, The Dissenting Sciences April 13, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

I. Some Opening Thoughts On My Motivations

My friends at Zilsel have invited me to speak on a topic which I have been working on for quite some time, through my various researches in biosocial anthropology and human behavioral ecology, behavior genetics and public choice economics (in the work of Gordon Tullock especially) the “dissenting sciences.” I keep changing my mind on what to call them, having referred to them as “heterodox” and “pariah” sciences.    

I am a bit in a muddle and I have decided to write my way out of this confusion. I have submitted two introductions to introduce my case studies.  This is a version of those introductions.

Writing on the Pseudosciences

I do this because our field not only suffers from the privacy of criticism but also the privacy of ideas.  As Will has written about many times, historians of science are too concerned with only publishing their very polished thoughts. This means that much of the knowledge of the profession is hidden from public view. This behavior is elitist.  

And now everyone reading this hopefully has a better sense of my motivations.  My thoughts on pseudoscience are a bit of a muddle, I am using this blog as a way to puzzle out this muddle, as a prelude to puzzling out some of my confusions in a talk on Tuesday.  I am deliberately not holding back my unpolished thoughts in the hopes that others will do so.  (more…)

Henry C. Carey on Law and Civilization (Part 2) April 5, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology, Philosophy of Law.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

In my previous post on the 19th century political economist Henry C. Carey I underscored some of his methodological suppositions (his Newtonianism, his Baconianism and his dependence upon William Whewell). I made two further points: first, that Carey’s system-building and his emphasis on man and nature being under the rule of law was typically of social theory penned during the nineteenth century. One finds the same flavor of contention in the work of John William Draper and Henry Buckle, where both authors attempted to bring diverse sorts of information ranging from facts concerning the course of civilization to the laws and regularities of human psychology under one kind of generality, where facts and the laws which they illustrated were exemplars of a well-ordered universe.  This is more or less the purpose too of later sociological reasoning.4a29884r

Depending upon the writer involved, this mammoth reductionism and systems-building, with its consequent determinism, was to differing degrees rhetorical, heuristic, deadly serious, and inconsistent. As importantly, these efforts at system-building and reduction often obscures digressions and departures which form intriguing sub-arguments and sub-systems.

(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…)

Wang on PSAC, Pt. 3: Attitudes and Ideas in the History of Policy August 16, 2010

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

In Pt. 2 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow, I critiqued Wang’s adherence to a central analytical rubric pitting an “enthusiasm” for technological “fixes” against a more reserved “skepticism”.  I argued that the rubric led to misleading interpretations of selected quotes.  It modified, rather than moved beyond, a questionable narrative of 20th-century ideas about the relationship between politics and science.  Finally, the narrative mainly seemed to function as a way of explaining why good reason often fails to prevent bad outcomes — as might be expected given the narrative’s origins in historical polemics.

Nevertheless, readers of this book who are prepared to disagree with certain aspects of it can and should still find a great deal that is useful.  My more pressing concern is what aspects of history are simply forgotten because they can only be found by probing beyond what the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric can parse.

One key issue is the characterization of the importance of the President’s Science Advisory Committee as fulfilling an almost unique role as scientific skeptics in a government apparently otherwise enamored with the prospect of technological fixes to policy problems.  However, this creates the impression that those whose general attitudes are labeled enthusiastic held a belief in something like what we might call “technology without policy”.

(more…)

Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been.  Part 2 explains how it does so.

As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good.  Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world.  The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so?  Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse?  A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?

No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy.  Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil.  Skepticism can prevent that evil.  Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail.  This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell).  Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument.  Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.

What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an  important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness.  Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.

(more…)

Wang on the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Pt. 1 August 6, 2010

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

Though a visible and important office in American policy history, and though, historically, it has been much discussed, PSAC has garnered surprisingly little analysis by historians.  Thus Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (Rutgers UP, 2008) automatically constitutes a valuable contribution to the historiography.

PSAC’s predecessor body, the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization, was established in 1951 during the Korean War.  Although comprised of highly respected members of the scientific community, that committee was a marginal body, and it was replaced by PSAC following the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite and reconsideration of American government’s management of its scientific and technological resources.  PSAC’s chair served as the science adviser to the President until 1973 when Richard Nixon dissolved PSAC.  In 1976 Gerald Ford established a new organization, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Though its exact structure and function have varied from administration to administration, that body still exists, and its director (currently John Holdren) serves as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.  Wang’s book covers this whole history, with the OSTP period as an epilogue.

In my own experience, the further one gets from World War II, the more convoluted and confusing the terrain becomes, the less helpful the historiography becomes, the more difficult it becomes to write good, coherent history.  Wang’s book flips this on its head.  (more…)

Gomory on Research, Industry, and National Competitiveness July 30, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

Click for the Ralph Gomory profile at the IBM archives

One of my activities on my recent blogging hiatus was an oral history interview with Ralph Gomory.  The interview was originally instigated as part of the AIP History Center’s History of Physics in Industry project, on which I’ve helped out here and there.  Our discussions with researchers at IBM all pointed to Gomory as a crucial figure in that company’s history.  Personally, I had a strong interest in the interview, because Gomory’s background is in mathematics, and he is a notable figure in the operations research (OR) community, primarily on account of his foundational work on integer programming.  (For those keeping track, I wrote my dissertation, and am currently polishing up a book manuscript, on the history of certain sciences of policy analysis, including OR.)  This post is mainly based on the background research I did ahead of the interview.

Gomory was director of research at IBM from 1970 to 1986.  IBM Research had been established in its present form in the late 1950s by Emanuel Piore.  Piore had spent much of his postwar career at the Office of Naval Research, culminating in a stint as Chief Scientist.  Careful readers of Zuoyue Wang’s recent book on the President’s Science Advisory Committee (to be discussed on this blog presently) will know that Piore became a ubiquitous figure on various high-level government panels (i.e., though not well-known to historians, he was a big deal).

The idea behind establishing IBM Research was the general sense, widespread in the 1950s and ’60s, that technologically-oriented companies would be well-served by conducting their own basic research.  Piore’s goal was to establish an environment — housed in a modern building designed by Eero Saarinen — where researchers could freely explore their own ideas.  Gomory had originally been brought in to be part of the new mathematics department (along, incidentally, with fractal geometry pioneer Benoît Mandelbrot).

Now, going back to my previous post’s interest in basic research and the “linear model” in history: once one had established the importance of the link between research and technological development, one was faced with a series of subsidiary questions, to which one would have devoted more or less thought. (more…)

Edgerton, the Linear Model, and the Historical Existence of Ideas July 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: , , , , ,
9 comments

David Edgerton

Although I have discussed the paper here a few times in the past, including in one of this blog’s first-ever posts, this post will revisit David Edgerton’s argument in “‘The Linear Model’ Did Not Exist” (available in .rtf format via his website @ #41 #27, and published in The Science-Industry Nexus: History, Policy, Implications, Karl Grandin, Nina Wormbs, and Sven Widmalm, eds., 2004; hereafter GWW).

The “linear model” is a very specific claim stating that basic scientific research in universities (or other non-profit institutions) contributes to national economy and security by producing new knowledge, which can then be translated into new technological applications.  Edgerton’s argument that it “did not exist” is that it is an idea that has been held, in a strict sense, by few, if any, actors, and that it has been concocted as a straw man by individuals purporting to offer a superior alternative.  I believe continued discussion of Edgerton’s argument is needed because the reasoning underlying its claims is not obvious, it is now being used productively in new work such as Sabine Clarke’s, and because it has broader historiographical significance.

Much difficulty may be caused by the problem of what it means for an idea to “exist” in history: how well does a historian’s articulation of an idea have to map on to the actual idea in order to claim that it existed?

(more…)

Clarke on Research and Science in Prewar Britain July 20, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Coming off this blog’s discussion of Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in 19th-Century America,” I would next like to look at Sabine Clarke’s “Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916-1950” (abstract + paywall) from the most recent Isis.

Lucier’s piece delineated important distinctions and connections between 19th-century American and British vocabularies of science, with an attendant examination of important issues to which the American lexicon was applied.  Reading that work, I found myself not really willing to believe that the subject matter had not been previously parsed that way, and am still half expecting someone to pop up with some obvious reference that tells all about it — it’s really useful stuff.

Clarke’s piece seems to offer more of a clarification of certain points of vocabulary, rather than an important new delineation of historical ideas, but it is successful in the task it sets out to accomplish.  The actual ideas discussed — the relationship between “research” (as in “research and development”) and “science” — should already be familiar to those with a serious interest in the relationship between scientific research and technological development in the industrial era.  What is of primary interest here is the search for appropriate language to describe this relationship. (more…)