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Housekeeping July 6, 2019

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Note: all posts from this blog up to this point have been exported to https://rational-action.com/etherwave/. A small amount of formatting and functionality was lost in the transfer, but there are no ads on that site.

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Anthropologists and the ‘Depopulation’ Problem September 6, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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The Grote Club

A familiar trope in both American and European anthropology was the discussion of the ‘extinction’ of the savage tribes.  It was taken as a kind of gospel  that while civilized races in the modern world would increase, “savage” and “primitive” races would diminish and decline over time. Of course, there were those who believed that modernity was not beneficial to modern man, but even though who considered modern conditions to be degenerate, also underscored that “savage” tribes were quickly declining. For the emerging social sciences,  the true problem in the early years of the 20th century was not the existence of the decline, but its causes.

In the early 20th century, the decline of savage peoples was bound in theories of population generally, which, as with most turn of the century anthropology, has not invited critical commentary. Everyone had a theory concerning the decline of “savages” “primitives” or “natives.” Friedrich…

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Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind” January 3, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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In this post for the Grote Club, I reexamine Herbert Spencer’s discussion of a fundamental dispute in early psychology and intellectual history: the degree of difference between instinct and intelligence.

The Grote Club

Simon Cook previously described the novel account of the human mind which emerged before the First World War- the Cambridge Mind.  He considers the development of this conception of brain and behavior to be a critical moment in the early history of the social sciences in Britain, informing the views of both Alfred Marshall and W.H.R. Rivers, but to very different effects. From my vantage point of American intellectual history and history of science, I find a number elements of “the Cambridge Mind” interesting.

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The Empiricist Potential: EWP at 8 January 1, 2016

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.

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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1) December 2, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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In this post I begin to tie one of the central concerns of the Grote Club, the concept of instinct and the role of evolution in human social behavior key to Simon Cook’s “Cambridge Mind” to one of the central texts of demography and population science.

The Grote Club

Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886 to 1966) has been the topic of numerous posts at EWP. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956, initially reading zoology. Carr-Saunders studied bio-metrics under Karl Pearson, was involved in the Eugenics Education Society as its Secretary, and in 1922 published, The Population Problem (PP). PP is among the most dense of texts and does not make for easy reading, particularly for contemporary readers. Nor does it really engender feelings of worthiness among historians of the 20th century social and behavioral sciences as it is (among other things) an account of the social evolution of primitive and civil peoples (or as Simon has pointed out in many other contexts- Carr-Saunders narrates in a text on quantity and quality the historical transition from races and peoples to nations, blending many, many approaches and disciplinary tools.

In this essay, I will…

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Rational Action: The Blog March 7, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.
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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].

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