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The links between science studies and British “declinist” discourse April 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Rose and Rose

In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.*  This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science.  These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.

Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after.  These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science.  C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.

A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one.  Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).


Bernard Lovell: An Archival Anecdote August 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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The death of physicist Sir Bernard Lovell on August 6th at the age of 98 has been widely reported.  I thought I would mark his passing with an anecdote about some correspondence by and about him, which I ran across in December 2000 at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on my first ever archive trip.*

To set the scene a bit, at the time I was still an undergrad, and was impressed by the wonderful circular reading room at the IWM situated right beneath the building’s cupola, and by having to do things like acquire permission from someone named Noble Frankland to see the Sir Henry Tizard papers there.  (And I didn’t even know this was a former site of Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam!)   I was trying to come to grips with the very loaded topic of “operational research” (OR).  I gathered that wartime OR had to do with the “coordination” of research with the military’s “operational” goals, but I didn’t have a very good sense of how coordination actually happened in bureaucracies, or the complicated politics of the subject.

It turns out most people don’t, but I was particularly ill-informed.  I distinctly remember telling the staff member escorting me to the reading room that I was interested in “why Britain didn’t develop a military-industrial complex as America did”.  I was duly informed it was because there was no money.  That wasn’t exactly what I meant — what I had in mind, but couldn’t express, was why British R&D hadn’t been more strongly coordinated with military planning as it had been in America even to a fault: RAND, McNamara, and all that.  That position was also wrong-headed in its own way.  I did not realize that I was caught up in deep tropes populating the rhetoric of science in Britain, which were designed to explain its failures (as well as America’s successes and pathologies).  It was believable, though, because so much evidence, including a letter written by a young Lovell, seemed to corroborate Britain’s difficulties coordinating its scientific resources — I did not appreciate that he and others were bearers of the rhetorical tradition that had already shaped my thinking.


Polemical Structures: Enthusiasm, Delay, and the Frustration of Bureaucracy June 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, British Science-Society Critiques.
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Enthusiast or gadfly?  Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell in 1948; photograph by William J. Sumits, from the LIFE photo archive

In Paul Lucier’s article on science and the professions in 19th-century America, one point relating to the California oil controversy caught my eye.  In discussing the controversy’s historiography, Lucier observed that one interpretation “popular among business historians and modern scientists” seemed to support a “delay” thesis.  Since chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., working on a sizable capitalist contract, was ultimately proven correct that oil would be discovered in California, his science was “vindicated”.  Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney, who criticized Silliman “with all the power of a government position behind him” had his “vindictiveness” revealed.  As Lucier explains, Whitney’s attitude could thus be taken to explain “why California, with its rich oil fields, did not take off sooner.”

I do not think it’s inappropriate to retroactively judge whether one side or another was justified in their claims, either by contemporaneous or later standards, and regardless of later discoveries.  I would, however, like to leave the issue aside here.  (Personally, I have no idea who, if anyone, was justified in the Silliman-Whitney case.)  I also don’t want to make a warmed-over point about the relationship between scientific credibility and political interests.  Instead, I want to concentrate on just how common the polemics of obstruction and delay, and a counter-polemic of enthusiasm, are in history and historiography.  To talk about the issue, I want to move to a territory I know a bit better: World War II.

In the years prior to his becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill positioned himself as a robust opponent of Nazism.  His friend, adviser, and the director of Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, physicist Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957), was of like mind.  Both were wary of bureaucratic mediocrity, and they understood it as their duty to awaken the state apparatus from its sloth in order to combat the Nazi threat.  Churchill routinely inserted himself into the details of military planning, and both he and Lindemann were aggressive proponents of technological game-changers.


Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 2 December 31, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Forgetting is integral to scientific advance, but neither our understanding of the process of science nor our appreciation of its historical development can accept the limitations imposed by such forgetfulness. (Einstein’s Generation, p. 420)

David Edgerton has introduced the term “anti-history” to describe inadequacies of past historical accounts, which, for the sake of advocating some point, were systematically neglectful in portraying the history of the subject they were addressing.  Edgerton’s central concern is the history of science in Britain, and especially the history of the relationship between science, technology, and the British state.  “Anti-historian” commentators, he argues, had cause to systematically portray the history of state science and expertise in terms of its inadequacy or absence, because they viewed the further and proper deployment of science, technology, and modernization by the state as key to future social and national progress.  (See his Warfare State, 2006, and “C. P. Snow as Anti-Historian of British Science: Revisiting the Technocratic Moment, 1959-1964” History of Science 2005: 187-208).

As strong of an advocate for Edgerton’s historiographical insights as I am, I feel that the “anti-history” critique is somewhat unfair, mainly since it focuses on historical actors’ failure to be good historians, which distracts from the points they were trying to make (regardless of those points’ validity).  The real force of Edgerton’s critique lands on the genealogy of historians who have continued to take those historical narratives and their terms at face value, rather than recognizing them for the instruments of commentary and advocacy that they were.  In other words, the term “anti-history” fails to make a distinction between the instrumental uses of history made in everyday life and the task of the professional historian.

(I have argued on this blog that historians of science have themselves become appallingly poor historians of their own profession so as to amplify the significance of recent insights, and that this has seeped into the historical narratives we professionally produce.  Edgerton made a similar point in 1993 for the specific case of the “Social Construction of Technology” program.)

In Einstein’s Generation, and exemplified by the quote above, Richard Staley recognizes the crucial function that narrative-building plays for historical actors as they attempt to comprehend and develop what they are doing, focusing on the distinction built in the early 1900s between “classical” and “modern” physics, which has subsequently been taken for granted by generations of historians. (more…)

Schaffer on Cometography, Pt. 2: Hermeneutics and Historiography July 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A hermeneutical conundrum

Hermeneutical conundrum

I. After reading Simon Schaffer’s “Comets and Idols”, I find myself using the word “hermeneutics” a lot more than I used to.  In general, you can get your point across just fine talking about “interpretation”.  However, when it comes to Isaac Newton, and writing the history of his ideas, the history of how he presented his ideas and himself, the history of how others drew on his ideas, and the history of how others presented how they were drawing upon his ideas—not to mention the act of writing the history of all this—the pithy phrase “Newtonian hermeneutics” (p. 209) acquires a certain appeal.

Drawing on his writing on Newton’s understanding of cometography as part of a project to restore a long-debauched Chaldean natural philosophy, in “Comets and Idols” Schaffer takes the opportunity to reflect on the role of “sacred texts” and their interpretation in history.  If natural philosophy was a chaotic mess of competing systems filled with different arrangements of matter and forces, then the sacred text serves as a rare fixed point of unalterable truth.  And for some time, no text was more sacred to many natural philosophers than Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (but see also Adam Smith).  Unfortunately, the interpretation of sacred texts is never straightforward, and it is by offering one’s own interpretation of the meaning of the sacred text—by uncovering what stands unspoken behind it, whether motivation, intended emphasis, methodology, hidden knowledge, or concrete ideas—and by discounting others’ “misunderstanding” or “distortion” of it that one draws upon its authority.

As Schaffer had observed before (especially with the construction of historic scientific discoveries, and with psychology’s claiming the personal equation as its own), the appropriation of history within the program one is trying to advance is an important, perhaps inevitable, tactic in building authority.  (more…)

The Two Cultures at Fifty May 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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On May 7, 1959, C. P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “the two cultures”.  The event took on such resonance that there are now 50th-anniversary events taking place in some major institutions of science to acknowledge its significance.  See the New York Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the latest Nature, and the folks from my old neighborhood.

The event is taken as an opportunity to reflect on and question the relevance of Snow’s message.  But for me Snow has taken on the sort of red-flag qualities that other people in the history of science see in intelligent design or bad pop science.  Why am I so exercised by Snow, of all people, and not these other things? Aside from his direct (albeit marginal) place in my research, I think it’s because Snow exists in a somewhat uncomfortable space between the uncontrollable bazaar of public ideas and the coherence of useful conversation.  The bazaar will always be with us.  But Snow helps experts who should know better think they’re having a good conversation, when it’s not the case at all.

The way Snow did this was through a shrewd combination of good-but-obvious advice, bad history, and issue advocacy.  As UVa New York University prof Guy Ortolano details in his new (and lamentably expensive) book, The Two Cultures Controversy (2009), when Snow made his argument, he had specific (more…)

Primer: The Tizard Committee November 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click to go to the Official Portraits of the Imperial College Rectors)

Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click for the Official Portraits of Imperial College Rectors)

The Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence (CSSAD, a.k.a. the “Tizard Committee”) was instituted by the British Air Ministry in late 1934 to consider new technologies that the Royal Air Force might use to defend its territory against attack by bombers.  The committee was initially comprised of its chair, scientist and longstanding government research administrator and Imperial College rector Sir Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s Director of Scientific Research Harry Wimperis, academic experimental physicist Patrick Blackett, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist A. V. Hill (who had been the head of a World War I research group responsible for improving anti-aircraft gunnery), and Wimperis’ assistant A. P. Rowe, who served as secretary.  Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann was added soon thereafter on the insistence of his close friend Winston Churchill, who was at that time a backbench Conservative MP.

The formation of this committee was not unusual, as government R&D work was frequently informed by standing and ad hoc advisory bodies.  Henry Tizard was already chair of the high-level Aeronautical Research Committee, of which Blackett was also a member.  Lindemann’s addition was engineered by Churchill as a part of his vocal campaign (more…)

Historians as Mediators (Isis Pt. 5) July 31, 2008

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I just didn’t get Katherine Pandora and Karen Rader’s “Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter”. I don’t want to be too hard on the article, because I think it really is just a symptom of a malady that’s plaguing our profession, which I’d describe as an unwitting disciplinary arrogance. It’s hard to define, but it relates to us somehow thinking that we are the only people who really think about science and its place in society. Or at least there seems to be an implicit assumption that we’re unusually good at it. And this is common. In my look at the last focus section of Isis, for example, I responded to some of Galison’s questions about science and technology policy and ethics by wondering whether or not historians had any special perspective on the issues he mentioned (see #5, #6, and #10) versus other professions and discplines.

Here Pandora and Rader base their claims on the notion that there is a need to bridge the “scientist/nonscientist” divide, an argument that is pretty much a direct echo of C. P. Snow’s 1959 “two cultures” argument, which was bogus then, and is five times as wrong now. Basically, Pandora and Rader pretend as though “scientists” occasionally leave their “temple” to engage with “modern ‘publics'” (through popular presentations, through museums, and through educational offerings, like “Mr. Science” TV shows), and that this pretty-well unmoderated interchange can be clumsy and could benefit from some “humanistic knowledge”. We historians might have something to say—nay, our work “provides a crucial resource for professional scientists”—concerning public science issues, um, because we’ve (more…)

controversy and conversation May 29, 2008

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Here’s a thought for the day: how do you tell a scientific conversation from a scientific controversy? I was thinking about this while thinking about the problem of limited perspective. Yesterday I discussed C. P. Snow’s two cultures problem–he was concerned that administrators had too narrow a perspective, that they weren’t open to scientific revelations, that scientific knowledge no longer counted as part of intellectual life. The flip side to this argument is the critique of scientism: science’s limited perspective can constrain thinking within the bounds of what has been accepted as adhering to the constraints of certain kinds of scientific models. Of course, these constraints are frequently designed around certain political or technical projects.

I’ve expressed my doubts that these critiques address a realistic portrayal of the place of science in society in any era. Both seem to hinge on a scientific authority that is either ignored or fetishized, in either case supposing a final conclusion that “science” advocates. Studies of scientific controversies also seem to be mostly concerned with the circumstances of their resolution. But little emphasis seems to be placed on the productivity of debate. By emphasizing controversy rather than conversation, by emphasizing the closure of argumentation rather than its opening up, do we assume that issues of science tend to assume a bitter tone? Is this seen as a choice between optimism and pessimism, or hagiography and critique?

I don’t have a good answer, and I’m not sure how long I want to keep asking hand-waving questions. As we move into summer, I want to try and do something different and more constructive with this blog, so, following the conclusion of the responses to Galison’s questions, be on the lookout for more speculation on canon-building. I also want to try and capture some lessons from my class and do some exercises in historical summary along the lines of “if we had to tell the story of, I don’t know, physiology in the latter half of the 19th century in 10 minutes, what would we say about it?” I like reductivist exercises, because they force you to separate what you know from what you don’t.

Science and Humanities May 27, 2008

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C. P. Snow rises from the dead to haunt us once again! I’m going to take a break from Galison’s questions for a post or two to try and concentrate on some other things. In this case, it’s a New York Times article on a curriculum to unite the sciences and the humanities, which Advances in the History of Psychology picked up on as well.

We are confronted with the question of whether the science and the humanities (a.k.a. non-science) cultures can ever resolve their perspectives. I’ve been hacking away at the intro to my book, which essentially says that we among the academic commentariat have missed the boat. The two cultures never existed. (See also Edgerton’s Warfare State and Guy Ortolano’s recent intellectual history dissertation on the Snow two cultures controversy).

This is a hard subject to address in blog format, but I’d just point to two issues. First, the problem of specialist knowledge is not limited to science. Modern society is effectively founded on the notion that many differing kinds of specialist knowledge and skill must be brought together even though no one individual (or committee) can master it. Questions of trust and fairness abound. This issue is much bigger than science, and Snow was wrong to suggest that the inclusion or exclusion of science, in particular, was central to this problem (science studies could do with some reality checks here as well).

The second issue is the definition and relevance of the humanities to public and scientific culture.
By any reasonable standards, science is incredibly mainstream. And humanistic thinking is equally mainstream, if, by humanistic thinking, you mean non-scientific thinking. The two get along quite nicely, again, by any reasonable standards. Snow was (needlessly) worried that Britain’s administrative ranks were chock full of people who could quote obscure literary passages, but knew nothing of the second law of thermodynamics. But this was not representative of the state of British science-society relations in Snow’s day. Today the concern is even less relevant.

Science has been incorporated into the technological life of society to the point where the university-commercial divide has ceased to exist in a meaningful way. There are many who hand-wring about the integrity of academic science, perhaps in some cases rightfully, but the situation we enjoy was precisely what Snow was advocating. The question thus becomes, do the academic humanities have anything to contribute along the lines suggested in the NYT article?

The NYT article suggests the contents of the humanities could be useful (not just some vague analysis and writing skill acquired through work in humanities courses regardless of their content). Personally, I doubt it. I think our work could be useful, if we wanted it to be (and it’d be legitimate if we said we don’t want it to be). Public discourse consists of a series of short-hand references–historical references (witness the recent hubbub over Bush’s reference to appeasement), turns of phrase, etc. Humanists could be good at researching, dissecting, and judging the pertinence of the way public discourse unfolds.

We in the history of science could demonstrate how people are bad at talking about science and technology; but that would mean taking what non-historians have to say seriously. Traditionally, some non-historians have done very well in arguing about issues. A humanities training could be good at preserving the quality of prior arguments and rearticulating them, and repackaging them in useful ways so as to promote originality and cumulation of ideas. But our work will never be pertinent unless we are committed to being cumulative ourselves–working amid abstruse details, and refusing to set up straw men. Scientists have no problems with either, and it’s gotten them a long way. Until we can match them in terms of quality and the core importance of their contributions, I don’t think programs that attempt to link science with the humanities can flourish.

–apologies for sloppy use of the term “humanism” in the prior version of this; it’s still not up to snuff (humanists=practitioner of the humanities; ugh), but will have to do.