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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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…)

The relevance of Darwin the person July 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I usually don’t post much on contemporary science issues or on science journalism. There are plenty of science blogs out there. However, Olivia Judson’s piece “Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism” on the NYTimes website caught my attention. Essentially, she argues that a continued adherence to Darwin as an intellectual hero undermines public understanding of natural selection in science. This speaks directly to my understanding of why it matters to do history, which is to understand the persistence and transformation of rhetoric and practice over time. By continuing to concentrate rhetorically on the scientific accomplishments of this specific person (through terms like “Darwinism”), we tend to forget the tremendous robustness that natural selection has built up as a conceptual tool, rather than as a statement of fact. Generations of ecologists, paleontologists, and zoologists, straight down to medical researchers and molecular biologists have successfully adapted Darwin’s logic to their own work. Do we, counter-intuitively, strengthen the idea if we diminish the status of its “creator”?

Now, I don’t belong to the “if we just make our argument a little more clever, (more…)