Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Being a Scientist *and* a Historian

Last week, Joanna drew our attention to the fascinating (and well illustrated!) story of the cytogeneticist Masuo Kodani as told in a recent publication in Genetics by Betty Smocovitis---a paper derived from a talk at this year's Forum for the History of Science in America (FHSA) meeting. Today I'd like to offer my special thanks to Megan Raby of the University of Wisconsin, who agreed last November to interview Smocovitis about her career and about this talk. I'll put the entire interview in the extended entry, but I offer first, a few highlights.

Joanna's post features the terrific images that Smocovitis displayed. As Smocovitis tells Raby in the following passage, those images were much more than illustrations:
The interesting thing is, why did my paper take on the cast, the flavor, that it did?  I could have just talked about Kodani and Stebbins.  What happened was, that I was trying to find images of Kodani and I got that Life image [shown during the FHSA talk].  There was this extraordinary moment where you’re looking at something and you think, “Oh my God.”  This guy’s German.  This guy’s Japanese.  Immigrants.  Life, 1947?  I have to look into this.  There’s a story here.  Every so often with this project, I have these moments, what anthropologists call defamiliarizing moments, where something that I’ve known all along looks completely different. I get goosebumps.
 Goosebumps! I love it.

But I love even more two exchanges between Raby and Smocovitis that show two historians and two scientists, making the most of their dual identities.

After speaking about the excitement (and peril) of becoming a scientist with history of science training in a history department  during the Culture Wars, Smocovitis explains the balance she works to achieve:

Smocovitis: It just took me awhile to figure out who was doing what and what could then allow me to return to science.  One of the things I’ve never lost track of is the perspective of the scientist.  I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that they’ve hated.

Raby:  Yes, I think that’s important.  I want my own work to be able to be read by scientists, and they can...

Smocovitis:  They learn something.

Raby:  They learn something.

Smocovitis: They may say, I’m not in agreement with this specific point, but they shouldn’t have this reaction…

Raby: this reaction that, “That doesn’t look like me at all.”

Smocovitis:  Or that it’s offensive or insulting or, “you got it completely wrong.”

Raby:  Right.

Speaking to scientists? Check. What about mainstream American historians? Check!:
Raby:  That was what most impressed me about your talk.  You were talking earlier about trying to integrate into a history department coming with your focus on the history of science.  Here, you are fully doing that.  You are fully integrating with the broader field of American history.

Smocovitis:  That is precisely what it is.  That comes from being inside a history department for 20 years.  That’s what you have to do.  You’re constantly translating between what the smaller community of history of science is interested in and the wider narratives.  We can’t just be historians of science, and when we say the history of science in America, we have to take the narrative of America, in all its complex narrative formations—immigration history, for example—and bring them together.

Raby:  I had one other question, but I think you’ve just answered it, which is: What do you think are the future directions for the history of science in America?  I think if there’s going to be a “history of science in America” or “American science,” we need to reconnect with broader trends in the discipline of history.

Smocovitis:  Yes. I agree. But at the same time, you do this without giving up, without selling your soul, as far as the scientific content.  That’s the challenge.

Let me close by offering my thanks again to Megan Raby for doing this interview and Betty Smocovitis for agreeing to share these terrific insights along with her exciting intellectual biography. I hope you enjoy it and that this is the sort of thing AZ was hoping for.

The entire interview will appear in print the Spring edition of the FHSA newsletter, but why wait when you can read it all in the extended entry.


Here goes:

Raby: How did you first become interested in the history of science?

Smocovitis: My father was a gymnasium professor of general science, in Egypt. His passion was for astronomy and physics, but he loved science overall, the whole thing. I think my interest in the history of science comes from him, from lectures he used to give. Some children heard fairy tales when they went to sleep, their parents would read them nursery rhymes or children’s stories. My father told me about the Great Library of Alexandria. He told me about Isaac Newton. I can remember being 6 years old when he would do experiments for me, like making these crystals so I could see what snowflakes looked like because I couldn’t see snow growing up in Egypt. So basically it’s a family thing. It really begins with my family and that’s why all of my education was focused on science. I went to a high school with a very enriched science program. I took a huge number of general science courses, but especially biology, and then I went to the University of Western Ontario and I got a B.Sc. degree in biology with a specialty in plant sciences. The question you really want to ask me is what happened to bring me into the history of science? I worked for Agriculture Canada at one point. I think I did 4 years of research in so many kinds of different areas trying to find an area where I felt I could really engage science, but something was always missing; I think that I really missed the historical dimension that I thought should be there. I suppose it was a remnant of what I call the “Pyramid to Parthenon” experience—my Greek Egyptian family background gave me a strong sense of history. Then I went to Cornell and I met Will Provine and I realized it was possible to do history and biology in a particular kind of way and be true to both. It was because of Will Provine that I switched to history of biology; but the person who taught me history of science was actually L. Pearce Williams. So I trained as a historian of science with L. Pearce Williams, and in history of biology with Will Provine, and then I kept a 3rd committee member who was a botanist, a paleobotanist, Karl J, Niklas who had been my major professor in plant biology. At Cornell, graduate students choose their committee and the committee guides their program of education. It’s very interdisciplinary. So, I graduated with this very funny degree. The PhD on paper is in ecology and evolutionary biology, but there was a new program that Pearce Williams started in the history and philosophy of science and technology. So, I was in the program, but it wasn’t yet granting degrees. And then I got my first job in a history department! I think I was the only one of my generation to get my PhD in science and get my first job in a major history department. That was a shock!

Raby: Yes! What was the most significant challenge that you faced as a young scholar?

Smocovitis: I think it was really difficult being a historian of science in a history department. That was challenge number one. Especially as someone who worked on the history of modern biology. It was very hard to integrate that area, at least then, as it existed—20 something years ago—among mainstream historians. It was really difficult to learn how to speak to them, to make what I had to say interesting or even legitimate to them. And then the second challenge was that I came out of graduate school just as the science wars began. I was one of the people caught up in the excitement, the fervor, the insanity, and the destruction. It was a combination of all of these things. I found it very exciting—to think about historiography, about cultural history, about what we do as historians, how we use sources, how we talk to philosophers and sociologists, and especially literary studies. What is it we all do? What is it we’re doing as historians? I think that was really challenging, but as I said it was exciting but also destructive to a lot of people. As a junior scholar it was really hard to find your way. There was such an assortment of approaches that came at you. And the meetings themselves… when you came to History of Science meeting, people were arguing with each other. The texts were arguing with each other. There were huge controversies and exchanges. And remember, I came out in 1988 and Leviathan and the Air-Pump had just come out in 1985 and Martin Rudwick’s book was around that time. Then we had Primate Visions, the whole topic of gender… What was a junior person supposed to make of that? Where is your relevance? Why does your work matter? Who was your audience? It was very… I wouldn’t say confusing, I knew what I wanted to do. It just took me awhile to figure out who was doing what and what could then allow me to return to science. One of the things I’ve never lost track of is the perspective of the scientist. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that they’ve hated.

Raby: Yes, I think that’s important. I want my own work to be able to be read by scientists, and they can...

Smocovitis: They learn something.

Raby: They learn something.

Smocovitis: They may say, I’m not in agreement with this specific point, but they shouldn’t have this reaction…

Raby: this reaction that, “That doesn’t look like me at all.”

Smocovitis: Or that it’s offensive or insulting or, “you got it completely wrong.”

Raby: Right.

Smocovitis: That has always been my grounding as a scholar. Again it’s because I do have a science background. I do mourn the loss of that in the history of science.

Raby: It will take a lot to rebuild that trust.

Smocovitis: In part I think it’s part of the maturation of our field. Our field had to cut the strings, go off on its own, but now I think we’re realizing, “Hey, hold it, we’ve got to come back.” In different ways, in terms of intellectual contact, in terms of alliances with scientific societies, getting them to read our work, getting them to fund us. NSF is supposed to fund us. We can’t be writing work that is disengaged from that. What’s the relevance of our work?

Raby: Yes. I think it’s important to be critical, but critical in a way that is helpful and recognizable to scientists. How did you get started on your current project?

Smocovitis: I’ve been working about 25 years on Ledyard Stebbins, botany, and the evolutionary synthesis. I got to the wartime period and I really wanted to look at what Stebbins was doing during the war. I realized botanists of all sorts were doing really interesting work. They’re working on camouflage. They’re looking for rubber. They’re going on these cinchona missions—that’s my next project by the way, in Latin America.

Raby: Cool!

Smocovitis: I was really interested in Stebbins and this wartime work. I knew he worked with a man named Kodani, but I knew very little about him. I knew that he had done some work in Manzanar [a major Japanese internment camp in California]. I knew what Manzanar was, but I had no way of pulling it all together. Then I read Mark Finlay’s book, Growing American Rubber, and thought, so that’s the big picture of the rubber project. That gave me that perspective. But then I began to look at the cytogenetics and I began to look at the actual plant and I realized I was already there, because they’re doing on it what Stebbins had been doing with Babcock on Crepis, the so-called “Plant Drosophila.” So I have actually been working the West Coast, California, plant genetics and plant evolution scene for a very long time. This was a logical development… you know, Kodani is not a plant person. He becomes one because that’s what’s needed. He’s recruited to that in Manzanar… well, you want to say recruited, but he was pressed. The interesting thing is, why did my paper take on the cast, the flavor, that it did? I could have just talked about Kodani and Stebbins. What happened was, that I was trying to find images of Kodani and I got that Life image [shown during the FHSA talk]. There was this extraordinary moment where you’re looking at something and you think, “Oh my God.” This guy’s German. This guy’s Japanese. Immigrants. Life, 1947? I have to look into this. There’s a story here. Every so often with this project, I have these moments, what anthropologists call defamiliarizing moments, where something that I’ve known all along looks completely different. I get goosebumps. I think, “This is extraordinary.” I’m seeing things completely different around this figure. Who is he? What happens to him? Every thread that I began to yank on took me to this narrative that practically told itself. This has been the best detective work. Kodani left no real papers. It’s all triangulation!

Raby: It’s amazing to build up a story of this person’s life when the way a historian can normally do that is if the person has papers, in an archive. There are no “Kodani Papers” somewhere!

Smocovitis: There are no “Kodani Papers.” But I never saw him as the “invisible technician.” That’s not good enough.

Raby: He’s only invisible if you don’t track down these fragments.

Smocovitis: People have heard of his name, but he’s somebody who’s in-between. He’s not at the top and not at the bottom. He’s liminal. I don’t think it came out explicitly, I tried to be a little bit subtle in the talk, but it is very much race, class, gender.

Raby: That was what most impressed me about your talk. You were talking earlier about trying to integrate into a history department coming with your focus on the history of science. Here, you are fully doing that. You are fully integrating with the broader field of American history.

Smocovitis: That is precisely what it is. That comes from being inside a history department for 20 years. That’s what you have to do. You’re constantly translating between what the smaller community of history of science is interested in and the wider narratives. We can’t just be historians of science, and when we say the history of science in America, we have to take the narrative of America, in all its complex narrative formations—immigration history, for example—and bring them together.

Raby: I had one other question, but I think you’ve just answered it, which is: What do you think are the future directions for the history of science in America? I think if there’s going to be a “history of science in America” or “American science,” we need to reconnect with broader trends in the discipline of history.

Smocovitis: Yes. I agree. But at the same time, you do this without giving up, without selling your soul, as far as the scientific content. That’s the challenge.

10 comments:

  1. Great interview, Megan! I'm especially interested in the portion of the discussion about 'liminal' subjects in history of American science. These kinds of liminal subjects may become increasingly important not only for revealing new dimensions of history of science in America but also as historiographic boundary objects -- providing a way to link different domains of knowledge production in unexpected and illuminating ways. This has begun to happen with the turn to material culture -- liminal subjects that are actually objects. I think we're also seeing it in terms of non-human animals and environments (built and 'natural'). Are there others interested in or doing work on 'liminal subjects' out there?

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  2. I think my response here should set up a more forceful response to a subsequent post (by Lukas), in the sense that I see my issue with this post connecting there pretty coherently.

    I agree with much of what both Raby and Smocovitis have to say in this interview. I disagree, though, on two major points. Here's the text on which they center:

    ***************
    Smocovitis: They may say, I’m not in agreement with this specific point, but they shouldn’t have this reaction…

    Raby: this reaction that, “That doesn’t look like me at all.”

    Smocovitis: Or that it’s offensive or insulting or, “you got it completely wrong.”
    ***************

    Let me (briefly) state my objection (tired as I am) on two levels:

    (a) Take Kuhn as our example: my sense is that *scientists* (both then and now) tending to agree with his conclusions, or at least find them intelligible and defensible. It was *philosophers* who shunned him, in many ways.

    The upshot? I think this story is as much about the breakdown (at most universities) of "HPS" as it is of a supposed division between scientists and practitioners of HOS. The audience question is important, but the disciplinary one is, too.

    (b) But, even more importantly, why does an explanans need to be amenable to a given explanandum? We wouldn't say this about slave-owners or politicians or philosophers - or, at least, we wouldn't have before the 1970s.

    And this is my point. Yes, we want to sell books to scientists. And we want to be adept with internalist detail. But do our stories need ratification from their protagonists?

    I don't think so - though I'll get into this more tomorrow, in response to Lukas's post. For now, I'll just leave it at this: we're at a turning-point in our discipline...

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  3. Hank: Let's break down that back-and-forth between Raby and Smocovitis.

    Raby and Smocovitis end this passage in a negotiated agreement, yet they never define what they degree on precisely. That's not meant as a criticism---instead I think it shows that they both believe the other "gets" some fundamental point. And I think that fundamental point is not that they as historians should produce stories that are ratified by scientists.

    First, I think there is more room between Smocovitis' explicit allowance for disagreement over specifics and the jump to being offensive, insulting, or completely wrong. Do you, dear Hank, want to be offensive, insulting, or completely wrong in the eyes of an informed reader (and scientists are informed readers of the history of science)?

    Second, I'm taken with Raby's "That doesn't look like me at all" comment. When your explanandum can talk back, it's worth listening to it. And you would hope it could recognize itself, even if it didn't like exactly what it saw.

    For instance, quite frequently I will hear my voice recorded (usually in the background of some home movie of my infant son exhibiting superhuman feats of strength, cognition, and charm)---I recognize that I'm hearing my voice each time. That is me. Yet! I don't particularly like what I hear. Do I sound like that, I wonder?

    As historians, we should aim to represent actors in a true enough form that they could recognize themselves. But providing such a true image hardly necessitates refraining from critique, even vigorous critique.

    The big point that Smocovitis and Raby seem to be making is that this kind of recognition comes most readily when the historians can truly understand the science and the scientists.

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  4. Dan: I'll reply here, briefly, before I connect this conversation to Lukas's post.

    (1) I take your point about being offensive, insulting, or completely wrong as, in part, a winking joke. We can do our best about the first two by managing tone, and we can do our best about the latter by being careful. What we can't control is the emotional response that readers will have - which is to say, we can't control how "informed" a reader is, scientist or otherwise. This brings me to...

    (2) Maybe this is my fault, but I'd like to push back against the idea that a scientist, today, is the "explanandum" for a story about ideas and actors in the past. They may *feel* that they bear the legacy of those we write about, but that's another matter. Yes, again, it'd be nice if scientists today "see themselves" in our accounts (as, I asserted, they did and do with Kuhn's writings), but they might not - for rational or irrational reasons.

    (3) This gets me to a more general point I'll raise in response to Lukas' more direct post on structure and agency. A preview: I am claiming that this idea that our portraits should be "recognizable" to their subjects is *not necessarily* true. Marxist or Structuralist historians weren't as concerned about this as we have tended to be for ~30 years, and -- this is where I'll leave off for now -- I think we're heading back toward a focus on structures.

    Finally: I don't think Smocovitis' work on the Synthesis would be the "most recognizable" text on the topic to today's scientists. I'd give that honor to a book I recently reviewed for Metascience -- and, as you can see from that review, that's not necessarily a good thing.

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  5. As the resident historian of post-WWII biology, let me introduce the possibility that many of us who write history of the recent past are working with actors who are still alive. This, in and of itself, is not a reason to write work that seeks legitimacy through our actors' 'ratification.'

    However, it is an important reminder that as historians of science we too are implicated in broader projects of knowledge production. (And, as an aside, to echo Ben Schmidt's comment on a different thread, we need to beware of fetishizing the archive, as well).

    For this reason alone, our ethical stance towards our work -- at least as members of the Academy -- and towards our actors and their material traces cannot be to stand in judgment as though we operate outside these structures. Let me be clear that this does not mean that we write without criticality or without theory.

    For me, what Smocovitis and Raby are talking about is an ethical imperative for responsible and meaningful historical work -- which, by the way, should not apply only to actors who are still alive.

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  6. That sounds good, Joanna! I would just add, as a caveat more to my own point than to yours, that the need to know the science (the "content," the technical details, etc.) has never been on the table for me: historians of all sorts of things need to know what they're talking about, both to be able to understand past complexity from past perspectives as well as to render that complexity intelligible in the present. What I see as at-stake is the idea that present-day practitioners automatically have a handle on past science (call it Sarton's Dangerous Idea).

    It's probably obvious that I *love* the idea that we need to pay more attention to the broader structures (not just projects, which is to beg the agency question) in which we're implicated. One of these is the history/science divide; another is the growing division within what used to be HPS; and third, and related to these two, is this cultural-historical paradigm in which we all seem to be operating. Let's keep talking..

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  7. Yes, yes, and yes. And this is precisely why it's important to engage scientists; we have much to learn from each other (epistemologically and ethically).

    Next week I'll start a new thread on the archive in American science.

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  8. This *is* what AZ was looking for! Thank you! And I especially enjoyed reading the co-authors' comments...

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  9. I'm sorry to have been absent from this conversation. It's been a hectic week for everyone here in Madison, and I've had to do TA prep when not up at the Capitol myself. I'll also give the caveat that I have not yet had a chance to read Lukas' post or the comments there.

    I just want to clarify that I certainly don't think Betty or I implied that histories of science in any way require "ratification" by scientists, nor that present-day scientists have any privileged position in interpreting their own past. What we were agreeing about is that, even when strongly critiquing them, we should present their views and ideas accurately. I think this should be true of any historical actor-- even the hypothetical slave-owner! I would never argue that an "explanans need[s] to be amenable to a given explanandum," but I would argue that we should do our best to represent our actors respectfully, even when we are offering an interpretation that they are unlikely to agree with. This is all the more true if we want our criticism to be taken to heart by practicing scientists.

    I'd add that I thoroughly agree with Joanna's second to last post, and Dan's. And *many* thanks to Dan for getting these interviews organized!

    (One minor thing: Dan intends to convey in the article that we both have science training, but I'd like to clarify that I don't consider myself to be a scientist-- I have only a Bs in Earth Sciences. )

    Now, back to the Capitol square, where we are having some serious structure/agency issues of our own!

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  10. Just to let you know that I reproduced part of this very challenging interview and comment thread on a post on an history of economic blog. The aim of the post and several others is to display raw material that I find echo my own questions on the relevance of biographical details for history of science writing (an idea challenged by most economists), and your discussion sort of embody the Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde in me.
    Do let me know if you have a problem with the quotes or if you want your names to be individually linked to your homepages.

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