Scholar as Citizen / Scientist as Historian


The recent chatter here, and elsewhere, about Bill Cronon’s blog, Scholar as Citizen, has gotten me to thinking about another thread that’s been running through our discussions.  That is: how we ought to approach the communities whose historical antecedents we study.

As some of you will recall, Hank took issue with a sentiment that Betty Smocovitis voiced in her interview with Megan Raby (available here).  The point of disagreement was whether we should strive to craft historical narratives that scientists themselves will be able to read, such that they recognize themselves (or their forebears).  To paraphrase somewhat, Betty and Megan’s sentiment was, “I want my own work to be able to be read by scientists, and they can ... learn something.”  A scientist should not come away from having read a piece of historical writing and think “that doesn’t look like me at all,” that “it’s offensive or insulting.”

If I understood him correctly, Hank thinks that it should not matter one way or the other what scientists think of our work.  If we are historians properly so-called, we need to develop our own standards of evidence, proof, and plausibility.  To quote from his comment to the original posting, “why does an explanans need to be amenable to a given explanandum? We wouldn't say this about slave-owners or politicians or philosophers.”  (Hank also wrote a more extended piece about this, which you can see here.)

So far, I’ve kept out of this debate.  But I should admit that I silently sided with Hank (a rare thing to have happen, let me assure you!).  I care deeply about science, so much so that I have spent about half of my time as a graduate student in an evolutionary biology lab studying the population genetics of a Lycaenid butterfly.

I’ve always seen this as a part of my training, an effort to understand how scientists work and think by becoming a part of their world.  I’ve also done it to boost my own confidence, precisely because I want to be able to do historical work that some scientists themselves might find puzzling of foreign.  I want to be able to talk to scientists about the history of their discipline, but if we see things differently I want to have the credibility to hold my ground and perhaps even change someone's mind.

It’s exactly this last point--about wanting to engage in a genuine conversation among equals--that’s got me to thinking that Megan and Betty are on to something.  And I think what they are driving at shares a lot in common with what Cronon is trying to do over at his blog.

I think there is a fundamental issue at stake here about what we understand the value of historical work to be.  I think most historians agree that a fundamental requirement of good scholarship is that it try to understand the past in its own terms.  But does that mean we should therefore care about the past purely for its own sake?  Aren’t we, after all, interested in the past at least in part because of how it informs our understanding of the present?

If we grant that one legitimate reason to study history is that we believe doing so has benefits for our lives in the here and now, I think we can see why historians of science would want to be able to talk to scientists.  The idea is that we should engage scientists in genuine conversation, rather than alienate them.  In doing the latter, we only marginalize our own contributions to what I think we all agree are pretty high-stakes discussions.

And my sense is that Cronon is trying to do something similar.  He is very candid about having a deep respect for Wisconsin politics.  He actively and very deliberately fashions himself as a kind of pragmatic and independent centrist rather than a political ideologue.  

Cronon has his own political views, and he makes no attempt to hide those.  But I think that Ben Schmidt is right to say that a part of what Cronon seems to think (or hope) his blog can accomplish is raise the tenor of a heated political debate.  And I agree this is a valuable thing for historians to do.  But it does mean that we will have to get involved in the debate.  That we will have to engage people in conversation.  And that, I think, means that we have to give them the respect of taking their views seriously and on good faith.

So here's my two cents: to the extent that historians believe they have something genuine to offer, I think we indeed have a responsibility to come down from the ivory tower and engage in pubic debate.  However, this assumes there is a genuine debate in which we can get involved to begin with.  One of the saddest things about what’s happened to Cronon is that Wisconsin Republicans have responded to his good-faith effort with what amounts to a legal slap in the face.


Hi Lukas: I like this, though I despair to see that an unrecognized agreement between us has now been shattered - makes me wish I had been paying closer attention back when you bought my argument!

I'm having trouble making sense (!) of your two cents (!!), though. Linking the Cronon/Politics story back to our (ostensibly more relevant, for this blog) Historians/Science story was a good move, but now I'm not so sure I see the connection. For historians of science, what is the "genuine debate in which we can get involved to begin with"? Is it something like Evolution/Creation, or Climategate, or what?

As you know, I'm the last person to defend caring about the past "for its own sake," though this seems to stand, in your post, alongside a more familiar assertion of mine: that we should understand the past "in its own terms." You assert that we should continue to do the latter while eschewing the former in favor of public engagement.

While I think I'm going to carve off a bunch of my thoughts for a separate post (coming soon!), I would just say that you can (a) respect people and (b) take their views seriously while still (c) hewing to the (my?) claim that scientists' inability to "see themselves" in one's work is *not* a check against it, either at the level of the truth-claims or the social "work" of one's scholarship.

What I mean is, it might be that what historians (of science, to stay semi-precise) have to offer is that sense of dislocation, the reminder to current practitioners that they *shouldn't* "see themselves" in accounts of past practice. One imagines (naively, I'm sure) that the inability of those who *want* to see themselves in accounts of their forebears to do just that might spur them to question the way they explain the work they do and the forces that act on it.

More soon..

Thanks for the comment, Hank.

Epistemically I (still!) agree with you. The quality of a historical interpretation qua historical interpretation does not (and should not) depend on how well (descendants of) the people being studied recognize themselves in the history. What matters is whether the interpretation measures up to the criteria of good historical scholarship, so the relevant judges ought to be historians.

What Cronon's blog (and Ben's take on it) made me realize is that there is also a very important pragmatic dimension to historical research. So historians will have to make pragmatic as well as epistemic judgements.

Although the best people to judge the quality of an historical interpretation are other historians, there are good reasons for historians to want to reach a wider audience. And not only that: besides being read by non-historians, we might even want to have an impact on more wide-ranging social / cultural / political discussions.

You ask what the 'genuine debates' are in which we can get involved. Well, it depends on the kind of historical work that you do as well as your temperament as a scholar. So, for example, Naomi Oreskes' interventions that are somewhat different from Allen Brandt's. These, in turn, are very different from the way someone like Sheila Jasanoff intervenes in "larger" debates about science and society. There's no one way to go about making your work relevant in the here and now.

The point I was trying to make is just that if you want to have an impact on what's going on here and now, it is not enough simply to figure out what happened in the past. If you want scientists to listen to you, you will have to write your history in a way that won't cause them to turn the other way and run out of the room. And ditto for more traditional political discussions. You will have to convince your conversation partners that you are genuinely interested in being a part of the discussion, which means, among other things, taking them seriously.

It is sad that in Cronon's case, this seems to be precisely what he tried to do, and he met with very little success, because others were not willing to meet him half way.

It would be interesting to have a discussion about the extent to which what I have labeled as "pragmatic" versus "epistemic" judgements are really distinct. How would we go about making the distinction? The view I've been endorsing here suggest they are two distinct and independent dimensions of historical research. But is that right? I can imagine a good argument for why they would have an impact on one another, meaning they aren't really so distinct and independent.

Lukas, I think it's wonderful that you've drawn a connection between the recent situation with Bill and my interview with Betty. It's more than a coincidence! In fact, when Betty brought up the question of writing histories in such a way that living historical actors could "recognize themselves," Bill's words on this subject were what immediately came into my mind at the time. In his classes, he has always made point of advocating fairness toward historical subjects, as well as those you disagree with. The strongest criticism can only begin from a fair representation of the other's position, not a straw man or a caricature. (Hence, I was a bit befuddled by some initial response to the interview that saw this as an uncritical stance toward our actors.) And offering a fair representation has to be the first step if you are going attempt to engage an audience that you criticize without alienating them.

On a related note, I think there's a pretty big distinction to make between writing so that present-day scientists see *themselves* portrayed accurately, versus seeing themselves reflected in their *forebears*. I certainly agree that that "sense of dislocation" Hank mentions can be productive. I work on the history of 20th c. tropical biology. No doubt, present-day, conservation-minded, tropical biologists would not like to have the United Fruit Company or E. Atkins Sugar & Co. in their backstory. But there they are. I hope can make a strong, fair case that present ideas and approaches were shaped in significant ways by a past that includes environmental and social exploitation, *without* the sum total amounting to impugning their present work, labeling it racist, imperialist, etc. The unfortunate result of the science wars (to link back to the interview) is that many scientists suspect that this is basically all that we are up to. So, we have to work doubly hard to show our goodwill-- to be fair --if we don't want our more subtle criticisms to be perceived as merely ideological attacks.

Thanks for the comment, Megan.

I’ve always felt that one of the main things historians can and ought to do is use the past as a means to illuminate the present. Of course, doing so responsibly requires a genuine engagement with the past. It would be bad practice simply to mine the past for arguments, incidents, or events that will serve our current goals. This is what politicians do. Unfortunately, all too often, it is also what goes on in high school classrooms and textbooks. (If you would like some good examples of what I have in mind, it would not be a bad idea to look at how high school textbooks portray the american revolution or the cold war.)

So, I think historians have a professional responsibility to try and understand the past on its own terms. But, to the extent that we are engaged citizens, we also have a personal responsibility to make our work relevant in today’s work. The problem, I think, is that these two goals really can pull us in different directions. It doesn’t mean they cannot be reconciled, but my sense is that to succeed in this endeavor requires us to perform a very difficult balancing act: to walk the fine line between obscurantism and relevance requires making the past come alive without caricaturing it. This is no easy task.

I hope it’s clear that I am all for engaging present actors in our historical discussions. For example, roughly half of the undergraduates who enroll in the History of Science program at Harvard are pre-med students who plan to become doctors. I think this is a really good thing, because I do believe that an exposure to the history of medicine can lead to someone being a more careful, critical, and therefore responsible medical practitioner.

Still, there is a real concern that we not try too hard to write history in a way that will engage present scientists, physicians, and politicians. As I understand it, the whole point of genuine engagement requires different parties to meet each other half way. We should be sympathetic to our historical actors, in the sense that we actually try to understand what they were up to rather than judging them to have come up short by our standards. But doing that will frequently lead us to discover things that can and will make people in the present uncomfortable or even angry. This is not something to avoid -- it can be one of the most valuable services we perform.

Hi All:

Glad to see this discussion continuing, in its own way. I think we've reached a good (if unsurprising) conclusion by now: a certain sense of divided loyalties between understanding the past "on its own terms" and making our work "relevant in today’s work."

I had a lot more written in this little box, but I've decided I'll carve it out and re-post it later this week. Suffice it to say: good stuff, and I'm glad to see the Cronon incident being layered into our earlier discussion about audience, responsibility, and epistemology.

More soon...

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