Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Science (Studies) Wars: Daston v. Jasanoff

As promised, I'm extending my post from last week in light of recent developments: a piece by Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear (in the most recent issue of Isis) responding to a piece by Lorraine Daston (in Critical Inquiry a few years ago) on the relationship between science studies and the history of science.

Briefly (as a background to this and a previous post), I am asserting: (1) that historians in general share a set of assumptions about structure and agency, (2) that the history of science is basically in line with this wider trend, and (3) that while there's nothing wrong with this co-/convergent evolution, there's another theoretical shift on the horizon.

I won't dwell too much on (1), in part because I'm still developing an appropriate vocabulary for elucidating it. Very roughly: with the rise of anthropologically-inflected cultural history since the 1970s, the balance between structure and agency seems to have shifted from keywords related to the former (social, institutions, mentalités) to those related to the latter (individuals, agency, self-fashioning).

Lukas rightly pointed out that "our scientists are not merely a simple reflection of their cultural / political / social context but neither do they operate outside of that context." However, it's my claim that framing the issue in terms of "our scientists" is to beg the (which is to say, my) question. Yes, actors use available resources: right now (with some exceptions I mentioned), we tell stories about both but focus mostly on the actors, which, before the 1970s, was not a foregone conclusion. Dan Rodgers' recent description of the "Age of Fracture" suggests a more general context for this disciplinary trend, and, while it's far from airtight, I stand by his, and my own, appraisal.

Moving on to (2), and bringing in the recent events I mentioned, Daston's piece supports this interpretation with reference to the history of science. In particular, she draws on the shift I suggest to explain the split between science studies (for which, she asserts, "The iridescent word social was and remains the talisman...") and the history of science. Daston sees two different approaches to subject matter: science studies takes "science" as a given and approaches it with suspicion, while the history of science takes it as the explanandum and approaches it with "historical verstehen." In apprenticing itself to history, the history of science became a discipline (and adopted its new masters' theoretical assumptions) while science studies remained interdisciplinary and, paradoxically, clung to theoretical assumptions closer to those in the sciences.

Dear and Jasanoff disagree, to say the least. "Beneath the banter, " they say, "Daston purveys a divisive and, in our view, profoundly misleading message on many levels." Dear and Jasanoff attempt to correct this message by emphasizing what is shared (figures, ideas, and methods) across the historical boundary-lines Daston draws. Rather than assign historians the question of "what science is" and STS-scholars the question of "how science works," these two (a) see disciplinary lines as more administrative than epistemic and (b) envision an interdisciplinary constellation around the study of science in which "all analytical and methodological techniques, and empirical resources, ought in principle to be available."

One way (among many!) to approach this dispute would be to divide the institutional claims from the epistemic ones. About the former we can (and should) be realists: institutional and administrative boundaries exist - to different degrees in different contexts - between science and science studies, history and STS, &c. We can talk about bridging (or fortifying) these barriers, but such discussions should be based on the specificity of the programs we're discussing. About the latter, however, relativism seems more appropriate: fundamental epistemic distinctions between science and non-science, or between different approaches to science studies, are harder to pin down in either past or present.

Of course, here isn't one "relativism" to apply, and unpacking that is how I'll lead into my concluding thoughts. As Daston laments in her own conclusion, critics of "science studies" (the labels are confused, since she hers are incommensurable with those of Dear and Jasanoff) too often blur together the social constructionism of STS and the historicism of the history of science. She claims that the former fails when it purports "to impugn both validity and honesty" in science, while the latter succeeds (more or less) precisely because it isn't an attack.

This taxonomy (and the impulse to formalize it), Jasanoff and Dear insist, is peculiarly Dastonian, or is at least far more contentious than she allows. The "historicism" she describes is one tool for the study of science, but it doesn't define that study. For Jasanoff and Dear, what does define it is the question of "what kinds of questions, originating from what foundations and subject to what social or material constraints, drive historians of science in general," a factor in which they see "much, if not complete, overlap with drives within contemporary STS." When Daston suggests that historians believe that "scientific practices are both socially constructed and real," Jasanoff and Dear would probably say "So do we!"

What is the relevance of this dispute to claim (2), above? Well, if Daston is correct and there is something distinct about reasoning in the history of science vs. that in STS, then my claim really only applies to the history of science as she defines it. However, if Dear and Jasanoff are correct that institutional division masks epistemic commonalities, then I would have to do more work to elucidate how the pervasive assumptions I suggest in (1) are active in STS scholarship.

Either way, this debate seems relevant to lots of issues we've been raising: the relationship between science and those who study it in various ways, the institutional and intellectual links between historians of science and general historians (of the United States or otherwise), and the question of who reads the history of science and why.

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*Note: Now that I've touched on the dispute between Daston and Dear/Jasanoff, I'll address my third claim - (3), above - in a future post, touching on methodology and its relationship to historical ontology and, especially, epistemology within the discipline. To do so, I'll relay bits of a discussion we had here in Princeton last week during a colloquium by Jim Endersby, at which we discussed issues of audience and scope for the history of science as an academic discipline and a genre of (historical) writing. More soon...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Science and the Defense of Marriage Act

As many of you no doubt know, the Obama Administration announced a decision to cease defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) against legal challenges this past Wednesday.  Just to be clear, this does not mean the administration will no longer enforce the law.  It just means they will no longer take steps to actively defend it in court.  Why not just stop enforcing it altogether?  Well, just imagine what would happen if every administration could simply pick and choose which laws to enforce!  Doing so would all but eliminate the legislative authority of the United States Congress. 

To my mind, these developments are interesting to historians of science for at least two reasons.  The first has to do with the specific legal reasoning employed in the administration’s decision.  The second is about the implications this reasoning has for the role that science plays in democratic society.  Let’s start at the beginning, with the law itself.

Section three of DOMA states that: “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress … the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”  This has many obvious and far-reaching practical implications for gay couples.  Even if you are legally married in a state like Massachusetts, federal law will not recognize the union.  For example, a couple I know here in Boston files two separate sets of tax returns: one jointly to the state and another singly to the feds.  What if one of them suffers a serious accident when traveling out of state?  Will the hospital have to recognize his husband’s visitation rights?  The list goes on.

Currently, there are several cases making their way up through the court system that challenge the constitutionality of DOMA under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which mandates that “No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  As I understand it, this clause was designed to empower the federal government to enforce the principle that “all men are created equal” (expressed in the Declaration of Independence) on the states.  However, it has since been interpreted to apply to the federal government itself.

As always, there is a question about how the text of the 14th Amendment (which also includes the even more wide-ranging due process clause) ought to be applied in legal practice.  Prior to the announcement on Wednesday, the Justice Department defended the constitutionality of DOMA under the so-called Rational Basis Test.  This refers to the level of scrutiny the court applies, i.e., how it goes about deciding if a particular law violates the equal protection clause.  To pass the test and be declared constitutional, the law must further a legitimate government interest by reasonable means.  This is the most permissive level of scrutiny.  In practice, almost no law will ever fails to satisfy the Rational Basis Test because the court can always think of some legitimate government interest the law in question will protect.  (To my knowledge, laws only fail the Rational Basis Test is if their passage can be shown to have been motivated by animus against a politically unpopular group.)

However, there are two additional levels of scrutiny a court can use to decide if a particular law violates the equal protections clause.  These are called intermediate scrutiny and strict scrutiny.  Under intermediate scrutiny the government must show the law substantially furthers an exceedingly compelling government interest.  The same applies under strict scrutiny, with the added caveat that there are no other, less restrictive means by which the government can further this exceedingly compelling interest.  The particular standard of scrutiny the court uses depends on which classification of people the law impacts.  Intermediate scrutiny is usually used for laws that discriminate against members of a so-called Quasi-Suspect Classification, which includes gender and illegitimate children.  Strict Scrutiny, on the other hand, is applied to laws that discriminate against members of what is called a Suspect Classification, which includes race, nationality, and religion.  It is also applied to laws that seek to deny a Fundamental Right, such as, suffrage, access to the courts, and the right to cross state lines.  (As an interesting aside: the distinction between different levels of scrutiny comes from a 1938 Supreme Court case about whether skimmed milk compounded with oil to make it resemble whole milk or cream could be shipped across state lines.) 

The Wednesday announcement by Eric Holder, the Attorney General, is all about which level of scrutiny the courts should apply to DOMA.  In his announcement, Holder said that up until now “the Department has defended [DOMA] in court because we were able to advance reasonable arguments under that rational basis standard.”  However, they would cease to do so in the future.  To quote from the official announcement again, “the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.”  That is, from now on, the Justice Department would argue that DOMA should be subjected to intermediate or strict scrutiny, owing to the fact that sexual orientation is a Quasi-Suspect or Suspect Classification.

What does this tell us?  For one thing, it tells us that history matters!  Which level of scrutiny a court chooses to use when evaluating the constitutionality of a law under the 14th amendment depends on whether they judge a particular classification of people to be Suspect, Quasi-Suspect, or not suspect at all.  Clearly, our ideas about which classifications are suspect will change over time.  And so will the ideas of judges.  There is thus a very real sense then in which our legal system legitimizes discrimination against people if we do not think doing so is suspect. So there is an interesting question here about how we should read the word ‘suspect.’  Do we mean classifications that are morally suspect?  Or politically suspect?  Or do we think there is a sense in which classifications can just be legally suspect?

Of course, I do not mean to suggest we can avoid this problem.  Clearly our legal system discriminates against ax murders.  I am not arguing that “ax murderers” ought to be treated as a suspect classification, and that we therefore ought to stop discriminating against them.  However, I do think that if the history of science has taught us anything at all, it is this: we ought to suspect all classifications as serving some complex social, cultural, and political purposes!  Classificatory schemes are never merely technical innovations, e.g., tools designed to help preserve order in a just society.  Is there room, then, for historians of science (especially historians of social science) to make a genuine and potentially very important contribution to what at first sight might look like a purely technical discussion within jurisprudence?  I certainly think so!

That’s the first thing I wanted to say.  The second applies to what happens next.  I can predict with a fairly high degree of certainty that in response to the Wednesday announcement we will witness a fascinating legal and political debate about what it means to classify by sexual orientation.  I can also predict, perhaps with a slightly lower degree of certainty, that a great many people involved in this discussion will marshal lots scientific evidence in favor of one view or another.  For example, suppose the courts decide to apply intermediate scrutiny to DOMA.  That means opponents of same-sex marriage will have to show how the law furthers an exceedingly persuasive government interest.  One way I am almost certain they will try to do so is by offering statistical data about how children in same-sex households are raised to become a burden on society.  That’s just one possible example, but I’m sure we can all think of plenty more.  Again, this strikes me as rich intellectual fodder for anyone interested in the history of social science.  What is the proper or most effective role for science in regulatory discussions of this kind?  What happens when a prima facie cultural, moral, and political discussion becomes a scientific one?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The "Problem" of the Archive

For many of us, archives are a central feature of our day-to-day work practices. In research practicums we learn about how to identify archival sources and begin piecing fragments into coherent accounts. However, I often find myself thinking about the epistemological (and ethical) status of the archive. This is a gap in our pedagogy that warrants attention. At the most basic of levels -- how did this material come to be available to me as historian and what are my obligations to these material traces?

Cultural critics, anthropologists, and social historians have done important work in this vein -- the translation of Derrida's Archive Fever into English spurred a flurry of scholarship in the late 1990s, including one of my favorites: Carol Steedman's Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Steedman is an interpreter of Derrida, who draws on the archive as source of power in order to probe the politics of doing 'bottom up' history with records that were produced by the state (prison records, tax records, birth and death certificates). More recently, Ann Stoler has drawn on her considerable ethnographic and historical expertise to problematize the archive in colonial history in her book Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Along this grain, indeed, the archive has increasingly become an intellectual boundary object, bringing historians into dialog with anthropologists. A recent example is Andrew Wilford & Eric Tagliacozzo's edited volume, Clio/Anthropos: Exploring the Boundaries between Anthropology and History. The essays, by practitioners of history and ethnography, consider how the archive structures knowledge production . . . and vice versa.

My own work as a historian of biology deals with the construction of archives (this is an actor's category) made out of human and non-human blood samples. The scientists who have assembled these collections view them as repositories that will be used to generate knowledge about the past and engage in various memory practices (ala Geoff Bowker) familiar to me from my own experiences in textual archives. This leads me to my questions for the blogosphere:

(1) What are the epistemic & ethical anxieties that you -- as historians of science -- have faced in your own encounters with the archive? To what extent are we uniquely positioned to contribute to this broader discussion? I have a few ideas of my own, but want to hear from you.

(2) And, what are the range of non-text-based 'archives' that you have encountered in your research? What can we learn about our own historical knowledge production practices by studying the archival techniques of other kinds of experts? How does this work intersect with or diverge from the literature on the history of collections and collecting?

I leave you with a link to the Cryobook Archive, work of the artist Tagny Duff (thanks to historian of bio-art, Hannah Rogers for the tip!). Duff has fashioned a series of texts out of living, human bodily substance. Creepy, 'cool', and provocative . . .

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Food & History of Science

Lilian Brown, dressed in a Sari (~1920)

When I'm not working, one thing I like to do is cook.  I've often wondered if I should not switch the order of my priorities: start working in a kitchen and read history in my free time.  I've also toyed with the idea of working as a cook in the afternoons and evenings, saving my mornings for writing.  Alas, some friends with restaurant experience have disabused me of these naive notions.  There's no way I would get a job sans professional experience other than maybe (maybe!) prepping veggies in the morning and washing dishes all night.

So I've been casting about for other ways to combine my work and free time.  Or rather, I should say, for ways to pass my hobby off as work.

As some of you may know, I'm supposed to be writing a dissertation about the history of paleontology around the turn of the 20th century.  One of the people who figures pretty prominently in my story is  Barnum Brown (who some of you may remember from a previous post).  It turns out that Brown was a rather fascinating character, in more ways than one.  For example, he was named after PT Barnum, whose circus was playing near his home in Topeka Kansas on the day he was born.  Later, after he had become a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Brown used to delight in telling people that he was destined to run a great fossil menagerie.

Barnum Brown, dinosaur hunter extraordinaire
Brown was not just a crack paleontologists, he also had a knack for spotting promising oil prospects.  So, when a jilted lover tried to blackmail him around 1920 he high-tailed it off to Ethiopia.  His mission was to inspect a minerals concession the Anglo-American Oil Company had just acquired in the Ethiopian highlands near Djibouti and what is now northern Somalia.  The AMNH agreed to give him a leave of absence from his curatorial duties on the condition that he collect specimens along the way.

While Brown was on a steamer crossing the Atlantic, he met a young woman named Lilian who was traveling with her aunt.  It was not long before the two were engaged in a trans-atlantic love affair.  In fact, they hit it off so well that they made plans to meet up and travel around India after Brown had concluded his survey of the Ethiopian oil fields.  Now, it turns out that Lilian was not only smitten with Barnum, she also harbored ambitions to make a name for herself in the business of travel writing.  So the debonair scientist on his way to find oil in Africa followed by fossils in India must have seemed like a perfect opportunity to kick start her career!  And, indeed, Lilian went on to write highly amusing accounts of their globe-trotting adventures with titles like "I Married a Dinosaur" and "Bring 'em Back Petrified."

What does all of this have to do with my desire to connect the history of science and cooking?  Well, just this: as I was reading Lilian's travelogue of her time in India I came across a recipe for Mango Chutney she had learned from one of Barnum's native field hands.  This is just great, I thought, especially since I had never made chutney before!  So I gathered all the ingredients and set about recreating a dish from the foothills of the Himalayas.  Well, unfortunately Lilian didn't provide especially detailed or precise instructions, because the end result left rather a lot to the imagination.  Still, I really liked the idea of eating something that was not too dissimilar from what my historical actors had also enjoyed!

The reason I am writing this is because I wonder if other people also cook food they have come across in their research.  Have you found any good recipies at the archive?  In addition to Lilian's Chutney I've also seen an enticing set of instructions for how to make corn biscuits that a late 19th century fossil hunter used to eat when he was out in the field.  I haven't gotten around to making them yet, in part because doing so involves burying a cast iron pot in the ground with some hot embers from your campfire and leaving it there overnight.  Then, of course, it's also a lot of fun to look around for old recipe books on google (such as this one, this one, or this one).

(Just as a fun aside: another great thing to do is look up old dueling manuals.  I especially enjoy this one, written in verse, as well as this one, in prose, which provides much sage advice for the neophyte!)  

So, if you have a good story please share the recipe (especially if it's an older one from the 18th or 19th century!) in the comments section.  Even better would be if someone succeeded in making an historical dish and took pictures -- if so, feel free to e-mail them alongside a description (rieppel at fas dot harvard dot edu) and I'd be happy to put the text and images up as a new post.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Selling Your Soul (As Far as the Scientific Content)

A popular post last week featured an interview with Betty Smocovitis, who delivered the Distinguished Lecture at the the Forum for History of Science in America's meeting at HSS in Montreal. Joanna has already summed up that lecture, now being published in Genetics, so what I'd like to do instead is zoom in on aspect of the interview that got taken up in the comments.

The interview's major thematic (as suggested in the title) is the juxtaposition between life as a historian and life as a scientist. The link between scientists and historians of science - whether biographical, as in the case of Smocovitis and others, or intellectual, in the form of readership and shared conversation - is an important one for our discipline, both historically and in the present.

By the end of the interview, the go-between role of the historian of science (between scientists and historians) is complicated even further. Historians of American science must also liaise between the smaller community of historians of science and the wider readership within history departments and beyond.

Smocovitis concludes by insisting that this liaison with history must be conducted "without giving up, without selling your soul, as far as the scientific content." I was intrigued by this statement - so much so that I stole it for the title to this post - and will just touch on a few of the aspects that most intrigue me.

To me, the idea is that we can't afford to sacrifice both mastery and exposition of the technical scientific content that has traditionally been the bread and butter of work in the history of science. This doesn't seem objectionable - all historians should be able to explicate the "internal" workings of whatever it is they're writing about.

Does Smocovitis fear that, as historians of science increasingly emerge from within history departments (rather than programs in science or even the history of science), they'll be less likely to grasp the technical detail of the work or ideas on which they're attending? If so, is this fear legitimate? Is there something about the content of science that makes its historians more likely, if given the chance, to slough off on learning what it is they're actually talking about?

I guess this is possible - there is a sense in which scientific ideas are more difficult to grasp (due, perhaps, to complexity, but also to issues of jargon) than some other sorts of ideas - but shouldn't all sorts of historical sub-fields be afraid of this? It would seem that whatever your material - from Wittgenstein to water polo - you should be able to explain how it works in present-day terms as well as how it was perceived to work at the time, and that, if you can't, you've failed in some important way.

So, to me, "the challenge" with which Smocovitis concludes the interview is about something more than balancing technical detail against broad narrative exposition:

Her concern seems (to me) to be part of a more general angst about the disciplinary status of the history of science PL (post-Leviathan) - one that she shares with many of her colleagues. I don't mean, by PL, to confer any special (much less sacred) status on that particular text. Rather, I'm using it as shorthand for a rough turning-point after which historians of science have broadly given up trying to define "science" (normal, revolutionary, or otherwise) and have focused instead on symmetries, parallels, and interconnections with other, "non-scientific" enterprises and ways of knowing.

As the walls come down, what justifies an institutional distinction between historians of science and historians of other sorts of ideas (philosophical, political)? If there's nothing that separates the history of science from the history of everything else, what justifies the institutional infrastructure that our predecessors have bequeathed to us?

This is to end pretty melodramatically, but I really am interested in this question of disciplinary identity and the shifting shape of institutional and professional affiliations in the history of science in America (and elsewhere).* Is the fear of "selling your soul, as far as the scientific content" a fear of failing to write good history or a fear for the special status of that history vis-à-vis kindred sub-fields in Clio's wider web?

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*Note: In a subsequent post, I'll address the recent disagreement between Lorraine Daston, on one side, and Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear, on the other, over the nature of a different disciplinary divide: that between the history of science and STS. This has already been touched on by our friends at The Bubble Chamber, but it merits special attention since the latest issue of Isis (out this week) carries a "Critiques and Contentions" response by Dear/Jasanoff to a piece Daston wrote recently for Critical Inquiry. Stay tuned for links and for connections between this debate and the history of science in America...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Naturalist Spies!

Richard Conniff just published a fascinating piece for his New York Times series on Specimens.  It’s about the relationship between natural history and espionage and makes a historical link between the two, showing how many spies (both real and fictional) frequently donned the mantle of a naturalist as cover for their political activities.  For example, late in life the British secret agent Sir Robert Baden Powell (of Boy Scouts fame) freely admitted he used to pose as “one of the exceedingly stupid Englishmen who wandered about foreign countries sketching cathedrals, or catching butterflies.”  
 
Sylvanus Morley, US Navy Spy


 
According to Conniff, this was primarily a one-way relationship: spies often disguised themselves as naturalists but scientists rarely gathered intelligence.  “[I]nstances of naturalists using their work as a cover for espionage are scarce,” we are told.  In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth!  As it turns out, rather than having a spy dress up as a lepidopterist it often made more sense simply to hire the real thing.  This should not come as a surprise.  After all, the truth is the hardest lie to detect.  Or: the best cover is one that fits perfectly because it just so happens to be true.  Corniff himself mentions Maxwell Knight, a British spy who wrote popular books on natural history and even had his own show on the BBC.  But there were plenty of bona fide academic scientists engaged in these duplicitous affairs too.  One of the most well documented examples is Sylvanus Morley, an American archeologist who studied the civilization of ancient Mayans for the Carnegie Institution.  During the First World War he devoted most of his time to espionage work for the Office of Naval Intelligence, gathering all manner of intelligence in South America under the guise of conducting fieldwork.

In my own research on the history of vertebrate paleontology I have found that spying was, if not quite the rule, then at least a common practice among field naturalists at the time.  At the American Museum of Natural History alone, at least two field naturalists actively worked for the United States’ government.  For example, Barnum Brown, who is probably the most famous dinosaur hunter of all time, did reconnaissance work for the Office of Strategic Services on the Greek island of Samos and eventually helped plan an invasion route during the Second World War.  He also routinely lent a hand interpreting aerial photographs of enemy territory.

Another example from the AMNH is even more compelling.  During WWI the famous explorer Roy Chapman Andrews worked under deep cover in Mongolia for the Office of Naval Intelligence.  He was paid $4 a day to gather strategic information while exploring the highland plateaus of central Asia in search of the origins of modern man.  When hostilities had officially come to an end, Andrews’ wife Yvette almost blew his cover when she informed a relative that the letterhead of her stationary—which read “The Second Asiatic Zoological Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History”—was “mere camouflage” and that they had spent the past several years on a secret mission for the United States Government.  His wife’s indiscretion caught the attention of a government censor and resulted in the issuance of an order that called Andrews back home.  But it was not long before he was back in China planning another trip to Mongolia.  Indeed he spent the rest of the 1920s under cover for the Military Intelligence Division as leader of the American Museum's Third Asiatic Expedition, which employed a number of clandestine army officers as mechanics and other support personnel.
 
Camel Caravan from Andrews' Central Asiatic Expedition

Why aren’t these stories more widely known among the public (and contributors to the New York Times)?  There are a number of reasons.  One of them is obvious: the clandestine lives of naturalists were, well, clandestine.  Indeed most of the historical documentation was long locked under the official seal of classification.  That is, we still don’t know because at least initially we weren’t supposed to know!  But there are also some subtler and ultimately more interesting reasons.

First, due in part to the success of spy fiction as a narrative genre we tend to have an unrealistic understanding of what it is that secret government agents actually do.  My sense is that what occupies most your average government spy’s time and attention is actually rather routine and involves gathering fairly mundane facts about a region’s culture, politics, physical geography, and so on.  This must have been especially true before the era of satellites.  So the popular image of James Bond type figures racing cars, administering poison, and dodging bullets is rarely if ever a very accurate one.  Its dubious historical merits notwithstanding, I suspect that it nonetheless serves to downplay and obscure the true involvement of naturalists in intelligence work.  As far as I can tell, the bulk of Andrews’ responsibilities at the Office of Naval Intelligence involved making geological and topographical maps, gathering information on local politics and sizing up a region’s natural resources.  Not as exciting as James Bond perhaps, but nonetheless worth taking seriously!

Second, espionage work runs counter to widely held, deep-seated beliefs of who scientists are and what kind of work they are doing.  Scientific research is supposed to be open and transparent, not secretive.  And scientists are supposed to be motivated by a universalist zeal, working for the good of all mankind rather than a single nation’s government.  Of course, this is a naïve and idealized picture, but still an incredibly powerful one, as the Anthropologist Franz Boas discovered.

During World War One, the Columbia University Anthropologist Franz Boas serendipitously learned that Sylvanus Morley and a number of other archeologists were gathering intelligence for the United States Government.  After the war, he wrote a strongly worded letter  denouncing their actions to The Nation that was published in December, 1919.  In it, he argued that espionage work and scientific research were fundamentally at odds, because “the very essence of [a scientist’s] life is in the service of truth.”  As such, anyone “who uses science as a cover for political spying … prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.”  As a result of their unconscionable actions, he concluded, “every nation will look with distrust upon the visiting foreign investigator who wants to do hones work,” thus making it all but impossible to conduct serious natural history research.  Rather than having it's intended effect, though, the publication of this letter led to an official censure of Boas by the American Anthropological Association and led to his resignation from the National Research Council.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Structure & Agency in the History of Science

Hank has been sending me text messages about not posting enough. He’s also encouraged me to pick a fight with him. Let me take up the challenge by making some critical remarks on something he wrote in a comment to a recent post. But before I do so I’d like to reiterate that Hank started it (!) so if this post has a slightly polemical feel you know who’s to blame. :-)

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the comments section of this blog, Hank’s claim is as follows: In the last couple of decades historians have “gotten pretty good at [describing] how individual actors [use] ideas and cultural resources as they grapple with the world.” My guess is he sees this as a good thing. However, he also says that in our effort to understand individual strategies we have come to neglect the “structures determining both those usages and what's available to use in the first place.” For this reason, he advocates a return to structuralism and suggests using “tools in the digital humanities” as a potentially new way to “access the structures of words and concepts out of which actors did all this crafting.”
To my mind, there are two ways we might read this suggestion. The first questions the appropriate scope of our historical narratives. Should we focus on individuals, institutions, or larger entities such as Bloch’s mentalités or Foucault’s epistemes. So we might say that Hank is staging a methodological intervention. But we can also take him to be staking a deeper, more ontological claim. Perhaps it’s a more fundamental question that’s got him worried, one about what causes us to behave in the ways that we do. It’s not really possible to say one way or the other with certainty judging from his comments alone. Still, to my mind his ultimate conclusion—that we turn to the digital humanities—tips the scales towards the former: his concern is more methodological than ontological.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest you can’t use tools from the digital humanities to lay the empirical foundation for a deep analysis of human behavior. Rather, my worry is that Hank’s focus on tools like online data mining or computer-aided textual analysis is just that: a focus on tools or methods rather than foundational issues. So although I do not doubt that performing statistical analyses on large datasets has the potential to yield powerful empirical insights I also do not think doing so can absolve us from the philosophical task of answering what I take to be ultimately more important questions, such as: How should we understand the nature of human agency? What is a culture and how does it structure our shared lived experiences? Or, what is the best way to situate a play by Shakespeare, a cantata by Bach, or a scientific theory by Galileo in its social and historical context?

I’ve tried to distinguish two different ways we might read Hank’s suggestion. Obviously ontology and methodology are not independent though. For example, perhaps we feel that Shakespeare was not just a genius poet with an uncanny gift for inventing characters who appear to lead rich inner lives. Perhaps we prefer to say he was the product of a remarkable time and place: London during the 1590s. If that is our view, then it would be historically misleading to interpret his plays as a timeless commentary on the human condition. To situate them in the local context of Elizabethan England would therefore not just be one among any number of attractive methodological options. Rather, doing so is our responsibility. This is just to say that decisions about the scope of our historical narratives are not will-o-the-wisp. They ought to depend on where we stand in a philosophical debate about the nature of human agency, individual creativity, social structures, and cultural institutions.

So, how should we write the history of science? It would obviously be presumptuous for me to pretend I have the answer to this question. But I will say that I don’t think we should let technological and methodological innovations do the job of making the decision for us.

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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: American Social Sciences Roundtable

Last week, Princeton's Modern America Workshop hosted a round-table on the history of the social sciences in America (co-sponsored by the Center of the Humanities and the Program in American Studies). A link to the line-up is here.

Our four panelists - Chas Camic, Sarah Igo, Andy Jewett, and Mary Morgan - drew an audience of over thirty faculty members and students from a range of departments and interdepartmental programs.
Reflexivity was in the air, if not always explicitly on the table.

We tried out a semi-unconventional format for the event. Three panelists circulated ten-page "micro-essays," bound as one text on the state of the field in the history of the social sciences. As a format - with 5m remarks from authors and a 10m comment - it worked pretty well.

Though initially halting (perhaps because so many things were on the table), the
conversation did get going, ranging from nomenclature to methods to case-studies. The stuff of the session (disciplines, actors, &c.) remained a blooming, buzzing confusion throughout.

There were, in spite of that, at least a few take-away points worth noting for others working in the area. For now, here's one:

Mary Morgan opened her comment with the crucial question of what is so American about these sorts of stories. While some people tried to answer her (the bureaucracy! the $$$!), the best response was already there, in Chas Camic's portion of the pre-circulated materials:

In criticizing rote disciplinary history, Chas showed what's wrong with rote national history by extension: in both, "the more-or-less self-contained academic discipline [read: nation-state] is the default option for the historical narrative."

An echo of Pierre Bourdieu, this idea of "closed vessels" sometimes has its strengths. Often, however, it's too limiting, especially when "disciplinary business-as-usual gives way to the emergence in a discipline of new ideas, theories, concepts, or methods."

The degree to which you hold anything constant (nation, discipline, or otherwise) depends, for its success, on the problem you've chosen. You can tell a story within the American frame, to be sure, but you've got to be sure to stay conscious of what's left out in the process.

This may sound a bit dopey, but it's a check on doing a transnational (or trans-disciplinary) story "just because." As Chas pointed out, his recent work on Thorstein Veblen has revealed a profoundly disciplinary thinker where others have seen a self-fashioned transgressor.

While we may not have resolved the "state of the field," this boundary question did remind us that problem-choice, like theory-choice, emerges neither from the evidence itself nor from pure rational thought, but through what James called consciousness's "continuous transitions."

Maybe (and this is a self-interested stretch - but then again, what stretches aren't self-interested?) more attention to those connections - and more reading in James' "Philosophy of Co-'s" - can help bring some clarity to the issues we discussed last week. We'll see...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Introducing New Staff and Format

In a post on 1 February, AmericanScience in its current and evolving iteration was born.

The move from a single- to multi-author format was part of an effort to spark a wider conversation through internal dialogue on an expanded range of topics. So far, it seems to be working, and we hope readership and chatter will continue to grow.

The blog is now run by four early-career historians of science, as follows:


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Dan Bouk (Dan) is an assistant professor of history at Colgate University. He got into this business so that he could teach US cultural and intellectual history to excitable youths, and that's what he does. His manuscript-in-progress on the statistical endeavors of the American life insurance industry goes by the title, How Our Days Became Numbered:, with a post-colon bit that seems ever in flux. He serves double duty on this blog as a contributor and as the editor for the Forum for the History of Science in America. That means he gets to serve as the Forum's mouthpiece from time to time, but is otherwise his very own mouthpiece.

Henry Cowles (Hank) is a PhD candidate in History/History of Science at Princeton, where he's in the early stages of a dissertation on debates over "scientific method" amongst psychologists, philosophers, and other (mostly American) figures in the decades around 1900. Beyond this, he's likely to focus his posts on the engagement of science with the public and the emerging field of the "historiography of the present" (read: HOS gossip).

Joanna Radin (Joanna) is a PhD candidate in History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania where she is completing a dissertation on the history of genetic studies of human biological variation after World War II. The way in which this project draws attention to the role of freezers in supporting blood as a scientific resource has led her to think a lot about "histories of the future" (which is not so much filled with gossip as sci-fi). Expect posts on history of biology and genetics, anthropology, ecology, and cryobiology.

Lukas Rieppel (Lukas) is a PhD student in the History of Science at Harvard. He's writing a dissertation about dinosaurs in science and popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th century. When he's not frantically trying to finish his dissertation, he's usually in the lab working on his master's project, which is about the population genetics of a Lycaenid butterfly in continental Europe. For some reason, he also likes to hang around with philosophers of science, so their (decidedly bad) influence might creep into a post every now and then.



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We hope you'll follow along as we explore this new means of community-building for historians of science in America, broadly-defined.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Smocovitis Distinguished Lecture Published in Genetics

In November, University of Florida Professor, Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis gave the Distinguished Lecture for the Forum for History of Science in America at the History of Science Society annual meeting in Montreal. In her talk, she documented the career of cytogeneticist Masuo Kodani, who was interned at Manzanar during World War II. For those of us who attended, the drama of Smocovitis' narrative was underscored by her use of iconic images from the time-period. Stark black and white photographs made by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange belied the spectrum of racial tensions in America during and after the war.

As a Japanese-American, Kodani struggled in life and in science. Unlike his collaborator, Curt Stern, Kodani's status as a Japanese-American (he was born in Pasadena) located him outside the networks that had developed to support European emigres like Stern. Thus, Kodani was re-located to the Manzanar camp. While interned, he and other Japanese-American agricultural and scientific specialists were tasked with cultivating an alternate source of rubber -- vital to American wartime needs.

In linking history of science, war, and race, Smocovitis presented a startling account of the decidedly intimate way global tensions were experienced by geneticists working in America. Even after the war, enduring racial anxieties contributed to the disintegration of Kodani's family when his wife Fumi was declared to be residing illegally in the U.S.

The lecture has now been published as 'Genetics Behind Barbed Wire: Masuo Kodani, Emigre Geneticists, and Wartime Genetics Research at Manzanar Relocation Center' as part of the Perspectives series in the Feb 2011 issue of Genetics.

[photo credits: Ansel Adams 1943. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Adams, Ansel, 1902- Manzanar War Relocation Center photographs Collection; Masuo Kodani and Curt Stern, Life Magazine, March 17, 1947. Photograph by Herbert Gehr, Time-Life Photographer.]

Friday, February 11, 2011

Calculating People

Marine archaeologists should announce today that they have found the remains of the whaleship, the Two Brothers---a vessel captained by the same George Pollard Jr. who captained the doomed Essex. So reports the New York Times. The Essex sank at the mercy of a very angry Sperm Whale. Its story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.

Lest it seem odd that Pollard should receive a second commission after his disaster with the Essex, Melville offered his own explanation, via Ishmael, in a comment on the commercial wiles of Nantucketers:
Nor is it so very unlikely, that far from distrusting his [Ahab's] fitness for another whaling voyage, on account of such dark symptoms, the calculating people of that prudent isle were inclined to harbor the conceit, that for those very reasons he was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales.
In one sentence, Melville casts whaling---and perhaps business more generally---as cold, sterile, and rational, even as it taps into great wellsprings of power, destruction, and irrationality.

As far as I can tell, Patricia Cline Cohen did't draw on Melville at all in her excellent book on US numeracy, A Calculating People, though she could have done so with profit. Commerce stands at the center of Cohen's story---it drives the spread of numbers throughout American society, before the state and science help out. Melville suggests a strain of critique in the mid-19th century, not only of business, but of the alliance of enumeration and rationality more generally.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Dynamic Equilibrium Theory of Government Secrecy

Secrecy has become a fairly common topic of discussion among historians of science in the past few years. Two very different examples are a documentary film by Peter Galison and Robb Moss as well as a collection of essays on Galileo by Mario Biagioli. One reason this issue appeals to historians is that there is something paradoxical about the role of secrecy both in science and democratic society. Although usually accepted as indispensable, secrecy strikes at a putative core value of both: openness and transparency. For that reason, we might expect historians of science to take an interest in the recent spate of developments around the online anti-secrecy phenomenon Wikileaks.

I have been surprised that a limited and entirely informal poll of my colleagues reveals that most do not harbor much sympathy for Wkileaks. This is especially true after the recent release of US diplomatic cables which are often decried as of little global significance, essentially amounting to high-stakes gossip. I would be curious to find out how readers of this blog feel about this. But I am even more curious to know people's reaction to what strikes me as an obvious defense of Wkileaks. Following the advice of a friend, I'll call it the Dynamic Equilibrium Theory of Government Secrecy. The idea is roughly as follows:

I think most of us would agree that to carry out its duties effectively, even a democratically elected government must have the ability to keep some things secret from its citizens. However, this is an invitation to corruption. I think there is a genuine paradox here: although we all have an interest in giving our government the ability to keep things secret, doing so makes us incapable of knowing if that government is not abusing this power against our interests. Indeed, the veil of popular ignorance all but ensures that governments will abuse the power of secrecy.

One way to defend Wikileaks, even when it publishes frivolous documents whose dissemination violates our short-term self-interest, is to say that it might serve as a partial and admittedly imperfect solution to the secrecy paradox. On this view, the primary function of an organization like Wikileaks is to keep governments on their toes, ensuring that nobody can be 100% certain any particular secret will never be disclosed. To paint a somewhat idealized picture of the situation, one can imagine two opposing forces at play. One tends to enshroud more information behind a veil of secrecy and the other works to poke holes in that veil. Democratic citizens are clearly worse off if either force completely overpowers the other. But there is a global optimum somewhere in between, where both forces serve to balance one another out and we are all better off. Of course, I am not saying that Wikileaks has succeeded in bringing us to this point. But my sense is that it pushes us in the right direction, with room to spare.

"Specimens" in the New York Times

As someone with a prior and ongoing interest in the history of extinction, I've been following a new column in the New York Times by science writer Richard Conniff with some interest over the past few weeks.

The column's called "Specimens", and it purports to trace "the search for life" amongst naturalists by looking

beyond Darwin's accomplishments to find a number of colorful characters whose discoveries of new species have transformed our lives in ways we scarcely recognize.
Interesting. Now, how has Conniff pursued this vein - how has he elucidated the ways species discovery has impacted "our lives"? I'm having trouble figuring this out myself - while each essay is interesting in its own way, none has revealed the transformation of lives via species discovery, at least on my reading.

So far, he's posted a memoir of his late mother-in-law's natural-historical interests, hagiography for fallen naturalists, an attack on imperial readings of natural history, a somewhat scattered sketch on the relationship between science and c19 nonsense literature, and (most recently) a meditation on the history of the idea of extinction.

I acknowledge that Conniff's essayistic approach (and its context in the Opinionator section of the Times) needn't be scholarly in order to be successful, and that the Series' description may be misleading. Still, I wonder whether part of the point is that it's *hard* to trace the real-world (or even imagined) significance of species discovery for "our lives."

Maybe this is why E.O. Wilson has spent so much time (largely unsuccessfully) attempting to forge a vocabulary in which to inscribe these effects for modern readers. Biophilia, Consilience, and The Creation can each be read as a gesture in this direction, and, i
n the relative failure of each to take hold in the language of everyday life (or even in the conservation movement, beyond ritual obeisance), I think we catch something interesting:

It's hard to translate the "interests of science" to the "public interest" in a way that extends beyond utilitarian appeals and remains *effective* - that is, produces effects.


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A possible take-away point: the history of science, especially in recent efforts to trouble the boundary between "science" and "the public," affords interesting cases of precisely this sort of effort. Might not these past efforts, and the historians who attend on them, have something to say to those engaged in making issues that are live for scientists live for the public on whose goodwill (and, especially for naturalists and organismic biologists, tax-dollars) their work depends?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Did Tom Kuhn Decide Errol Morris Was Incommensurable?

Errol Morris---in an odd lecture--- claims that Tom Kuhn threw an ashtray at him after an argument over incommensurability turned personal. Weird. Check it out here (video) (audio).

According to Morris, he approached Kuhn with a certain indignation over Kuhn's apparent abnegation of the search for Truth in science and the history of science. We can only guess how (if?) the conversation turned violent. But like all conflicts, this one pleads for analysis.

Morris takes Kuhn's idea of incommensurability to make the accumulation of knowledge impossible. I've always favored a reading of Structure that allows for the accumulation of knowledge, even as paradigms come and go. I guess I presume a sort of translation can and does take place across paradigms.

I'm fascinated by Morris' passionate response. Is this an example of a reformist Liberal's fear of creeping relativism? I think I (we?) too often forget that the culture wars were not simply left-right. Liberals and conservatives all did and do have reason to object to strong post-modern epistemologies.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Change: Happening Before Your Eyes!

The Forum for the History of Science in America's blog is changing (drastically!) over the next few weeks.

We're getting a face-lift, re-imagining our goals and our audience, and, most importantly, expanding out to a team format so that we can cover more bases and more interests within our very broad definition of the "history of science in America."

Stay tuned for updates, introductions, and real, honest-to-God change in the next fortnight or so...