Thursday, March 31, 2011

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.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On Cronon: History, Law, and the Public, 2 of 2

What follows is the second in a pair of posts on the recent events involving William Cronon, Wisconsin Republicans, and the intersections between historical scholarship, public engagement, and current politics.

Yesterday, Lukas focused on the paradoxical relationship between the legal apparatus of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Academic Freedom; below, Hank proposes a distinction between Cronon's use of historical methods and historical knowledge, and the role of each in the the present controversy.

Part II: Hank: Methods and Knowledge in Public History

This whole thing has really taken off. According to Bill Cronon's most recent blog post, he's now had over 2,000,000 hits in the wake of uptake by media outlets like the New York Times, whose recent editorial ("A Shabby Crusade") comes down unequivocally for "academic freedom."

No matter what happens as this proceeds, it seems like the Republican request has at least guaranteed a high readership for Cronon's new blog - Rebecca Black it ain't, but issues of academic freedom haven't been this high-profile in some time. Here's hoping some good thinking emerges.

As noted above, Lukas focused yesterday on an interesting legal paradox: pace folks on both sides, the issue's anything but cut-and-dry. (See comments on Cronon's blog, the NYT, and everywhere else for assertions to the contrary from both sides of the intellectual/political aisle.)

Rather, there's a conflict at play between state transparency, on the one hand, and academic freedom on the other. The conflict is enabled by the vagueness of the relevant legal language, fueled by heightened political tensions, and complicated by the fact that many, Cronon included, value transparency and academic freedom alike.

While I'll leave you to Lukas for the rest, I would add that it's Cronon's status as a publicly-employed US historian that makes him an excellent test case, not only in the legal sense (though possible litigation would throw all of this in sharp relief), but in another sense as well, drawn from the title of Cronon's new blog:

What exactly does "Scholar as Citizen" mean?

What do scholars offer present politics? Does it depend on the discipline - sociology vs. history vs. chemistry - and, within disciplines, on sub-fields? Amongst historians, does a US historian like Cronon have more to offer than, say, a medievalist? Does it matter *where you live* (Cronon's made much of his place-based identity), or *what you know* (e.g. for the sake of comparison), or *how you think* (pattern recognition, textual analysis, &c.)?

Possibly all of these questions matter. What I want to figure out is (1) what Cronon thinks he has to offer as a "Scholar Citizen" (which is *not* the same as a "Citizen Scholar," the analogue of the "Citizen Scientist"), and (2) how this relates to the relationship between "scholarship" and "citizenship" (or politics).

First, a clarification. We don't know why the Republicans have filed their request (we have some ideas!), and they don't have to tell anyone. Beyond accusations of McCarthyism (including one by Cronon himself), the best guess is that they're trying to find out whether Cronon has used his publicly-funded email to "support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum," a violation of state policy.

If Cronon has been involving himself in ongoing efforts to recall certain elected officials in Wisconsin, then he might be guilty of the latter; if this turns out to have been the case (though Cronon has asserted his innocence), it's in part just a regrettable failure to separate personal and professional correspondence.*

Whether or not Cronon is guilty - and, indeed, to what end the Republicans might like to put such guilt - isn't as interesting to me as what's at stake more generally for historians and their engagement with the public.

So, to turn to the question posed above: what does William Cronon (as an esteemed US/Environmental Historian and President-Elect of the AHA) have to offer present politics?

Well, in the blog post that started all of this, Cronon says he's "professionally interested in this question [i.e. the one in the title of the post] as a historian," and then, crucially, goes on to state that, since he can't believe that "the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this," there must be "deeper networks from which this legislation emerged."

What this at least suggests is that Cronon thinks historians offer a nuanced sense of how big changes happen, and that this sense can help us get beyond diatribes attributing everything to individual actors like the brothers Koch. Historians are trained to tell stories about change (or the lack thereof), and, to this extent, I think he's right to assert this skill as a possible asset in current debate.

If sensitivity to change (and a distrust of mono-causal accounts thereof) is one asset, another is refined textual analysis. This is evident in that first blog post - which is framed as a "study guide" and includes a note that "future historians need people today to assemble the documents.." - though it drops out in his subsequent Op-Ed (which focuses more on a third asset, discussed below).

It comes back even stronger, however, in his gargantuan follow-up post on "Abusing Open Records." There, he includes the entire written request for his emails, and then proposes that we "subject Mr. Thompson’s email to some textual analysis" since "that is, after all, what we historians do: we read documents and try to interpret their meanings."

Cronon goes on to put these skills to use, inferring from the document "the story Mr. Thompson would like to be able to tell" about him (and the motives behind telling it). If the first asset of the scholar-citizen was something like "causal sensitivity," this second asset might be "textual sensitivity" - confronted by reams of documents, it takes a trained eye to distill out the motives and means behind them.

So far, so good - the scholar-citizen (or historian-citizen) offers what amount to methodological skills that can help ground and clarify present political debate. But Cronon does more: beyond a sense of how change happens and how to track it happening, he spins a narrative of what has happened - an account of the history of twentieth-century conservatism, and of Wisconsin politics in particular.

This third asset - specific knowledge of the past - feels (*to me*) like a different sort of scholar-citizen tool than the first two - and it's here where (again, *to me*) Cronon works himself into a bit of a bind.

Why? Because, as he puts this third asset to use in his NYT piece, it espouses a certain (decidedly small-c) conservatism that should give us pause. Throughout the Op-Ed - from its title to its historical backbone - Cronon expresses a preference for centrism, one that he naturalizes to the State itself ("Wisconsinites have long believed that [..] when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together..").

It's an attractive position, but what if you don't agree with it? There are those at either extreme of the political pole (poll?) for whom centrist solutions (like Mitch Daniels' now-infamous "truce on so-called social issues") represent either good-faith (but erroneous) concessions - i.e. that Daniels agrees with his fellow conservatives on the issues but undervalues them - or bad-faith mis-representations of idiosyncratic beliefs - i.e. that Daniels doesn't agree with his fellow conservatives on the issues.

To argue, as Cronon does to a certain extent, that history warns us against certain forms of behavior is to involve oneself in the debate *at a different level* than when one offers up skills like document-reading or change-tracking. When he asserts, on his blog, that "this is not the way citizens or politicians have historically behaved toward each other in this state," he invokes precedent in order to dampen what he calls, in his Op-Ed, a "radical break."

What does this mean for us?

Okay, time for some conclusions. I've tried to address what Cronon sees himself as offering, and I've broken that down into "causal sensitivity," "textual sensitivity," and "specific knowledge." I've also suggested that, of the three, the last is the exception: that, in the case of his Op-Ed, Cronon has used past precedent to advocate his own political and temperamental centrism.

This isn't to say that skepticism about mono-causal arguments and a nuanced approach to documents - as assets - don't import their own assumptions. They do. But I think readers might agree that there's something to distinguish these two assets from the third, and that whatever that is might be relevant to the question of what a scholar-citizen is and how historians interact with the public.

So, finally, to those general conclusions I promised. For one, I think "methodological assets" make more sense as generalizable tools for scholar-citizens. It's my sense that what distinguishes professional historians *is not* specific knowledge of the past - the world is full of US history buffs - but rather a more subtle sense of what to look for and how to look for it. To me, Cronon's more interesting when he's helping us figure out what questions to ask than when he's reminding us that Republicans used to vote differently than they do now.

We all have personal politics, of course, but if Cronon - as a publicly-funded scholar to whom strict demarcations of the scholarly and the political apply - wants to continue to offer his (prodigious) skills as a historian in current debates, he might do well to differentiate between those skills so as to avoid the hot water.

Side note (sort of): I can't decide how different this whole thing would be if Cronon were an historian of something else (say Early-Modern Europe, like the man he'll succeed as AHA President), but something tells me that his assertion that his "professional interest as a historian has always been to research and understand the full spectrum of American political opinion" isn't quite right (see his CV for evidence that his work as a historian has been much more limited - groundbreaking as it's been - than this characterization suggests).

Finally, a note on blogging. It's important to note that the FOIA request came in *before* Cronon published his Op-Ed: coverage of this timing has been spotty in the prodigious response to these events, but both this fact and the traffic Cronon's blog has subsequently received are suggestive of the important, if somewhat bizarre, potential utility of blogs for scholar-citizens on Cronon's model.

Of course, Cronon has benefited tremendously from his own fame, the political nature of his posts, and the attendant media attention once the records request came in. But there's more to this: if Cronon is serious about continuing his blog into the foreseeable future, and given that he's rising to head the largest association of historians in the world, we may be on the cusp of a wider conversation about the role of blogs for scholars and the relationship between writing in this sort of forum and our more "scholarly" efforts for printed, peer-reviewed media.

How blogs link up with the (ever) rising tide of the "Digital Humanities," and how either is going to impact traditions of research and publication in history and beyond, is an open question, but one can hope that the present conversation around Cronon and his plight might extend beyond Wisconsin and Academic Freedom into a deeper discussion of historical methods and the relationship between scholars and the public.

*It should be pointed out that, as the New York Times reports, "The university is in the process of responding to the request, a process that includes removing documents that are exempt, like communications with students and discussions of unpublished research." From the perspective of the University's legal office, there's nothing unusual about the request (they get hundreds of such requests a year), and the fact that they're removing exempt materials complicates Cronon's first-order justification for resisting the request, which was based on his legal obligation to confidentiality on certain matters.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Cronon: History, Law, and the Public, 1 of 2

What follows is the first of a pair of posts on the recent events involving William Cronon, Wisconsin Republicans, and the intersections between historical scholarship, public engagement, and current politics.

Here, Lukas focuses on the paradoxical relationship between the legal apparatus of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Academic Freedom; tomorrow, Hank will elaborate on a distinction between Cronon's contributions of historical methods and historical knowledge, and the role of each in the the present controversy.

Part I: Lukas: FOIA vs. Academic Freedom

First some context & background on what appears to have happened here. I think it’s safe to say that Bill Cronon ranks among the country’s leading environmental historians so readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with his scholarship. On March 15, he inaugurated a new blog—Scholar as Citizen—with a post on “Who’s Really Behind the Republican Legislation in Wisconsin". In the post, he focuses on one political group in particular: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This group drafts “model bills” for conservative legislators to introduce in their respective state governments.

ALEC has had a remarkably successful track record, with roughly 1,000 pieces of its legislation introduced in various states, about 18% of which were subsequently enacted into law. Cronon is very critical of the influence that ALEC and other such groups wield, primarily because they tend to move political discussion out of the public sphere. Their success, he charges, has made government less transparent.

Cronon’s blog entry, though critical, struck me as remarkably measured. Still, it immediately garnered extremely wide attention: within two days his blog received over half a million hits! Then, on March 17th, the University of Wisconsin’s legal office was contacted by Stephen Thompson of the Wisconsin Republican Party.  Thompson was requesting access to any of Cronon’s e-mails on the University servers that contained one of a number of search terms, including: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, rally, and union.

The request was made under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, which is roughly equivalent to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Cronon subsequently posted a harsh critique of this move on his blog. His most interesting argument, the one I want to focus on here, is that the e-mail request violates his academic freedom. He says:
I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I’m offended … because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.
Writing for Slate, Jack Shafer responds: “There’s No Such Thing as a Bad FOIA Request”. Shafer’s arguments are shockingly shallow, but he does gesture towards a real irony at the heart of these developments. Traditionally, progressive journalists and academics have (rightly) championed FOIA as an essential tool in the effort to keep our government honest, accountable, and transparent. Now, Cronon is no fool, so he obviously recognizes this irony too. To quote from his recent blog entry again:
First signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act is a bastion of American democracy, making it possible for citizens to scrutinize the actions of their government and elected officials in ways that are possible in few other nations on earth. FOIA is a precious political heritage of the United States, and I would not want to argue that public universities should enjoy a blanket exemption from its requirements.
So what should we make of this? I have a couple of thoughts, but first, it is worth pointing out that what has happened here is not entirely unique. I know of no other attempt to intimidate an academic into self-censorship using FOIA or similar laws in particular. But the general tactic of using the courts to force scholars to turn over their e-mails and other private documents appears to have become something of a vogue recently.

Perhaps the most striking case (covered on Slate) is a decision by the Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, to subpoena e-mails between Michael Mann, a former UVA climate scientist, and his colleagues around the world using a state fraud statute. A similar case, though one with somewhat different modalities, is confronting Stanford historian Robert Proctor. As detailed in The Nation, lawyers for Big Tobacco have subpoenaed e-mails, an unfinished book manuscript, and a hard drive from Proctor, a historian of science who routinely testifies against cigarette makers in court.

Although academic freedom is at stake in all of these cases, each involves a different set of legal tactics, so it’s hard to comment on them all at once. Let’s focus on FOIA in particular. As far as I can tell, the initial argument for its enactment back in 1966 was that citizens have a legitimate interest in and right to know what their government is doing. However, (as I have discussed in a previous post) there are also legitimate reasons why government should have the power to keep some things secret.

Federal legislation designed to govern the disclosure of government information did exist prior to FOIA.  However, it was seen as too vague and therefore ineffective. As I understand it, FOIA was thus primarily enacted to set out clear, specific, and coherent guidelines of what information was exempted from disclosure. In some ways, then, FOIA was actually a secrecy act! But by clearly specifying what information is exempted from disclosure, it also implied what information ought to be disclosed when requested.

Among the many exemptions to disclosure that FOIA currently specifies, there are matters of national defense, trade secrets, personal information affecting an individual’s privacy, and, interestingly, geographical and geophysical information concerning the location of wells. (For a full list of the FOIA exemptions, see the US Department of Commerce website.)

Notice that none of these exemptions list academic freedom. So how would we put Cronon’s argument into legal practice?

As my favorite legal journalist, Dalia Lithwick, points out, “the phrase ‘academic freedom’ appears nowhere in the Constitution.” That said, we do have the First Amendment, which explicitly protects speech. In her piece on academic freedom, Lithwick goes on to quote from a 1967 Supreme Court decision in which Justice William Brennan concluded, “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment.”

One way to put Cronon’s argument into legal practice would thus be to object that Stephen Thompson’s request violates the First Amendment. What is interesting about this strategy is that it basically sets two pieces of legislation, both cherished by most academics as foundational to the proper working of our democracy, in opposition to one another: freedom of speech versus freedom of information!

How are the courts likely to adjudicate such an issue? The most recent case that pits these two values against one another that I am aware of is Doe v. Reed, which was decided by the Supreme Court on June 24, 2010.   In 2009 the state of Washington passed legislation that extended nearly all state-wide spousal rights and responsibilities to registered domestic partners, even those of the same sex. Opponents of the law sought to negate it by way of a ballot initiative. What was at stake in the case was whether the list of signatories to the initiative was exempt from Washington’s Public Records Act or if it could be disclosed and made widely available.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts argued that signatories to the ballot initiative were not exempt from public disclosure laws under the First Amendment. In his decision, he ruled on precedent that First Amendment challenges to public disclosure laws must meet so-called “exacting scrutiny."  In particular, he cited Citizens United v. Federal Elections Comm’n, to argue that if disclosure represents a potential threat to someone’s First Amendment rights, then “a substantial relation” must be show to exist “between the disclosure requirement and a sufficiently important government interest.” “To withstand this scrutiny,” he continued, “the strength of the governmental interest must reflect the seriousness of the actual burden on First Amendment Rights.”

Roberts went on to argue that in this particular case, disclosure meets the exacting standard of scrutiny because it is required to “preserve the integrity of the electoral process by combating fraud, detecting invalid signatures, and fostering government transparency and accountability.”

Perhaps even more interesting for our purposes than Roberts’ majority decision is Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion, in which he explicitly adds the caveat that in circumstances where  freedom of speech and information come into conflict, “the law significantly implicates constitutionally protected interests in complex ways.” This is an important point, one that I think deserves to be stressed, because it demonstrates that practicing law, especially constitutional law, is a subtle interpretive enterprise.

There is no simple way to answer the question of whether academic freedom is so important to the proper functioning of democracy that it automatically trumps FOIA requests. Rather, we have to engage in a delicate balancing act, weighing competing goods, rights, and legitimate interests against one another.

Once again (as I've noted before), American constitutional law reveals itself to be an extremely complex and supple social technology, one that requires close reading and careful judgment.  The law does not make decisions for us, lawyers and judges have to do it themselves. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, this is precisely the opposite of what politicians tend to argue when furthering their own ideological goals.

Coming tomorrow: Hank on Methods and Knowledge in Public History...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arrowsmith Dunks on Gantry

I'm in mourning over Michigan's State's very early exit from the NCAA tournament. Even so, here's a post in honor of March and all its Madness. [Note to self: next year, do a post during March Madness about the history of abnormal psychology.]

I first encountered the history of basketball in a March Madness-honoring lecture by State's inimitable intellectual historian: Dave Bailey. I learned that James Naismith developed the sport in the winter of 1891/92 to keep his students at the YMCA's college in Springfield, MA physically, mentally, and spiritually pure during the frozen months when weather precluded other wholesome sporting. Basketball emerged from a particular approach to Christian practice that went light on theology and heavy on chaste but manly activity---it's often called muscular Christianity.

I'll let Naismith give you a taste for the theory behind this peculiar (yet still thriving) conjunction of sport and faith:
"The nearest to preaching [that Naismith ever did] came in Y.M.C.A. service with the 20th Kansas on the Mexican border and in two years of service with the "Y" in France. And the preaching was rather indirect, at that. For example, we found that too many of the boys from our camp were going into a near-by town and getting into all kinds of devilment. [!!] We set up a boxing ring near the camp entrance, and would start a lively match about the time the boys began starting to 'leave.' They stopped to watch; then begged for a chance to participate; and the next thing they knew it was time to be back in quarters. Prize fights may sound like strange preaching, but they did the work." --James Naismith, "Basketball--A Game the World Plays," Rotarian (January 1939): 33-36.
 Some of Naismith's contemporaries found this a very strange preaching indeed. Perhaps most famously, Sinclair Lewis parodied muscular Christianity and the people who championed it (hypocrites all, he proclaimed) in Elmer Gantry (although Gantry, like Naismith, started out as a football star). If Gantry stood for an America that Lewis despised, Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist of his 1925 novel Arrowsmith looked like one of Lewis' heroes. Arrowsmith stood for science: over tradition, over parochialism, over commerce, and inadvertently over the life of his only love.

Lewis, in his literature, argued for a secularizing, scientized America---but would a secular, scientized America be free from basketball too? I don't think Lewis ever weighed in on the question.

At least one college student at Yale didn't wait for Lewis. In 1916, before Naismith was setting up his boxing rings in France, an undergraduate named Frederick Blackall was already actively rebranding basketball as a scientific endeavor, stripped of its religious origins.

Basketball, Blackall wrote in the Yale Courant, was a "scientific experiment" born of one man's mind and meticulously designed. Although Naismith had actually designed the game in response to the request of his boss Luther Gulick, who wanted to keep Y students on the straight and narrow, Blackall's revised history claimed that Naismith came up with basketball as the solution to a homework problem. Naismith, in Blackall's version, had heard "a lecturer on psychology ...on the subject of the mental processes of invention, and during the course of his address proposed as a sort of experiment the invention of a game which could be played indoors in winter...." (152)

I have no reason to believe Blackall intentionally changed the basketball invention story. Nor do I think Blackall even pioneered the story. I think it's far more likely that Blackall repeated a story told him by his phys ed instructors: men who by the 10s and 20s were much more likely to have advanced degrees and who considered themselves as much scientists or doctors as athletes (on these professional transformations, see Prescott). For them, the moralist origins of basketball might have been an embarrassment best ignored.

Friday, March 18, 2011

David Brooks and American Science

David Brooks has a pretty distinguished resume for a journalist: reporter for the Wall Street Journal, senior editor at the Weekly Standard, commentator on National Public Radio, and, since 2003, columnist at the New York Times. However, while he spent the last two decades making his name as a conservative political analyst, Brooks has dedicated the last few months to reinventing himself - as a science popularizer.

To those who've been paying attention, this shouldn't come as a surprise - Thomas Nagel, for example, describes Brooks with wicked ambivalence as a well-known "aficionado of research in the social sciences." More likely to raise eyebrows is the seeming rapidity with which Brooks has shifted the bulk of his attention to reading, aggregating, and promulgating such research: he's devoted most of his recent columns (like one today) to it, re-initiated his defunct blog to provide daily recourse for it, and, most significantly, dedicated a recent book to it (of which he broke off a preview in the New Yorker in January, and about which he gave a TED talk that just went live this week).

The book is called The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, and it purports to blend the latest scientific research on human nature - mostly from psychology, but also from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and so on - with a (fictional) story about two characters, Harold and Erica, whose entire lives play out in the present day.

This plot device serves a number of functions: it allows Brooks to (ostensibly) "leaven" the scientific material, provides him with a narrative arc, and lends specificity to the particular brand of social-commentary-cum-Seinfeld-humor that he usually serves up in abstracted riffs on Whole Foods and Great Danes (see his column, his TED talk, or his previous book, Bobos in Paradise, for examples).

The story behind the story - and Brooks' major point - is that understanding human nature and its greatest assets ("Love, Character, and Achievement") means understanding our unconscious - both collective and individual. How? By assimilating studies across a wide swath of social- and natural-scientific disciplines that are, Brooks argues, already coalescing around these questions, forming what he dubs a "New Humanism" (we seem to get one of these a generation!).

Brooks has been tracking this new "paradigm" - his word - since at least 2008, and sees in our "cognitive age" the potential for a revolution in self-understanding on par with the impact of Freud's work - only, as he said at TED, "more accurate." It will mean replacing the guiding principles of thinkers from the French Enlightenment with those of their Scottish contemporaries - replacing Cartesian rationalism with Humean empiricism - by turning to the cognitive sciences to correct for the fact that "the conscious mind ... gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”

Now, it goes without saying that this impulse is nothing new - Brooks is in many ways just repeating the Enlightenment call for a "Newton of the mind," and the title of his book is more-or-less lifted from an influential textbook in social psychology, now in its tenth edition. It also ignores the reflexive problem inherent in cognitive justifications for non-cognitivism. Still, Brooks' ostensible contribution is his fusion of the scientific and the personal, a burgeoning theory laid out in narrative terms (self-consciously) analogous to Rousseau's Emile.

It should also come as no surprise that he's been rewarded for these efforts with more than his fair share of ridicule. Blogging biologist (and infamous curmudgeon) PZ Myers has lobbed a grenade over at, while the renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel filleted Brooks just as finely (if more skilfully and interestingly) in the latest Sunday Book Review. Both reviewers take the book to task for its composition: "fiction is not Brooks’s m├ętier," avers Nagel, while Myers puts it a bit more..frankly: "it's like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls," the upshot of which is "a battle between two clashing fairy tales to see which one would bore us or infuriate us first."

While both reviewers also take issue with the theory underlying the book, they do so for different reasons. Myers, the scientist, reads it through the lens of Snow's Two Cultures. As he writes toward the end: "The technicalities don't illuminate the story in any way, and the story undercuts the science." Nagel's critique is different: rather than cite Brooks for failing in his effort to give scientific findings personal meaning, as Myers does, Nagel questions the desire to do so in the first place: "Life, morality and politics are not science," he concludes, "but their improvement requires thought" - thought, more precisely, about the ends of inquiry and of life.

For the record, I side more with Nagel than with Myers, but I'll leave their critiques to the readers. What I'm more interested in - and what I hope connects this post to the blog's themes - is Brooks' social-scientific turn and what it means. He has turned to results in psychology and elsewhere in part out of a genuine interest in the goings-on of the cognitive sciences, but also (and more significantly) out of a sense of frustration with our moral-social world. This is, to me, an interesting move for a number of reasons. Let me focus on one aspect for now:

Brooks shares his pessimism about the atomistic and narcissistic "way we live now" with the authors of another recent book: Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus's All Things Shining, a popular-philosophical account of the vacuum of meaning in our secular culture - how we arrived at it, why it's bad, and how we might climb out of it. (I should note, too, that similar themes are explored in a book I've mentioned on this blog before - Dan Rodgers' Age of Fracture).

Why does this matter? Both Brooks and Kelly/Dreyfus find fault with a supposedly quintessential "individualism" in today's world. To me, what's interesting is not their shared diagnosis, but where they turn as they seek to prescribe something for the ailment they've uncovered.

After laying out our predicament as they see it, Kelly and Dreyfus provide a roller-coaster ride through the Western canon, from the epics of the Ancient Greeks to David Foster Wallace's unfinished version of the same, tracing out the decline of the sacred with the rise of introspection and an autonomous sense of the self. It's a fun read, and by the conclusion, they've ended up in a weird place: professional sports. It's here, they say, that we experience the sacred most often in our secular world, in a collective emotional response they christen with the unfortunate moniker "whooshing up." March Madness indeed...

Brooks himself had nothing but praise for the book, in part because he sees it as accurately portraying the social reality to which he sees himself as providing the psycho-scientific complement. Now this is interesting: the books seek out a sense of human nature in very different places, one in the likes of Augustine and Melville, the other from Science articles. There's no neuroscience in All Things Shining (this despite Kelly's professional interest in it), and The Social Animal has no place for "The White Whale."

And yet Brooks, at least, sees their projects as complementary (no comment, yet, in the other direction) - both familiarize readers with vast, often imposing literatures from which we might gather up meaning and a sense of community. While Brooks might sell us moderns a bit short ("One of the most cognitively demanding things we do is buy furniture: it's really hard to imagine a sofa, how it's going to look in your house."), and while he still has some answering to do (for Nagel), I'm intrigued by his reaching into the social and cognitive sciences for the problems he - along with others - perceives in society today.

NOTE: I was going to continue our focus on Errol Morris and Tom Kuhn by linking our previous posts (here, here, and here) to some recent work by Paul Forman on science, technology, and postmodernity (here) - but then I saw this Brooks business and couldn't help myself. All this is to say, more on "incommensurability" and its links (Whiggish and otherwise) with postmodernism soon...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan: Some Thoughts

I've been thinking about Japan a lot in the last few days. A horrible history is unfolding and, as an academic, I'm grasping for ways to express emotions that might be easier to suppress. So, I'm following Lukas' current events lead here in hoping that we can get a discussion going about how history of science and science studies are relevant to both making sense of and intervening with technological catastrophes of unfathomable magnitude.

I'm by no means an expert on nuclear disaster, but historian Susan Lindee's 1994 _Suffering Made Real_, on American scientists' engagement with the survivors of Japan's previous atomic tragedy has been on my mind. As has anthropologist Adriana Petryna's 2005 _Life Exposed_, a study of the ways in which the Chernobyl meltdown mutated bodies as well as ideas about citizenship in post-Soviet Ukraine. Lindee's book tracks the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, wherein hybrid forms knowledge production and anxieties about accountability linked American and Japanese scientists and citizens. Petryna's study examines how, amidst uncertainty about the long-term impacts of exposure to radiation, people used their bodies as a way of making claims for resources administered by the state.

There are many themes shared between these books . . . how global forces are experienced and mediated in decidedly local ways; that science and citizenship can be mutually constitutive; and that the disciplinary boundaries we draw between the histories of physics and biology are actually fundamentally enmeshed -- and profoundly embodied -- in the postwar period. However, what I think makes these works particularly important is that they strenuously resist the dehumanization that can accompany 'dispassionate' accounts of human destruction. What I mean is that they take as their subject the moment where human bodies become mutated and, in that moment, they locate new forms of social relations and responsibility.

There is nothing natural about the disaster in Japan. So, let's train our focus on the central tension of what makes us human: our struggle to survive despite our capacity for destruction.

What else does history of science have to say?

Errol Morris' Whiggish History of Incommensurability

"Weird." That was my reaction to Morris' ashtray story when I first heard it in on a Princeton University podcast. Lukas has since offered his own reaction---one that's much more sophisticated than mine, in which he argues that the positivists and truth seekers care about the limits and limitations of language too.

Sad. That's how I feel now that I've finished reading Morris' expansion on that story in the NYT Opinionator Blog. More on why in a moment.

Pleased (to have anyone talking about philosophy). That's the consensus over at "Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog." There's some fascinating debate in the comments, with varied points of view, but I stand by my characterization. I see their point: I knew nothing about Kripke before this.

Laudatory. That's the dominant feeling of the comments following Morris' blog. One gets the sense that most commenters were just happy to have something that challenged them to think a bit, even as the tone and presentation entertained them. A few applaud Morris for defending science and truth against relativism.

Skeptical (or downright disgusted). That's the apparent response of some who know Kuhn (or might have known Kuhn---I haven't been a good reporter and checked out these claims). Witness a commenter claiming to be Kuhn's daughter (could be...). Or accusations from an author claiming to be the logician Warren Goldfarb (might be...). Even Norton Wise, quoted extensively in part 5, evades judgment of Morris' story that Kuhn forbade him to see Kripke.

So why am I sad?

I hate to see a debate get ugly. This one appears to have gotten ugly early. In the Fall of 1972, Tom Kuhn tried to get Errol Morris to think about James Clerk Maxwell's displacement current in the terms and frame that Maxwell would have used. He wrote 30 pages of comments in response to a 30 page paper! Morris came to Kuhn's office and refused to listen. He denied the utility of thinking in the terms or frame of Maxwell. He picked up the word "incommensurability" and started claiming all manner of horrible consequences for its use. He insulted Kuhn---claiming that Kuhn's concept of incommensurability put Kuhn in the position of being all-knowing while his historical actors (and everyone else) sat around blinkered. He implied that Kuhn must think himself God. At this point, according to Morris, Kuhn threw an ashtray at Morris' head? Did Kuhn throw the ashtray? Did he throw it at Morris' head? Who knows. I'd like to give Morris and Kuhn the benefit of the doubt: Kuhn threw the ashtray, but with no intention of hitting any animate objects.

Morris now argues that Kuhn threw the ashtray because he could come up with no better argument to refute the young Morris' claims. Morris's moral: relativistic thinking ("incommensurability") precludes rational debate and ends in violence (heaved ashtrays). Because of Kuhn's ideas, Morris continues, people deny climate change and innocent prisoners rot in jail---that's only a mild caricature of Morris' position. He is onto something: precluding rational debate can lead to violence. Yet the evidence here suggests that Morris cut off rational debate first and continues to do so. I wish it weren't so.

(In the spirit of good faith, I'll offer that the young Morris might have experienced Kuhn's famously intense and---in Norton Wise's word "adversarial" style---as a closing of debate even earlier. Could well be. I'm also not a big fan of intense adversarial styles, so I feel no need to defend them too strenuously.)

Morris' footnotes are lovely, expansive, and a pleasure to read. In them, he quotes Kuhn at length from a variety of his published works. If you ignore Morris' commentary, you get to see a serious thinker trying to refine his ideas---especially complicated ideas grounded in metaphor, like the notion of "incommensurability." If you read only Morris' commentary, you miss a story of serious intellectual engagement with the past and the present.

I think Morris cannot afford to allow "incommensurability" to be an idea in flux and subject to refinement. Like "Goldie" (a goldfish used to exemplify Kripke's causal theory of naming) or "displacement current," Morris needs "incommensurability" to always be one thing, and whatever that thing is, it inevitably leads to moral and intellectual relativism.

Morris continually rebels against Kuhn's insistence on avoiding "whiggism" because he thinks getting inside the (necessarily limited) heads of one's historical subjects denies the ultimate truth. But he misses the point: getting into other people's heads---understanding them in their own terms---can be a tool for truth-seeking. It's also a terrific way to begin and sustain rational debate. Morris never---it appears---bothered to understand Kuhn in his own terms. He simply talks past Kuhn.

In "Reflections on My Critics" from The Road Since Structure, Kuhn suggests his own academic interest in "partial or incomplete communication---the talking-through-each-other that regularly characterizes discourse between participants in incommensurable points of view."(124) Morris quotes Kuhn here by way of showing how incommensurability closes off debate. Morris' transcriptions from this essay are not word-for-word, but they are pretty close. His contextualization and reading of the comments, however, suggest bad faith: Morris doesn't want to engage with Kuhn, but instead wants to use Kuhn's words to prove Morris' own preconceived idea. Kuhn, in his essay, attempts and achieves a rational debate with his critics, despite the fact that he thinks he holds with them an incommensurable point of view. Incommensurability does not lead to all the horrible things Morris thinks it does.

Finally, I'm sad because people who read Morris' essay might not give Kuhn a chance and they might miss out on the opportunity to better understand science in the past and present. I don't mind if they are scared of the word "incommensurability"---as Morris demonstrates inadvertently, Kuhn meant it as a metaphor, and as such it may have outlived its utility. But Kuhn's fundamental insight---still valid today---was that science and human knowledge evolves from; it doesn't progress toward. A reader of Kuhn can still believe in reality and truth and act on the best knowledge we have at any given time of both reality and truth---many of us do--- but we don't have to believe that either we or our historical subjects know for certain what the truth is, once and for all. A little bit of epistemological humility and more of an effort to talk with each other and not past each, that's all I'm asking for.

Tom Kuhn and Errol Morris may be incommensurable, but I see no reason that their ideas can't be brought together in a happier conversation.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The (Bentley) Glass is More than Half Full: An Interview With Audra Wolfe

In keeping with my interest in archives, last week I interviewed Audra Wolfe about her experiences cataloging the papers of geneticist Bentley Glass which are held at the American Philosophical Society. This work is funded by a National Science Foundation Scholar's grant. Audra is a historian and editor based in Philadelphia. When not knee-deep in other people’s manuscripts, she’s working on a textbook on Cold War science for Johns Hopkins University Press and is also a food blogger and canning expert (see here)


RADIN: Why Bentley Glass?

WOLFE: Bentley Glass is one of those people who shows up as a bit player all over the history of the Cold War. I first noticed him in his role as chair of the Biological Sciences Curriculum study, one of the major post-Sputnik attempts to reform American science education. But once I knew the name, I started seeing references to him in the oddest places: the nuclear test ban debate and fallout, Pugwash, debates over civil liberties and academic freedom, Lysenkoism, space science, the new reproductive technologies. And of course he built the excellent genetics collection at the American Philosophical Society (APS). Who was this guy?

What struck me about Glass—what seemed to make him a worthwhile subject for further study—was that he seemed to be breaking all the rules for Cold War scientists. Here was a guy who had participated in any number of interracial civil rights groups in Baltimore, who was the president of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU for ten years, who frequently spoke out against “excessive” nuclear testing (though note that he refused to sign Linus Pauling’s petitions), and was one of the most prominent defenders of academic freedom in the late 1950s—yet he apparently had no problem getting a Q security clearance or getting his AEC grants renewed. When we think of scientists who protested government policies in the 1940s and 1950s, we tend to think of people like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Condon, Linus Pauling, or H. J. Muller—all of whom were “punished” in one way or another for speaking their minds. Yet here was Bentley Glass, with a thriving career, a clearance, and a passport.

RADIN: I understand there's been almost no historical work on Glass and from what you’ve told me, his papers are a mess. How do you imagine that the cataloging of this archive will support scholarship on Cold War science?

WOLFE: That’s a really good question, and it’s something I ask myself every day that I’m at the APS. And it’s certainly true that the Internet makes it much more possible to investigate someone like Glass, who was frequently quoted in regional newspapers, than it has ever been before. Many of the items in his collection, especially the institutional records, are duplicated in other archives. Even so, I’m convinced that there are at least three categories of findings that can’t be found any other way.

First, at the most basic level, are corrections to the published records. The papers are full of exchanges between scientists and journalists about what is an accurate representation of their work or beliefs. The point isn’t that the archives can somehow give us a glimpse of eternal truth, but rather that they can show us friction points, places where scientists’ views of reality don’t mesh with those of the larger public.

I’m also finding the archives a useful way to get a sense of the global range (in both senses of the term) of Glass’s activities. I am continually surprised by the sheer volume of material related to such unexpected organizations as the National Council of Churches and Pugwash. It’s also rather enlightening to see the same people, over and over again, working together in different roles.

But by far the most unique resource in the Glass papers is a category of documents I think of as “letters from strangers.” Glass maintained a vigorous public profile. Besides the newspapers interviews and magazine profiles, he was a familiar figure on the lecture circuit. Random people wrote to him constantly. Most of these letters fall into the category of “concerned citizens” wanting to know Glass’s opinion on fallout or genetic defects. They write to congratulate him for refusing to take a loyalty oath, or to chide him for endangering Americans by calling for disarmament. Some of them start to verge on metacriticism—my favorites are the ones that ask Glass to reflect on the role of the scientist as a political figure. These are remarkable documents that, at least for the moment, can only be accessed by investing hours in the archives.

RADIN: What’s your favorite thing you’ve found so far?

WOLFE: A pen used by the mayor of Baltimore to sign the city’s Civil Rights Ordinance. Glass played a pivotal role in getting this passed by refusing to hold the American Association of University Professor’s annual meeting in Baltimore (he was president at the time) while the city had segregationist hotel accommodation laws on the books.

RADIN: So, is the "story" we have about Cold War science wrong, or is it "something about Glass"?

WOLFE: Both, I think. Ask me next year.

A searchable, folder-level list of the Glass papers is available on request. For more information, e-mail Audra at

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Errol Morris, Kuhn & the Ashtray

Errol Morris published the fourth installment of his five-part personal essay on Kuhn in today’s NY Times.  All of it is worth reading (except perhaps part III, which drags on somewhat), and I definitely encourage everyone to take a look!

What is Morris’ beef with Kuhn?  In a nutshell, he thinks that Kuhn provided volatile ammunition for “postmodernists” (that’s Morris’ term): people who want to deny there is a truth (rather than many truths), a real world (rather than multiple realities), and a compelling distinction between ethical and unethical actions (rather than just social mores).  Now, I suspect that Morris is mostly tilting at windmills here, or, at the very least, that his argument is about ten years behind the times.  But for historians of science, I think, it is worth thinking about what’s got him so upset. 

Morris’ central objection centers on the relationship between paradigms and incommensurability.  What is a paradigm and what does it mean for two paradigms to be incommensurable?  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn equivocates on both scores. But as far as I can tell, paradigms are basically how we understand the world.  They are general frameworks we use to organize our experience.  For example, Kuhn invokes Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  Initially, many people rejected the idea that space has a curvature.  This is because in the existing paradigm, space is simply not the kind of thing that can be curved; to say that space is curved is like saying triangles are virtuous.  This is where incommensurability comes in: if two paradigms are incommensurable then the conceptual content of one cannot be articulated in terms of the other (“space has a curvature” simply makes no sense on the old interpretation of “space”).  Hence, people operating in different paradigms are going to have a hard time talking sense to each other.  Sometimes, Kuhn went so far as to say that people who operate in different paradigms literally live in different worlds!

Morris dislikes this line of thinking because it suggests the search for truth is bound to be forever elusive.  Differently put, the history of science is just one damn thing after another!  If there is no way to get outside of a paradigm, then there can be no basis for comparison between different paradigms.  Hence, we cannot say that one is better than another.  Paradigm shifts are a social, political, or perhaps psychological process.  They are not rational.  At the end of his latest installment, Morris says that in this, Kuhn sided with the later Wittgenstein: “we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so.”  Morris goes on to quote from Structure itself: “We may … have to relinquish the notion … that changes of paradigm bring scientists … closer and closer to the truth.”

Earlier, I said that Morris was tilting at windmills.  Let me say something more about what I mean by this.  Historians of science often like to remark on the irony that although Kuhn probably did more damage to the logical empiricist research tradition than anyone, Structure was initially published as part of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which also counted Carnap, Hempel, Nagel, and Neurath among its contributors.  How are we to make sense of this fact?  There’s a couple of things we can say.  First, it was simply the case that logical empiricists were big-shot philosophers at the time, so even if you disagreed with them it made sense to submit your work to their publication venues.  This may indeed be what happened.  Still, although Kuhn certainly disagree with much of the positivist tradition he did share a deep set of assumptions with them.  Perhaps the most important of these is a focus on linguistic structures.  Both Kuhn and the logical empiricists had a deep conviction that language provides the interface between the world and ourselves.  Hence, if you want to understand everything from metaphysics to the philosophy of science the thing to do is to focus on language.

Let’s just look at Rudolf Carnap as an example.  In 1950 he published a fascinating paper in the Revue International de Philosophy called “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.”  I don’t want to get bogged down by the details of his argument, so let’s focus on one idea in particular: that of a linguistic framework.  Carnap introduced this concept because he wanted to distinguish between two kinds of questions.  The first kind ask things such as “do unicorns exist?” or “is there a prime number above 100?”.  The second are more general, and inquire whether there are physical objects or abstract entities.  He designated the former internal questions and the latter external questions.  The notion of a linguistic framework was introduced to distinguish between them.  He wrote: “If someone wishes to speak in his language about a new kind of entities, he has to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this procedure the construction of a linguistic framework for the new entities in question.”

Carnap’s move here is a very attractive one.  All he is trying to do is make sense of what is required for people to be able to talk meaningfully.  For example, asking questions about prime numbers requires that we have some framework with which to talk about numbers.  In the case of arithmetic, this might be predicate logic enriched with Peano axioms.  These give you the rules for how to adjudicate a question like “is there a prime number greater than 100?”.  Or, if you want to ask about the existence of some particular physical object we turn to the framework of natural science.  The point is, to quote from Carnap again, that to “recognize something as a real thing or event means to succeed in incorporating it into the system of things … according to the rules of the framework.” 

So much for internal questions.  What about external ones like “do numbers exist?”.  These, Carnap thinks, are questions that cannot be answered within any given framework.  Rather, they are questions about the framework itself.  Now, the whole point of frameworks is that they give you the rules with which to adjudicate ontological questions.  Without the framework there are no rules and hence no way to answer the question.  To quote from Carnap one last time, “To accept the thing world means nothing more than to accept a certain form of language, in other words, to accept rules for forming statements and for accepting or rejecting them.”  Moreover, “the thesis of the reality of the thing world cannot be among these statements, because it cannot be formulated in the thing language or, it seems, in any other theoretical language.”  The choice of frameworks, he thinks, is, if not exactly arbitrary then certainly heuristic: “The efficiency, fruitfulness, and simplicity of the use of the thing language may be among the decisive factors” in choosing to adopt it.

I don’t mean to suggest the Kuhn ripped off Carnap and simply re-christened frameworks as paradigms.  But I do think there is a deep set of shared assumptions at play here.  The most important one, the one that I want to highlight here, is that it is language or some other analogous, abstract, rule-governed structure that determines our experience of the world.  We are, in some sense or another, trapped within language, whether we want to call it a paradigm or a framework.  I think this is what Kuhn might have meant with his infamous remark that two scientists operating in different paradigms do not share the same world: our language constitutes our world because it provides the rules according to which we accept or reject the existence of certain entities, events, and relations.

Let’s follow Morris one step further in the argument.  I do think he is onto something when he makes the connection to postmodernism.  This is perhaps even more ironic, because postmodernists (whoever they were) certainly would have been terribly unhappy to be mentioned in the same breath as Rudolf Carnap.  But I do think the two schools of thought share some very deep assumptions about language and ontology, namely, the notion that our world is never simply given to us, but rather, that our experience of it is fundamentally structured by language or some other abstract symbolic system.  Now, of course there are questions about how this system works—the post-structuralists, for example, would disagree that it is fundamentally logical or rule-governed—but the role of  abstract systems is taken to be pervasive across the board.  The radical move that postmodernism made is to sever all connections between the abstract system and what it represents, to emphasize the vast gulf that separates signifiers from their signifieds.  Or, to put it another way, although the fundamental epistemology remained the same--a picture theory of truth--a change took place in that the picture was made more real than what it represents.

To conclude: Morris is tilting at windmills.  Why?  Because, at least to my mind, we have been moving steadily away from this basic set of assumptions in the last ten or twenty years.  Rather than worry about abstract systems, language, and signifiers, we have become much more concerned with things, practices, and experiences themselves.  Ian Hacking’s wonderful book Representing and Intervening is an excellent early example. Hacking was a philosopher of science, but I think there is a really important trend  that generalized to historians as well.  We have begun to write more about material culture and laboratory practices than language or hegemonic political structures.  Similarly, philosophers of science these days rarely still try to solve logical puzzles about black and white ravens.  Rather, they tend to look in detail at what scientists actually do.  What I see, then, is a fundamental move from large-scale epistemic questions to more local ones (which often have a more ontological flavor).  I don’t mean this in a shallow way, because of course Carnap himself was very concerned with ontology.  In a sense I do mean it literally though, in a very flat-footed way.  Let me pose it as a question: Have we indeed become  more interested in the world rather than abstract structures representing it?  If so, Morris may have a point, but he’s at least ten years too late for it to make much of a difference.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing, Theory, and the History of Science

Let me use this post to follow up on "The Science (Studies) Wars: Daston v. Jasanoff" by linking it up with a few different conversations that have taken place at Princeton over the past couple weeks.

First up was a discussion with Jim Endersby on 23 February about a pre-circulated paper called "Of Fleas and Whales: Turning History of Science Inside Out." Much of the colloquium was devoted to what exactly Endersby meant by turning our histories "inside out," since his emphasis shifted between aims like reaching wider audiences, tackling larger-scale problems, integrating with history departments, and saving the humanities and democracy itself.

While Endersby's concerns certainly resonate with the Daston/Jasanoff debate I summarized last week, he didn't put his paper into dialogue with them. Had he done so, I think he'd have aligned himself with Daston - though where Daston looks ahead from a history/history of science marriage to further liaisons ("Philosophy, anyone?"), Endersby wants to see more linkages with general historians. It became pretty clear in the Q&A that one's sense of the relationship between the two fields depends on institutional context: e.g. it's friendly at Princeton, but not-so-friendly, apparently, across the pond at Sussex.

Another phase of the conversation hinged on the relative importance of technical detail in histories of science (this should sound familiar from here and here). Ultimately, Endersby sided with the partisans of the less-technical, in the interest of maintaining the interest of non-expert readers and general historians. While in theory one should be able to balance the two, in practice we have to come up with techniques for sustaining attention without "selling our souls, as far as the scientific content."

This sounded like a concern about writing strategies for balancing faith to historical episodes against entertainment of present-day readers (the theoretical assumptions underlying this position weren't really up for debate), which linked it up to the second event I want to mention: a paper, by Aaron Sachs (Cornell), called "The Middle Landscapes of Arcadian America: Reconsidering Hudson Valley Culture, 1840-60."

This paper is part of a larger project on death (and life) in the American landscape tradition. One of Sachs's big interests, here and elsewhere, is in the writing of history - why and how we do it, and whether we shouldn't think of it as, to quote from the title of one of his recent articles, "creative nonfiction - or maybe even poetry."

While Sachs doesn't identify primarily as a historian of science, many AmericanScience readers will be familiar with his first book (on Humboldt's American legacy) and he shares many of Endersby's concerns about balancing "technical" material with more writerly interests. In Sachs's case, this interest takes the form of interspersing the historical narrative with bits of memoir, a tactic aimed at both readers (to leaven the book with present emotion and presentist concern) and writers (to jar them out of constraints of genre and chronology).

I'm still figuring out for myself how this decision maps onto Endersby's worries about writing the history of science for general audiences. It strikes me that both prompt us to rethink (or at least clarify why, how, and against whom we wield) our accusatory claim of "Whiggishness." Interestingly, neither discussion dwelled for very long on the theoretical implications of these decisions: implicit, to my mind, at both events was a sense that matters of writing were matters of craft, while matters of theory were something else.

Let me try to connect this issue of writing/theory back to the Daston/Jasanoff debate by way of a third event: a midday colloquium and then an afternoon seminar in Princeton's Sociology Department with the inimitable John Levi Martin, whose work in field theory has been on my mind lately and whose Social Structures awaits my next spare moment for a thorough read.

If the Endersby and Sachs events were all about writing, Martin's was all theory. His current book project, from which he circulated a chapter on "causality and persons," is aimed at what he sees as a dominant, and profoundly inappropriate, theory of causality at the heart of sociological explanation. He calls this theory simple counterfactualism (SCF), and, while I want to avoid getting into too much detail on an incredibly rich paper and discussion, let me suggest that part of what was at issue was what "theory" (scare-quotes intentional) is for in sociology, and how its use might be improved.

Because theory operates so differently (so much less explicitly, though no less fundamentally) in history, and because the problem of faulty analogizing was part of our discussion, I hesitate to share the musings to which I was spurred, as the lone historian in the room, about its implications for my own disciplines. I'll just close with one:

At least where I've been trained, questions of writing seem to be discussed separately from questions of theory. This is interesting, of course, since the two are bound up in a number of important ways, the histori(ographi)cal importance of Hayden White's work certainly not least among them. Writing, in my experience, is still taken up as a matter of rhetoric: making arguments more persuasive, clarifying, structuring chapters, &c.; theory, on the other hand, is treated as a cognitive tool taken up to grapple with historical materials (often not explicitly, but operative nonetheless).

What's the takeaway for historians of American science? I suggest that we can heed Endersby's call to make our work more amenable to American historians, take seriously Sachs's urging to flout the constraints of genre and temporality, and think more critically, with Martin, about the theory underpinning our assumptions, all at once. That is, one "resolution" of the Daston/Jasanoff face-off over the future of science studies would be to emphasize the common cause of writing.

There's no reason why this couldn't also be a turn to theory. Such an emphasis would mark a return not only to White, but also to Raymond Williams, whose "keywords" offer an intriguing and somewhat untapped resource from which (cultural) historians of science could begin to recast the old structure/agency debates in a way that gives credence to the structural (or field-theoretic) forcing of that powerful constellation of human ideas and activities ("science") on which we attend.

In a subsequent post, one of us (Dan? maybe me?) will address the rolling-out of Errol Morris's "Ashtray" series in the New York Times this week. It's a story, which Dan already previewed, in which history and philosophy were twined together at Princeton in the 1970s, with Kuhn's "paradigms" hardening to orthodoxy and Saul Kripke delivering “Naming and Necessity" while looking through a water glass. The series promises to be pretty ridiculous - many of Morris's anecdotes feel fabricated, and he leans on a strong over-reading of Kuhn's Structure and its general acceptance - and we'll try to take it's pulse in a few days...

Friday, March 4, 2011

Black Markets and Arms Trafficking

An article in today’s NY Times implicitly asks whether the popular uprising against Col. Muammar Quaddafi poses a threat to the United States.  The rationale is that the Libyan Government has lost control over a large number of relatively sophisticated weapons (including assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and shoulder launched heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles) that have fallen into the hands of rebels.  The worry stems from the fact that these weapons are sought-after commodities.  So the temptation is high for rebel fighters to sell them, especially once the violence eventually dies down.  And once they have made their way onto the black market, there will be no way to keep them out of the hands of terrorists who harbor ill intentions towards the United States.

Does this line of thinking strike anyone else as incredibly cynical?

The implication is that it’s okay for Western countries to sell weapons to Muammar Quaddafi, who is currently using them to slaughter Libyan civilians in an effort to re-assert autocratic control over the country.  That’s fine.  The weapons are under control.  The real danger is if those weapons should make it into the hands of people who might turn around and aim them back at us in North America and Europe.  Now, I should be careful here.  I don’t know for sure how Quaddafi acquired his stockpile. But according to The Guardian, after the embargo against selling arms to Libya was lifted in 2004, EU countries exported something on the order of 800 million Euros’ worth of arms to the North African state.  In 2009 alone, exports amounted to over 300 million Euros!

What’s the history of science question here?  Just this: what distinguishes a black market or underground economy in the arms trade?  That’s obviously not a *historical* question in the first order sense, but it is the kind of question that historians of science are good at thinking about.  So I’m curious to hear other people’s take on it.

I must admit that my own feeling is primarily one of confusion.  My understanding is that black markets are those that are not sanctioned by a state.  So one way to distinguish them would be a failure to pay tax on the transactions (this assumes we’re talking about a state that does leverage taxes on commercial transactions).  Another way is if the economy consists of trade in a good or service that the state wants to prohibit or eliminate, such as drug trafficking or, in the United States, prostitution. 

But what about international arms trafficking?  Here there is no state that can fail to sanction the transaction.  Of course, there are international treaties and agreements.  The UN or NATO, for example, can regulate arms trafficking (in theory at least).  As I said, my own feeling is one of confusion, but I’ve always wondered about how to interpret the legal status international agreements.  From whence does an international body like the UN derive its normative power and political legitimacy?  What distinguishes a NATO decree from the outcome of traditional negotiations between states, each of which is working to satisfy its own self-interest.  That seems to me exactly what has happened here.  Since 2004 there was no problem selling arms to Libya because it did not pose an immediate threat to us.  But now that we’re not sure at whom those weapons will be pointed we’re calling it a black market.  As I said, this strikes me as a very cynical way to do business!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What have you got?

The Forum wants your articles on American science, and it wants to give someone a prize.

See the official announcement:

The Forum for the History of Science in America has begun gathering articles for its 2011 Publication Prize.

Here are the eligibility criteria:
- any Article published in the English language in a professional journal issue (or chapter in a multi-authored edited volume) dated 2008, 2009 or 2010,
- authored by a Scholar(s) who received the Ph.D. in 2001 or afterward (i.e. recent Ph.Ds and graduate students are eligible for the article prize),
- on a topic in American Science ("American" loosely defined to include the western hemisphere, "science" conservatively defined to exclude articles focusing on either the "clinical and social history of medicine" or the "history of technology").
Authors are encouraged to self-nominate.

Please submit pdfs of published articles to David Spanagel between now and July 31, 2011.

with many thanks,

David Spanagel
Chair FHSA Prize Committee (2011-12)
Assistant Professor of History
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Want more conference and grant announcements from our facebook page and FHSA correspondents? Keep reading.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Intimate Life of an American Scientist

A couple weeks ago, I taught Martha Sandweiss's fascinating Passing Strange for my undergraduate methods seminar. The book exposes and explores the double life of Clarence King, the famed 19th century geologist of the American West. Historians have known for some time that after his western adventures King assumed a new identity as James Todd, a porter, and married a black women in New York named Ada Copeland. Sandweiss claims the honor of being the first to discover that King passed as black while married to Copeland (not a small accomplishment for a fair-haired, blue-eyed man). She also takes this relationship seriously and reconstructs not only King's life in light of it, but also the life of Ada Copeland/Todd.

The book amazed my students---some compared it favorably to a novel. I enjoy the story but appreciate Sandweiss' careful historical reasoning even more. To make up for a near total absence of archival material relating to Copeland, Sandweiss assumes in her third chapter the role of historical detective in a lucid and reflective manner. It is as if we get to see the historian thinking.

But every time I read Passing Strange, I wonder: does it have anything to contribute to the history of American science? For her part, Sandweiss seems content to focus on Gilded Age social and cultural history. In her historiographic comments on page 304, she sets her work apart from that of recent biographers were "concerned more with King as an exemplar of American science than with what his life might reveal about the nation's complicated politics of race and class." Still, I wonder if this fuller understanding of King's later years (those he spent in part with Ada Todd and their growing family) can be useful for historians of science. I feel like it *must* be.

Clarence King's life and work allow us a fascinating opportunity to think about the personal and professional opportunities available to a late 19th century scientist. I'm hardly the first to make such a claim. In fact, Henry Adams beat me to the punch in his Education by over a century.
In 1871 he [Adams] had thought King's education ideal, and his personal fitness unrivalled. No other young American approached him for the combination of chances — physical energy, social standing, mental scope and training, wit, geniality, and science, that seemed superlatively American and irresistibly strong. His nearest rival was Alexander Agassiz, and, as far as their friends knew, no one else could be classed with them in the running. The result of twenty years' effort proved that the theory of scientific education failed where most theory fails — for want of money. (Google Books, 346)
In Sandweiss's words, the lesson of King's financial failure in 1893, for all who cared to look, was that "scientific knowledge and personal bravado now mattered less than capital and corporate know-how." (230-231) By the time King's fortunes broke alongside the fortunes of so many others, his greatest scientific works, his leadership of the 40th parallel expedition, and his directorship of the USGS were long behind him. But he had hardly given up on science: rather he had devoted his intellectual energies and scientific expertise to testifying in mining trials and pitching new mining investments. Still, he couldn't keep up with his growing debts. The ruin of the panic pushed him over the edge and into an asylum.

Sandweiss's exploration of King's double life forces us to rethink the moral here. Certainly, King failed. But he failed while trying to support his dependent mother, his own lavish lifesytle, and a large (albeit secret) family. Perhaps scientific education did not fail for want of money. Perhaps it did not fail at all. King's economic failure was entirely typical and such failure drove many men to mental anguish. Yet the great blessings of King's life, and the responsibilities that come with such blessings, multiplied the devastation of his economic losses.

While King's particular (unique?) situation might not make him the best case for picking out general trends, it does seem that the elite life and the professional scientific life were becoming increasingly distinct in the Gilded Age. In The Humboldt Current, Aaron Sachs sets King next to Theodore Roosevelt in order to contrast King's "humility" in the face of the frontier to Roosevelt's cult of the "strenuous life."(263) Such differences aside, both King and Roosevelt had trouble making a living off the wild west and off of literary/scientific pursuits alone. TR lamented his political life---in fact, methinks he protested it too much---but politics put bread on the table in a way that writing couldn't and cattle ranching hadn't. I should probably be thinking about Paul Lucier's Isis article here as well (see Etherwave's commentary), since King is straddles the scientist/professional boundaries throughout his life.

More fruitful, however, than a King-Roosevelt comparison, would likely be a more extensive consideration of King alongside Alexander Agassiz. As Adams wrote, both men were scientists of the top rank---though Agassiz had the better lineage and Agassiz never suffered financial disaster. Indeed, Agassiz got the presidency of a successful mining company, between his echinoderm and coral reef investigations! Okay, so maybe I just want to read more about Agassiz now.