Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recapping the Reinvention of Time

A couple weeks ago, while I was in the Bay Area for archival research, I ran into our very own Joanna on Berkeley's campus. She was there to participate in a two-day conference called "The Reinvention of Time: Articulations of the Past and Future in the Scientific Present," and invited me to tag along for her paper and a keynote (and the reception, naturally).

We decided, when we parted ways, that it might be fun to write up a few of the many tantalizing threads from the weekend's conversation. So, what follows is a continuation of our "interview" series, wherein Hank (a relative outsider who saw a fraction of the proceedings) poses questions to Joanna (a relative insider and a participant-observer over the weekend) about what made the event so exciting.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Baseball by the Numbers

Since we're clearly relaxing our way into summer (at least on this blog), I thought I'd talk about sports again. But really, I want to talk about statistics.

I got to thinking about baseball statistics last month after reading a post by one of the internet's brightest---Tim Carmody at Snarkmarket--- about the origins of Rotisserie/Fantasy baseball and the way we read games as culture.

The conversation about fantasy sports often intersects with the story of Sabremetrics---that is, the study of baseball by the numbers, the recent founding of which is traditionally attributed to the baseball writer Bill James and his famed Baseball Abstract.

My hunch is that Sabremetrics first erupted into polite culture by way of Steven Jay Gould. In his famous New York Review of Books essay on Joe DiMaggio's streak he wrote:
Among sabremetricians1—a contentious lot not known for agreement about anything—we find virtual consensus that DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is the greatest accomplishment in the history of baseball, if not all modern sport.
The footnote leads to an explanation of the origins of the term in the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research. And the next footnote shows that the Daily News had previously introduced the world to Sabremetrics, but with a less august framing. The story was titled: ""Buncha Pointyheads Sittin' Around Talkin' Baseball."

Sabremetrics has now become substantially more well known. Michael Lewis' Moneyball can be held responsible to a large degree. Fantasy sports in general has undoubtedly been an excellent educator. And the 2008 US presidential election included its own advertising for Sabremetrics in the form of the popular, statistical analyses of Nate Silver, a Sabremetrician who turned his skills to politics at (now a NY Times sub-domain).

It is not surprising that most of the attention to Sabremetrics surrounds the creation of new and interesting metrics or the way able statisticians can interpret and mathematically test vast dumps of data. When we talk about statistics these days, we generally mean a way of thinking or a discipline related to mathematics.

I tend to think about statistics through a mid-nineteenth century lens, however. My statistics happen at a point when some people (ahem, Quetelet) were doing something like what we mean when we talk about "statistical thinking." But most "statisticians" were essentially collectors---like naturalists, but on the look-out for numbers rather than skulls or species. The American Geographical and Statistical Society, founded in 1854 New York as one of the earliest American statistical organizations, neatly folds the statistician in with the explorer. Check out the society's statement of its objects here.

So when I think about the history of baseball statistics, I wonder: where did the numbers come from? Who collected them? Who aggregated them long before Bill James was born?

One might suspect that baseball teams were the first to pay attention to statistics. After all, they were the ones managing their teams. That could well be. But I doubt they are too important to this story.

Individual fans are also likely culprits. But that depends on when it became common for fans to keep their own scorecard. I don't know when that was. I do know that baseball games are *much* more fun if you keep score.

But credit for the popularity of baseball statistics clearly belongs to the press and more particularly to the box score. The New York Times published a brief info-graphic on the evolution of the boxscore a few years ago. And Wikipedia ties early baseball statistics to Henry Chadwick and his publications for the famed dime novel purveyors, Beadle and Adams.

Why and how did the box score become a must for newspapers? I don't know. But I think with that answer and some further digging we can also get some new insights into the way that Americans became more and more invested in a world suffused with numbers and statistics.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Teach 3/11

It's hard to be a scholar of Cold War history and not see all things nuclear as relevant to that enterprise. For that reason, I'm taking this post to share an important teaching resource for understanding the Fukushima disaster in Japan: Teach 3/11. To quote from the site:

'As an independent initiative spurred by the hope of helping people find answers to such questions more quickly, Teach 3/11 is a participant-powered online project built in the spirit of international cooperation and solidarity that disaster recoveries depend upon, regardless where they occur. In partnership with the Forum for the History of Science in Asia, Teach 3/11 has a simple goal: to help you develop teaching materials with the help of the the collective wisdom of scholars worldwide working at the intersections of history of science and technology and Asia.'

I recently ran into one of the contributors, Lisa Onaga, a historian of biology finishing her dissertation at Cornell. She informs me that Teach 3/11 continues to grow and is being integrated into teaching curriculum in number of different national contexts. Beyond being an event-specific resource, I'm excited about the collaborative, multi-lingual, and multi-media format of the project. It's an example of one way that the expertise of historians of science and technology can be extended in concert with and beyond academic publication.

Check it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Science, Political Economy, and Oysters, Past and Present - or - How to turn that diss into a prize-winning book

Yet again, I have the privilege of sharing a conversation between two scholars at different stages in their careers. This one highlights Christine Keiner's excellent first book, raises fascinating questions about the intersection of science and political economy in the US over the last century, and offers a glance into the journey from dissertation to book. I can't thank Anna Zeide, a Wisconsin graduate student and treasured member of our AmericanScience community, enough for engaging Keiner in this conversation and for putting together such an informative interview. I'll let her do the rest of the introducing. But in the meantime, let this serve as a reminder that the FHSA is still seeking nominations for this year's publication prize. For details see here [scroll down]. The deadline is July 31, 2011.

A Conversation with Christine Keiner, This Year’s FHSA Book Prize Winner

By Anna Zeide

At the 2010 History of Science Society annual meeting in Montreal, the Forum for the History of Science in America awarded its book prize to Christine Keiner for The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880 (University of Georgia Press: 2009).  This exciting work of environmental history and history of science examines the struggle for control of the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster industry over the course of the twentieth century. Christine is an Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
Anna Zeide

I had the opportunity to sit down with Christine in Montreal to talk about the process of writing this book that began as a dissertation, about straddling disciplinary boundaries, and about connecting historical work to contemporary environmental debates.  Because I am a graduate student in the process of writing my own dissertation and thinking through many of these very same questions, I found our conversation to be instructive, insightful, and revealing. Christine’s passion and clarity of thought (not to mention her personal warmth) comes through very clearly when she talks about her work.

How did you come to the topic of your book?

Christine Keiner
It all began with William Keith Brooks, who was a zoologist at Johns Hopkins in the late nineteenth century. My graduate advisor at Johns Hopkins, Sharon Kingsland, suggested I look more deeply into Brooks’s oyster work for a seminar paper I was writing. A few historians, like Keith Benson and Jane Maienschein, had written about other aspects of Brooks’s career, but when I began researching his oyster work, I was amazed to find how he had inserted himself into political debates. This really flew in the face of the image of this objective, lab-based, scientific researcher. He published a popular book in 1891 on oysters that was this early interdisciplinary work, drawing both on biology and political economy to argue for the importance of sustaining the Chesapeake oysters. For over twenty years, he advocated privatizing oyster beds because he thought it would bring prosperity to the impoverished people of the eastern shore. The watermen themselves, though—the people he was trying to help—were against the idea of privatization because it was expensive and threatened many aspects of their worldview. It was the packers, the canners, the Yankee capitalists who would be able to afford the high costs of underwater farming and would therefore gain control of the oyster beds.  Watermen fiercely value their independence and being corporate employees was anathema to their self-image. 

One of the impressive aspects of  The Oyster Question is how well it draws on insights from several different historical disciplines to tell its story. What are some of these different fields you drew on and how did they shape the project?

The book began primarily as a history of biology, with a focus on scientists in environmental politics.  I only became acquainted with the field of environmental history after I began the project, and it took me a few years to figure out what that means to bring in those perspectives.
               I also started getting into political science.  The book looks at Brooks’ and succeeding scientists’ attempts to convince the Maryland legislature to liberalize oyster leasing laws. However, the watermen had a great deal of power because Maryland, like many states, suffered from malapportionment, or unequal representation in the state house. Rural people had more power relative to their numbers, which was especially an issue in the South. In many states, this ended up meaning that rural populations controlled conservation lawmaking. It would be an interesting project for other historians to take up to try to understand how this population distribution issue played a role in environmentalism emerging when it did.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise of the suburbs came at roughly the same time as the rise of the modern environmental movement. 
               I also had contemporary politics in mind as I was writing the book.  The conversion of my dissertation into the book took over five years, and the book’s last chapter looks at the 1990s through 2009. So, it’s a long sweep of time, coming up to the present. But even so, it’s already outdated because the Maryland legislature has since passed a historic law that changes the terms of opening up the Chesapeake to oyster farming.
               Finally, I was lucky to have an editor, Paul Sutter, who directed my attention to specific books in all of these different sub-discplines.  Because the book is part of a series on the American South, he directed me to material on agricultural modernization and also on the role of the public domain in western history. 

And how did you end up working with Paul Sutter and the University of Georgia Press? What did you learn from that experience of finding a publisher?

There was a lot of serendipity in my getting to be a part of this series. There was a publishing seminar at RIT in 2004, with four editors—from university presses and more commercial ones.  After the workshop, each of the editors met with people in the audience for a pitch session. I gave my spiel on the book, just for practice. But it turned out that three of the presses were interested in my project! Georgia offered me a contract two days later.  Then, a year later, I got in touch with Paul for his particular series.
               I learned from that publishing workshop that editors have to acquire 25 titles or so a year, so they want to hear ideas. That means talking with editors at conference book exhibits is a good thing.  You should always be prepared to give that elevator speech, just so you can share what you’re working on with anyone who might be interested.

We talked earlier about your relatively heavy teaching load at RIT. Have you been able to draw on insights from this book in the classroom?
Since we’re in upstate New York rather than the Chesapeake, I usually stay away from the specifics of the oyster case in my classes. But talking about the larger issue of the tragedy of the commons is a major part of the environmental studies classes I teach. My book challenges the idea that the Chesapeake epitomizes the tragedy of the commons. I suggest that the state-funded program of replenishing the oyster beds actually worked out pretty well.  It wasn’t a perfect system, of course, because there were tensions and scientists were upset when administrators ignored biological criteria. But it was a compromise that worked for the most part for several key decades.

Your book has so much relevance because it connects so directly to questions being debated today in Maryland politics about how to manage the oyster beds.  What kind of responses to your book have you gotten from policy makers or the general public?

I’ve given radio interviews and talks for people in the community. I often begin by showing recent newspaper articles that display no historical awareness—they say that because of the new oyster leasing law watermen are going to have to suddenly give up their hunter-gatherer role. My book shows that oystermen have been evolving away from this image for the last 80 years.  The legislature mandated public repletion of the oyster beds in 1927, thereby helping to create a regulated commons in which harvesters acted almost like state employees.
               But overall, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from all sides. A waterman called my parents’ house and ended up talking with my Dad for a long time, and told him he thought I’d nailed the main issues in the book.  I think that meant more to my Dad than any award I might get.
I’m looking forward to talking more with the Department of Natural Resources, because in their very own literature they say that previous strategies haven’t worked. But this isn’t true.  There have been sustained harvest strategies for the last century. Between the 1930s and 1980s, they were harvesting 2-3 million bushels of oysters per year. Now, it’s more like 25,000 bushels per year. But the goals have also changed. Today, the goal is 2-3 million, but during those earlier decades, the goal was 10 million, which is just an unsustainable expectation set in the nineteenth century. So I hope I can make people in the broader policy arena realize that a lot of people have been dealing with these questions for a long time. We can’t always apply the same solutions, but it’s important to realize that there are many different stakeholders. We shouldn’t assume that one group was wronged, that scientists never had any input. The political process is always about compromise, and it’s most frustrating to see cases in contemporary politics where neither side wants to back down and so there is an impasse.

 What’s the next project you’re working on, and how, if at all, did it emerge from your first book?
In my next book, I’d like to continue my broader goal of contributing to marine environmental history and explicating the “political role of scientific expertise” (Stephen Bocking’s phrase) by examining Cold War debates over building a sea level Panama Canal, something I kept coming across in my Smithsonian research for the Chesapeake project. Some scholarly work has been done with respect to efforts to use nuclear explosives to build the waterway, but I’m more interested in the concern about nonnative species crossing between oceans, and how the specter of invasive species was raised in the 1960s, a generation before zebra mussels in the Great Lakes brought the issue to a national audience. 

To close, do you have any advice for me or other young scholars informed by the process of writing your book?
Well, because I know you’re writing about the history of canning, I’d encourage you to look at a couple of books on canning in the eastern shore. There were many issues over labor in oyster canneries in the Chesapeake that would be interesting to look at.
More generally, I’d suggest not trying to make your dissertation perfect. There’s a lot you’ll have to redo anyway. Even after my first manuscript, which was itself a huge revision, I still had to go back to archives for more research, five years after the end of grad school. Be flexible in realizing your thinking will evolve over time.  Dissertations and books have very different purposes and with very different audiences.  The former shows your committee that you can do original research, while the latter is a broader story for a large audience. Publishing is such that we can’t write specialized monographs anymore, so it’s good to be thinking at the dissertation stage about the broader impact, but also to recognize that it’s important to finish the dissertation, and not get caught up in making it perfect.

Anna Zeide is a PhD student in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is working on a project about the history of canned food in America, which explores the various forms of expertise that shaped how American consumers began to see industrial food products as a safe, reliable, and desirable part of their diets