Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Toward an Environmental History of Psychology: A Conversation with Michael Pettit

The Inspiration: A Toronto Raccoon, photo by Michael Pettit

The Forum for the History of Science in America's newsletter regularly prints conversations between accomplished scholars in the history of American science and younger historians. In the most recent number, (PDF available here) FHSA editor, Dan Bouk (Me!), claimed the privilege to speak with 2011 FHSA Article Prize winner, Michael Pettit.

We enjoyed ourselves and hope you'll enjoy listening in, so to speak. There is something for everyone: Raccoons (so cute!);  history of psychology and the human sciences (so cerebral!); Canadian institutions for HOS (so interdisciplinary!); and even a few musings on the intersection of HOS with environmental science (so relevant to the discussion Lukas introduced here!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ease on Down Them Cyborg Highways . . .


Last week’s announcement that Nevada had OK’d Google to license driverless cars in the state reminded me of another story from last year in which an agency within the US federal government claimed that cell phone use is addictive. As autonomous vehicles and partly autonomous technologies—such as frontal crash warning systems that apply the brakes for you if you are about to rear-end someone—continue to improve, advocates of these technologies may well see opportunistic advantage in current talk about distraction and distractibility.  


Look, Mom, No Hands!

I am particularly interested in what historians of science and technology and STS scholars have to add to these debates. More specifically, when I read and hear news stories on these topics, I see a dynamic that has become a central obsession of mine, and  which forms the basis of my book manuscript on the history of auto regulation. As we redefine how we understand problems, we also often change our notions of how to solve them. Shifting scientific notions of risk and of human nature often play an important role in reframing problems; they also play an essential part in how we conceive of solutions. In the instance of cell phone use, by intensifying this pre-existing image of our addiction to electronic devices, federal agencies can establish two things simultaneously: ideas of the distracted driver as a delinquent person who risks the lives of others and notions of how to remedy this perceived threat.  In our current situation, distraction (could) = autonomous vehicles (read, robots)—well, potentially . . . if actors, powers, and forces align to make it so. 

Here are some thoughts on how our current discussions play out against a historical backdrop.

Monday, May 14, 2012

How are History of Sci/Med/Tech and History of Capitalism Teaching One Another?

Continuing our ruminations on the history of capitalism and its relationship to the history of science/med/tech or to STS (here) (here) (and here), I think we might find some useful categories of analysis in Jeffrey Sklansky's recent historiographical essay from Modern Intellectual History (Vol. 9, no. 1, 2012). Sklansky's piece, "The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism," (requires subscription) does what great historiographical works should do: it covers and categorizes a wide literature using analytical categories that shed new light on the assembled works; it reads recent scholarly trends perceptively; and it points the way toward fruitful new avenues of research and analysis. I'll summarize Sklansky's approach to each of these aspects, but for our purposes, I will note this first: Sklansky's analysis suggests to me that the history of capitalism as currently practiced already shares deep affinities with our own dominant historical and methodological approaches.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Craft Economy: Technology, Aesthetics, and Beer

Yesterday, I awoke to two announcements. First, Steve Shapin is giving a talk in England at the end of the month called "The Tastes of Wine: Towards a Cultural History." Second, next week is "American Craft Beer Week." Here's the announcement for that:


These two events have more in common than alcohol and my inbox. Shapin's argument that oenophiles constitute an evolving "taste community" is increasingly true for craft beer in the United States. While not amenable to Shapin's longue-durĂ©e approach, craft brewing provides an alternative view of technology, economics, and aesthetics – capitalism, you might say! – with a peculiarly American flavor.

Check out that promotional video. It's all flags and amber waves of grain – Benedict Anderson in a pint glass. And the pride is well-placed: as announced at last week's Craft Brewer's Conference, the industry posted a 15% retail spike in 2011, reaching 5% of the domestic market by volume and topping 2,000 breweries for the first time. (There are lots of write-ups on the "beer bubble" – for a start, try this and this.) 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Radiolab: Pop Science, Common-Sense

Like many people in the history of science and technology, I am deeply interested in the history and cultural work of popular science, including magazines, books, TV shows, and now webpages and podcasts. I hope to offer some reflections on pop science over the coming months and also to highlight some web-based works on science that historians and other critical thinkers have created.




I wanted to start with some thoughts on a truly great pop science program, the WNYC (National Public Radio) show, Radiolab. And I particularly want to think through its relationship to common-sense, something that all popular communications must consider.

Monday, May 7, 2012

(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

Lee kicked of a lively discussion Friday as he wondered what the history of capitalism had to say to the history of technology, (medicine?), environment, and science (HoTeES, or HoTMeS?). Lee postulated that the interactions of capitalism/political economy and science might be expected within the realms of shared problems and jointly produced tools. I wrote a dissertation about "tools for discrimination" and the "science of difference," wherein life insurers are shown to be important sponsors of investigations into human difference---so I am on board. To help me judge Lee's hypothesis, I would like to offer a few posts over the next week that point to intersections between these two fields (HofCapitalism, HofScience/Tech/Med/Env). Let's get empirical, so to speak!

A different sort of account book, but an accounting nonetheless---from Samuel Blodget's Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (1806)


Evidence 1: Caitlin Rosenthal's exquisite essay in the most recent issue of Common-place, one of the hippest journals around. Rosenthal has one big argument, accented by a score of anecdotal gems. She argues that account books, whatever else they might be, are always narratives---they tell stories. This, she claims, was true for the early nineteenth century books that now populate her historical work and remains true for the accounting summaries published by firms like Countrywide Financial on the brink of its disastrous unraveling.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The History of Capitalism and HOTeES

When talking about the history of science and technology here on American Science, I've referred to it as HOST. This is nice. HOST has overtones of hospitality, gift-giving, amiability, and helpfulness, but maybe it's a bit too cozy. On the other hand, it could also be read as a parasitic host, which is more thrilling. Yet, it might be better for marketing purposes to call it HOTS, as in "I have the HOTS for research on paleontology and capitalism." Perhaps, it is even more advisable to talk about the history of technology, environment, and science, or HOTeES. Because, let's face it, who doesn't want to be one of the HOTeES? The things we think about on planes.



I returned a few weeks ago from the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians. This year's theme was "Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy." I'd like to share some various and scattered thoughts on the conference's theme, with an eye as always towards (implications for) the HOTeES. 


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beyond Theory & Method: Sociology, Anyone?

In the wake of yesterday's guest-post, I've been thinking about our ontology discussion (here and here) through a new lens. It's a dual one, framed around the sorts of questions we historians (of science) ask and how we go about answering them – motivations and methods, if you will. 

A (somewhat relevant) snippet from the archive

Don't worry: I'm not diving (all the way) down the rabbit hole again. But I wanted to link this up with a post from long ago on "the science (studies) wars" and specifically to Daston's now-famous question ("Philosophy, anyone?"). Specifically, I wanted to see if I could ground the ontology/epistemology dyad in the issue of reflexivity.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guest Post: Sculpting Science?

Fossil preparation using a sandblaster.


[A recent post on feathered dinosaurs has led to an interesting discussion on whether and how we might extend Ian Hacking's ideas about the historical ontology of human kinds  to think more carefully about the material construction of natural kinds. I asked Caitlin Wylie, who is working on a PhD about fossil preparation at Cambridge HPS, if she had any thoughts on the matter.  In addition to the photo above, she was kind enough to send the following along:]

I’m glad to find that we all share a conception of scientific objects as theory-laden, even for objects as different as “bones, blood, and brains”! But I wonder if ontology is the most interesting focus to have here. Does it really matter if a fossil preparator actually removes – or creates, for that matter – what today’s paleontologists interpret as feather traces? That interpretation and the resulting knowledge claims (i.e., that dinosaurs had feathers) are more important, if you ask me.