Thursday, January 31, 2013

Up Goer Five and the Rhetoric of Science

Recently, the webcomic xkcd spurred some discussion with a description of the Saturn V rocket that managed to use only the thousand (or "ten-hundred") most common English words. Entitled "Up Goer Five," the strip provided a jargon-free explanation of rocket architecture and sparked a bit of reflection about the role of technical language in science and its wider dissemination.

Detail from "Up Goer Five" (
In that sense, Up Goer Five is a bit like #overlyhonestmethods, which I covered here. Both highlight the possibilities (and pitfalls) of effective science communication, and both provide interesting opportunities for meditating on what role (if any) the social study of science might play in that process, and how such analysis fits with scientists' own public self-reflection.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Silver Linings and the Statistical Playbook

We asked historian of science Christopher J. Phillips, an expert on quantification in American public life, to reflect on the role of statistics—and Nate Silver—in the coverage of the 2012 election. He was kind enough to write us the following guest post; you can find out more about his work here.

The 2012 election was a "Moneyball Election" and Nate Silver its big winner. Or so proclaimed the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik.  He was certainly not alone. Deadspin's David Roher lamented the "braying idiots" detracting from Silver's well-deserved limelight; President Obama jokingly praised Silver for having "nailed" the prediction of this year's Thanksgiving Turkey; and Wired's Angela Watercutter perhaps gave the ultimate compliment by calling Silver a "Nerdy Chuck Norris." 

Silver, for anyone who has spent the last few years under a rock, is the creator of the (mostly) political blog FiveThirtyEight. Picked up by the "New York Times" just before the 2010 midterm elections, FiveThirtyEight has become one of the go-to sites for political junkies.

An unlikely fate, to be sure, for an unknown consultant at the accounting firm KPMG a decade earlier. Silver tells it as an ersatz rags to riches story, a bored employee and mediocre online poker player who designed a model for evaluating baseball players and then took on the pundits—mainly because in both baseball and politics the majority of "experts" knew close to nothing. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

David Kinkela on DDT, American politics, and transnational history

I've recently had the pleasure of interviewing David Kinkela, Associate Professor of History at SUNY Fredonia and -- of particular note here at AmericanScience -- winner of the 2012 FHSA book prize for his DDT& The American Century: Global Health Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide that Changed the World (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). The book is a remarkable exploration of the history of DDT and especially the domestic politics of its global use. (You can read an excerpt here.) I'll leave Dave to explain in his own words the significance of this history and his approach to telling it, as he does in our interview below. As I think you'll agree, it really should be assigned reading for many American policymakers much as historians of American science.

Helen: I just finished your book this evening, which has got me fairly brimming over with questions. I found it a really thought provoking read -- and one that answers a lot of questions I've had about the history of DDT. I would write that it was an "enjoyable" book but then it is not a history that gives one great pleasure to learn, uncomfortable as many of its implications are; I think clear, informative, question raising and eye opening are probably more fitting. 

Following on that thought, I wondered in what ways your own eyes were opened in the process of writing this book. Is the story you tell here the one that you had envisioned when you started the project? And, related to that question, what got you interested in writing this history of DDT and American politics in the first place?

David Kinkela
Dave: I became interested in DDT because it was a chemical that migrated. It's a persistent pesticide. It does not break down once applied and it travels through the food chain, accumulating at higher concentration of species at the upper end of the food chain in a process called bioaccumulation. For me, the migratory aspect of the chemical opened up a series of questions about the limits of environmental regulation and the connectivity between different regions that used or continue to use DDT. While there is a lot of literature on DDT, not much work had been done on the global or transnational connections that, for me, were at the heart of the DDT story.

Additionally, the literature that made these connections tended to be written by people affiliated with conservative think tanks. The common argument was that Rachel Carson caused the death of millions of African children because Silent Spring led to the ban of DDT in the United States. So I was interested in understanding the roots of the conservative backlash against Carson and its connection to the fight against malaria in Africa. The argument didn't make sense to me. Therefore, I set out to explore the contemporary politics of DDT from a historical perspective.

So as I started of this project, I wanted to write a much broader history of DDT, but I really didn't know where the evidence would take me. What I did know, however, was that the story of DDT was also a U.S. story. It was a history tied to the Cold War ambitions of U.S. policy makers, who sought to improve the lives of people around the world with American technologies. What I didn't know was how explicit these connections would be, not just in the rhetoric of insect control (Edmund Russell's wonderful book that uses the metaphor of annihilation to explore the connection between insect control and the atomic age), but also in the function of postwar development projects around the world.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Science and its #overlyhonestmethods

This week, a hashtag trended on Twitter that will be of particular interest to historians, sociologists, and other students of science: #overlyhonestmethods. One site has called it science's PostSecret; 75 of the best examples have been curated at Storify. Here's what they look like:

Frank, humorous admissions (or inventions?) of how protocols are cobbled together and assumptions are papered over, the #overlhonestmethods meme makes for great reading, especially for those of us interested in the gap between representation and reality in scientific practice and publishing.

Bloggers at The Guardian, Scientific American, the Public Library of Science, and elsewhere have weighed in, most seeing #overlyhonestmethods as a refreshing peek inside the black box of science. Here, I'll inventory a few of the strands in the conversation, and offer some thoughts on what it all means.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Farish Jenkins and American Science (Pedagogy)

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. – paleontologist, anatomist, curator, artist, professor, friend – died this past autumn at 72. Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology has collected obituaries from around the web here. Highlights include Nature, the Boston Globe, and the Harvard Gazette.

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., 1940-2012 (
Famous for fieldwork (including the co-discovery of Tiktaalik in 2004) and beloved as a teacher, Farish loomed large at Harvard for four decades. There's been a certain pattern of reminiscence: suit-vest and pocket-watch, encyclopedic knowledge and blackboard artistry. He was the Indiana Jones of vertebrate paleontology – a scientist and a comedian, a storyteller and a Marine.

I was lucky enough to take his renowned lecture course on vertebrate paleontology—OEB 139—in the fall of 2007, just a few years after the discovery of Tiktaalik and a few before he first got sick, meaning it was one of the few times he got to draw his discovery in 139. Here are a few stray thoughts that came to me after I heard Farish had died.