Pleasant surprises from Phoenix?

Were you at the History of Science Society's Annual Meeting in Phoenix? Why not share a highlight?

I'll get us started, but I'm relying on the rest of you to help me out. We don't need essays here. Feel free to submit half-digested thoughts. Based on your contributions, I'll ask paper authors to put together mini-entries for our general edification.

Watch while I set the bar low with my own short shout-out:
Sadiah Qureshi of the University of Cambridge got me thinking in her Friday morning (20 Nov. 2009) paper about the benefits of talking about nineteenth century nature conservation alongside efforts to create reservations for Native Americans. Often the same people pushing for reservations were also advocating national park lands. Those people spoke in both cases about a vanishing past that would not be preserved without intervention. Why not consider these two apparently separate activities together? I---I think rightly---shy away from any formulation that would appear to equate Native Americans and nature. Yet that's no reason not to pay attention to a way of thinking and talking about Native Americans and nature that many prominent thinkers employed in the nineteenth century.


I thought it was a remarkable coincidence when Conevery Valencius discussed on Saturday morning the changing attitudes that seismologists have exhibited toward original anecdotal narrative accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.

I noted how her argument could have fit very comfortably in the following morning's session (which I chaired) on the varied uses of historical (sometimes Scriptural) evidence in technical or theoretical arguments made by scientists in fields such as astronomy and natural history in past centuries.

I enjoyed the Friday morning session on systems biology. There was a little bit of history and a lot of science, which was sort of a fun thing for an HSS session. Perhaps more sessions might include a science talk. It was good for my brain; it was interesting to think about the historical context for some of the more contemporary science under consideration. While the history of the science might not have been as rigorous as many of us would expect in our own work, the papers still opened up some thoughtful discussions.

I'm a big fan of activities that bring working scientists and historians of science together.

David and Gina: thanks so much for commenting. Your contributions will not go unnoticed. I'm already working to use them as the inspiration for future posts from invited contributors.

The whole meeting was a highlight, for Phoenix was my first HSS. I blogged about my talk here:

Thanks for calling this to my attention, Dan. I saw a number of great papers this year, though was disappointed that the systems panel mentioned above overlapped with my own.

In terms of general themes, I was most excited by those highlighted by Betty Smocovitis in her excellent comment on the panel put together by Sage Ross. What emerged was a discussion of the place of narrative (and meta-narrative) in the history of science. Paying attention to the ways actors justify their practices isn't new, of course, but the discussion suggested renewed potential for fusing the histories of ideas and practices in the history of science through a focus on how both are subsumed beneath the meta-narratives scientists construct around their pursuits. While, as Dan Kevles suggested in a question, this risks taking actors "at their word" and missing underlying economic and political causal factors, I think the issue of scientific rhetoric, especially as a way to track disciplinary change, is an important one, and was glad to see it discussed so energetically at HSS.

Michael: thanks for dropping by and leaving the link to your presentation.

Henry: I'm really intrigued by your call for "fusing the histories of ideas and practices" around meta-narratives. But I'm not sure I know exactly what it means. For instance, why the "meta"? Could you give an example?

Dan: My impression of Sage's use of the term (and this is now a month-old impression) was that "narrative" was how the theory of evolution (for example) explained things, whereas the evolutionary "meta-narrative" was about defining the life-sciences in terms of evolution. Sage used the famous Dobzhansky quotation about nothing in biology making sense except in the light of evolution - as opposed to an argument about, say, the particular historical development of a phenomenon - as an example of the difference. Re: ideas and practices, Sage's paper seemed to say that "molecular evolution" was more than just a fusion of ideas or the adoption of practices from one field by another. I'm fuzzy on it, but if we focus in on the meta-narrative (what biology is or should be about) being constructed in the process, then practices and theories make sense in light of disciplinary boundary-drawing and the problem-choices that result.

Henry: I won't hold you to this, but I agree it's interesting. The meta-narrative seems like a complement to the paradigmatic problem as a means of explaining how groups of scientists attempt to draw boundaries, define their communities, or choose among methods or approaches. Maybe we can convince Sage to drop in a short clarification.

Hi! Henry did a nice job of explaining what I find appealing about thinking about history of science in terms of narratives (and metanarratives).

The way I defined it in my talk is that a scientific metanarrative is a story about stories: a big story that scientists (and others) use to bring order to all the "little stories" (like an individual experiment or research program or anomalous observation) in a field. So how a scientist goes about trying to advance a field is driven by the question of how to extend and reshape and challenge that metanarrative.

Part of the appeal, as you suggest Dan, is that it gets at these big questions in a way that doesn't privilege theory (or practice, or technology, for that matter). One can imagine a metanarrative staying essentially the same despite theory change, and likewise one can imagine a shift in metanarratives even while the relevant theories are stable; if a different theory of evolution had become dominant in the 1960s (say, a basically Lamarckian rather than Darwinian one), the Dobzhansky's conception of what biology was all about might not actually change that much, while Dobzhansky's targets (the more imperialistic and reductionist of the molecular biologists) didn't disagree about theory, they just had very different metanarratives for making sense of biology. So I think it does complement the idea of the scientific paradigm for thinking about the structure of science and scientific progress*.

*Standard Kuhnian caveats about "progress" in science apply here, of course, but it's maybe less philosophically problematic to talk about the progress of a scientific narrative-in-the-making, since there's no implication of an inevitable drive toward final scientific truth.

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