Tuesday, November 24, 2009

History of Science and its broader public

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/24 at 12:43 AM

[Note: I first drafted this post a few weeks back, but my schedule prevented me from positing it before now. I am drafting a follow-up post that incorporates some discussions that have happened since I wrote this post.]

Two recent books, the current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, and two chance conversations prompt me to think again about the relationship between historians of science and a broader public audience for history of science. I still wonder why historians of science are so reticent to participate in this broader discussion, why we have relinquished our place in writing about science to journalists, scientists, economists, and most recently computer-security experts. Let me be clear: While I don’t think historians of science should be the only ones writing this type of work, I think we should be part of the discussion.1 And yes, that is a normative claim.

I don’t here want to revisit the questions I raised in an earlier post.2 Instead, I first want to point to some of the areas where historians of science have let themselves be excluded from the efforts to communicate science to a broader public and how our participation would contribute to the discussion. Then I want to reflect on why we let ourselves be excluded from that conversation.

The most recent Lapham’s Quarterly is dedicated to medicine. The bulk of the issue is excerpts from historical texts, including Hippocrates, Avicenna, Trotula, Vesalius, and Susan Sontag. A handful of short essays follow these historical sources. While these essays are all quite good, I am struck that even here we see remarkably few historians of science or medicine contributing to this volume.3 It seems historians of science or medicine missed a perfect opportunity to display their knowledge. But what might historians of science offer that other writers—journalists, authors, etc—don’t already provide. The review of and the reader comments about W. Brian Arthur’s Nature of Technology suggests one way that historians of science would enrich the broader discussion about the relationship between science, technology, and society. Arthur’s book raises the thorny question of “Which comes first, the technology or the science?” Reader comments posted to the NY Times review indicate that people have strong opinions about this relationship and feel that Arthur got it wrong, or right.4 The public discourse about science and technology would be improved by a historian of science’s informed reflections on this topic.

More recently, Scientific American reviewed a tourist’s guide book, The Geek Atlas. The author, a computer security expert, guides readers through 128 sites where “science and technology come alive.”5 I am sure this is an entertaining and factually unassailable book. I am not interested in assessing the book; rather, I want to use it as evidence for the popularity of history of science type books. When a press publishes a tourist book on history of science sights, the subject can’t be considered a fringe interest.

Even in more academic settings, historians of science seem not to elicit any attention. Chad Orzel, the physicist at Union College who writes Uncertain Principles, was recently in Waterloo (Canada) to participate in Quantum to Cosmos Festival. He was on a panel entitled “Communicating Science in the 21st Century.” His fellow panelists, all four of them, are science journalists. Notably absent from the panel was a historian of science.6 The panel defines its subject as “science journalism … the essential glue connecting science to society. … How else might scientists come to understand the relationship between new technologies and the products of research and the public who will ultimately use them?” Surely a historian of science has something to contribute to such a discussion.

If there are all these opportunities for historians of science to participate in a broader discussion about science and society, why don’t they? I think there is a high degree of disciplinary insecurity, an insecurity not shared by scholars in the sciences (perhaps that is too obvious to need to be stated) or in the more traditional humanities disciplines (e.g., history, literature). Historians of science have exerted considerable effort over the past century to establish the history of science as a respected academic discipline. Having relatively recently solidified their standing as proper academics, historians of science are not yet ready to dilute their authority within the academy by producing books and articles for the broad reading public. Academia defines what is recognized as scholarly work, what it means to communicate one’s research—both the form of that communication and the channels. Academics are not rewarded for speaking to broader audiences. The mechanisms for retention, tenure, and promotion do not recognize such outreach as worthwhile. There even seems to be an implicit denigration of such “popular” works, often expressed in terms like “dumbing down” or “not properly scholarly.”

Perhaps the history of science is more like the sciences than it appears at first glance. Perhaps, just as the sciences rely heavily on science writers, science communicators, and the burgeoning science communication profession to convey science to broader audiences, the history of science should rely heavily on historically-minded science writers and science communicators to convey the history of science to a broader public. Is that the model that best serves historians of science?

1I use “historians of science” as shorthand for historians of science, technology, medicine. Although the last category, historians of medicine, seem to have been more successful in communicating to a broader audience, even here their success seems to be largely secondary to their intent.
2If you missed that post, here is the link back to it: Historians of Science and Public Understanding of Science.
3A interesting exception is Noga Arikha, who received her PhD from the Warburg Institute and has recently published a book on the history of the humors. Noga, however, has largely ceased to identify herself as an academic historian of science. Instead, she WHAT DOES SHE DO? This reflects the trajectories of some other scholars trained in history of science who have moved beyond the academic world. Some of these scholars continue to publish in history of science, as Noga does, others have moved into the future, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang .
4I have only looked through the book and intend no evaluation of it here. Comments are found here.
5I have not read the book and do not intend my comments to be a review or judgement of the book.
6Chad Orzel’s post about the panel is found here.

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