Usually scholarly articles are hidden behind subscription walls, so it’s nice to be able to share a recent piece that I wrote with Karen Rader that is open access, courtesy of Isis (the flagship journal of the History of Science Society) and the University of Chicago Press: "Science in the Everyday World: Why the History of Science Matters" (full text or .pdf). The essay is part of a set of articles that takes on the question of whether or not research in history of science might be of any value for working scientists, as opposed to an activity that is simply of interest to other historians. As explained in the introductory essay (full text or .pdf) to this "Focus Section," the impetus for this topic came from two scholars who have long been involved with thinking hard about this question, and who have worked closely with scientists: Jane Maienschein (currently president of the History of Science Society) and George Smith (who was director of the former Dibner Institute at MIT, which housed a library and funded fellowships in historical research). They brought together a group of two-dozen or so of us for a week-long workshop at Woods Hole, which then gave rise to these thinkpieces. Jane and George charged us with the task of writing our essays for scientists as our primary audience, rather than historians, even though they would be appearing in the pages of a history of science journal. This isn’t as strange an idea as it might sound at first, because of the fact that these essays would be open access and thus easy for anyone to retrieve and circulate, increasing the odds that discussions might follow beyond the normal circle of historians of science.
I’ve been off writing a book, but already there’s been some discussions started – which is a great credit to Jane, George, and Bernie Lightman, the editor of Isis who greenlighted this Focus section – and so while I’m taking a quick breather before diving back into writing chapters, I wanted to expand a bit on some of what has been raised in response to our contribution on popular culture (there are links to that commentary at the bottom of this post – if you know of others, just send them along and I’ll update this page). In addition, we’ve heard from colleagues that the essay will be useful for teaching interdisciplinary classes – that’s great news! And Karen will also be posting some further thoughts below in the comments, so be sure to take a look.
We had a head-start on thinking about how to present our topic to scientists because so many of the participants in the Woods Hole workshop do science, which included such formidable figures as a Nobel Prize- winning physicist (yes, really!) and the head honcho of one of the National Science Foundation’s Directorates. (I know I can speak for both Karen and myself on this point: that we really appreciate the ideas that were generated by all of the workshop participants in helping us think through different dimensions of the popular culture question, and also would send a big vote of appreciation to the third member of our "popular culture & scientists" mini-group, Bernie Lightman.)
One thing we knew we had to do in our essay was to present some of the backstory of why historians of science study popular science, and where we’re at today, since we couldn’t presume that a scientist would be as familiar as we are, say, with debates over "the deficit model," or the classic Cooter and Pumfrey article, or the state-of-the-art work being done in Victorian science and popular culture. We also chose two 20th -century areas to focus on, one based on Karen’s on-going research on science museums, and a second from mine on images of "the intimate scientist" in more ephemeral forms of mass media (magazine articles and television shows). I see each of the sections in the essay as exemplifying a common emphasis across time and place (even as they diverge in important ways): that is, an insistence, on the part of public audiences, on seeing science as a humanistic activity, with important light to shed on questions of personal and cultural meaning, even as science is at the same time based on technical, experimental, and quantitative practices. As evidenced in these popular domains, the search for scientific knowledge is deeply-implicated in philosophical questions that people are concerned about, and want to discuss: How do we know when we know things? How is truth defined? How should we expect nature to behave? What does it mean to say that something is natural or unnatural? What is a human being? How are human beings different from animals? From machines? What relationships make society possible? What is our place in the universe? . . .well, you get the idea.
So I would say that the first answer to the question of what value research in science and popular culture might offer to scientists is that the study of popular discourse demonstrates the existence of a persistent challenge to the idea that science is a powerful but (merely) technical activity in which various creative individuals spend time trying to unlock empirical puzzles so as to understand and control nature – leaving "cultural meanings" as downstream epiphenomena that are separate from the practice of science, and thus of no relevant concern to practitioners, who simply wish to get on with their jobs. In short, from the vantage point of various publics there is no humanities/science split: science is humanistic. What happens, then, when an insistence on thinking about science humanistically in the public sphere runs up against professional norms that privilege presenting science as a technical activity (a body of problem sets, methods, results, further questions)? I believe that a number of ramifications follow (hence, the chapters of that book I’m writing that I need to get back to :-) but in the compass of this short, suggestive reflective essay in Isis, we propose at least one: that you get a pattern of unresolved tensions that characterize relations between science and the public in American culture today, despite the high esteem in which science is held generally.
If this vernacular discourse about the humanistic aspects of science exists, and if it doesn’t match the expectations of the professional community about how they would prefer to conduct a public discussion of scientific facts, then how might understanding this history be helpful to scientists? We offer a prescriptive answer: scientists should think about listening to this conversation and participating in it. I know, I know – who are we, as mere historians, to be so forward as to tell scientists what to do? Well, remember, that was what we were asked by our workshop conveners to do: to be so bold as to venture an historically considered opinion! So, why should scientists do this? Well, the most straightforward answer is that we do not believe that the tensions that emerge between these two competing approaches can be worked through successfully if: scientists don’t take more seriously the commentary on the scientific enterprise that circulates in the public domain; if they don’t recognize how crucial that the discussions of the humanistic dimensions of scientific activity are in this regard; and if they don’t begin thinking about how they themselves can engage as participants in public discourse and also think about how to engage the public as participants in science. In large part, because those who run the scientific enterprise are the ones who set the terms of access, that is why, like it or not, the burden is on the scientific community. Where to start? One method has been to call upon the sociologists to run surveys of public opinion and do related research and to use these results to provide insight into what the public is thinking and also about how best "to reach" the public (see, for example, the sections on "Public Attitudes and Understanding" in the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators reports, which come out every two years. Here is the one for 2008.). In my view, that only gets you so far, and in the essay a key argument of ours is that the analytical tools of a humanistic discipline like history are crucial components to understanding the terrain of popular culture, which serves as an "intellectual commons" for commentary by non-experts on the scientific enterprise.
Certainly, there are mediating infrastructures that have grown up during the twentieth century to deal with these issues – specifically, science journalists, science communicators, and science educators – and there are certainly some scientists who even find it worthwhile (or at least useful) to engage with these mediators. In our essay, however, we didn’t include this aspect of the question of science and the public simply because we believe that the question of popular culture encompasses a much wider set of questions, topics, and dimensions in terms of the circulation of scientific knowledge than do traditional definitions of what constitutes science communication. There is a tendency on the part of scientists, when thinking about science communication, to pose inquiry in terms of what the best practices might be to follow in order that scientists can most effectively convey their views to the public, so that the public has an understanding that is as close as possible to that of the scientists who are seeking to deliver information from origination point A (them) to destination point B (the public). In short, typically they look to research in science communication to learn how to clarify and amplify the scientist’s voice. Alternatively, analysis from the vantage point of the history of popular culture suggests that there would be value in scientists thinking of themselves not only as points of origin for communication but as destination points as well. The argument in our article is that scientists need to think not only about what they want to say, and how to say (frame?) it, but to think also about why (and how) they should listen to what non-experts have to say to them. At heart, this is an issue in the politics of knowledge, and the ways in which those politics stunt or facilitate democratic participation.
What are the possible ramifications of this listening exercise? That is really the point at which we ended the essay, because we would only know what new sets of questions would be opened up if scientists chose to take up this issue. To spell it out in a bit more detail: What if, in listening to the public’s questions and answers about humanistic science, scientists find that this discussion challenges current ways of doing business? How would scientists respond to this circumstance? If we reach a crossroads in which values and expectations diverge, what consequences are we willing to accept given which directions are taken? It is the case that the essay doesn’t lay out a blueprint or mount a manifesto about what comes next. But just getting to that starting point seems plenty big enough of an obstacle to me. (In the British and European contexts there are quite explicit debates on these political questions – for an excellent analysis, I recommend Mark Elam and Margareta Bertilsson, "Consuming, Engaging and Confronting Science: The Emerging Dimensions of Scientific Citizenship," European Journal of Social Theory, 2003, 6:233-251; abstract.)
Do circuits of communication currently exist outward from science to the public? – indeed, and blogs are certainly a new form of this outreach as some of the commentary to our piece suggest. And yet: to what extent does this outreach consist of listening to non-experts as well as broadcasting to them? That’s one question that I think should be asked much more often than it is, and that’s the one we put forward in our essay. In the end, is this question about public engagement only of relevance for the scientific community? No! Each year that I have been an historian of science I have become more and more concerned with the distance that exists between historians of science and the public, and that’s what I spend most of my time thinking about (see, for example, my 2005 plenary address to the joint meeting of the History of Science Society and the Society for the History of Technology: "'What Have We to Do with Mr. Everyman, or He with Us?’: Reflections on Professionalism, the Public and the Digital Age.") Professionalization and specialization pose difficult problems for the healthy functioning of a democratic society, and if experts insist on engaging only with other experts then the promise of democracy will be a hollow one.
For more: Here are links to discussions that began about our piece in the blogosphere and that prompted some of what I've written above: see Will Thomas at ether wave propaganda; Michael Robinson at time to eat the dogs; and Alexis Turner at red-headed stepchild. More general discussions can be found by Benjamin Cohen at the world's fair and by John Lynch at stranger fruit (which also includes links to further discussions).
Image: A bit of science that circulated in the everyday world, evoking "the intimate scientist": an autographed copy of the December 1965 issue of National Geographic with Jane Goodall on the cover, which also carries a streamer promoting the television special. From andycarvin's photostream at flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andycarvin/2518666389/