History of science: spoiling everybody’s party

As regular readers will know, one of my abiding interests is the relationship between academic history of science and popular history of science or, more specifically, how to make historiographically-informed books into readable texts. It’s an issue that has been around for some time, prompting comments by David Miller on the ‘Sobel Effect’ back in 2002 (when he told “The Amazing Tale of How Multitudes of Popular Writers Pinched All the Best Stories in the History of Science and Became Rich and Famous while Historians Languished in Accustomed Poverty and Obscurity, and how this Transformed the World”). This wasn’t just sour grapes, but an analysis of the effect on the publishing marking and an important discussion of how more recent trends in historiography tend to complicate narratives and question accounts of discovery as a heroic process.

I am prompted to return to this having just read two more pieces related to this issue. One is another by Miller – a 2004 review of a book by an academic historian aimed at a popular market, theoretically providing the kind of response to the Sobel Effect that Miller hoped for. However, John Waller’s Fabulous Science, had, Miller felt, perhaps achieved its readability and clarity at the expense of losing much of the important recent work in STS and HPS. I was, though, struck by Miller’s recap of the initial issue, and felt it worth sharing:

My concerns about this publishing phenomenon were several: that genuinely scholarly books would have increasing difficulty in finding publishers; that academic authors would face undue pressure to ‘flick the switch to vaudeville’, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating memorably put it in a different context; that mythologies and shallow caricatures of the history of science (and indeed of the nature of science) would multiply and be more widely propagated. It might be, of course, that any publicity is good publicity and that my concerns are unfounded or misplaced. I remain convinced, however, that indifference is not an option.

Then he makes an interesting diagnosis of the underlying issues:

To hazard a major simplification, our field is caught in an interesting pincer movement. Some scientists and science pundits have attributed a perceived crisis of confidence in science in part to a bad press from metascience. They have moved to counter critical scholarship on contemporary science or on its history, which they interpret as ‘science bashing’. Many writers with little prior exposure to science or its history have discovered that there is a market for ‘heroic’ scientific tales. HPS/STS is caught in a difficult position, liable to spoil everybody’s party

This caught my recent feelings about the issue very well, and leads me to wonder whether the situation has improved or, in fact, deteriorated since 2004. My recent engagement with the wonderful world of blogs and Twitter has certainly shown me both more interest in and more misused history of science than I had previously come across. (I do not feel, in some cases, that misuse is too strong a word. What the Tea Party do to 18th-century American history, supporters of ID do to Darwin and both sides in the arguments about what Christianity has and has not done for science tend to do to the whole history of Western science.) 

On TV, too, there seem to be a rising number of programmes that are based on, or include, history of science, but a vanishingly small proportion of them present it in a way that makes professional historians of science comfortable. (James Sumner’s description of being an academic historian on science on TV is worth reading, and I love the comment that “as far as public engagement goes, my role is essentially to sneak bits of socially informed historical context into other people’s science communication agendas”).

Today I also read again John Gascoigne’s 2007 attempt to analyse Sobel’s work to see if academic historians of science might learn the knack of popular success from it (this one can be downloaded free). Gascoigne rightly points out that “For the seasoned academic, one of the most difficult transitions to writing a la Longitude is the need to write with the assurance of the recording angel, without the customary allusion to the way in which the same evidence could possibly be interpreted in different ways”. I’ll admit that I am not as impressed as he appears to be by the quality of Sobel’s book, but I was interested by the suggestion that “making explicit the personal element involved in the historian’s craft and the necessarily restricted and therefore subjective vision that any of us must adopt” might help create narrative interest without jettisoning historical rigour. He notes Greg Dening as one who has exemplified this kind of approach (he’s on my reading list and I’ll let you know my thoughts).

I would be interested to hear other thoughts about approaches, tricks and techniques that allow thoughtfulness and learning to be carried relatively lightly. And any views on whether the issue, particularly when access to uninformed accounts of the more controversial topics in history of science are the easiest to find online, has developed over the last decade.

31 thoughts on “History of science: spoiling everybody’s party

  1. I have a different take on this issue. Many of the serious books on the history of science are beautifully written. If they don’t find much of an audience, a good part of the reason is not that academic history is fusty and pedantic but that a very large proportion of college educated people have decided that they aren’t interested in reading books for grownups. Americans simply give up on learning at 22 or 23. Despite the fact that

    Your education’s not complete
    Until the nurse pulls up the sheet,
    Though after that as we all know,
    It’s child’s play to decompose.

    • There is some truth in this, I suppose! My concern, though, is less that people are not reading the really excellent, well crafted books in large enough numbers, but that the engagement they do have with history of science is often of a type that is not only uninformed of more event historiographically trends, but actually works directly against them. Maybe this doesn’t matter but I, like Miller, think it is something we should continue to be concerned about if we think theirs any value at all in the kind of work we do,

  2. Surprised you didn’t mention Holly Tucker’s narrative approach (and how much historical work she said that required!), and also the strong programme ideas of symmetry and impartiality (and perhaps, subsequent discussion of these ideas).

    Or rather, I wonder if some thought over these two point might help…?

    Still, I wonder if much of HPS (and STS) simply enjoy playing the party-spoiler role. So even if they did work out what to do, they’d feel a desire to find a way to pull it apart again. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depends on how you feel about scholarship that, above all, aims to be self-consciously ‘critical’.

    • Thanks Alice. Never be surprised at what books/references I don’t include (I’ve only come to this topic relatively recently and, especially since having a child/becoming a curator/ getting on Twitter, my rate of getting through non-essential reading has slowed dramatically), so I’m grateful that you point this out. I need to read Holly’s work and see what she has said about the work of creating narrative. I take symmetry and impartiality for read, as it were, but it would probably do me good to look over the discussions on it – this is the kind of point that Miller was making in the review.

      Sometimes being the party-pooper is fun, and sometimes it works. Certainly myth-busting is the kind of approach that can grab interest. But the other refrain is “but it’s more complicated than that…!”, which is not much fun for anyone. The complexity and messiness is hugely important, but very difficult to read about and to provide on TV etc.

  3. We had this conversation just a short while ago, on Twitter, but you were rather unconstructively dismissive at the time. Soon I personally will be putting much more attention into doing history of psychology/psychiatry, and that of course is very complex and includes pretty much all history and philosophy of science main issues, then bringing that over to an audience who are often fully untrained in psych is of course very important to me, and I find the best way is by using illustrations – examples. Historical examples can be very useful at illustrating issues. More than that, history itself is composed of individuals as well as forces, masses and whatnot, and the development of ideas; so let me put back your question here to you.

    I want to blog and do opinion pieces on how the history of psych has developed; at the time of our conversation on Twitter, you dismissed my example of using the illness and psychosis of Isaac Newton as a teaching aide, as an illustration. You tweeted back: it was “Sorry, bt IMO that’s using some historical colour to liven up scicomm, not really history”.

    So exactly what do you think history is, then? Can you define what it is you want to communicate?

    I find it odd you now ask how best to promote good history/HPS; it can only be done one piece at a time, since the general public do not have the time nor the finances to go into the questions very deeply. And that is one aspect of the HPS debate you haven’t addressed; how much of the academic reaction is because academics are simply envious of the relative “success” of popularizors, a common problem in many academic fields?

    My own answer to your question has already been given, beforehand, to you; can you think of a better answer? The issue, of course, is that the general public are not academics, and expect something to be interesting as well as educative; to think this is a problem only for HPS is grossly in error.

    We have much the same targets; having been quite vocally supportive of your stance on the recent museum kerfuffle, where you were criticised by purists, I do find it ironic you undertake a purist reaction of your own. Nonetheless, I’ll try again. Why not simply emulate the good aspects of popular science and history writers, but write so as to counter tthe bad aspects?

    • Thanks for replying on this, and please accept my apologies for sounding rude and dismissive about what you said on Twiiter. It is a format in which it is very difficult to be clear in tone and content!

      I think the history of psychology and psychiatry are fascinating areas to explore but where my problem arisess is in attempts to use modern concepts and categories in diagnosing people in the past. This is something like the point I made recently about not using the word ‘scientist’ to describe someone doing scientific work before about 1870 as it is not a term they would recognise and thus tells us little about whatthey were doing, how they were viewed, and how they understood their role.

      I don’t go quite as far as Latour did in suggesting that people in the past cannot have died of, say, a bacterial disease if bacteria had not yet been discovered, *but* I would suggest that focusing on that diagnosis does not help us understand how an individual in the past was treated, what they thought about their situation, whether they expected to recover etc. This is even more the case with psychological diagnosis, which are very much a creation of their time and – of course – can affect the way that an individual, doctor and society act and respond.

      I feel that straying beyond contemporary concepts in this area can be very misleading and I wonder how much it can add to our knowledge of Newton, or whoever, and their work. It can only, really, be conjecture that can help people understand the modern concepts, but tells them little about what happened at the time. So, for me, intesting though it might be, this is just not history of science.

      To take another of your points I don’t think this is really a case of envy of success of popular writers. Most academics aren’t that interested in competing in this field and have different ways of measuring success. The real issue, as I said above, is that most history of science out there is, from their point of view, bad history. This can rile us in the same way that bad science riles scientists and skeptics. I am trying hard to learn from my experiences regarding the negatives in this kind of approach, but there are positives too. I am not sure that over the Science Museum thing I was criticised by ‘purists’ but I take the point that my taking narrow ‘ownership’ of a topic is unproductive. I don’t think, though, that this should prevent the attempt to question uninformed approaches and try to replace them with more satisfactory ones.

      • This comment goes a long way to summing up my own views on the matter.

        “I think the history of psychology and psychiatry are fascinating areas to explore but where my problem arisess is in attempts to use modern concepts and categories in diagnosing people in the past.”

        This is especially problematic, as you point out, because of how our views of mental health change, and how profoundly our views of mental health change how we deal with our state of mind, and how we understand it. It takes careful work to pull apart the potential similarities in what we understand of diagnosis today, and what a historical figure might have felt. Even if we can be fairly certain about a similar diagnosis, what is often of the most interest to the historian isn’t that so-and-so had such-and-such disorder, but rather how they understood their mind, how that may differ from how we understand such a mind today.

        This is problematic with mental health because of the way non-normal states of mind are often stigmatized, dismissed, and viewed with fear or misunderstanding by the general public. When writing for the general public, saying so-and-so had such-and-such disease can be used to marginalize or romanticize in ways that just don’t play out historically.

        “This is something like the point I made recently about not using the word ‘scientist’ to describe someone doing scientific work before about 1870 as it is not a term they would recognise and thus tells us little about what they were doing, how they were viewed, and how they understood their role.”

        This is great, too. When people talk about scientists before 1870, they give this false impression that science is somehow eternal, separate from the people who practiced it, just waiting to be revealed, no matter how various investigators of the world chose to view, define, and practice their methodologies. Again, it leads to problems: a problematic faith in progress, a misunderstanding of the scientific method (as though it is static or eternal), and, perhaps most popular these days, a mischaracterization of the interaction between people investigating the natural world and religion.

      • Thanks for this Christopher. Although it sometimes sounds pedantic, I think that paying attention to language and categories of the past is one of the essentials for historical work. Failing to do so can act as the historiographic equivalent of faux amis in language: you think you know what is happening or what is being assumed, but can easily be misled by modern concepts.

  4. Another thought on @Gurdur’s final point. I absolutely want to learn from good examples of popular writing in history, science and history of science. There are, though, some issues that make history of science an interesting case, particularly the fact that the version given by popular science writers, science textbooks etc is not only different, but often actually contrary to the version professional historians of science have developed,

    I am sure HoS is not unique in this – historians of religion must have similar issues, for example – but it does make the question of getting a range of views before the public particularly important. I’d be interested to hear more about other areas of historical research that generate similar issues, and how they’ve been tackled (or not).

  5. There is a phrase that sometimes comes up in teaching physics: “Lies to children”. Students work through various models (Newtonian, Special Relativity, General Relativity, Quantum…) rather than diving straight in to the best results that we have. I believe that popular/heroic stories might be able to play a similar role for the history of science. It can give some (perhaps vague) approximation that historians can then add complexity to.

    • That is a nice, and positive, way of looking at things. It is also how most good history of science gets out there: by saying more about people and topics that people are already interested in. I like the idea that we could lead people through a geneaology of historiography (like that joke on how many historians does it take to change a lightbulb, peer reviewed version), but somehow I don’t think many would stay the course.

      The is a question about whether it’s problematic to start with the simple version. Newtonian physics still works in many contexts, and it is necessary to understand it before you can go on to the more complex ideas. Obviously you do need to know about heroic and linear narratives, or the selective use of history to bolster ideological positions, before you can grasp the importance of later historiographical developments – but it is possible to leap straight in with some of these lessons. I happen to think that the old-fashioned narratives can be positively harmful to getting an idea about how science works and how it affects the general public and social change – and also not the best way to encourage people to study either science or history further. But maybe these are issues that only become important after you’ve already hook a portion of readers?

      • Although I think this issue for HPS/ STS might be a bit different than science, I also wonder if there’s something to be learnt, especially from kids popular physics.

        There’s an old Soc Studies of Sci paper about storytelling and science (Ron Curtis…? I’ll dig out the ref when I get back) which says pop sci starts with unanswered questions and end with unquestioned answers and that’s not science. I applied that thought to Russell Stannard’s fiction when I was an undergrad and said the opposite was true because he, very simply, used stories about people trying to find stuff out that highlighted the continual need for further research.

        Mmm. Might do a blogpost on this. Or finally write it up as a paper.

  6. If I may be unnecessarily confrontational for a moment, isn’t it HPS’s party in the first place? Are we not entirely right to be annoyed when someone punches the DJ and puts on their own shoddy demo tape, forcing car boot warm home brew down our throats? I would never have the balls to try and write a popular natural history book, sadly as much as I love learning about the history of the disciplines involved I haven’t dedicated anywhere near enough time to studying the organic world in its own right.
    If you just want to entertain- dive in, anyone can write one of those. If you dress this up by saying it has an educational value- don’t be surprised if it gets clawed at. If you want to write a balls out popular history of science book- make sure you have a grasp of the contemporary history of science literature. Not so you can write like an academic, not so you can put in all the latest developments and historiographical twists and complexities, not so that you will have jumped through the necessary social hoops so that academics won’t see you as a chancer, but because you will be less likely to write something stupid and misleading. Same goes for any media form.
    Now that we all agree, let’s enjoy the weekend.

    I hope someone answers your question regarding tips and tricks for making history of science accessible. All I tend to do is try and look really really enthusiastic. Doesn’t work, they just think I’m an arse.

    • Thanks Dominic – I agree! I love your post about history of science on TV. If we could at least just get ourselves to the stage where TV researchers/ directors/ whoever would have history of science programmes informed and presented by historians of science as a matter of course, I’d be a happier bunny!

  7. Great post, thanks. It’s really a question of audience. Many academic historians of science find it anathema to even consider audience explicitly, so that’s the first hurdle. But then, it’s a matter of how many people you want to reach. A typical academic is writing for the dozen or so people in their immediate field of expertise. Academic jargon becomes a tool of alienation.

    On the other extreme, Dava Sobel was writing for the lowest common denominator. She stripped most of the nuance and contingency from her story to reach the widest possible audience (i.e., to sell as many books as possible).

    But there’s a broad middle ground, where you can write for an educated reader not schooled in the jargon but willing to follow an author through some textured narrative and more challenging argument. Consider Ed Larson, or Naomi Oreskes, or, from the journalistic side, Horace Judson.

    To do more than simply spoil the party, academics need to write not just for each other, but for anyone interested in our arguments and willing to follow us through it. And that takes attention to the craft of writing, the courage to be bold in one’s argumentation, and the integrity to maintain one’s scholarly principles.

    • Many thanks for these thoughts. I just hope there are enough others who are willing to take time to write this kind of book. Ideally, it would get the author credit within the academic world, rather than being seen as a distraction from the important business of writing almost-unread journal articles.

  8. Hi Becky as you probably realise from previous exchanges I’m with you all the way on this. Although I think they are fairly rare there are some popular books on the history of science which seem to manage to be popular and serious at the same time. Their authors managing to satisfy both the lay popular reader and the professional historian. For me the best example is Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men. I think historians can help by writing positive reviews of those books that reach Uglow’s level and openly but fairly criticising those that fall short. Too many historians seem to think that writing reviews of popular books is beneath them.

    • Absolutely – and that’s partly where I started with my first posts on “good, popular history of science”. Uglow and Ken Alder were my favourites, and I am now (finally) nearly at the end of Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder. All have been well-received and pretty widely-read. All are thick, chunky books, so a) there *is* a market out there and b) I’m not sure the lighter market has been, or, perhaps, can be catered for so successfully.

      Reviewing is a good point. Very, very often such works are reviewed by non-specialists in newspapers. Gascoigne’s review above is very funny on the laudatory review of Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything by someone who clearly knew nothing at all about the subject.

      • Lunar Men is not a scholarly tome but it does seem to be historically accurate. It is also exceedingly readable. I expect that a great many people who would otherwise enjoy it might have a problem because they just don’t have enough knowledge of general history to place what’s going on in a group biography. Historians of my acquaintance–and I know a lot of historians–used to snort at teaching narrative history to undergrads, but I don’t know how you can enjoy critical history or even just serious biographies until you’ve amassed a critical mass of information including places and ball-park dates.

      • Interesting point. Although I still think that there’s value in giving people a sense of the differentness of other times even if that can’t be fitted into an overall chronology. The difficult thing with arguing that every schoolchild should be taught a basic narrative is, which narrative? What ‘facts’? What gets left out? Etc etc…

      • David Pace, a historian at Indiana University, has a partial answer to the question of what narrative history should be taught: it doesn’t necessarily matter very much. To grossly oversimplify his more nuanced ideas, students who accumulate enough familiar with people and events–what he calls apperceptive mass–will spontaneously develop a need to find or develop frameworks to manage the information. I have a somewhat similar line on the interminable debate about the literary canon. I don’t think it is vitally important or even obviously a good thing that we all read the same certified great books, but I do think it matters that we encounter some large sample of serious writing as students. What we have here is an instance in which more is more for a change.

        Extremely simple principle of educational policy: for the most part, the more you teach people, the more they will learn. But the reason this crude principle works is not simply the likelihood that something will stick if you hurl enough of it on the wall. The sincere efforts of teachers and schools to teach is what communicates values from one generation to the next. A fair number of teenagers I’ve met are puzzled when adults are dismayed that they don’t know much history. “If it matters to you so much, why didn’t you let us know?”

        I guess my advice has some of the same problems as the bit about belling the cat. In effect, I’m claiming that part of the problem with American education is that our civilization doesn’t obviously value learning. Even if I’m right, it’s not obvious what we’re supposed to do about it. My suggestion that college graduates might make a run at continuing their own educations by choosing to read challenging books is probably pretty utopian.

        by the dismay adults desplay a

  9. I’m in the literature search phase for my second pop-science/history book shortly, so this topic is pretty much at the front of my mind. Writing for a popular audience is a lot like writing for children – it’s a difficult balance of getting the language, appeal and accuracy right, and each often necessitates some sacrifice of another. Unfortunately there are no hard rules on this sort of thing, and no matter what you do, you will always lose according to some.

    Gelada made a good point above about the unavoidable fundamental ‘lies’ that are often told in order to establish a connection that can later be modified. I’ve learned this is easier in teaching than it is in writing. Imperfect models can be tweaked in real time with a student, but with one-way communication you have no such convenience and risk cementing inaccurate models and misleading connotations without a chance to evaluate or adjust your narrative.

    I believe in the end communication is not a singular affair. Too much weight is put onto the detrimental effects of one bad book (as there is on ‘one bad teacher’). Collectively there is a lot of good literature out there, and hopefully enough people who are interested in the topic have a varied enough diet of reading material that bad information will be challenged enough to have trouble sticking. There will always be individuals who have limited experience in a field and who will perpetuate myths. I don’t think this will ever change. But collectively I think we’re progressing in a pleasing (and critically appealing) direction.

    Now, if only I can make this book a positive contribution in that direction. Back to the literature hunting. 😛

    • Many thanks for this positive, and inspiring, comment! Perhaps, indeed, I should focus on the many positives out there. And, of course, get on with doing my bit too. Good luck with the next book – it sounds great!

    • The problem in the history of science is that fundamentally false material is not just written once but is repeated time and again in many popular books making it very difficult to correct the errors.

      • True, however when errors are detected and deemed serious, they do get addressed. We’re currently going through a ‘mythbusting renaissance’ (spurred by numerous factors which I’d love to tease apart and understand better) in media, where folk beliefs are routinely being overturned. I have no doubt that there is still a lot of misinformation persisting in the media, however I tend to try to understand education more from a pragmatic position than an idealised one.

        When a belief becomes detrimental, and the detriment is perceived by some, the belief is criticised by a select demographic. The criticism spreads through media as people share anxiety over its detrimental nature, and gradually the bad belief comes to be overturned amongst those who value the new belief more than the old. While this has always been true, the difference now is that due to the low cost and wide spread of media resources, there are more authors in the population. Unfortunately it also means on average, per author there is a smaller audience.

        Why is this important? It’s because today it’s far easier for concerned individuals to produce corrections, but more difficult to disseminate the corrections through diverse audiences. What is needed therefore are authors who can bridge numerous sub-cultures and reach those diverse audiences, more than just popular writers who have large (but relatively homogeneous) readerships.

  10. ‘We’re currently going through a ‘mythbusting renaissance’

    It’s a renaissance that’s past me by.

    Folk belief’s are routinely overturned by folk and always have been, they are not monolithic static entities.

    Its the folk practises that lie behind individual beliefs that are the important factor and these seem to survive intact through each generations adapting and re-ordering the past life of it’s folk.

    Presumable such things survive because they confer some form of advantage to particular groups.

    We are expert at spotting folk beliefs that have become detrimental, but when it comes to folk practises that confer short term in-group advantage, we seem to be for the most part blind and highly uncritical.

    • Many thanks for your thoughts, James. I will comment over on your post as soon as I get back to a proper computer!

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