Good History and the Virtue of Sisyphus

Rebekah Higgitt has asked on this blog for examples of “good, popular history of science”.  In responding to suggestions, she further contemplated what she had in mind.  I would like to extend the inquiry into what we mean by “good”, or quality, history of science, and I would like to contend that our present definition of the term — for popular and professional audiences alike — is tied inextricably to the problem of science and the public mind.

One possible working definition of quality history of science is a history that avoids error as much as possible.  However, error detection and amendment are not now central concerns of the history of science profession.  Aversion of error is more of a courtesy that authors extend to their readers, a virtue akin to brevity and well-crafted sentences.  Criticism between professional specialists is usually confined to relatively private and ephemeral discourse: referee reports and Q&A sessions at talks.  In these venues, matters of error and correction do not typically rise to a more general level of scholarly visibility and sustained interest and debate.  Rather, the specialist community acts more as a means of helping fellow authors extend the basic courtesy of lack of error to third party audiences.  Failure to resolve disagreement between specialists is not considered problematic.

Professional history-writing has adopted an unambitious style, which corresponds to this attitude toward error.  Attention to archival detail ensures against violations of the courtesy against error at the prosaic level of basic portraiture: you can’t go wrong when you follow the archive closely.  At the same time, a reticence toward argumentation about proper context ensures against error at the level of interpretation.  This professional style corresponds to Lorraine Daston’s disapproving observation in Critical Inquiry (paywall) that history of science has, in recent years, taken more general history as its model in adopting a zeal for microhistorical portraiture (I agree with the observation, but have disagreed with the interpretation here and here).

I want to argue that historians’ ideas as to which errors are actually important are mainly limited to very specific forms that are thought to be manifested in popular history, scientists’ histories, and many philosophers’ histories.  While these three genres are vastly different from each other, their variations of historiographical failure are all taken to share a sort of generic Whiggish-demarcationist fallacy.  This fallacy shows itself especially in depictions of the origins of certain scientific ideas, and in the failures of other ideas to live up to scientific status.

This generic fallacy is often thought to be the germ of a disease of the public mind, which causes an unrealistic, immature understanding of what science is and what it can do.  This, in turn, is thought to present a danger to society.  Quality history, therefore, can be thought of as a form of mental hygiene; or, to put a Catholic spin on it, the contemplation of proper images from history raises the mind to a mature, safe contemplation of science-in-society, where improper images convey dangerous ideas.  (Hygiene and faith are not strange parallels: if you go back and read Mary Douglas, you will find she draws clear links between her Catholic apologetics and her anthropology of hygiene — which was a major early influence on SSK’s framing of anti-demarcationism.)

Significantly, good — i.e. realistic and virtuous — images of science are thought to be found in the same archival detail, which, as I suggested above, is generally believed to guard against more prosaic kinds of error of portraiture.  The central aesthetic at work is that understanding science in its material manifestation is to be considered a superior form of imagery to alternative presentations that might dangerously suggest science to be a more abstract entity or idealized process.

In this way, a certain history-writing style and hygienic historical portraiture become inextricably linked.  “Good” professional history abides by the same aesthetic standards as “good” popular history.  The key difference is whether historians are writing in an explicitly “evangelical” vein, or a more inward-directed “ornamental” vein (a distinction I have described most clearly, but probably still not clearly enough, here).

The main difficulty of popular history is thus perceived to be to find a way of candy-coating what we already know to be good history in such a way that public audiences will have a positive, healthy reaction to it.  The pressing need for more accessible writing is emphasized.  The need to instill undergraduates with “curiosity” in things like the marginalia in a copy of Newton is urgent (because the goal is “getting the students to see that knowledge is always embodied in particular forms, that readers encounter those texts in particular contexts that shape how they interact with them”).  Myths about historical arcana need to be busted.  Museum exhibits need to be curated.  Historians on the radio tell us “how to think about science”.  Graduate students should use blogs to join the punditocracy to comment on the issues of the day.

I’m not against these activities, per se.  I think the task is good.  Nevertheless, I am, to my knowledge, the only historian who advocates for less, rather than more, engagement with the public mind (it is part of my blog’s “manifesto”).  I hold this position because I believe it distracts from consideration of the question of what constitutes quality history: partially because the effort required to engage the public is usually large and the apparent effects small, but primarily because our self-professed ability to recognize unhygienic thinking in the public mind makes us over-secure in our thinking about the nature of historiographical error and good history.

In particular, I believe professional historians now discount certain kinds of error while privileging others for no obvious reason.  It is now permissible, for example, to discount conjectural natural philosophy from history.  In the past, I have both picked on and praised Hal Cook’s Matters of Exchange. Gustav Holmberg suggested that it might fit the criteria of a good work for public consumption (provided readers could tolerate the length and scholarly trappings).  It’s an important, well researched, and elegantly written book, but there hasn’t been much interest surrounding what should be highly controversial claims about a circa-1700 decline of “speculation”.  Similarly, the history of ideas that occupies the first part of Steven Shapin’s Scientific Life makes little room for the early prevalence of the epistemology of conjectural philosophy: early modern scientific figures apparently sought Truth.

Given current professional mechanisms, if conversations about such questionable interpretations ever took place (say, they were raised in a book review), they could not be sustained, because the entire aesthetic of professional quality only pays attention to errors that are characteristic of histories that exist beyond the professional boundary.  Non-professional errors take priority.

The links between non-professional error and historians’ sense of what lends their own work quality means that the diseases of the public mind may exist more because those fallacies are required by the structure of our professional identity than because it reflects actual non-professional thought.  Thus, for example, John Wilkins argues on this blog (repeating an oft-rehearsed theme) that scientists’ failure to be good historians stems from their stake in maintaining the authority of their work.

In fact, I argue, it is historians who have a stake in maintaining a certain image of the non-professional audience.  Many historians may abide by the STS-centered call for a more “participatory” science, but very few historians seem very interested in a participatory historiography.  Others’ historiography is automatically tainted.  It may offer a scrap or two of useful data here and there, but it does not exist to raise important questions.  Mainly it exists to be corrected by experts.

Historians should ask themselves: what amount of popular, quality history of science would actually satisfy them?  Would it have to present a coherent picture of history, or would it be sufficient to have good presentation of randomly chosen topics?  Is there a critical mass of popular history of science, or is it more important to eradicate competitors presenting tainted views?  Was the program on early modern microscopes that I happened across on the BBC the other night good (I thought it was), or was it insufferably tainted by statements about Robert Hooke being in some sense the father of cell biology?

These questions do not have answers, because historians are not really interested in answering them.  Historians can maintain their sense of security in the quality and virtue of their work by citing the need to continually push against others’ errors, because these errors are taken to be a social danger.  It is fortunate for historians that these errors will never actually attenuate, because historians have thought little about how they would structure and justify their work without defining the quality of their work around non-professional error.  Such is the virtue of Sisyphus.

About Will Thomas

Will Thomas is a junior research fellow at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Imperial College London. He is originally from Minnesota, and received his PhD in the History of Science from Harvard University in 2007. From 2007 to 2010 he was a post-doctoral historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics near Washington, DC. There he developed the Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource. His primary interests are in 20th-century America and Britain, and in the histories of physics and the sciences of policy analysis. He maintains the blog Ether Wave Propaganda, usually posting about the problems of maintaining a constructive historiography, and about argumentative systems in all eras.
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11 Responses to Good History and the Virtue of Sisyphus

  1. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    I agree with you that the desire to highlight the authority of our work is one of the reasons why historians of science pick on ‘bad’ histories, but surely there are reasons why we think our approach is important, and if we think it is important, shouldn’t we share that with others? I think that as individuals, groups or even as a profession we need to work out what, in a public context, is the message we think it most important to focus on – we obviously can’t correct all errors or force readers to digest the whole archive. some historians certainly are interested in answering these kinds of questions. I am, for once, since the museum context means I have to address various audiences – and I find my views in daily competition (if that’s the word) with other approaches. I therefore have to work out which battles I think are most worth fighting, and work on good tactics – hence my call for examples of good, popular writing, as inspiration. I’m not sure it helped me that much, in terms of providing models, but it is helping to clarify for me why I think it’s important. I would say that if I can give readers and visitors the idea that science has been and still is the product of people living in a particular society, rather than an inevitable sequence of discovery of disembodied truths, then I’ve achieved something.

  2. Greg Good says:

    Hi Will, change your profile to reflect your small move! Keep us one layer down if you can! Greg

  3. Will Thomas says:

    Will Thomas is a junior research fellow at Imperial College London, having recently served three years as associate historian at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

    Hi Greg!

  4. Will Thomas says:

    @Rebekah: As I say, I don’t really hold advocacy along these lines to be a bad thing in itself, only insofar as it distracts from questions of what makes historiography good and useful. Is the historian’s portrait really any more reliable than others’ portraits, just because we don’t make the same kinds of errors? Since museum curators must engage the public as a matter of course, the point doesn’t really apply to museum work — this post is really more using your posts as an opportunity to comment on the issue than as a criticism. If anything, my concern is that historians have taken on curatorial instincts, and thus that historiography is dominated by a sort of “museological” style that leaves certain interpretations of the historical record unquestioned.

    That said, I have a hard time imagining someone viewing a museum exhibit and thinking “before I saw this exhibit, I saw science as an inevitable sequence of discoveries of disembodied truths, but now I know better”. It seems to me that that position is something we just kind of made up as a sort of blanket characterization of the various points with which we disagree, and when we find popular misconceptions we take it as evidence that this characterization is apt. The notion that I work with is that public notions of science are generally inchoate, inconsistent, and diverse. Therefore, insofar as I present myself to the public, I try to make my portrayals as accessible as possible, but without arguing against any particular prevailing public view.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      As a curator I still write and speak to academic and general audiences, so there are opportunities to put across fairly sophisticated ideas. But no, I wouldn’t expect someone to come away from a talk or an exhibit with those words in their mouths, but I think it is reasonably easy to, for example, present science as part of a wider cultural story or to show what interests led to particular developments. And I don’t think it’s just a blanket characterization, it’s a view of how science (and other human ideas, products & processes) work, in the broadest sense. I happen to think this is extremely important for understanding where science sits today and why – much more important than attempting to make people scientifically ‘literate’. Shouldn’t academics as well as curators have a belief that their work is of some wider public benefit or significance, even if they don’t choose to make this a focus of what they write themselves?

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  7. Aaron Wright says:

    While I agree that historiographic critique is often, maybe mostly, directed outwards in scholars’ work I don’t think inward criticism is so neglected. For instance, evaluation of the quality of historians’ work is a centrepiece of graduate education, in seminars and in papers (and historiography seminars of course). Journals such as _History and Theory_ and HSNS or historiographic essays like Steven Shapin’s Discipline and Bounding (pdf) represent other institutionalized traditions of criticism. At Toronto, the History department is hosting a <a href="; working group on “history and theory” co-organized by historian of science Michele Murphy.

    I’d also like to broaden your thinking about “good” history away from archives and toward what-is-convincing as the criterion. Now, archival work may be the most important thing historians look for in judging a work, but I think the reasonableness of inferences, organization of sources, and style of argument are quite important. When we start counting debates over methodology, what counts as a “fad,” and what causality in history is I think historians’ internal debates are seen to be much richer and less private and ephemeral.

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