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.