DOUBLE
REFRACTION
Looking twice at the history of science

Friday, July 11, 2014

Should the history of science have relevance? Notes on the BSHS conference session

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS). Aside from the overall bubbliness and smooth organisation of the conference, the highlights for me were the opening session on recycling in early modern chymistry, Richard Serjeantson's talk on seventeenth-century student notebooks, and the spinach-and-mozarella pastry that was served up for lunch on day one. I was also impressed by the well-attended closing session with the curious title "Should the history of science have relevance?" Rebekah Higgitt, one of the four panellists in this session, said that someone should blog about it. Hence this post, which reconstructs the discussion with the help of other people's tweets and my hasty notes. Feel free to use the comments section of this post to complete or clarify what I have written. At the end of the post I offer three comments of my own: facts matter, there's a place for the deficit model in the humanities, and we should take reflexivity seriously. Expand post.

12 comments:

  1. Many thanks for putting this up, and for covering so much (despite being out of the room for the first half hour!). On the point about reflexivity and method, I would have thought that most historians of science would claim that that there are many methods in science, rather than THE Scientific Method or no method at all. Equally, there are many historical methods. In both cases I think people would be comfortable to agree that some methods work better for some questions than others.

    I think the understanding of deficit model is in the sense of attempting to improve society and/or increase public trust and acceptance of specialists simply by increasing their factual knowledge of science or history - usually in a one-way, top-down fashion.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, and for your contribution to the panel on Sunday, though regretfully I missed your presentation at the beginning.

      I agree that historians of science often recognise the existence of multiple methods in science, rather than rejecting the notion of method altogether. But usually what they mean, I think, is that there is no set of methods that most scientists have in common. Yet there are several historians of science who have given lists of methods or maxims that are supposed to hold for most (good) historians of science. Plus there are some maxims in the history of science that are given special attention: for example, the symmetry principle seems to play roughly the same role for historians of science as the testability principle (theories must have testable consequences) plays for scientists.

      Thanks for your description of the deficit model. So the suggestion is that historians should focus more on communicating their methods and perspectives rather than factual knowledge, and that they should do so in a two-way fashion? That sounds reasonable to me, with the caveats that I mentioned at the end of my post, ie. factual knowledge matters too, and we should not be shy about giving non-specialists the benefit of our expertise.

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    2. I think many historians of science would be happy to agree that particular fields of science (at least in particular times and places) do have methods in common.

      Giving people the "benefit of our expertise" is something that has to be carefully managed, with full attention to context and audience.

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  2. Thanks for this, Michael. I followed the conference's Twitter hashtag with interest and am glad for a more in-depth look at this session. Although I am primarily a philosopher of science, my home is in an HPS department, so I hope it's okay for me to join in the conversation.

    I'm a little troubled by the characterisation of members of ethnic minorities as "shunning the humanities." It would probably be more accurate, and certainly more useful, to say that underrepresented groups have been shunned by the humanities. We need to move beyond placing the blame for underrepresentation on members of underrepresented groups: doing so allows us to ignore real issues of implicit and explicit bias.

    It is possible that members of marginalised groups are indeed more likely to notice, for example, the fact that there are many more PhDs completed than academic jobs available. In addition, members of groups that are historically and currently marginalised - for, amongst other reasons, race, gender, class or disability - may be more likely to notice when a discipline continues to marginalise them. They may notice that they are less likely to get those jobs that do exist, or that if they do, they might well be the only representative of their group within their field, or their department. They may reasonably decide, if a discipline appears to care little about their viewpoint, that their talents might be more usefully spent elsewhere.

    This leads me to suggest another link between underrepresentation and usefulness. Structural inequalities may indeed mean that members of marginalised groups are less likely, on average, to have the resources to indulge an interest as far as graduate level with little chance of employment in the field. However, we must avoid inferring from this that members of marginalised groups are in general more likely to evaluate usefulness on a personal, individual basis. An alternative hypothesis is that the experiences and of members of marginalised groups render them rather more likely to care about the broader usefulness of their intellectual labour: its usefulness to people, to society, to humanity.

    Marginalised groups are not having conversations about whether or not their work should be relevant. They are making their work relevant, and they are having conversations about how to do so better. Members of marginalised groups wrote the books on this - literally. We should start taking them seriously.

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    1. The way that this topic was raised in the room was much more as you have suggested than what Michael has written (possibly due to compression of Twitter). One of the points made by Fern Elsdon-Baker was that demonstrating our usefulness and relevance more, and paying attention to a range of applicable and employable skills that can be used beyond the PhD and beyond academia might be a way of both sharing our field more widely and making it more relevant and appealing to people from a wider range of backgrounds.

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    2. Hi Vashka! Your comment is very welcome, as are all comments from philosophers (and anyone else) on this blog. In fact there is probably more philosophy content on this blog than history content (if philosophy of history counts as philosophy).

      I agree with everything you say about the importance of taking marginalised groups seriously in the history of science, the injustice of blaming them for their marginalisation, and the likelihood that such groups have other reasons for declining careers in the humanities aside from the reason that was given at the BSHS session, ie. that they may be less able to bear the financial risks associated with graduate training in the humanities.

      However I would like to add that none of these points were questioned at the session. As Rebekah wrote in her comment, the topic of minority groups arose precisely because a panellist felt that historians of science were not doing enough to cater for audiences from minority groups. I was not in the room when this segue occurred. When I was in the room, no-one implied that minority groups should do more to cultivate an interest in the humanities, or that the difficulty of finding a job in the humanities was the only reason for the under-representation of minority groups in our field.

      I expect I conveyed a false impression of the discussion with the infelicitous phrase "shunning the humanities." No-one used this phrase in the discussion. Perhaps this phrase reflects an unconscious bias on my part. If so, thanks for pointing this out! I have replaced this phrase in the above post with a more neutral phrase.

      You might be interested to know that the issue of under-representation came up in another panel session at the conference. This time the panellists were the editors of four major English-language journals in the field, and there was a discussion of how these journals could be made more accessible to potential authors whose mother tongue is not English. For example, it was suggested that journal editors could give more copy-editing help to these authors, and that editors could use more reviewers from non-English-speaking countries.

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  3. I wonder if a connection between the two discussions here is that a deficit model is as inappropriate when considering how to rectify underrepresentation in our discipline as it is when inflicting our expertise on an uninterested public. In each case, a one-way, top-down approach is likely to be misguided and patronising.

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    1. I agree that there is a risk of condescension in both cases, and that there is a lot to be said for engaging seriously with one's audiences. However it seems to me that the two cases are relevantly different. Historians of science do not have any special knowledge of under-represented groups, but they do have special knowledge of past science. When historians of science try to rectify under-representation, they have no special training in the topic at hand. But when it comes to describing or explaining past science, there is a real sense in which the historian of science is in a better epistemic position than the non-historian of science.

      Of course this claim needs to be hedged around with caveats: most PhDs in history of science are not experts on all past science; many people without PhDs in history of science are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about past science, which is to say that one does not need a PhD to be a "historian of science" in the relevant sense; etc. Despite these caveats, I think the claim stands.

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    2. I agree that there is a risk of condescension in both cases, and that there is a lot to be said for engaging seriously with one's audiences. However it seems to me that the two cases are relevantly different. Historians of science do not have any special knowledge of under-represented groups, but they do have special knowledge of past science. When historians of science try to rectify under-representation, they have no special training in the topic at hand. But when it comes to describing or explaining past science, there is a real sense in which the historian of science is in a better epistemic position than the non-historian of science.

      Of course this claim needs to be hedged around with caveats: most PhDs in history of science are not experts on all past science; many people without PhDs in history of science are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about past science, which is to say that one does not need a PhD to be a "historian of science" in the relevant sense; etc. Despite these caveats, I think the claim stands.

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    3. l'm thinking of the deficit model like this: the tendency of 'experts' to think that if only we could just impress the proper *facts* upon our audience, we'd also gain that audience's *trust* and *appreciation* of our subject. While not a complete fantasy, this is a cop-out. Prioritising this top-down approach allows us to avoid the self-criticism that would result from also considering other reasons for a lack of trust or enthusiasm.

      With regard to rectifying underrepresentation, the equivalent mistake is to think that if only members of underrepresented groups *knew what we were really about*, they would trust and join us. Given limited resources, a focus on conveying knowledge of our subjects and institutions to those currently excluded is likely to be at the expense of a critical examination of what we do in order to uncover other reasons for underrepresentation.

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  4. "The public". "Historians of science". "Scientists".

    Must be like physics, where all 6kg point-masses are interchangeable...

    Seriously, did the discussion in the room deal in these broad generalities, or is that an artifact of compressing the discussion into a brief post?

    --A member of "the public".

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    1. It's an artifact of trying to compress and summarise - the key point was that there are many actual or potential audiences and engagement means listening and not presuming. Likewise, there was discussion of many histories, meaningful for different individuals and groups (family history, disciplinary histories, local histories, national or religious histories etc). Within history of science we talked about diversity among students, early career researchers, people who allied to science/history/social science and many different national and international contexts etc etc. Difficult to do justice to everything that was mentioned!

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