Archive for May, 2012
May 30th, 2012
Scott Huler is right to take the North Carolina legislature to task for trying to legislate whether or not ocean levels are rising: NC Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal. Yet like President Obama before him, Huler reveals his own ignorance when he invokes another tired historical myth. Contrary to what Huler would like, there is no evidence that Galileo ever uttered the words “eppur si muove” (corrected the typo—changed “is” to “si”).
No information on whether the scientists on the panel, like Galileo, have stamped their feet and muttered “And yet it rises!” But there’s no doubt that NC’s legislative inquisitors will be classified along with Galileo’s papal persecutors and their own forebears who outlawed interracial marriage, as on the wrong side of history.
The earliest record of Galileo purportedly saying “And yet it moves” (as “eppur si muove” is often translated) occurred in Giuseppe Baretti’s Italian Library, in 1757. And yet it lives, like the mythical flat earth.
We might want to be lenient on President Obama when he referred to the flat earth. After all, he doesn’t pretend to have any historical or scientific expertise. Huler, by contrast, claims to explore “science, culture, and the relationship between the two.” We can and should expect more from him. An internet search would have turned up the Italian wikipedia page and the English wikipedia page as well as a number of other pages that dispel this myth.
Huler undermines his own credibility and does a disservice to Scientific American when he appeals to an easily refuted historical myth.
[Reposted at PACHS.]
May 27th, 2012
Two current shows on Leonardo da Vinci have prompted the perennial speculation about his status as an artist or a scientist. Jonathan Jones wants Leonard to be “a scientist and an artist at the same time.” Thony over at The Renaissance Mathematicus takes Jones to task for making a category error, pointing out that for Leonardo the categories artist and scientist didn’t exist. Thony then defended his position: to apply either artist or scientist as we normally use those terms to Leonardo is incorrect, anachronistic, and ahistorical. Thony explains how the “occupational categories” of artist and of scientist didn’t exist. He offers, instead, the artist-engineer (see his book review for how this term applies to Galileo). Thony’s posts raise important historiographic questions: What is science and how do we identify science in the past?
The identity of science and the authority it enjoys in our modern world often inform how we categorize past activities. In a sophisticated version of Collingwood’s scissors-and-paste history: when something looks like science to us we assume it is and was science. Here the historian in the present decides what was science in the past and then goes off in search of it. The historian then compiles a story to support those decisions. The historian determines both the appropriate questions or topics and the legitmate answers or accounts. Such an approach seems to work fine, giving us histories populated with names like Copernicus, Vesalius, Kepler, Harvey, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, etc.
But such an approach too readily equates science with a thing and reduces the people who might have been doing science to shorthand references in the timeline of science. Our developmental stories about science trace its progression from some benighted past to an increasingly enlighted present. Such an approach encourages us to ask: Who got it right and who got it wrong? Copernicus and his heliocentric astronomy superseded medieval astrology. Boyle’s chemistry replaced earlier alchemical practices. Bacon’s New Science with its use of experiment replaced an outmoded Aristotelianism with its reliance on book learning. And of course Newton. While the range of acceptable topics and questions has expanded (see Pamela Smith’s recent review “Science on the Move: Recent Trends in the History of Early Modern Science,” Renaissance Quarterly 62 (2009): 345–75), much historiography remains progressive, especially outside the rather narrow confines of history of science.
Science isn’t and never was a thing lying around to be discovered. Science is and always has been a human activity. Althouh the products of science—laws of nature, facts, statements about the world out there—look like they have some existence beyond the humans who articulate them, in the end even they are the products of human activity and have meaning only insofar as other humans give them meaning. Our histories, thus, have to be about people engaged in this activity. We should ask questions about how and why they engaged in that activity, how and why they modified their pursuit of that activity, and how pursuing that activity informed and was informed by the other activities they pursued.
Thinking of science as a human activity shifts our focus from the products of science to the humans doing science. We can’t simply evaluate statements about the world out there and laws about it. The value we place on what people in the past produced bears no necessary relation to what those people thought they were doing or how they valued their products. We need to ask instead about what people were doing and why were they doing it otherwise we risk misunderstanding the products of their activity.
Science seems to be a special type of activity, an intentional activity. We cannot accidentally do science any more than we can accidentally go for a walk or play a game. Games are paradigmatic intentional activities. Playing a game calls forth and give coherence to the family of actions involved in playing that game. A person can’t play a game without being aware of playing that game, even if the person doesn’t know the name of the game or calls it something unusual. Games are discrete: a person cannot with the same set of actions simultaneously play different games. Games seem to share the following characteristics:
- Games are structured activities;
- Each game has a goal or point, rules, and procedures and conventions;
- A person is or is not playing a game and knows it;
- The identity of a game is independent of the people playing the game and the skill level of the players;
- Games don’t exist until they have been created;
- Games have histories and often evolve from one particular activity into another;
- Skilled players are the best experts on the identity and rules of the game.
This list illustrates, I hope, the ways that games and science are similar activities. This list also has important consequences for how we study the history of science (For a fuller treatment of science as a game, see A. Cunningham, “Getting the Game Rigth: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of Science” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 19 (1988): 365–388).
Most importantly, it cautions us against imposing our idea of science on the actions of people in the past, regardless of how familiar their actions may appear. Instead, we need to start from the description people in the past used or would have used to explain their activity. They are the experts in the game they were playing. We must begin with the actors’ categories in our effort to reconstruct what they were doing. Rather than assume that somebody was doing science when that person was investigating nature, we need to ask: What was that person doing when investigating nature? What was that intentional activity? What were the rules and conventions that structured it? What were its goals? Why did the person choose to engage in that particular activity?
If we take such questions seriously we will have a hard time finding anybody before the nineteenth century doing science as we understand that activity. As Thony pointed out in his posts, there is more at issue here than simply the coining of a term—there was no such thing as a scientist avant la lettre because there was no such thing as science. No matter how often Newton has been labeled a scientist, as Thony again usefully points out, Newton was principally concerned with God. And no matter how often Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica has been described as a scientific text,it was, as the fuller title of his book indicates, a work of natural philosophy, an enterprise that took as one of its main goals understanding God. Nature was the object of investigation but not the goal. For a fuller discussion of Newton’s Principia, see A. Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously” History of Science 29 (1991): 377–392 (available online here). Science means something to us becasue it describes a particular game along with all the rules and conventions and goals associated with that game.
Collingwood warned us against treating terms as ahistorical entities and going off in search of them. The difficulty with such ideal concepts is, as Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, they become “like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off” (this is proposition 103 from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations). Looking for science in the past ensures that we will find it. But in finding science, we do violence to that past by distorting it to fit our prejudices.
[Reposted at PACHS.]
May 18th, 2012
A nice exchange occurred recently on Twitter about how history of science and science might complement each other. Looking beyond retrospective diagnosis, some interesting points about how using scientific techniques might raise questions for historians and how science might benefit from some historical techniques. You can see most of this exchange with this Twitter search
May 15th, 2012
In an interview in the Science section of today’s NY Times, Carson Chow claims to have solved the obesity puzzle: Why is the obesity rate increasing in the U.S.? Chow’s mathematical analysis found that since the 1970s food production in the U.S. has increased considerably and that we consume most of that increased production. While he gestures to changes in consumption patterns, such as eating out and fast food, Chow’s concludes that we consume too many calories:
…it’s something very simple, very obvious, something that few want to hear: The epidemic was caused by the overproduction of food in the United States.
Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it! This, of course, is a tremendously controversial idea. However, the model shows that increase in food more than explains the increase in weight.
From the interview, I don’t see what the mathematician’s expertise contributed beyond some abstract social authority accorded to mathematicians. Chow’s conclusions is, as he says, obvious. Along with being obvious, his conclusion merely echoes the decade-old findings of USDA. The Agricultural Fact Book 2001-2002 covers food production increases and consumption patterns. In the U.S. daily per capita consumption has risen more than 530 calories since the 1970s. Further, the same report details how the foods we consume have changed: record levels of caloric sweeteners, record levels of calories from restaurants, record levels of refined grains (see Is Grandma to Blame for Obesity Today for more details).
More disturbingly, Chow ignores the social factors that complicate this picture. Obesity rates are not consistent across socio-economic and ethnic groups. Despite Chow’s claim to the contrary, various research details declining physical activity rates for children and adults. Some of that decline is related to our increasingly sedentary careers. Rates of decline seem correlated to demographic factors.
While the proximate cause for rates of obesity is increased calorie consumption, the ultimate causes are more difficult to determine. Chow alludes to some of the complicated social, cultural, and political causes for our increasing calorie consumption but doesn’t pursue them. A real solution to the obesity puzzle will have to identify and address the complex roots of our increasing weight gain.
For a different critique of Chow’s conclusion, see The Mathematician’s Obesity Fallacy in Scientific American.
[Reposted at PACHS.]
May 14th, 2012
In a recent column at Nature, Daniel Sarewitz worries about the effect that systematic bias is having on science: “Beware the Creeping Cracks of Bias.” According to Sarewitz, scientists can no longer point the finger at traditional causes but now should “recognize bias is an inescapable element of research.” He finds biomedical research most susceptible to bias (an position echoed in the comments) but implies that even physical sciences suffer from bias. Sarewitz’s bold column raises some excellent issues.
What is bias? For Sarewitz bias is over-reporting of false positive results, which result from “a powerful cultural belief … that progress in science means the continual production of positive findings.” In the biomedical realm, false positive results cannot be replicated or turn out to be invalid when applied to more complex systems. “A biased scientific result is no different from a useless one.”
According to Sarewitz, bias is not a function of scientific research so much as a characterization of the results of that research. Useful, reproducible results are not biased. Useless and irreproducible results are biased and threaten to erode public trust in science and scientists.
Such an understanding of bias is naive. Bias shapes the construction of every experiment and the interpretation of every result. Such bias is not necessarily malicious but is inescapable. Bias produces not merely systematic errors or useless results. Bias often guides the very research questions, the construction of procedures thought useful in investigating those questions, and regularly produces useful results.
Equating bias with utility ignores history and the manifold ways bias has produced useful if sometimes harmful results. For a few more infamous examples, see “What are Science’s Ugliest Experiments.”
May 13th, 2012
I missed Helen Sword’s short article last month when it first appeared: “Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly.” She laments the stodgy (her word) style many academics use and rejects the common claim that academic prose needs to be jargon-laden:
Unfortunately, the myth persists, especially among junior faculty still winding their anxious way up the tenure track, that the gates of academic publishing are guarded by grumpy sentries programmed to reject everything but jargon-laden, impersonal prose. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly everyone, including the editors of academic journals, would much rather read lively, well-written articles than the slow-moving sludge of the typical scholarly paper.
She encourages academics to pay attention to their audience, to use their writing to communicate concrete ideas, and to “cultivate an authoritative yet conversational voice.”
Academic history should have little difficulty achieving such goals. But I still wonder if we are facing a broader problem that can’t be solved merely by improving our style. Despite Collingwood’s claims in his autobiography about all sciences being a form of historical knowledge, history did not enjoy the rise in social authority and reputation that he predicted.
May 11th, 2012
The Shot@Life Campaign is the latest effort to vaccinate less fortunate children in developing countries. Part of the United Nations Foundation, Shot@Life hopes to expand access to vaccines by drawing on “the American public, members of Congress, and civil society partners.” While the Shot@Life seems to result from improved, modern public health, universal vaccination especially for poorer children has clear historical antecedents in 19th-century Philadelphia. Sometime around the middle of the century physicians signed a petition urging Pennsylvania’s senate and house of representatives to support “the universal extension of vaccination” against smallpox.
Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in the late 1700s—1796 is usually cited as his first successful vaccination. Jenner’s technique was soon introduced into the Boston area. Before long Philadelphia appointed people to locate unvaccinated children so that “physicians duly appointed [could] call upon and vaccinate them free of charge.”
The petition is remarkable for how contemporary it sounds. It raises issues of public health and welfare, government required vaccination programs, vaccinating school children, and the real financial costs of vaccinating children. A copy of this petition signed by 20 local physicians survives in Haverford College’s Quaker & Special Collections. It would be interesting to know if other copies of this petition survive, perhaps in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and to begin to reconstruct the history of smallpox vaccination in the Philadelphia area.
Here is the full text of the petition:
To the Senate and House of Representatives of Pennsylvania
The undersigned, citizens of Pennsylvania, and practicing physicians, believing that the only safe means of guarding agains the loathsome and fatal disease, smallpox, is by the universal extension of vaccination—which, while it gives absolute protection to a large majority of those who undergo it, in nearly all instances affords security against death and deformity—would respectfully petition your honorable bodies to pass an Act providing for the more general extension of vaccination by the public authorities throughout the Commonwealth. We would call the attention of your honorable bodies to the fact that, in the city of Philadelphia and adjoining incorporated districts, municipal regulations have for many years been in operation for the extension of vaccination gratuitously to the poor, the children of whom are sought out by persons appointed for that purpose, and those found unprotected reported to physicians duly appointed to call upon and vaccinate them free of charge. Similar usages exist elsewhere in this country; while in some of the most enlightened countries of Europe no child is admitted into a public school without bringing with it a certificate of having undergone vaccination.
Your petitioners believe that public provision for the extension of vaccination universally among the citizens of this Commonwealth would confer upon them an inestimable benefit, in consequence of the protection which would be afforded to all against the smallpox—a disease so dangerous and loathsome that its presence in any community is always a source of anxiety and terror. They therefore pray that your honorable bodies will take into consideration a measure of such serious import to the safety and welfare of the community at large, and especially to the less provident classes.
[Reposted at PACHS.]
May 10th, 2012
Yesterday I had the chance to visit The Wagner Free Institute of Science and to speak to a group of students from Drexel University. As part of a class on the history of museums, they had spent considerable time at the Academy of Natural Sciences—last year Drexel acquired (the official term is became affiliated with) the Academy. A visit to the Wagner is a bit of a shift. In the first instance, the Wagner is in a very different part of town. Whereas the Academy is on the parkway, next to the Franklin Institute and across from the Free Library, the Wagner is in a largely residential neighborhood in north Philadelphia. And unlike the Academy, which still bridges the worlds of scientific research and museum display, the Wagner has had to relinquish its scientific efforts and concentrates now on being a “museum of a museum.” Even in its heyday the Wagner was very different from the Academy—it had different goals and served a different demographic.
Stepping into the Wagner feels like stepping into the past. As the webpage says, the museum “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.” The institute was founded in 1855 by William Wagner, a wealthy merchant who had amassed a large collection of natural specimens. He established his institute to bring science education to the masses. Admission and lectures were and remain free, and all lectures were held at times when working Philadelphians could attend. Initially, he housed his collection and held his lectures in his home. As his collections and his audiences grew, he had to find a new place for both. The current building was built in 1865. Later the first branch of the Free Library system in Philadelphia opened at the Wagner.
Famously, Joseph Leidy became the director of the Wagner in 1885, when William Wagner died. Leidy supported original research, which was published in the institute’s journal, The Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and reorganized the collections. Leidy used the collection to make a visible and physical argument for evolution. He grouped the organisms according to type and arranged them in cases of increasing complexity. He arranged the fossils according to their age. The result is a two-fold argument for evolution. In one half visitors encounter increasingly complex organisms. In the other half visitors move through geological time.
Knowing that Leidy reorganized the collection reveals how museums shape knowledge and provides a way to think about about how and why Leidy’s argument for evolution would have been compelling, about how artifacts deliberately arranged make an argument more powerful or persuasive. At first glance, the arrangement of artifacts seems natural—students today typically show up accepting some form of evolution, even if they can’t articulate it clearly. The challenge is getting students to understand that in reorganizing the collection Leidy redefined the important relationships between artifacts—what those artifact meant.
One way students can begin to see the deliberateness of the collection is by opening the drawers under the display cases. In a sense, the drawers contain the superfluous artifacts. They are the Wagner’s stores. Opening these drawers reveals the chaotic nature of unorganized artifacts and, consequently, the artificiality of organized specimens. Frequently the items in the drawers bear little relationship to those displayed in the case and have fascinating notes on scraps of paper identifying the objects. A number of drawers contain items “from Wagner’s original collection” that “have not been cataloged.” I try to get students to think about how the objects in the cases can be related to those in the drawers and why somebody chose to display some of the objects and not others and what would happen if everything were on display?
A visit to the Wagner is always a poignant reminder of the amount of effort and the resources needed to maintain a collection. One reason the Wagner is “the past itself” is because its endowment has never been sufficient to keep it up to date. It is a museum of a museum because its development ossified in the late 19th or early 20th century, when resources were too constrained to enable it to continue developing. It is an endearing image of the past because it couldn’t continue to be a reflection of the present.
May 3rd, 2012
In late 1951 Bertrand Russell composed “A Liberal Decalogue” in response to growing fanaticism. We would all do well to recall daily Russell’s ten commandments for the teacher:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Today, at the end of the semester as I read final papers, number 8 stands out as particularly poignant:
“Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.”
It reminds me of Jorge Louis Borges’s story, “Circular Ruins,” when the stranger recounts his disappointment in confronting assent:
The man lectured his pupils on anatomy, cosmography, and magic: the faces listened anxiously and tried to answer understandingly, as if they guessed the importance of that examination which would redeem one of them from his condition of empty illusion and interpolate him into the real world. Asleep or awake, the man thought over the answers of his phantoms, did not allow himself to be deceived by imposters, and in certain perplexities he sensed a growing intelligence. He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe.
After nine or ten nights he understood with a certain bitterness that he could expect nothing from those pupils who accepted his doctrine passively, but that he could expect something from those who occasionally dared to oppose him. The former group, although worthy of love and affection, could not ascend to the level of individuals; the latter pre-existed to a slightly greater degree.
In all interactions thoughtful opposition and intelligent dissent is better than polite agreement, but especially in the classroom.
(For more on Russell’s decalogue, see A Liberal Decalogue.)
May 3rd, 2012
Without further comment:
The American university teacher who gives honor grades to students who have not yet learned to write English, for industrious compilations of facts or feats of memory, is wanting in professional pride or competence.
Samuel E. Morison, History as a Literary Art (1946), 3.