Month: October 2012

Pseudoscience and orthodoxy

The term ‘pseudoscientist’ is a bit like ‘heretic’. To be a pseudoscientist is to be accused; you don’t describe yourself as a pseudoscientist. … So there was a lot of pseudoscience about in the Cold War decades, but the category – not the content – was manufactured by orthodox scientists concerned about maintaining the boundaries of legitimacy but unable to find a stable and coherent way of defining what the category consisted of, other than its violation of valued structures of plausibility.

From Steven Shapin’s excellent review of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. Go read the whole review. Then go read the book.

Corporate, Personal, and Neon Museums

For more than 500 years people, governments, churches, and other institutions have used their collections of things to assert, display, and establish their own authority and standing. Arranged in cabinets of curiosity, cabinets of wonder, Kunstkammern, Wunderkammern, or museums, the artifacts in such collections often reflect a logic of display idiosyncratic to the collector’s own system of values, the collector’s ideologies and goals. This system of values is embodied in the answers to a host of questions that most visitors never stop to ponder, inter alia:

  • What gets displayed? Of the possible objects in a collection, which ones are elevated to the status of displayable?
  • How? In what sort of display case? How are the labeled? How are they illuminated?
  • Where is the collection located—in a basement, a person’s house, a small apartment, an annex to a corporate or governmental complex, a storage lot, a purpose-built structure?
  • Who gets to see the collection? When is it open? Does it cost money or require special permission?
  • Who pays for the maintenance?
  • How is the museum portrayed or marketed in brochures, pamphlets, ads?
  • How is the visitor’s path through the museum directed—by the layout of cabinets and displays, by some sort of self-guided tour, by a human guide?

Three recent museums allow us to think again about how collections are still used to create identity and assert authority.

The Carpigiani Gelato Museum celebrates gelato (Source:Screen shot from the museum.)

Carpigiani’s recently opened Gelato Museum tells the noble story of gelato from ancient Mesopotamia to 20th century. Like many museums, this represents a particular history in order to create or embellish or celebrate the founder’s own story. In this case the founder, Carpigiani, uses the museum to generate historical authority for its own products—gelato machines and it gelato university courses. The museum is at the Carpigiani headquarters in Bologna. See The Guardian’s article.

Mr. Koch will allow historians and school children to tour his Old West town (Source: Screenshot from “Political and Class Issues Complicate a Colorado Land Dispute” in the NY Times.)

In Colorado Bill Koch’s personal wild west museum is nearing completion. He has been creating his own vision of an Old West town, a patchwork of relocated historic buildings stand amongst new structures, designed to look old and fill out Koch’s vision. When the buildings are finished Koch will fill them with his collection of Western memorabilia. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction insofar as it never existed and much of it isn’t authentic, if we assume authenticity extends beyond the surface and includes such characteristics as age. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction created to realize some boyhood dream, to undergird his own autobiographical fiction. Koch resembles a modern Emperor Maximilian I, who created histories out of whole cloth to legitimate his cultural authority. Koch, like Maximilian, has created the artifacts he needs to fill in his picture. For Koch as for Maximilian authenticity is measured not by the artifact’s historical origin but it’s role in completing the picture of the past, its ability to fill in an otherwise missing visual or conceptual detail.

The Stardust casino’s neon sign is now an exhibit at the Neon Museum (Source: Screenshot from New Museum Shows Off Las Vegas’s Neon Side in the NY Times.)

An open-air museum of neon signs just opened in Las Vegas. The article in the NY Times makes it sound more like a graveyard for neon signs or, as the museum’s own website describes it, a neon boneyard. Like the gelato museum, this one seems to have been founded at least in part to celebrate a business, the Young Electric Sign Co. donated dozens of signs for the initial collection. From the YESCO website:

The history of ancient cities was written in stone. But for Las Vegas, stone just wouldn’t do.
No American city has a past as colorful or as flamboyant as Las Vegas. The city’s story was blazed against the desert sky. Handed down over the decades in brilliant color, incandescent lights and the glorious glow of neon. YESCO is proud of its contribution to the legacy of light in the most razzle-dazzle city in the world.

Along with reinforcing YESCO’s own history, the museum is a conscious effort by some people to claim for Las Vegas some measure of cultural influence. The chairman of the museum’s board hopes the museum will begin to appreciate Las Vegas’s history: “Las Vegas has made many significant contributions to pop culture, as well as culture in the United States. We need to stop thinking that Las Vegas is simply a kitschy town.

If it worked for Renaissance princes and monarchs, why can’t it work for Las Vegas, Bill Koch, and gelato?

[Cross posted at PACHS.]

Hurricanes Were and Remain Political

Various efforts to interpret Hurricane Sandy and to consider its political significance prompted me to look back at some early accounts of hurricanes. By the early 17th century reports of terrifying storms in the New World that lasted days and devastated large areas started appearing in the Europe. Frequently, these accounts were short, dramatic pamphlets intended to do much more than just report on a new type of storm. By the end of the century, some writers had begun describing storms in Europe as hurricanes, typically to advance some political agenda or some religious ideology (a quick search of the Philosophical Transactions didn’t turn up any articles on hurricanes until well into the 18th century).

An early illustration of hurricanes and the New World “Indians” typically affected by them.

One of the early reports on hurricanes came from John Taylor, domestic adventurer, poet, propagandist, Royalist, and sometime overseer of the Company of Watermen in London. In 1638 he seems to have published New and Strange News from St. Christophers, of a tempestuous Spirit, which is called by the Indians a Hurry Cano, which happeneth in many of those Islands of America, or the West-Indies, as it did in August last the 5. 1638. Blowing downe houses, tearing up trees by the rootes, and it did puffe men up from the earth, as they had beene Feathers, killing divers men.
Taylor considers hurricanes a form of divine punishment or “severe Justice” intended not just to punish sinners but to bring heathens and the barbarous to a state of “Civility and Christian Liberty.” Taylor holds up Alexander the Great up as a sort of human example of how good can come from apparent evil. Although Alexander had conquered and subjugated many nations, in the process he had taught them

to build Townes, Cities, and defencible places, to apparell their naked bodies, in their thraldome they found Religion: and whereas in their Freedomes they did use to kill their aged Parents inhumanely, to eate them with savadge, ravenous, most greedy Gormandizing, by Servitude they learned more reverend Duty; they were taught the Rites aud Lawes of Matrimony: And whereas in their licentious freedome, they bedded with their Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, and Neeces, not sparing any Kindred, Aliance, Propinquity, or any degree of blood or consanguinity, they by Servitude learned better life and manners; and also by being conquer’d and overcome, they were taught the use of Armes, the practice of Arts, and the laudable Experience of Tillage and Husbandry.

For Taylor, hurricanes served a similar purpose of civilizing “Heathens, Indians, and barbarous Nations unconverted: as for the knowne Examples in America, and in divers Islands adjacent, where this Hurri Cano is frequent.” Hurricanes were God’s mechanism for converting New World inhabitants to Christianity.

Taylor doesn’t know the origins of the name—“but the Indians doe call it Hurri Cano, or Hurri Caenae, or Cani”—or what causes hurricanes, though he reports that some consider it a violent spirit accompanied by lightning, thunder, and strong winds. Despite not knowing what caused hurricanes, these same Indians had developed an precise and proven way to predict hurricanes:

hey doe observe that just so many daies as it will be before the Hurri Cano doth come, so many Circles will bee as it were fringed and gleaming about the Moone: as if it bee but one day before it come, then there will be but one Circle; if two Circles, then it wil be two daies; and so perhaps three or foure Circles, as it did lately at Saint Christophers, where it came in that fearefull and unresistable fury, on the fifth day of August last, 1638.

The Indians had tried to warn the English and Dutch, but the storm was so fierce that many houses and five ships were destroyed and 70 people were drowned. According to Taylor, hurricanes were always destructive, tossing people about like they were feathers, overturning houses, and toppling trees. People seek refuge in caves and pits and holes, taking with them anything they hope to save. Taylor was particularly taken by a type of hammock the Indians had developed to survive the hurricanes:

They doe likewise tye or make fast Hamackoes or hanging Cabin unto two Trees that are lopy’d, and then the people do get into those Cabins, & so they do lye downe in them, being hang’d above the ground sixe or seaven foot, eyther with strong Ropes or iron chaines; and so they swing two and againe like a Bell when it is rung, when this tempest is; their Hamackoes are made either of course linning cloath, or of strong stuffe made of twisted threads spun out of the rindes of trees;

Taylor was convinced that hurricanes were God’s efforts to improve the world, and he wanted his readers to reach the same conclusion. He ends with a story about how the island of Bermuda was discovered. In 1609, Sir George Sommers set out with Sir Thomas Gates and a fleet of eight ships sailed for Virginia. When the fleet was caught in a hurricane Sommers’s ship was separated from the rest and driven onto the rocks on Bermuda. Sommers crew survived and went ashore where they found a fruitful island. Over the next 10 months they lived on the island, felled timber, and constructed a new ship. They then set out for Virginia where Gates and the rest rejoiced in seeing Sommers alive. This story, Taylor reminds his reader, is “proofe of Gods mercy and power, in drawing good out of Evill.”

In the 1670s during the Franco-Dutch conflict, in which England supported the Dutch cause, hurricanes helped explain disasters in the war. More than one pamphlet or broadsheet published in England claimed that hurricanes had ravaged Amsterdam and destroyed reformed churches and buildings in the city. In most cases, the pamphlet claimed to be a translation of a Dutch publication. These pamphlets offer a chance to see how apparently natural phenomena were enlisted in war-time efforts to generate support for the Dutch or attack the French.

Natural phenomena are still enlisted in moral, religious, and political agendas, as any search for the terms “hurricane” “sandy” and “god” or as the row between Governor Christie and Mayor Langford reveals. Whether understood as God’s punishments, opportunities to decry bad governance, or a chance to vilify your enemy, hurricanes and other natural disasters are as politically important today as they ever have been.

Does History Have a Role in Society?

Sarah Dunant’s opinion piece, “What is history’s role in society” makes some good points.

These and many works like them have helped to revolutionise our view of the past, incorporating the richness of the ordinary and the iconoclastic. Like a huge pointillist painting, the background to all those well-known central figures is slowly but surely filling up with depth and colour from thousands of dots of new historical knowledge.

This seems in line with recent concerns about hero-worship in the history of science, a concern that certainly applies equally to history in general. She attributes this shift to the influence of Marxism in historical practice.

All this exposes the current assault on the humanities within higher education as even more philistine. As far as one can tell the thinking goes like this: the study of history, english, philosophy or art doesn’t really help anyone get a job and does not contribute to the economy to the same degree that science or engineering or business studies obviously do.

Her comments here reflect common sentiments. The humanities make nice hobbies but really don’t warrant spending any real time or energy. Even at a place like Haverford faculty in the natural sciences have been overheard suggesting that we abolish non-science general education/distribution requirements. After all, the thinking goes, the sciences made and continue to make the modern world. Why would we expect students to study anything else?

I don’t think, however, Dunant does enough to combat the disregard for or hostility toward the humanities. Her response is too timid and, at the same time, overstates what the humanities can offer:

… The humanities, alongside filling one in on human history, teach people how to think analytically while at the same time noting and appreciating innovation and creativity. Not a bad set of skills for most jobs wouldn’t you say? As for the economy – what about the billion pound industries of publishing, art, television, theatre, film – all of which draw on our love of as well as our apparently insatiable appetite for stories, be they history or fiction?

Lots of teaching in the humanities does not, sadly, teach people how to think analytically or teach them to appreciate innovation and creativity. The humanities can be a mechanism for helping students develop analytical thinking skills and learn to appreciate innovation and creativity, but the humanities can also be a dull recitation of names, titles, places, dates, and facts. Moreover, the humanities don’t have a monopoly on teaching students how to think analytically or to appreciate innovation and creativity. Any discipline properly taught can accomplish those goals.

We need a better reason to study history and the other humanities. I don’t agree with M.C. Hunter who thinks we should never feel need to justify history:

M.C. Hunter thinks we should never justify the study of history.

The ostrich approach will further marginalize history and ensure its colonization by non-historians. Perhaps in some distant past and foreign country historians commanded the respect and awe of scientists as well as the general public—when professional history wasn’t boring—historians no longer commanded that respect. We have to be able and willing to convince skeptical or ill-disposed colleagues that we have a unique and valuable expertise, that we help make the world a better place.

On Catalysts and Science Heroes

To return to the metaphor of creating social change, I would suggest that real change is not the product of a single catalytic substance, like the personality of a leader, or a formula that imposes or removes a tax. Change—be it of American attitudes toward conserving electricity, or abandoning racial or gender stereotypes—will come about through many small actions by individuals. In a way, these are the intermediates.

Perhaps I have sought a little too hard to privilege the intermediate. A fairer statement of the realities of chemistry might be the following: Finding a catalyst gets you chemical action (and potential profit); finding a reaction intermediate gets you the mechanism. I guess that as a theorist, I’m a man of understanding, not an action hero. Or maybe, just maybe, in rooting for equal time for reaction intermediates, I’m just for the molecules less hailed, the ones less capable of evoking the mythological structures that reside in our minds.

While Roald Hoffmann’s “Long Live the Intermediate!” is about catalysts, his comments apply equally to science heroes.