Month: July 2013

Disciplined Writing

Recent discussions about how historians write have emphasized once again that writing is not an inspired activity. Waiting for your muse merely disguises indolence.

As with any craft, writing improves with daily practice. Whether 3,500 words or 500 words or a page, stop making excuses and instead make time to write every day. Contrary to common assumptions, creativity increases with quantity. Research indicates that making writing a daily routine actually increases creativity. Carve out a few minutes every day to write inchoate ideas, sentences, and paragraphs. Write a lot. Revise what you write. Rinse and repeat. As the academic year approaches and promises to fragment the day, it is useful to recall that writing requires very little time.

Young Creation Scientists & Virginia Heffernan

When I read the Institute for Creation Research’s call for Young Creation Scientists, I first thought: This sounds a lot like Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater’s justification for the Bridgewater Treatises. ICR’s call, however, lacks both the polish of Egerton’s style and the charm of his eccentricity.

My second thought was: Perhaps Virginia Heffernan can get a job as a science writer for ICR. Heffernan recently explained why she is a creationist. Critics of Heffernan’s post abound, e.g., Virginia Heffernan’s creationism: Why evolution matters and Yes Virginia, There Is a Darwin and Finding the narrative, as do her defenders. I suspect that Francis Egerton, if he had a blog, would be a critic.

Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link to ICR’s post.

Astrology and Relationships

Over the last few days the Smithsonian Magazine has been drawing attention to their recent blog post about astrology and relationships (see this search): “Good News: Astrology Doesn’t Impact the Success of Your Marriage.” Unfortunately, the post missed an opportunity to ask interesting questions about why the study attacked astrology and why it represented as it did, and about why astrology remains such a mesmerizing target for scientists and science cheerleaders.

The Smithsonian Magazine’s tweets about astrology and relationships.
The Smithsonian Magazine’s tweets about astrology and relationships.

The post summarizes a study from 2007, which found little correlation between sun signs and choice of spouse, and an earlier study, which concluded that further research was needed to “to find out whether astrology columns really are just a bit of harmless fun or whether people’s behaviour is influenced without them realizing it.” Beyond link bait, it is unclear what the Smithsonian post was intended to accomplish. It invokes that old chestnut that reduces astrology to sun signs. As the comments indicate, it does not engender debate or discussion but rather encourages people to retrench into tired old positions. On the one had, the post reassures opponents of astrology of their righteous opposition and confirms for them that astrology lacks evidentiary support. On the other hand, the post goads proponents of astrology to point out the fallacious arguments that undergird the attacks.

A more interesting starting point would have been to ask: Why did the author of the study reduce astrology to sun signs? Further, why did he assume sun signs compel people to marry certain people?[1] That assumption contradicts the traditional aphorism: “The stars incline they do not compel.” Consequently, astrologers since Ptolemy have explained how astrology cannot be a precise, predictive science, certainly not when it comes to predicting human behavior. Who, then, believes that sun signs, one small facet of a much larger astrological edifice, can compel people into action? What does framing an attack on astrology in this way accomplish? Why, given the long history of attacks on astrology, did the author of the study think his criticism would be successful?[2]

Like all attacks on astrology, this one has a long history, complicated by the many different ways astrologers have claimed the stars and planets influence marriage. Ptolemy devoted a chapter to marriage in his Tetrabiblos. There he offered all sorts of guidelines for characterizing a marriage, such as:

Marriages for the most part are lasting when in both the genitures the luminaries happen to be in harmonious aspect, that is, in trine or in sextile with one another…

Or in other places he indicates what sorts of spouses people tend to marry:

If Saturn is similarly in aspect with the sun, they [women] marry sedate, useful, industrious husbands; if Jupiter is in aspect, dignified and magnanimous; Mars, men of action, lack in affection, and unruly; Venus, neat and handsome…

In Ptolemy’t discussion, astrological configurations portended certain circumstances but did not necessitate them. The configurations Ptolemy highlighted were much more complex than merely sun signs and often included detailed analyses of both the husband’s and the wife’s genitures as well as a comparison of the two.

Subsequent astrologers refined, modified, and extended Ptolemy’s doctrine. Nearly every early modern book on astrology includes rules for how to interpret celestial influences on marriages.[3] These guidelines range from a generic comment about seventh house being the house signifying marriage to John Middleton’s detailed discussion of whether or not a person will get married, when, how often, whether it will be a harmonious marriage, etc. As the various interpretations proliferated, so too did the attacks. Critics as different as the religious reformer Jean Calvin and the philosopher Pierre Gassendi wrote a scathing critiques of judicial astrology in which they rejected the astrologer’s ability to predict anything specific about a marriage, including whether a person would be happy in a marriage. The clergyman John Edwards, pointed out that whether or not astrology can make general predictions, astrology cannot predict particular aspects of a person’s life. He singles out marriage as one such aspect.

More than four centuries ago both opponents and proponents of astrology had already agreed that astrology could not make precise predictions about marriages. Why, then, bother trying to demonstrate that there is no correlation between sun signs and choice of a spouse? Whose interests are served by spending the time and effort on such a study? Who is the author of the study and the author of the post trying to convince? Why does astrology continue to serve as the paradigmatic pseudo-science? And what do attacks on astrology reveal about the social nature of scientific knowledge?


  1. The post gestures at the difference between astrology and horoscopes but does not explore that difference in any interesting way. The second study cited, concludes more ambiguously than the post suggests.  ↩

  2. These questions should not be understood as a defense of astrology. Rather, they merely raise questions about the unexamined assumptions and conventions that  ↩

  3. Modern texts on astrology might also include discussions about marriage. I don’t know anything about modern astrology textbooks, so I can’t say.  ↩

A Conversation with Edward Shorter

After reading the interview with Edward Shorter, “How Depression Went Mainstream,” I posted some critical thoughts about his dismissal of contemporary history of science. His point seemed to be that present history of science was boring because most contemporary historians of science do not have the technical training to understand the science. As John Wilkins pointed out, Shorter seems to be reviving the internalist/externalist dichotomy in favor of the internalist approach. Reflecting further on the interview, I wondered about the context that produced the interview and how much of Edward Shorter was coming through and how much of the interviewer. So I reached out to Edward Shorter and asked him a few questions. Below I try to summarize our conversation and try to refrain from commentary.[1]

When I first contacted Shorter I laid my cards on the table. I explained that I had read his interview and had posted some thoughts about his rejection of current scholarship in the history of science, and I included links to both posts. I then asked if he would be willing to talk with me about his approach to history and whether or not it has changed. As we spoke, we returned to a few central themes:

  1. The value of current history of science.
  2. How he would characterize his approach to history of science.
  3. The role of technical or scientific knowledge in history of science, or internalism vs. externalism.
  4. What does history of science have to offer current practitioners of science?

While I tried to use the term “history of science” broadly to include history of medicine, STS, and history of technology, Shorter limited his comments on the history of medicine. Recognizing that the various fields share certain characteristics, he thinks the history of medicine is distinct in many ways and wanted to focus on it.

Shorter was clear and unambiguous: He considers the questions many colleagues are asking to be marginal. The history of medicine, he said, continues to be informed by particular agendas inherited from the 1970s. He characterized them as, on the one hand, leftist studies that sought to blame capitalism for society’s ills and, on the other hand, a women’s studies agenda that sought to show how women had been oppressed. These agendas seem to shape scholarship on psychiatry. Too often, Shorter remarked, histories of psychiatry try to explain how psychiatry has oppressed women. The history of psychiatry risks becoming an appendage of women’s studies or a bland sociology.

I asked about how he would characterize his own work, which has dealt with both women and psychiatry. He said that he had written about women‘s bodies but indicated that his interests had moved on from his earlier book. In general, today he described his work as a blend of history of medicine and social history, as concerned with what he called “narratives of therapy and diagnosis.” The historian cannot understand those therapies and diagnoses without understanding the science that undergirds them. Here is where much contemporary history of medicine goes awry. “Faute de mieux,” historians who are unable to understand the science have no choice but to study the social contexts. Such studies are often driven by the 1970s agendas Shorter deplores.

This lead naturally to the question about the role of technical knowledge in studying the history of science.[2] Here again Shorter was clear: historians of medicine can only write good histories if they understand the medical science. He used the example of organic chemistry. Without a knowledge of organic chemistry, he said, his work on the underlying neurochemistry of depression and psychopharmacology would not have been possible. The science circumscribes the possible diagnostic and therapeutic options.

This approach, I pointed out, seems to depend on the internalist-externalist dichotomy, and to privilege the internalist approach. Shorter rejected a simple internalism as narrow intellectual history. Yet at the same time, he distinguished the science from society. It was important, he said, to have “an externalist perspective,” but the historian must understand the technical details. Only that way can the historian understand how scientists got from point “A” to point “B.” That scientific development may well involve society, it was a in the end a technical process. The historian must, therefore, have technical mastery of the science and medicine involved. This response still seems to depend on a distinction between social context and technical content and to privilege that technical knowledge. How, I asked, does the historian know when to include societal factors and how much force to give them? Shorter’s response: “When you understand why something happened.” The question remains: How do we know when we understand something?[3]

Given his requirement that historians master the technical knowledge, I asked about the uses of the history of medicine for practitioners.[4] Focusing on the technical aspects risks telling a teleological story about the triumph of whatever medicine you study. In what seemed a departure from the historiography he had outlined so far, Shorter said his work compels clinicians and practitioners to see “how fragile their knowledge is.” Far from being natural categories or even time-tested concepts, the concepts clinicians and psychiatrists banter around are often the result of recent consensus-based compromises. Clinicians often use concepts that have no demonstrated basis in scientific understanding but are, rather, the consequence of political and social compromises. In this context, Shorter‘s insistence that historians understand the science begins to look less like some retrograde project and more like a mechanism for revealing the lack of science in psychiatric practice. Rather than blindly endorsing current psychiatric practice, Shorter seems interested in uncovering psychiatry’s contingent and non-scientific features that are assumed to be science.

In the end, I find Shorter a bit enigmatic. I was uncomfortable with his privileging technical knowledge over non-scientific/non-technical knowledge. But then I was sympathetic with his goals of showing practitioners that their knowledge rarely enjoys a scientific foundation. I can see how a reasonable degree of technical skills are required for that project. I am not a historian of medicine, so I don’t know, but I wonder if he is painting with too broad a brush contemporary history of medicine—I wouldn’t characterize the history of early medicine I have read in those terms. Two key questions that remain, at least for me, are: Has Shorter’s approach to history changed over the years? And if so, why? In his comments about his early book on women’s bodies, it seems that his interests if not his methods have shifted. What I didn’t pursue is why. Maybe I can reserve that for our next conversation.[5]


  1. I approached our conversation with a handful of general and specific questions. While I took notes from our conversation, I did not record it. I have tried to summarize Shorter’s responses. To help ensure that I did not mischaracterize his thoughts, I offered Shorter a chance to look over a draft before I posted it.  ↩

  2. Our discussion began with historians of medicine but broadened out to include all historians of science.  ↩

  3. I’m reminded of H. Butterfield or E. H. Carr here. They didn’t quite offer concrete suggestions about how to realize their advice or how to know when we had successfully understood something. Shorter did suggest that his colleagues enroll in organic chemistry courses, though we are still left wondering what the proper role of that technical knowledge is in understanding.  ↩

  4. Here Shorter was insistent that he was speaking about what history of medicine had to offer practitioners. He did not want to say that history of science offered anything to practicing scientists. It might or might not—he tended to think that history of science had less to offer scientists in the hard sciences—but he couldn’t say.  ↩

  5. Shorter read over this post and offered some clarifications. I did not ask him to read this last paragraph, which has less to do with faithfully representing Shorter’s position and more to do with my thoughts on our conversation.  ↩

Arthur Golding’s A Discourse vpon the Earthquake

I updated yesterday’s post, “Pamphlets on the Earthquake of 1580,” to include an EPUB version of Arthur Golding’s A Discourse vpon the Earthquake …. While you will be missing out if you don’t go back and read the whole post, if you just want the EPUB file, you can download it here.

As with Jan van der Noot’s tract on the plague, EPUB available here, I have created only an EPUB version. Some formatting is lost in the conversion process to a mobi (i.e., a Kindle) version. When I figure out how to solve that problem, I will post mobi versions too.

I continue to play with EPUBs as I think about what options they offer for readers and students. One version of van der Noot’s text includes a number of notes that readers can see if they click on the links. Some notes offer definitions of difficult words, other identify contemporary books mentioned in the text, still others explain unusual or unfamiliar terms and concepts. While helpful, such annotations are rather pedestrian and only just begin to enhance the reading experience. Now that the EPUB standard adds considerable support for HTML5 and CSS3, there are many interesting and interactive possibilities. Unfortunately, not all ereaders support all HTML5 options and the Kindle is woefully inadequate in this area.

Please send me any suggestions and ideas you might have about what would enhance your reading of early modern primary sources or how I could make them more effective/useful in classes: dhayton(at)haverford.edu.