Tag: Historiography

Moving beyond Heroic Geniuses

Historiann recently reflected on the preponderance of best-selling history books written by men and about men: last year 21 of the 23 best-selling history books were written by men. As she pointed out, audiences never seem to tire of biographies recounting the heroic man who has somehow contributed to our modern world. While she focused her attention on biographies of the “Founding Fathers,” much of what she said applies equally to history of science, e.g.,

…These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, commuity, or the times in which he lived.

…Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.… Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes.

History of science often defaults to stories about the heroic individual who bends nature to his will, the man of singular genius, whose achievements weren’t made possible by his family, his community, or the times in which he lived, but often despite that family, that community, or those times. Such stories commemorate certain kinds of power and knowledge while ignoring or explaining away others.

Two recent but very different examples—one popular one scholarly—illustrate these points. “These 5 Men Were Scientific Geniuses. They Also Thought Magic Was Real” marvels at the genius of Galileo (and Kepler) despite their lingering belief in astrology, at Newton’s (and Boyle’s) despite their dabbling in alchemy, at Paracelsus’s despite his reliance on natural magic.[1] These “geniuses” contributed to modern science despite their community and the times in which they lived. Internet audiences cannot get enough of these posts—this one has been shared nearly 10,000 times in four days.

Newton and the ascent of water in plants” offers a more scholarly example. Here a modern scientist celebrates Newton’s work as a “perceptive” or “prescient” version of what he knows/does today:

It should come as little surprise that Newton’s genius was capable of presciently imagining the germ of an idea explaining the ascent of sap in plants some two centuries before botanists came up with it for themselves.

The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.
The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.

The author has extracted from Newton’s notebooks a single paragraph, which he then interprets as a forerunner of his own research. Here the lure of commemoration prevents the author from considering this paragraph as part of a larger notebook that includes all sorts of other, less laudable (at least from our perspective) forms of knowledge—e.g., just a few pages earlier Newton cites the Bible in his reflections on the earth:

Its conflagration testified 2 Peter 3d, vers 6, 7, 10, 11, 12. The wiked (probably) to be punished thereby 2 Pet: 3 chap: vers 7.

The succession of worlds, probable from Pet 3c. 13v. in which text an emphasis upon the word wee is not countenanced by the Originall. Rev 21c. 1v. Isa: 65c, 17v. 66c, 22v. Days & nights after the judgment Rev 20c, 10 v.

Instead, the modern researcher sanitizes Newton’s thought, trimming from as if irrelevant those bits that don’t contribute to his modern science. Moreover, the ideal of the lone genius requires that Newton’s knowledge sprang from his head alone:

Reclusive and secretive, it’s doubtful he [Newton] gained botanical inspiration from conversations with others at Cambridge University interested in plants. Although his contemporaries were certainly thinking about plant anatomy and function around the same time.

The desire to celebrate the heroic genius struggling alone to discover truths about the world stems, at least in part, from the role that discovery plays in science and histories of science. Although discovery is often considered a forward-looking process, it is rather a retrospective judgement by scientists that seeks to assert a set of values and commend current research and researchers by linking them to exemplary practices.[2] It is no accident that “Newton and the ascent of water in plants” begins by praising Newton as “one of the greatest ‘natural philosophers’ that ever lived” and concludes by associating him with “another founding father of plant physiology.”

What would it look like to tell non-heroic histories of science? Can we make such histories compelling so that people would listen?

  1. The post radically misrepresents the historical practice of astrology and its place in early modern thought. The entries are Linnaeus and Brahe are too confused to merit comment.  ↩

  2. For more on discovery, see “Discovery in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure ↩

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.  ↩

Further Thoughts on Edward Shorter’s Interview

The opinions Edward Shorter expressed recently in an interview seem at odds to his earlier work, at least according to people familiar with his previous books. Shorter now dismisses most history of science and medicine as uninteresting because it doesn’t study “science.” His objection raises once again the internalist/externalist debate and to reflect the different ways scientists and historians approach the past.[1] John Wilkins has a good discussion of these differences (as Wilkins points out, what is really at issue is how we use the past). If Shorter’s earlier scholarship aligns more with externalist historiography (or is at least not internalist—as different people on Twitter have suggested), I wonder why he derides externalist histories now.

One person who praises Shorter‘s earlier work suggests that he has “joined the club” that sees the history of medicine useful only insofar as it is concerned with “bio-medicine.” If the history of medicine answers to the wants and needs of today’s medical education, this might be a valid explanation. Clearly, however, not all history of medicine is confined to questions relevant to today’s medical school needs. Further, this explanation doesn’t help me understand why Shorter might now limit his work to the medical school’s concerns and questions. Somebody else suggested that Shorter’s attack on externalist historiography is motivated by local departmental politics at the University of Toronto, which seems a plausible though unconfirmed explanation.

I still wonder how Shorter’s interview would have been different if he had been talking to a historian of some stripe rather than an attorney. How were initial questions and the follow-up questions shaped by the interviewer’s own understanding of both history and the uses of history? I also wonder how the posted interview relates to the interview that was conducted. Did Shorter have a chance to respond to or revise the post? Put differently: How much of Edward Shorter do we see in the interview and how much of the interviewer do we see in it?

I don’t have answers to those questions, but I think they merit further reflection and investigation.

  1. Caveat lector: In this post I use the terms externalist and internalist as shorthands. Like others, I grow tired of the polemics around these terms and typically find those debates arid. I also cannot say whether or not Shorter’s work is internalist or externalist nor whether or not he would describe his work as either.  ↩

Edward Shorter Derides Today’s History of Science

In a recently published interview, How Depression Went Mainstream over at The History News Network, historian of medicine Edward Shorter talks about his newest book, criticizes historians of science, and bemoans trends in the history of science.[1]

Shorter is an accomplished historian of medicine. He graduated from Harvard in 1968 and has spent the bulk of his career at the University of Toronto. While at Toronto he completed two years of medical school and “gained the basic knowledge of medical sciences that any physician would have.” He has written a number of books on various topics in the history of medicine, as well as a couple shorter (no pun intended) pieces on sex, music, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Edward Shorter has no patience for current historians or their intellectually bankrupt work. When asked about how different audiences have responded to his work, he says of historians: “Historians aren’t as interested [in my work] because they aren’t intellectually equipped to study that kind of thing.” Lacking a scientific background, historians can’t understand the science. Instead, they study non-science questions like “psychiatry’s attitudes toward women or how knowledge is diffused in medicine.” Such marginal questions, Shorter laments, “animate the discipline.” According to Shorter, only historians who have the training in the sciences they study can ask and answer “really interesting questions,” the scientific questions. While Shorter names historians of psychiatry, he is speaking more broadly about history of science in general.

Shorter goes on to deplore what he considers general trends in the history of science. When asked about the possibility of more dialog between historians and “those who study science and medicine” (would that be scientists and physicians?), he sees little reason to be hopeful:

The trend is not toward the study of science but “scientism” or pseudo-science, and to see how famous discoveries were really accomplished by sexist and ageist ways of thinking, and the whole line of investigation is of no interest at all to anyone outside the narrow corridors of the history of science departments, and almost certainly will not survive the test of time.

For Shorter, the only proper history of science, is internalist history of science that answers the really interesting questions. This namby-pamby history of science produced by current historians of science contributes little or nothing to our understanding of, for example, real illnesses or real science. There is no room in Shorter’s world for a history of science that might ask about meaning or use, or might see scientific practice as a form of culture (see Angela Muir’s useful post Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?). However much I might agree that historians of science could benefit from greater technical knowledge of the sciences they study, I disagree that only historians of science with that technical knowledge can ask interesting questions. Further, I would argue that such historians need to guard against letting their technical expertise give rise to a teleology that naturalizes scientific knowledge and severs it from the very people and societies that produced and used that scientific knowledge.

  1. It might be interesting to think about how this interview would have been different if conducted by a historian rather than an attorney with “a particular interest in the history of medicine.”  ↩

A.C. Crombie on Historiography

As true today as it was 50 years ago:

But both the scholastic and the humanist reformers applied the same activist formula to history, taking an attitude to the past determined by the needs and aspirations of the present and providing a programme for future action. Such an attitude seems to be a deeply persistent element in modern European historical thinking.

A.C. Crombie, “Historians and the Scientific Revolution,” Endeavour 19(1960), 10.