Month: November 2012

A Phrenological Evaluation of Andrew White

Prompted by Dr. Crabtree’s recent efforts to revive head size as a meaningful indicator of intelligence, I offer the following phrenological evaluation of Andrew White straight from the pages of The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated. White is best known today for his polemical The Warfare of Science and Religion, which regrettably continues to structure much of the discussion about the relationship between science and religion. Despite errors and oversimplifications, White’s versions of various historical episodes are repeated today as gospel.

Andrew White from The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated (September 1879)

White’s appointment as ambassador to Germany motivated the editors of The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated to assess White’s character and his likelihood of advancing the diplomatic relationship between Germany and the U.S. Fortunately, at least from the editors’ perspective, White seemed an excellent appointment whose abilities would bring the two countries closer together.

Judging from the portrait (perhaps the one reproduced in the journal) the editors were able to discern quite a lot about White. In general:

The temperament seems to be predominantly mental; the brain is large for the size of the body, and it widens as it rises, showing that the superior portions of the head are larger than the basilar. The distance from the opening of the ear forward is long, showing ample anterior, or intellectual development. The lower half of the forehead is large, showing keenness of criticism, capacity to gain and appreciate facts, and the ability to acquire information for himself; and though he is fond of natural science and literature, and has a natural talent for business and business affairs, he has really more capacity for pushing investigations, for making discoveries in science, for comprehending remote causes with relation to truth, than for the mere matter of fact which pertains to business or scholarship.

He had a talent for language—revealed by his “fullness of eye”—and strong moral tendencies and love of justice—revealed by the large upper portion of his head. The middle sections of his head indicated a “good development of Combativeness and Acquisitiveness … and a fair share of Secretiveness”—presumably useful traits for an ambassador. In the end, they endorsed his appointment: “We regard our subject as a very superior man: first, in quality; second, in sentiment; third, in mind.”

In addition to his innate abilities, he brought considerable experience to the office, which they highlighted in their biographical sketch:
After White received his B.A. from Yale he travelled Europe for two years. He returned to Yale for a year before being appointed chair of History and English at Michigan University. There he singlehandedly elevated the institution to a level of prosperity. His labors were so arduous that his health declined to the point where he “was obliged to resign his professorship and travel in Europe for six months.” (Oh to have such health problems and the financial means to find such a cure).

As a state legislator in New York he was instrumental in establishing Cornell University in 1865 and, the following year, was appointed its first president. He promptly returned to Europe, ostensibly to examine the leading institutions of agriculture and technology.

The editors regretted that he had not had sufficient time to publish much but had at least written a few articles and a recent book. His book, The Warfare of Science and Religion they seem to damn with faint praise: “The recent volume, entitled “The Warfare of Science and Religion,” was written, we presume, mainly in answer to the many utterances which had appeared on the side of science as against revelation, but, while its reasoning is scholarly and powerful, it is not extended enough to be exhaustive.” He was, apparently in their estimation, a better speaker. They lauded his oral addresses, such as his inaugural speech at Cornell University.

Dawn of the Living Genetic-Materialist Determinism

The Independent recently quoted the Stanford University geneticist Gerald Crabtree:

“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000BC** were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” Professor Crabtree says in a provocative paper published in the journal Trends in Genetics.

Dr. Crabtree thinks (should we say, “wagers” or “guesses”) “that we, as a species, are surprisingly intellectually fragile and perhaps reached a peak 2000–6000 years ago.” Why? Because there are a “large number of genes required for intellectual and emotional function, and the unique susceptibility of these genes to loss of heterozygosity.” Over the last 2-6 millennia we humans have been “slowly losing emotional and intellectual traits.”

While the popular press often distorts articles from scientific journals, in this case The Independent seems to have captured fairly accurately Dr. Crabtree’s point.

Dr. Crabtree’s musings appeared in his recent “Our Fragile Intellect. Part I” (behind the Elsevier paywall), published in the “Science & Society” section of Trends in Genetics and later in a sequel (also behind the Elsevier paywall). Together these essays revive a genetic-materialist argument for IQ and revive the tried and true cranial-volume correlation.

In addition to the hurdles these musings present in the way of testable hypotheses—Dr. Steve Jones from UCL noted “I have no idea how the idea [Dr. Crabtree’s] could be tested”—the general claims are deeply problematic. As has been shown most eloquently by Stephen Gould in The Mismeasure of Man, correlations between cranial volume or brain size and intelligence reveal more about person doing the measurement than the person being measured. Dr. Crabtree’s claims are fundamentally untestable, failing even the simplest of Popperian-falsification requirements to be a science. How would you test the intelligence or emotional function of historical peoples?

And when did it become acceptable for an author to admit ignorance about a discipline or field, make no effort to gain any knowledge, and yet claim to use that field to draw conclusions. Dr. Crabtree:

… I argued that we are slowly losing emotional and intellectual traits; but how did we get them in the first place? This is one of the most important questions of modern anthropology and the subject of much investigation and debate. Although not my area of expertise, I offer the following thoughts on the topic.

Surely if an author is wading into a “subject of much investigation and debate” the author has an obligation to acquire at least some expertise in that subject.

And why does Trends in Genetics, an Elsevier journal, publish such musings? Elsevier has claimed that its editorial processes add something of value to the scholarly community. Elsevier claims to respect scholarly expertise and to draw on that expertise in the editorial process. It seems that the editors of Trends in Genetics did not consult anybody with expertise in “Science & Society” before accepting these essays. Trends in Genetics costs more than $2000/year for a small college. Surely for that amount Trends in Genetics can find an expert in Science and Society.

**For what it’s worth, citizens in 1000BC Athens were enjoying the nadir of the Greek Dark Ages. It’s easy to imagine the Athenian agora teeming with perhaps as many as dozen goat herders vying to become this week’s alpha male.

UPDATE: Tim Whitmarsh has pointed out that “Athens had no citizens at all in 1000 BCE.”

A Historian of Science Reads Kuhn

The last two posts come together in this quick note. Again, digging through boxes of books, I came across the academic’s copy of Thomas Kuhn’s The Coperncian Revolution (I’m confident he owned a copy of Structure, I just haven’t found it yet). As his characteristic signature indicates on the title page, he purchased his pocket, paperback edition in 1960.

The Modern Library Paperback edition of T. Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution.

And as is typical, he read carefully with pencil and red pencil and at some point pen and later pencil in hand. For example, on page 121 he underlined passages in pencil, both red and black. He added notes in the bottom margin, keyed to interlinear symbols he had added to the text. And he commented on the value of works Kuhn cited.

One of the many annotated pages in this copy of Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution.

Across the bottom we read:

* Note have a m/p. 120 (red), it is clear Buridan has no concept of inertia, as such: in effect, he posits different kinds of impetus, e.g., “circular impetus.”
† Note a vacuum implied. 13: p.280—off beat work

Page 120 was generously underlined, so to help him identify the relevant section, he noted that he was referring to the passage underlined in red. It is unclear whether he underlined the passage in red so that he could refer to it on page 121 or if he had chosen red for some other reason and was now able to select that section. In either case, it gestures to his meticulous and intentional reading habits.

He returned to this book at least one more time. In 1967 he added a note to a diagram wondering if the mechanism it illustrated “had been added to take care of precession of the equinoxes.” Uncharacteristically, he did not record his decision on that issue.

Discovery in Kuhn’s Structure

Thomas Kuhn, from Wikipedia.

Discovery is both a compelling and problematic category in the history of science. We seek to identify the origins and originators of ideas we value but try to avoid telling teleological and Whigish histories. This essay reflects on Kuhn’s understanding of discoveries The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

[This is a lengthy post. For your convenience I have provided a PDF and an epub/iBooks version of this post.]

Three editions of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Thinking about Discovery

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn drew attention to what he considered the vexing historical problem of discovery. Although he attributed to discovery a fundamental role in the development of science, he rejected the familiar idea that an individual scientist made any discovery at a particular moment. Instead, he identified a range of unusual activities that he considered to be preconditions for any discovery but that could not themselves be predicted to be the preconditions of discovery. Normal science, Kuhn told us, has “developed a uniquely powerful technique for producing surprises” (Kuhn, Structure, 51) that do not conform to the rules of the governing paradigm. These surprises are discoveries that require scientists to adjust or completely replace a paradigm. According to Kuhn, however, the familiar notion of discovery is misleading: “Though undoubtedly correct, the sentence, ‘Oxygen was discovered,’ misleads by suggesting that discovering something is a single simple act assimilable to our usual (and also questionable) concept of seeing” (Kuhn, Structure, 55). Kuhn preferred a more nuanced model that allowed him to draw attention to the protracted and laborious intellectual process required in making a discovery.

Structure was not the first time Kuhn had thought about discoveries and their role in the development of science. A few years earlier he had published “Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery” and just before Structure appeared a short article in Science “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery.” Whereas in these earlier articles Kuhn had identified various classes of discovery, in Structure he focused on those he had called “troublesome” discoveries, which could not have been predicted by contemporary scientific theory and ultimately required scientists to formulate new paradigms. At this point discoveries become the mechanism for paradigm change and thus the basis for scientific revolutions (The scholarship on discovery is immense. Kenneth Caneva provides a nice overview of the literature in his recent article. He argues that the concept of discovery shapes how the community of scientists form consensus and ascribe a discovery to some predecessor. Caneva “‘Discovery’”).

In Structure Kuhn distanced himself from the colloquial definition of discovery as a discrete event with an identifiable author: “Discovery is not the sort of process about which the question [of priority] is appropriately asked. The fact that it is asked … is a symptom of something askew in the image of science that gives discovery so fundamental a role” (Kuhn, Structure, 54). He rejected the assumption that the historian can determine who discovered something and when it was discovered. Using oxygen as his example, Kuhn raised various practical difficulties that prevented the historian from attributing its discovery to any single person or point in time. To illustrate his point, Kuhn raised a handful of questions historians might ask: What evidence should the historian invoke to show that something was discovered? What criteria should the historian privilege in identifying what was discovered and when? Does historian have to use the same name for the discovery that the historical actor used—to borrow Kuhn’s example, is oxygen the same as dephlogisticated air? Does discovery depend on the historical actor recognizing that something had been discovered? Does discovery depend on a level of purity? We could add to Kuhn’s list: Is there a language in which discoveries are communicated? Does discovery depend on some level of dissemination? While Kuhn recognized that such questions stubbornly refuse easy solutions, he stopped short of implicating the historian in determining when a discovery was made and by whom. Reflexivity eluded him. For Kuhn it was sufficient to show the practical difficulties that complicated the historian’s efforts to assign discoveries to particular scientists at particular moments. These practical problems introduced Kuhn’s more profound critique, which not only undermined the possibility of determining who discovered something but also denied any possibility of determining when something was discovered.

According to Kuhn in order to say that a discovery had occurred required the scientist to know not only that something had been discovered but also what had been discovered. Discovery was a complex process that begins when a scientist recognizes an anomalous result, decides to investigate that anomaly, and finally ends when the scientist adjusts the reigning paradigm to account for the anomaly. The new paradigm transforms the anomaly into a predictable result. Wilhem Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays illustrated this process. Röntgen’s perception of a glowing screen was merely the prelude to his discovery. Before he could consider the phenomenon an anomaly, Röntgen first had to determine that the existing paradigm could not predict such a phenomenon and that it was not an artifact of his instruments, which were themselves products of the paradigm. After a series of tests and observations he developed new conceptual categories that determined what he had observed. At this point his glowing screen ceased to be an anomaly and became, instead, confirmation of his new paradigm. At what point, Kuhn asked, can it be said that Röntgen discovered X-rays? Like a scientific revolution, a troublesome discovery begins with the recognition of anomalous results, proceeds through a period of crisis, and ends with the construction of a new paradigm. And like a scientific revolution, a troublesome discovery does not occur at a particular moment.

Despite his critique Kuhn remained committed to two notions of discovery that have limited analytical utility. First, he sought a transcendent criterion to distinguish discoveries from non-discoveries. He relied on anomaly to provide that transcendent criterion. Invoking anomalies, however, merely shifts the question from what marks a discovery to what marks an anomaly. So, if we wield Kuhn’s analytical approach in historical studies of science, we seemed to be trapped in a circle. Anomalies are recognized retrospectively because they became the foundation for a discovery. But discoveries are recognized by the fact that they are grounded in anomalous results (see Brannigan, Social Basis for Discovery). Second, Kuhn privileged the intellectual work of the discoverer—the individual genius—over the over the collective consensus of the relevant community. Kuhn claimed that any discovery “emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals” (Kuhn, Structure, 144), who then disseminates it to the larger group of practicing scientists. His focus on the individual was tied to his understanding of discovery as a mean of establishing ownership or assigning credit. In his article in Science Kuhn had remarked that “[t]o make a discovery is to achieve one of the closest approximations to a property right that the scientific career affords” (Kuhn, “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,” 760). Discovery was a forward-looking process initiated and resolved by the individual scientist. Kuhn’s reliance on both anomaly and the individual genius invoke traditional notions of discovery that default to a triumphalist historiography and preclude a heterogeneous causal explanation (On triumphalist historiography as it applies to phlogiston, see Chang “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)”). Although we are uncomfortable with Kuhn’s decision to privilege individual genius, his reliance on traditional categories arose from his own disciplinary training in physics at Harvard in the 1940s. In the 1800s a new understanding of discovery was developed that supported the new and increasingly modern looking notions of discipline and genius being deployed in science, science education, and histories of science. With a new emphasis on disciplined research, histories of science began to account for scientific change by referring to the individual genius, the discoverer, as the primary source of scientific change (Schaffer, “Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy”). Kuhn’s mid-century education depended on this model of science and prevented him from questioning the categories of genius and discovery.

Kuhn’s emphasis on the individual genius might look surprising given his acknowledgement of the importance of community consensus. Later in Structure Kuhn indicated that consensus was one of the hallmarks of science. Consensus about past and present accomplishments makes a discipline a science (Kuhn, Structure, 161). According to Kuhn, that consensus also gave science its apparent progressive character both during periods of normal science and during periods of revolutionary science. Yet as Simon Schaffer has described the processes of scientific development, epistemic consensus among scientists does not precede but rather derives from membership in a community of like-minded practitioners. Consensus, then, helps to construct canons that create and maintain the identity of particular groups by providing their members with a shared set of cultural and intellectual values as well as markers of inclusion and exclusion. Consequently, discovery has come to play an important role in the process of canon formation particularly in histories of science (Schaffer, “Making up Discovery”). A discovery is the retrospective judgement of the discoverer’s community and serves to identify and thereby assert a community’s values. Ascribing authorship to a discovery picks out exemplary techniques, affirms those techniques, and celebrates them (Schaffer, “Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy”).

For historians the problem of linking epistemologies to the milieu is perpetual. Unfortunately, Kuhn did not solve this problem. He did forcefully reject the naive assumption that historians could easily determine who discovered something and when. He prompted historians to reorient their histories away from the the great men, great deeds, great moments and towards periods of change and communities of practitioners. In the end, however, his focus on scientific revolutions derived from his own position of privilege and committed him to a traditional and non-reflexive understanding of history of science. His understanding of science, scientific institutions, and the nature of scientific progress ultimately supported rather than challenged a conservative history of science and secured rather than undermined typical mechanisms of authority. While Kuhn could acknowledge the difficulty of attribution, he could not question the idea of the individual genius. While he could focus on instability, he could not foreground contingency. Maybe this is why we say “Kuhn made the world safe for social construction” but was not himself a social constructivist.

Works Cited

  • A. Brannigan, The Social Basis of Discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Kenneth Caneva, “‘Discovery’ as a Site for the Collective Construction of Scientific Knowledge,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 35 (2005): 175–291
  • Hasok Chang “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston),” Centaurus 51 (2009), 239-264
  • Thomas Kuhn, “Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery” in Critical Problems in the History of Science, ed. Marshall Clagett, pp. 321–56. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959.
  • Thomas Kuhn, “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,” Science 136, no. 3518 (1962): 760–64.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  • Simon Schaffer, “Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy,” Social Studies of Science 16 (1986): 387–420.
  • Simon Schaffer “Making up Discovery,” in Dimensions of Creativity, ed. Margaret A. Boden, pp. 13–51. Boston: MIT Press, 1994.

A Historian of Science Reads History of Science

I continue to unearth interesting tidbits from the retired academic’s library. In most of his books he left fascinating traces of how he read. He never shied from in lauding or condemning an author or a passage. He returned to his books again and again, expanding earlier comments, adding new ones, and cross referencing other material. In some cases, he leaves traces of his life in these books, comments about what was happening, where he was, who was visiting, when and where he read a book.

W. Wightman’s The Growth of Scientific Ideas (Yale, 1953)

In Salt Lake City 1953, he purchased a brand new copy of William Wightman’s The Growth of Scientific Ideas (Yale, 1953). It is unclear when he started reading it, but he clearly read it more than once, and read it carefully with pencil, pen, and pen in hand.

Across the top of the table of contents he reminded himself how to read the book:

In reading, concentrate on picking out and retaining general scientific principles, historical trends and the key historical details which mark them out.

This seems reasonable advice, though we might wonder why he needed to articulate it to himself on the table of contents. Perhaps he read this book early in his transition from being a physicist to becoming a historian of science, and he thought he needed to be reminded of a different way of interacting with texts.

The reader gives himself advice on how to read Wightman’s book.

Whatever the reason, he made it only 44 pages before he could no longer resist analyzing in detail and frequently chastising the text and its author for problematic claims, interpretations, and choice of vocabulary. Running down the margin he recorded his increasing annoyance: “maybe … maybe … phooey … wrong!” On the next page, he questioned whether Wightman meant “size” when he wrote “bulk.” Later, he considered Wightman’s account of Galileo “Very garbled.” In the margin he added “glub glub” and “NO!” Having forgotten his own advice, he continued his detailed march through the remainder of the book.

He was obsessed with the details—he regularly analyzed and corrected the mathematical equations in the book, often more than once. He qualified them and added cross references to other parts of the book where the equation or the concept was analyzed further. For example, he dwelt on the “delightfully simple” proof that the inverse square law is implicit Keper’s Third Law of planetary motion. Here at least three layers of reading, revealed in the pencil, the red ink highlighting an error, and the green ink qualifying the error and speculating on why Wightman reproduced it.

Notes on the “delightfully simple” proof that the inverse square law is implicit in Kepler’s Third Law.

Exasperation, commentary, and critique overflow the margins, spilling from the top of the page to the bottom or across pages: “Good analogy! Flexible and suggestive notation” “Unfair!” “Where? For hell’s sake. Not on 180, or 182 (where he issues another of these puzzling statements).” “Swallows the gunpowder legend!” And my favorite: “Lord! This Wightman is maddening.”

At the end we find out a bit more about when and where he read Wightman’s book. Whether he had read it in 1953, when he purchased it, we can’t tell. But it does seem that he was busy reading it during the summer of 1965. The notes on the last page seem to indicate that he read the book twice that year, once in May and again three months later:

Traces of when and where he read Wightman.

Tue. 11 May, 1965
parents leaving, after their first visit to 1218 Las Lomas.

Logan Canyon
19 Aug, 1965

[Cross posted here.]