Science wars

My daughter is in the other room playing with her chemistry set with her grandparents. My son is on my knee watching Batman. I have bred geeks and I could not be more proud. Elsewhere, in the twitter sphere the spat between Ince/Cox/Milinovich and the sci comm/ history of science people seems finally to have petered out after it’s ferocious start on 20th Dec 2012. Linked to this, have been a couple of blogs sneering at the so-called geek movement, caricaturing it as a fan club for Richard Dawkins and related arrogance and suddenly, over the space of just a few days, I find myself feeling distinctly uneasy about being part of the history of science community.

The history of science community is very small and as a result I know and like many of the people on the history of science side of these online arguments and debates. I know them to be generally sensible, reasonable people, self aware and with a sense of humour. This has made me assume for some time that I must be missing something important. Now I’m not so sure.

We talk a lot in histsci about the public perception of science and about its ‘popularisation’ over time and what exactly that might mean. To paraphrase Douglas Adams we ask ‘what do we mean by popular?’ and ‘how can we reach an empirical definition of science?’ We look at the historical context for different attempts to ‘popularise’, at the motives of all those involved, at their cultural influences, and so on. And we draw on all this research to better empathize and understand the choices made by our historical actors. We look at the consequences of those decisions and gradually, piece by piece, we build up a picture of how we got to where we are today.

Our subject gives us the tools to empathize, to understand the processes through which new knowledge is created, disseminated and transformed. By understanding the historical context, we can better understand why an idea took a particular form, or why it was explained in a certain way. Yet for reasons that I cannot explain, none of these tools seem to have been used in the current debates.

History of science is not, or should not to my mind be about insisting everyone qualifies every statement with the phrase ‘I think you’ll find its a little bit more complicated than that’. It seems to me there is a place for broad brush generalizations in the history of science. You need the broad narrative to then understand the significance of the more nuanced detailed analyses. To those with no knowledge of the history of science, a rough timeline is useful for working out some kind of chronology into which to place different stories.

The online debates have shown none of the subtleties, none of the more admirable and attractive qualities of the subject, instead they made us look humourless, vain, and completely unaware of the purpose or context of the article or of what the geeks and popularizers are trying to do. These are people who are very successfully introducing science content into the entertainment industry in a way that doesn’t immediately make it feel worthy or improving. We should respect and try to learn something from their expertise in that area. If they didn’t quite get, weren’t convinced by, or could not find a way of ‘popularising’ some of the histsci arguments we think are important, then that is quite frankly our fault. We have not done our job if we can’t even convince those who are basically on the same side.

And this brings me neatly back to what has become a fairly constant theme in this blog: what exactly is the point of history of science?

In the interests of trying to persuade funding bodies to give me money for research and more loftily, in an attempt to give myself the illusion that what I do matters and will make the world a better place, I have been trying to work out an answer. Ludmilla Jordanova suggests its important for preventing, or correcting a misuse of science’s history for political ends, though I doubt this debate was quite what she had in mind. She also talks about heroism in stories of science and our job in trying to find an attractive alternative. Graeme Gooday presented another good reason in a recent interview. For scientists, prospective scientists, and even for those completely outside professional science who feel science has nothing to do with them, it can give a sense of perspective and possibility. While traditional heroic and progressive stories of science in the past tend to give roles only to a handful of predominantly dead, white men, (otherwise know as the pale, male and stale) current history of science research shows us a much richer picture, where, in its most idealised form, every contribution is valued. History of science also give us the tools to properly empathize with characters from the past. It allows us, without judgment, to understand why certain decisions were made, where particular ideas came from and how mistakes played their part. It gives us a way of understanding how we got to where we are, but, it should also help us stand back and understand better what’s going on today.

Original editorial
Responding blog posts included:
Becky Higgitt’s
Jon Butterworth
Peter Coles’
Martin Robbins’
Jack Stilgoe’s