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


27 thoughts on “Science wars

  1. Thank you for this post. I think it has summed up a series of things I’ve felt about the spat. Personally, I had issues with the editorial Cox and Ince wrote, and did find it was overly simplistic. I find that much science communication is over-simplifying and over-glorifying science as an entity that is above human interpretation and action. Which is where my main discordance lies with Cox/Ince.

    However, my main problem with this particular battle in the Science War wasn’t their article at all, for once. Which quite surprised me when I was writing my own views on the debate. Indeed, it was the debate itself that was a complete disappointed to me, much as I think (if I’ve correctly interpreted the entry) was the case with you.

    Indeed, both sides were overly-arrogant and a bit too touchy. However, I found the complete dismissal of an entire discipline by Cox, Ince and Milinovich outrageous. Though I shall absolutely concede your point about a fault in communicating the interest of STS/Histsci/philsci, how actual science communicators come to think of it as “philosophical wish-wash” or/and “fluff” is beyond my comprehension.

    I would love to have your view on the reactions from either side. Personally, I found that many of the blogs commenting the debate from the histsci side actually made quite valid arguments, only to be considered scientifically invalid by Cox.

    Again, very interesting post, and thank you.

    • I think you summed it up perfectly, the debate was disappointing on both sides. Possibly everyone was a bit pre-xmas stressed. I’m fairly sure I couldn’t have made a coherent argument on 20th Dec. But still. I think the problem lies in trying to make ideas media friendly, which I think is much harder than it is generally acknowledged. If the histsci people had come back with a simple ‘I don’t like this sentence, but how about this as an alternative’ all would be well, but they didn’t because that would be incredibly hard to do. That I think was my main problem with it all, its easy to read magazines, watch telly etc and gripe, much harder to come up with a viable alternative.

      • I definitely agree with the idea of media being extremely hard to write for. However, I’m not quite sure I’m as positive as you and that simply giving them replacement sentences would have sufficed. Cox was particularly vicious with the whole idea of the studies of science. Indeed, I have a feeling he would have dismissed any idea that wasn’t his as promptly as anything else. It might come from a slight pessimism, but I’m honestly not quite sure if the whole debate didn’t stem from one side being miffed about not being able to show their ideas of wide-ranging media, and the other being smug about having that accessibility.

        Not quite sure that made sense. Please tell me if not.

      • I’m not saying they would have been convinced by the replacement sentences, but I would have found it more satisfying, it would at least have felt as though they were speaking the same language & so perhaps convinced a few onlookers. Also, I think you’re right about the origins, which I think is probably what made me uncomfortable. I felt we might have been better served by offering solutions that setting up antagonisms. Not sure that’s good English, but do you see what I mean? We could have learnt so much, but in the end we weren’t in a position to explain ourselves in a way they might understand, and as a result were dismissed as not pickers. It felt like a missed opportunity.

    • Sorry to butt in – I’ve got an hour to kill on a train, so this gives me something to do!

      Although I am perhaps an unlikely defender of Cox, I don’t think he was especially ‘vicious’ in his dismissal of HPS et al. If you see his reply on my initial blog he was one of the (if not THE) most reasonable defendants of his position. Yes, he was lightly dismissive of HPS, but was never smug about his audience reach. The smugness came from other quarters (notably his wife, actually). Just as I am keen for my provocative words not to tarnish HPS, so too am I concerned that some resentment towards Cox may be misdirected.

      (declaration of interest: Cox’s attention did drive traffic to my obscure new blog, which may bias me towards him!)

      • Please do butt in. I quite agree on Cox, he seemed very nice on your blog, & I don’t think his wife was particularly smug either, just frustrated and perhaps a little lacking in tact. I think the point of the smugness comment was to draw attention to the very different positions of those involved. Smugness was perhaps unfair, but you see the general point. They, with a good deal of hard work, had managed to get their message in the public domain. The historians of science wanted that message to be a little difference, they wanted their voices heard, but had much less experience in how that might be achieved. Hence perhaps a little jealousy.

      • Hi, thanks for the comment.

        I might have used slightly strong wording. I have, of course, read both your blog and Cox’s comments and I agree he absolutely wasn’t vicious. I think I meant more in what concerned the aftermath. He has used the words “distracting fluff” when concerning philosophy of science, and mocked quite a few critiques as “nobbers”. Ther ehas been quite a bit of evidence of him being dismissive about the discipline as whole, and I believe that is where my resentment lies with him.

        Let me make myself clear: I am slightly in love with Cox, and find him in general to be a, quite simply, great science populariser. The days following the debate, I went to watch the “End of the World Show” organised by both him and Ince, and also went to the “Godless” shows organised by Ince in the Bloomsbury Theatre. I hold no grudges. I just find it disappointing that science communicators (who I personally believe should actually be concerned with more philosophical, historical and sociological ideas of science) thing that science studies has nothing to bring to the discussion. Which is the general feeling I got from his many ironic tweets about the debate.

        Then again, I am completely biased as I hope to make a career out of the subject.

      • Well quite. I would like to make a career out of it too, which is why I find it so distressing that I keep feeling more sympathetic towards the scientist blogs than the historians. I’m sure I’ve missed something, I just don’t get it, I hope if I keep banging on about it someone will very patiently explain why it matters. Anyway, I’m going to try & draw all these thought & back tracks together.

      • I shall follow suit. The whole debate has been infinitely interesting, if not for the actual “main” one, surrounding the article itself, but the series of reactions it has birthed. I’ve never been quite so active on Twitter, or blogging, for that matter, and in general thinking about my discipline. This is extremely enjoyable!

  2. I may have missed something, but I never noticed anyone in the history of science community saying anything about the so-called geek movement, let alone sneering. As far as I can tell, my blog was the only one which mentioned it at all. As I am not a member of any history of science community (as you will know by virtue of never having heard of me!), I can’t see where your unease comes from. The articles by actual historians of science (Higgitt, Stilgoe et al.) were perfectly measured and never ‘sneering’.

    I have no desire to drag the argument out myself, which is why I moved on to other things after a couple of days. I briefly considered storifying some of the more ‘colourful’ arguments directed towards me personally by Milinovich & Robbins, since they typified many of the negative ‘geek movement’ qualities (arrogance etc) mentioned in my blog. Then I realised that it would probably stir up further mindless aggression and drew a line under the whole sorry affair.

    However, I would just like to emphasise that I am in no way affiliated with any historians or philosophers of science, and do not wish to tarnish the reputation of any discipline to which I have no connection!

    • Thanks for this, you’re right it has dragged on far too long. Sorry if I misrepresented your views, and accidentally called you a historian of science (it was the conferences you referred to that threw me – I don’t know EVERYONE who does history of science). I’m still not sure about your definition of geek, but as you say you’ve moved on. Anyway, I hope you liked what I hope was my main point: that history of science is useful and worthwhile, even to scientists. And thank you for reading.

      • Not at all, I mis-(or perhaps over-)represented my own views in the first place! My unflattering definition of geek really applies to a vocal minority, rather than everyone who identifies as a geek. Some members of that vocal minority fit the definition in their responses.

        I don’t personally mind being called a historian of science (I suppose you could call me an amateur); I’m more concerned that assosciating my intentionally provocative post with real HPS may bring the discipline misdirected vitriol!

  3. I understand where you are coming from, particularly as some of the discussions got misunderstood and off-topic, but what you have missed out here is the fact that this article wasn’t science popularisation. It was squarely in the political, if not propagandistic, realm and (pace Jordanova) it was fair and even necessary to subject it to analysis from the political, historical, sociological and other perspectives it went into.

    • I take your point, but I’m not sure the arguments came across terribly well. They have an agenda, obviously, which is I think for the most part admirable, but I what came out of the debate, for me at least, was the lack of any clear idea how we would like that agenda to be modified. I would love to see more good history of science in the media, but that requires us to learn how the media works. Does that make sense?

      • This makes sense, of course, and I’m always interested in strategies that will work for various audiences. However, I also think there’s a role for commentary and critique. If I wrote an article for a magazine that said something silly about climate change or particle physics, would it be wrong for a non-media-friendly expert in those fields to challenge me on it?

      • It absolutely would of course, and I admire you for even trying to take on such high profile players – you’ll notice it took me over a week to put together these few, fairly incoherent thoughts. But I do hope that the debates inspire a discussion within the history of science about its public face. For me, it really highlighted how clear this current crop of public scientists and science popularisers are about their message, their image & their agenda, and how much less clear we are. I also worry that there is a slight disapproval in academic circles to simplify in any way in attempting to reach wider audiences. I know in my brief forays into the world of media & trade press, my main anxiety has always been trying to balance pleasing academics with creating an engaging story. Just out of interest, and as a place to start discussions, how do you explain what history of science is and why its important to your non-academic friends?

      • Becky, I 100% agree with you here!

        However, I believe that everything Cox and Ince touch become science popularisation for the sheer amount of people they reach every time they write something and tweet about it.

        Which is where I come off every single time complaining about the general science communication/popularisation that is done throughout the media, which as I stated above, “is over-simplifying and over-glorifying science as an entity that is above human interpretation and action”. Lacking an intellectual term for it, it pisses me off!

      • This is a tricky one. I think there has to be some simplifying in order to popularise. I’m not sure how else you can do it. On the glorifying, again, really difficult, but I think ultimately this is the real challenge (or one of them) for potential popularizers of history of science: what do you replace these stories with? In terms of Cox/Ince, as I understand it, their agenda is to raise science to the same status as the arts (which I think makes them analogous to feminist historians trying to bring women’s stories into traditionally all male narratives). Is this something we agree with? If so, or even if not, does history of science have anything to add?

      • I had a semi-sober debate about this with a new random friend over New Year’s and am now happy to talk about this specific subject, Emily.

        In fact, I take back the idea of over-simplifying completely. (Thank goodness for being able to backtrack…!) I agree that simplification is needed for the communication of science. I think my commentary has more to do with the fact that I think some popularisation has been scaled back to a very simplistic idea of what science is, not of what the actual theory is (oh dear, this is bad English…).

        I’m not advocating an anti-science stance, nor do I think science needs to be sold as fallible and wishy-washy. I simply wish it would be represented as something human. For having watched two shows by Robin Ince on science (though granted, much of it was comedy, and worth it), there is a general feeling of: look how amazing science is, look how perfect the community is.

        I sound like an arrogant prick. Definitely not what I was aiming for. I can understand the point of communicating science via these means, from the point of view “what would be the point of doing it otherwise, and wouldn’t it be dangerous for the advance of science to show it in any other way?” I simply wish there would be a point where, when we speak of the history of science, we don’t aim to sanctify the scientists. The general view of what a scientist is still tails back to a special culture of detachedness, disinterestedness, patience, etc.

        So we sound like nitpickers. There was a nice blog made about that idea:
        I quite agree with the vast majority of it.

        I’m not quite sure what the interest of “raising” science to the same status of the arts would be. There seems to be a feeling that it has to be “raised” somewhere, when it has always been considered a rather prestigious enterprise. Could you expand on this point?

        This comment was all over the place. I apologise. I find myself getting caught up in a subject I’m actually relatively new to, so forgive any ideas that seem either too utopian or radical.

      • I think I may have back tracked too from my original position. Love long drawn out online conversations where you can do that. I’m still kind of thinking through what my new position on all this might be, but basically what boils down to is that I can’t see point of criticism for the sake of criticism. Isn’t there room for more than one way of talking about science? I’m also a little bit wary of criticising statements that are primarily jokes. We allow it in other disciplines, so why not science? This is all getting a little abstract now as I can’t off the top of my head think of any examples. Anyway still thinking & backtracking.

      • Your comments have got me thinking an awful lot. I’d never really thought about the flaws in the ‘raising science’ argument. People do always tell me how many time they failed their maths GCSE, or how they find science too hard, if I tell them I’ve got a physics degree yet I’ve never heard the same pride attached to failure at English, or ignorance of Shakespeare. And I think ‘being cultured’ does still mean knowing things about classics and literature rather than science. Certainly if Guardian crossword clues are anything to go by. And I’ve always understood this to be something that dates back to 19th century arguments about liberal education and social class. However, when I think about it, I’m not sure its as polarised as all that. I think you could probably lump social science in with science and get roughly the same argument. If that makes sense.

  4. I thought I would add my two penn’orth. This has turned into something much longer than I envisaged. If and when I ever start my own blog, in future I’ll post such things there rather than blitzing comments pages!

    First, a bit about me for context. I’m including this not out of narcissism, but to explain the extent to which I’m an in/outsider to these issues.

    I am a history graduate and, after 13 years as a civil servant (pensions policy for the most part) I am now making a career change into archivism and am currently on the Archives & Records Management MA course at UCL. As part of the course, we have touched on some HPS debates as they relate to ‘archival science’ (So called. The archives profession has its own debates on the extent to which there is any value to archival theory, and between post-modern and post-positivist approaches etc.)

    So, I have no formal background in either science or history of science. However, both are areas of interest for me and I’d eventually like to look after a scientific collection (I’ve previously volunteered at both the Natural History Museum and the Royal Society). As such I follow the likes of Emily, Rebekah, Alice Bell and some others on twitter.

    I’m very much a typical layman whose interest in science was always latent but was really rekindled when the BBC moved to its current approach to science broadcasting. I’m a regular listener to the Infinite Monkey Cage (along with other sciencey podcasts like Little Atoms, Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Radiolab) and this year went to both Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People and Cox and Ince’s End of the World Show. I’ve also been to Skeptics in the Pub a couple of times.

    Right, having said that, a few musings:

    1) I think most of the problems here ultimately stem from the medium (twitter) and from timing. I think that many people, on all sides, got snarky and fired off a few tweets that they probably now regret. So, I definitely think that assuming good faith and trying to find ways to continue the discussion in a more measured way – and ideally in person – would be a good way to go. Aside from anything else, I have emailed the Infinite Monkey Cage and suggested that a discussion of History and Philosophy of Science or, more specifically, the scientific method(s) would be a good topic for a future episode. Here’s hoping.

    2) I had my own disagreements with the original editorial inasmuch as it talked about using scientific evidence in policymaking. I guess I was primed to be irritated by this because in the past I have ground my teeth when Ben Goldacre has made his case for the greater use of trials in identifying public policy solutions – a nice idea, and there’s certainly a place for it, but in my view unrealistic in most situations beyond those where it is already used. Also, in my experience, a lot of policymaking comes down to reliance on forecasting (not just by government but my specialists of all kinds), which is done in the most ‘scientific’ way possible but is still quite likely to be wrong. As an example from my own field: there are many reasons why we have big problems with pensions in this country but key among them are a) people are living much, much longer than they were 60 years ago and more significantly b) throughout that 60 years, actuaries, demographers, the medical profession and others *consistently* under-predicted the increase in life-expectancy.

    I had other quibbles, but on the whole I agreed with it.

    3) I am with Emily completely that it was unfortunate that a lot of the responses (I am talking particularly about the twitter responses) were along the lines of ‘I think you’ll find its a little bit more complicated than that’; were not necessarily realistic in ideas of what level of nuance or detail could or should be included in such an editorial and in some cases could not give any concrete suggestions on how to solve the problem beyond providing reading lists. Issues of technological advance and scientific advance, the nature of the scientific method, and the grounding of science in the social context are certainly of real interest, but was it really so terrible that they were over-simplified in the article? And if so, how could the article have ‘got it right’ without being any longer and without digressions at the cost of its core points?

    This is really why I outlined my background at the start, because this is how the debate appeared to me as a layman. I found myself agreeing with Jon Butterworth’s article and with the content (if not the tone) of some of Gia Milinovich and Martin Robbins’ exasperated tweets.

    As a side note, I was interested that Brian Cox and Jon Butterworth both said that the debate over the exact nature of the scientific method was new to them and not something they ever encountered with colleagues. I was vaguely aware of the issue, but it was intriguing to me that two physics professors would say that. I’m not sure whether that points to any great disconnect between practitioners and philosophers of science. I’m reminded that in my Archives Masters course, I’m learning about a lot of fierce debates on the academic side of the profession (I understand that the UCL course covers more of this than some other Archives MA courses), which a lot of archivists working out in county record offices and the like would not recognise as at all relevant to their work.

    4) Finally, I’d note that a large part of the popularisation of science through broadcasting in the last few years has absolutely been bound up with presenting the history of science. It’s may not be wholly true of Cox’s ‘Wonders’ series, but when I think of all the series and one-off documentaries I’ve watched on BBC4 (e.g. the Jim Al-Khalili series “The Secret Life of Chaos”, “A Volatile History of Chemistry”, “Shock & Awe”, “Everything & Nothing” and “Order & Disorder”) they have all been about storytelling as much as describing theory. And from my perspective, at least, they have sought to portray some of the complexities of scientific research, rather that subscribing to simple “lone genius” narratives.

    I mention this because I think some people may be underestimating the extent to which ‘geeks’ like myself are imbibing the history of science (and a sense of its lack of neatness, it’s dead-ends, failings, compromised nature etc etc) rather than just passively enjoying an unrealistic, fanboy’s view of how marvellous it all is.

    I hope that made some sort of sense!

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