Wanted: humanities fansites

If you haven’t seen Becky’s latest post, I recommend you take a look. In it she articulates very clearly some popular feelings on the subject of ‘science’ and ‘scientists’. They’re arguments that will seem familiar to many, though have rarely been so calmly and rationally explain. And yet.

And yet. My gut reaction to this is the same as it was over the twitter squabblings around Christmas. It is to pout, and stamp my foot, and grumble that being good and being right is no fun. Because that, it seems to me, is what’s missing in all of this. That, for many is the key attraction in all those community building enterprises like Facebook’s I fucking love science page, or of dressing up and/ or collecting all the trinkets of science iconography, the lab coats, the test tubes and so on. They make knowing things and learning things seem fun. Science becomes a symbol for that, which is great for science, but I don’t think there’s any strong reason why they should hold the monopoly.

Which made me think, maybe, rather than complaining about what the practitioners and fans of ‘science’ are doing and how they’re using language (which was never part of our training anyway, we observe and analyse historical characters, we don’t or we shouldn’t judge, why have different rules for the present?), we should instead be making our own subject similarly desirable. And so here is my proposal: let’s start our own Facebook page ‘I fucking love humanities’. We could fill it with picture of manuscripts and objects and cartoon representations of historical theories and conversations. We could (in the way science includes pictures of nature) include images of people now and in the past at work, at home, taking part in social and political activities, looking after children and so on. It could be fun.

As I start to think through what might go on an I fucking love humanities page, it occurs to me, I’m not really sure what counts as humanities. But then, humanities doesn’t have the same history as science. It doesn’t have all those centuries of arguing a special place for itself, of spelling out why it is needed. But maybe it could. Every time this debate comes up, the same historical episode comes to my mind. Now, I suspect that every historian of science is going to have their own episode, their own key text, key character or key moment to illustrate and help explain this phenomenon, but for me its the unpromisingly titled A Preliminary Discourse on the study of Natural Philosophy, by John Herschel in 1830.

Herschel’s Discourse was widely read at the time, and is cited by people like Darwin and Faraday as part of the reason they got into science. It was written at a time when there wasn’t any kind of homogenous definition of science (indeed, its even missing from the title, Herschel in the end opted for the safer Natural Philosophy). Instead there were separate disciplines such as astronomy, chemistry and mineralogy and what Herschel did in this book was to use his experience of dabbling in these various disciplines to try to extract some common link between them all. What he came up with was this:

‘Science is the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one. The knowledge of reasons and their conclusions constitutes abstract, that of causes and their effects, and of the laws of nature, natural science.’

He surrounded this definition with examples to show just how unexpectedly beneficial science was to society, how even the most apparently non-utilitarian investigation could lead to knowledge, invention and/or processes that could enhance our quality of life. He suggested that our relative comfort and ease of living were ‘the fruits of reason’. He pointed to science as the key mode of thinking to separate the civilised world from the ‘savages’ and looked forward to the day when the scientific process was applied not just to science but to legislation, politics and history.

Which brings us to now. In the intervening years science, scientists, amateurs, professionals and armchair enthusiasts have all embraced and developed this virtuous ‘what we do makes your lives better even if that wasn’t our initial intention’ understanding of science. That lazy journalists will sometimes say ‘scientists say’ is neither here nor there. I don’t think its any more annoying or inaccurate a generalisation than lumping together all tax payers or motorists or immigrants and pretending they all speak with one voice. What perhaps we should be upset about and set out to change is the idea that science alone represents knowing stuff and improving lives. Now who’d like to volunteer to set up that Facebook page?