So I’ve been feeling a little bit confused recently. It’s not just because I’ve recently moved to London which, for anyone unfamiliar with it, was originally built as a maze and was later colonized by some useful buildings. And it’s not even because my new department (a big shout-out to the lovely folks at Science and Technology Studies, University College London) has given me my first ever teaching of undergraduates. That’s not confusing so much as a bit terrifying, though I am making up for my lack of appropriate qualifications by wearing a suit jacket and mentally referring to the students as ‘younglings’. However, my confused state does follow from a conversation with one of said younglings at a departmental event. In my best I’m-a-big-important-teacher voice, and while trying to conceal the alcohol occupying both my hand and my bloodstream, I asked them how they were finding the course (History of 20th Century Science, for the record). There were the usual responses, simultaneously nice enough to soothe while obligatory enough to worry, but topped off with an interesting statement. ‘Just one request,’ they said in their piercing youngling tones, ‘but could we possibly learn something that’s right at some point, instead of just what’s wrong?’. I stammered a response along the lines of ‘hey, remember my last tutorial, that ended with a right answer didn’t it?’. (That answer was ‘racism is bad for history of science’, for the record). But they had touched a nerve.
Said nerve would be fiddled with repeatedly over the next few days. On one occasion this was during a coffee with a group of masters students, fresh from their science undergraduate courses, asking why all their science policy readings seemed to hate scientists. On another it was a hearing a PhD student worrying that his philosophy of science was doing nothing but denying science any real purpose. On the one hand, these conversations removed the worry that I was just a particularly miserly teacher. On the other, it brought in another (admittedly, less upsetting) worry – that the entire discipline of science studies is perhaps, maybe, possibly just that little too oppositional?
This thought has now become a squatter in my subconscious. For instance, take the recent Ada Lovelace Day, named for a 19th-century gentlewoman held up as one of the first computer programmers. The intent of the day is to address the gender inbalance in science by publically and visibly celebrating the achievements of women in science (contemporary as well as Victorian, don’t worry). I think most can agree that, in principle at least, that’s a Good Idea. However the historian of science and prominent blogger Rebekah Higgitt admitted mixed feelings about the approach. Higgitt’s concerns, as one would expect from an historian, is that over-focussing on single people ignores the social context surrounding them; and if we ignore social context, we can’t understand a) exactly what they struggled against (Lovelace was impeded by gender but not by class status) b) exactly how they succeeded (often via collaboration) and c) exactly how the problems of the present are or aren’t like those of the past. Which means any lessons learned are rather limited.
For myself, I have to admit mixed feelings about her post. Every atom of historian in me agrees that a celebratory approach to single individuals is woefully insufficient at best, and at worst extremely distorted (often to support particular political views). But the public communicator in me worries that such a post, particularly one made on Ada Lovelace day itself, reinforces an image of science studies as a discipline which sits on the sidelines telling everyone else that they’re wrong and everything’s a bit more complicated than that etc etc. Maybe we should learn something from science communication – oversimplification of our subject is annoying, but perhaps useful in the public sphere.
Problem is, ours is a discipline still coming to terms with getting rid of ‘Big Picture’ models of All History of Everything (things like ‘science got more advanced because people learned all the past science and got cleverer from that and then did more science, full stop). Instead we have detailed case-studies following particular episodes in history of science, such as how the idea of experiment arose amongst 17th-century debates about political order (Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump). On the one hand, these are quite useful for popularisation – they combine a built-in narrative with great attention to detail. However, the sheer number and detail of such studies constantly reminds us how, in history (or sociology or other subjects involving lots of humans doing lots of things) there are so many ways of looking at a particular topic1 that you’ll always miss some important details.
I think it’s possible that this is so ingrained in our academic subconscious that it becomes hard to shake, even when that would be advisable. In writing a recent lecture on Big Science2 (following that fateful conversation from earlier) I found myself really having to strain to avoid the oppositional factor – having to accept, for example, that the students might just like to hear some details behind the oft-repeated story that ‘Big Science gets more and more international’ without me also going ‘ah but you see particle accelerators can often have strongly nationalistic elements too’ in my special it’s-more-complicated-than-that voice. And when I gave the lecture I ended up habitually inserting lots of those back in anyway. I just feel that, without pointing out gaps and limitations and other ways of looking at a question, I’m denying the students a proper view of history. But, of course, what I see as brief suggestive caveats they see as me banging on about wrongness again.
However, I’ll end on one such caveat. For much of our work, both past and present, opposition is very very important. Science is very good at making things seem ‘natural’ and ‘unavoidable’, even when they’re actually just ingrained sexism or elitism. That’s not intended as a moral attack on scientists – often these things are unwitting, a byproduct of the difficulty in separating the natural phenomena from social influences. Which is why detailed study, à la all those case-studies, is needed. Pointing out academic wrongness is often an essential first step to pointing out moral wrongness, which is an important part of our public sphere and policy committee work. But it won’t be effective if we’re seen as always naysaying and nitpicking, which I worry that we are. I have very little evidence for this, or indeed for many of the thoughts in this piece. It’s a very personal worry, based on very anecdotal experience. So feel free to disagree with me. Though, of course, you would then be proving me right.
1 = An example I’ve been writing about recently is The Internet (I always go for the niche topics, you see) – do we look at it as a massive global entity or a something that changes lives on an individual scale? The intuitive answer is ‘well, both simultaneously’ but that is SO DIFFICULT. Expect some bloggery on this soon.
2 = Stuff like the Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project, the Manhattan Project – loadsa money, loadsa people, and loadsa publicity basically. Though of course it is more complicated than that…