Thinking About Knowledge in Motion and Social Engagement at HSS

by guest contributor Patrick Anthony

Amidst the great diversity of ideas and perspectives circulating at this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting in San Francisco, two themes continue to resonate in my mind: knowledge in motion and social engagement. Indeed, the annual HSS meeting is itself an example of the far-ranging mobility of ideas and the impulse of many scholars to engage with diverse and interdisciplinary audiences. It is fitting then that some of the most palpable themes at HSS concerned the transmission and translation of scientific knowledge on the one hand and the social and political engagement of scholars on the other.

With sessions and round-tables like “Knowledge in Motion,” “Translation as Process,” and “Translation as an Epistemic Tool,” I was reminded of the text of James A. Secord’s plenary lecture at a Halifax conference titled “Circulating Knowledge” in 2004. Under the title “Knowledge in Transit,” Secord expressed his concern that a focus on localized sites of knowledge creation had lead to a “loss of direction,” suggesting in stead that we begin to view “knowledge as communication” and shift our gaze toward “patterns of circulation.” “It means thinking about statements as vectors with a direction and a medium,” Secord argued — and this is precisely how many of his colleagues were thinking at this year’s HSS meeting.

The “Knowledge in Motion” session featured a host of scholars who had indeed found direction. In his analysis of letters to and from the twentieth-century physicist Paul Dirac, Aaron Wright, for instance, sought to identify the “Principles of Correspondence.” Wright suggested that correspondence contains a unique “form of knowledge” akin to Michael Polanyi’s “tacit” or “personal knowledge,” one that allows for a freer and more metaphysical exchange of ideas than we find in published works. Also in this session, Noah Moxham reconstructed the eighteenth-century distribution circuits of the scientific periodical, the Philosophical Transactions; Barbara Di Gennaro traced pathways of knowledge concerning the origin of the “true” balsam plant through a network of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers that spanned the Eastern Mediterranean in the sixteenth-century; and Sophie Brockmann’s “Geography of Knowledge in Central America” followed roads, trade routes and correspondence networks to elucidate the role of “local ‘lived’ and ‘imagined’ landscapes” in the creation of geographic knowledge.

With an eye toward both the visual and the textual, the public and the private, scholars are currently not only concerned with how knowledge travels, but also with the ways in which knowledge is reconfigured while in transit. Studies of translation figure centrally here. In “Translation as Process,” Martina Schlünder examined the 1979 English translation of Ludwik Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (first published in German in 1935) to further Fleck’s own argument. Fleck argued that scientific knowledge is conceived, situated, and, as Schlünder phrased it, “trapped in” but “blind to” socially conditioned “thought styles.” Can the same be said for translations? Schlünder said yes, suggesting that the English translation of Genesis and Development is itself an example of a text being appropriated by a different thought collective.

Historian Lynn K. Nyhart was thinking along similar lines. In her exciting new project, presented at HSS under the title “Reproducing Science: William B. Carpenter and the British Reception of German Ideas on Generation, 1839-1854,” Nyhart set herself the task of explaining how scientific knowledge changed while en route from Germany to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Thus far, Nyhart has found that ideas once rooted in Germany were, by the time they reached British students by way of French and then English translations, heavily “mediated,” and in some respects “decisively Anglophilic.” I was struck by the affinities between Nyhart’s project and Nick Hopwood’s new book Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud, which explores the social life of a set of controversial drawings by Ernst Haeckel to argue that images, like texts, are not just mindlessly recycled, but creatively reproduced. My sense is that the red thread here — in studies of translation and circulation as in the work of Nyhart and Hopwood — is an enthusiasm for studying the mobility of ideas as they evolve through time and space.

If “translation” and “motion” were on the minds of many in San Francisco, “engagement” and “justice” seemed to be rival buzzwords. While one session, facilitated by Janet D. Stemwedel, exchanged ideas on “How to Engage with Government and Beyond Using the History of Science,” another round-table, chaired and organized by Joanna Radin and Myrna Perez Sheldon, posed the bold and noble question, “How Should the History of Science Engage with Political Activism and Social Justice?” Of the sessions I was able to attend, the most dynamic and compelling was a roundtable titled “Historians of Science in the Public Sphere.”

Chaired by Joshua Howe of Reed College, the panel featured a set of scholars working at the intersection of academia and social justice: Erik M. Conway, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; Jane Maienschein, director of the Embryo Project at Arizona State University; Alice Dreger, whose work on intersex research and identity politics has courageously fused scholarship and activism; and Robert Proctor, who in 1999 became the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry, and continued to do so in over one hundred cases.

“What happens,” Howe began, “when historians of science use their craft to make the world a better place?” In their profound and inspiring answers (and in spite of their differences) the panel revealed many commonalities. Most panelists had received hate mail, and some, death threats; all expressed a deep resentment of relativism, and alternatively, for “ultra-postmodernism”; and each expressed a commitment to truth and justice. While Proctor and Maienschein set their social/academic aims within a broad “Enlightenment” tradition, Dreger spoke of relativism as a position held by those who have not had to consider justice—that is, as a privilege. Only briefly mentioned then, but certainly worth recalling here, was the gendered nature of hate mail. As Conway related, Naomi Oreskes, his co-author of Merchants of Doubt, had received thousands of hate e-mails after the book’s publication — a striking quantity beside his few.

The panel agreed that much of the value in the study of history lies in its potential to humble us. “Humility,” Dreger said simply and sardonically, “might be a good way to approach things.” But the problem with being a historian in the public sphere, Dreger continued, is that people want simple, black and white, stories of good and evil. Proctor concurred: “Complexity can get in the way,” he said, especially in the courtroom. But it was Proctor’s stirring meditations on humankind that seemed to dominate the tenor of the session. Beginning with the premise that “to be human is to want to make the world a better place,” Proctor’s principal message was that one ought to be “a human first and a historian second,” and that we ought to be wary of the evils that follow from the reversion of this relationship. He concluded with a bit of levity and the words of a Rabbi: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship!”

Patrick Anthony is a first year graduate student working on the history of science and exploration at Vanderbilt University. At the HSS meeting in San Francisco, Patrick presented a poster titled „Views of Justice in Views of Nature: Mapping Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmic Law.“ Aside from his work on Humboldt’s Romantic conception of justice, Patrick is also developing a project on Americans’ views of revolutions in Saint-Domingue and Latin America during the early national period.

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