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The Uses of the Past: Why Science Writers Should Care About the History of Science – And Why Scientists Should Too

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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"The Anatomy Lesson of Homo sylvestris" by Nathaniel Gold

"The Anatomy Lesson of Homo sylvestris" by Nathaniel Gold

Whether we are exploring our family genealogy or the genetic tree of our primate ancestors, all of us have a common yearning to know from whence we came. Origin stories captivate our imagination and offer a narrative structure for better understanding where we are today. The reality is that a knowledge of the history of science can both challenge our present and inspire the future.

Last year Tom Levenson, professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put together a panel on the Uses of the Past that was held at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar. The panelists included Deborah Blum, Jo Marchant, Reto Schneider, and Holly Tucker who led an inspiring discussion about how the history of science has been useful to science writers and journalists, as well as being an important discipline unto itself.

However, the conversation was far from complete and I’ve been fortunate enough to join Tom this year to discuss the topic at Science Online 2012 (follow the discussion on Jan. 19 from 1:30 – 2:15 pm EST at the #scio12 hashtag on Twitter). In preparing for this discussion Tom and I have emailed back and forth our hopes for this session. One thing that has stood out is that where Tom thought of the term “uses of the past” as a challenge to writers about science for the public, an opening into approaches that will make their work better, I’ve been thinking about the importance of historical thinking to the practice of science itself – what working scientists could gain from deeper engagement not just with the anecdotes of history, but with a historian’s habits of mind. So just to get everyone’s juices flowing, Tom and I thought we’d try to exchange some views. Think of this as a bloggy approach to that old form, the epistolary novel – in which we try to hone in on the ways in which engagement with the past may matter across fields right on the leading edge of the here and now.

Dear Eric,

I have to confess; I’ve never needed convincing about history; I’m a historian’s son, and all my writing, just about, has had a grounding in where ideas and events come from.

But all the same, it’s simply a fact that the professional scientific literature from which so many stories for the public derive seems, on first glance, to be as present-tense as it is possible to be. As I write this, I’m looking at the table of contents of my latest (January 6) digital issue of Science. In the “Reports” section – where current findings are deployed — there is nothing but the now and the near future under discussion. Just to pull up a few of pieces at whim: we can learn of the fabrication of wires on the nano-scale that obey Ohm’s law (an accomplishment its makers claim will support advances in both classical and quantum computing to come). We can read of a new measurement of the ratio of isotopes of tungsten (performed by some of my MIT colleagues in concert with researchers at the University of Colorado) that suggests (at least as a preliminary conclusion) that the terranes that make up the earth’s continents have remained resistant to destruction over most of the earth’s history. And then there is a report from researchers into that living genetics/evolution textbook, C. elegans, that adds yet one more telling detail within a broader understanding of the intertwined behavior of genetic and environmental processes.

All of these – and all the rest of what you can find in this issue of that journal, and so many others – tell you today’s news. Each of these could form the subject of a perfectly fine popular story. Yet none of these do or necessarily would as popular stories engage the history that lies behind the results.

That is: you could tell a story of a small step taken towards the goal of building a useful quantum computer without diving into either the nineteenth century’s investigation into the properties of electrical phenomena or the twentieth century’s discovery of the critical role of scale on the nature of physical law. You can talk about the stability of continents without recognizing the significance of that research in the context of the discovery of the intensely dynamic behavior of the earth’s surface. You certainly may write about mutation rates and stress without diving into that old fracas, the nature-nurture argument that goes back to Darwin’s day and before. This is just as true for the researcher as the writer, of course. Either may choose to ignore the past without impairing their ability to perform the immediate task at hand: the next measurement, the next story. All fine, and all legitimate

You could, that is, but, at least In My Humble Opinion, you shouldn’t. From the point of view of this science writer, history of science isn’t a luxury or an easy source of ledes; rather, it is essential for both the making of a better (competent) science writer, and in the production of science writing that communicates the fullest, most useful, and most persuasive account of our subject to the broad audiences we seek to engage.

In briefest form, I argue (and teach my students) that diving into the history of the science one cover trains the writer’s nose, her or his ability to discern when a result actually implies a story (two quite different things). It refines a crucial writer’s tool, the reporter’s bullshit detector. At the same time, explicitly embedding historical understanding in the finished text of even the most present-and-future focused story is, I think, more or less invaluable if one’s goal is not simply to inform, but to enlist one’s readers in gerunds of science: doing it, thinking in the forms of scientific inquiry, gaining a sense of the emotional pleasures of the trade. I’ll talk more about both of these claims when my turn comes around…but at this point, I think I should stop and let you get a word in edgewise. Here’s a question for you: while I can see the uses of the past for writers seeking to extract from science stories that compel a public audience – do working scientists need to care that much about their own archives. What does someone pounding on C. elegans stress responses, say really need to know about the antecedents of that work?

Best,

Tom

Dear Tom,

The British novelist, and friend of Aldous Huxley, L.P. Hartley began his 1953 novel The Go-Between with a line that, I suspect, many working scientists can relate to, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The process of science, much like the process of art, is to dredge through what has been achieved in the past in order to generate something altogether new. That is perhaps the only thing that the two fields of creative endeavor have in common; the past must be understood only so that you can be released from it. However, much like you, I’ve never needed convincing about history either. While I agree that the past can be a foreign country at times, I’ve always enjoyed traveling.

I came to history through my work in science, but I found that understanding the historical context for why scientists in the past came to the conclusions they did helped inform the questions I was asking. I’ve always believed that the scientific method was the best way of eliminating our own personal biases when seeking answers about the natural world, but that unexamined assumptions can still slip through the scientific filter. By examining how these flawed assumptions made it through I hoped it would help me in my own work. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to briefly discuss how an early brush with history encouraged me into the research direction I ultimately pursued in graduate school. The book was Nature’s Body by the Stanford historian of science Londa Schiebinger that I found in a used bookstore during my senior year as an undergraduate in anthropology and biology. In one chapter of her book she discussed the early history of primate research and how the prevailing assumptions about gender influenced the hypotheses and, as a result, the conclusions about those species most similar to ourselves. One of the earliest descriptions of great apes in the West, after Andrew Battell’s exaggerated stories about “ape monsters,” was by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, probably the most widely recognized figure in the history of science that almost no one has ever heard of.

Homo sylvestris

Homo sylvestris from Tulp's Observationes Medicae

In 1632 Tulp commissioned the artist Rembrandt to paint his anatomy lesson, which ended up being one of the Dutch master’s most famous works (if anyone today recognizes Tulp’s name, it’s most likely from the title of this painting). Nearly a decade after he posed for this portrait Tulp published his Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations) in which he described the anatomy of a female ape he’d received on a ship bound from Angola. He was immediately struck by the similarities with humans and the drawing he published, identified as Homo sylvestris, demonstrated a striking example of cultural bias. Made to look the way he assumed this female would appear while alive, Tulp emphasized his own culture’s gender stereotypes. The female sat with her hands in her lap, framing what appeared to be a pregnant belly, and her head was glancing downwards in a distinctly demure pose.

By itself this depiction wouldn’t have been particularly revealing; it was just one individual allowing their own social biases to influence his science. What was remarkable, however, is the way Schiebinger showed how Tulp’s depiction would appear time and time again in the subsequent centuries when describing female primates, not just in appearance but also in behavior. More than two hundred years later, when Darwin described the differences between males and females in his theory of sexual selection, he had the same unmistakable gender bias that influenced his thinking. I had never taken a women’s studies course in my life, but this insight was an enormous wake up call for me. I realized there had been a common set of assumptions that endured for centuries, what the historian Arthur Lovejoy called “the spirit of the age,” and had gone unexamined until relatively recently when a new generation of primatologists–such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal–began studying the female half of the equation that had been largely ignored as an important area of study. Knowing this history pushed me to ask different questions and focus on a topic that I discovered hadn’t been addressed before: why female bonobos had such high levels of cooperation despite the fact that they had a low coefficient of genetic relatedness (violating the central premise of Hamilton’s theory of kin selection). Different scientific topics have their own entrenched assumptions that otherwise critical researchers may not have considered; that is, until they see the broad patterns that a historical analysis can reveal.

Cheers,

Eric

Dear Eric,

I love your story, partly because the original painting is so extraordinary and it’s good to have any excuse to revisit it. But I value it more for your argument that engaging with the thought and thinking (not quite the same thing) of scientists past fosters insight into present problems. That goes just as much for science writers – that is to say, those seeking to communicate to a broad public both knowledge derived from science and the approaches, the habits of thought that generate those results.

Rembrandt’s painting itself gives some hints along this line. There’s a marvelous and strange discussion of the work in another novel written in English, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. There, Sebald points to the fact that none of the anatomists are actually looking at the corpse under the knife. Tulp himself stares out into the middle distance, whilst other members of his guild peer instead at an anatomical atlas open at the foot of the table. As Sebald studies the one of the often-discussed details of the painting, he argues that what appears to be simply an error in the depiction of the dissection of the left hand reveals an artist seeking to see past the formal abstraction of the lesson, drawing attention instead to the actual body on the table, the physical reality of a single dead man.

Not wishing to push too hard on that (unproven, unprovable) interpretation, Sebald still points out something that rewards the attention of science writers. Rembrandt depicts both facts — the body, the tendons of the exposed hand – and ideas, at a crucial moment of change in the way natural philosophers sought verifiable knowledge.

We see, amidst the reverence for the book, the authority of prior learning, an event actually occurring on the canvas: the effort to extract understanding from the direct testimony of nature. Amidst all else that can be read there, Rembrandt’s painting reminds the viewer of the time – not really all that long ago – when a fundamental idea was being framed with its first answer: yes, it is possible to understand biological forms as machines, and to investigate their workings directly.

So, to take the long road home to the question of why bother with history when covering the news of today and tomorrow, here are two thoughts (of the three with which I will hope to provoke our fellow unconferees on Thursday). First: as you argue for scientists, understanding of the past can lead writers to stories they may not have known were there.

To give an example, I’ll have to leave anatomy behind (about whose history I sadly know very little). I recently had an occasionto look back at A. A. Michelson’s infamous remark from 1894 when he asserted that physics was done except for that which could be discovered in the sixth decimal places of measurements.

There is a lot wrong in that claim, but if you look more closely at what he said, you can find something less obvious in Michelson’s claim – and that can lead to insight into what goes into the making of all kinds of very modern physics, from (possibly true) observations of faster than light neutrinos to the ways in which cosmologists are extracting knowledge from high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (and much else besides, of course).

So there’s a story-engine chugging away inside history, which is there to be harnessed by any writer – facts, material, from which to craft story. There’s also a story-telling tool, a method that derives directly from historical understanding. A core task for science writing is the transformation of technically complicated material into a narrative available to broad audiences – which must be done without doing violence to the underlying ideas. If the writer remembers that every modern problem has a long past, then she or he can prospect through that history when the problems and results in that sequence are intelligible to any audience. For just one last, very quick example: general relativity is a hard concept to explain, but framing the issue that it helped to resolve in the context of what Newton’s (seemingly) simpler account of gravity couldn’t handle – that spooky action at a distance that permits the gravitational attraction of the sun to shape the earth’s orbit – and you’re in with a chance.

Best,

Tom

Dear Tom,

I think you touched on something very important with regard to the idea that science writing is a transformation that takes the technical language of science (primarily mathematics and statistics–that is, if it’s done correctly) and interprets it into the communication of everyday experience. Science writing is a process of translation. The history of science as a discipline is precisely the same thing, though historians typically engage in a different level of linguistic analysis by looking at language meaning and the way that science provides insight into the process of historical change. But it seems that there is no better way to think about how the history of science can be useful to science journalists than to consider what we do as essentially a process of translation. Art is involved in any translation work and there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the original and what it eventually becomes. We must be true to our source material but also evoke the same overall meaning. To put this more simply: why are the findings being reported important to scientists in a given field and how can that same importance be conveyed to a readership with a very different set of experiences? It seems to me that there are two primary ways of doing this: engaging with the history of why this question matters or tapping into contemporary attitudes that evoke connections with the findings reported (where the latter approach goes wrong happens to be one of my favorite topics of critique, one that is unfortunately an extremely rich resource to draw from).

However, there is one other reason why the history of science is important for science journalists that we haven’t quite touched on yet. A journalist who knows their history is better protected from false claims and the distraction of denialism. The scientific press release is a unique cultural invention and all too often seeks to manipulate journalists into framing a given story so as to exaggerate that study’s actual impact. The historically minded journalist is less likely to get bamboozled. In a similar way, the he said-she said model of reporting is a persistent and irritating rash for almost every professional journalist I’ve interacted with. But the temptation to scratch is always present, even though the false equivalency reported is rarely satisfying over the long term. The history of science can be the journalistic topical ointment. Those who know the background of anti-vaccine paranoia, or who recognize the wedge strategy of creationist rhetoric, can satisfy their need to report on a story that captures the public’s attention while also providing useful information to place that issue within it’s proper context. History matters.

Your friend,

Eric

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Mona L. 1:47 pm 01/17/2012

    “Many historians have, until recently, been reluctant to engage in counterfactuals on the seemingly incontrovertible grounds that what did not happen is not history. But I have come to think the opposite is, in fact, true: we need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically. Considering only what happened is ahistorical, because the past once contained larger possibilities, and part of the historian’s job is to make those possibilities visible; otherwise all that is left for historians is to explain the inevitability of the present. The inevitability of the present violates the contingency of the past, which involves alternate choices and outcomes that could have produced alternate presents.” — Richard White, “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.”

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  2. 2. EricMJohnson 12:30 pm 01/18/2012

    @Mona: I agree with what White had to say, and was fortunate to be able to read early sections of his new book when I met with him last year in Vancouver. He’s one of the most innovative historians working today and is utilizing data in some very novel and exciting ways. I’ve likewise been intrigued by Schiebinger’s use of counterfactuals, what she calls “agnotology,” in her latest book Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. I wrote a review of her book a few years back should you be interested.

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