Questioning Science and the Other Nine Rooms

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, April 3, 2012.  Links likely outdated.


Madison program design for ASEH 2012, image from

So I’m back on the bus and rolling across the southern Wisconsin flatlands, headed for O’Hare, and, if the stars align properly, my bed in Halifax by midday tomorrow.  As often happens when I attend a conference, especially one so rich in innovative approaches, new ideas, and thoughtful people as the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting always is, I find myself needing some time to recover and reflect.  My ass hurts from so much sitting on it.  My tongue has that morning after Velcro-y feel, and my stomach is revolting against too much coffee, beer, and French fries.  And my head is awash in ideas, new aspirations, good intentions, and exciting projects.

Since the best way to get somebody to buy you a plane ticket to such affairs is to present a paper, I presented some thoughts on the 1883 London International Fisheries Exhibition and what it might be able to tell us about the growth and development of marine science in the nineteenth century.  So I was eager to get a sense for what other environmental historians were doing with science and scientists.  The other members of my panel had some excellent studies of how nature was being collected, manipulated and narrated between scientists and the public in the zoos, museums, and exhibitions of the past.  But I also made a point of sitting in on other panels where historians grappled with some similar themes.  One was a great roundtable on “Nature and Knowledge” with Mike Egan, Sara Pritchard, Ben Cohen, and Finn Arne Jorgenson.  Another was about science (“Science in Place”) in the early twentieth century, and featured papers by Sam Muka, Christine Keiner, Mark Barrow and Megan Raby, which turned heavily on questions relating to public aquariums and research stations and how they contributed to both science and ideas about place.  And now that I think of it, the theme resonated in some papers from Friday’s panel on Canadian environmentalism, particularly Mark McLaughlin’s exploration of Maritime influences upon Rachel Carson and Phil Van Huizen’s look at engineering and water power in the Canadian American border regions of the West.  The critical links between science and commerce were explored in the early panel on Thursday called “Measuring and Valuing Nature,” featuring Jeff Johnson’s very eloquent paper on shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico and Nathan Roberts who achieved admirably the seemingly unlikely task of making me care about log rules in the Philippines.  The problem with such conferences though is that at any given time there are brilliant things being said in the nine rooms that I’m NOT in!  So this is hardly a comprehensive treatment of what historians in 2012 are thinking about the nature of science as it relates to history.  But from modest beginnings…



The roundtable focused on the opportunities created by linking environmental history to science and technology studies.  I was so out of my element here that it took me the first ten minutes of the panel to figure out what STS actually stood for.  It was summed up, perhaps by Cohen, as a means of building in philosophical and sociological perspectives to the process of knowledge creation.  I quite like the sound of that, but I guess I had always thought that environmental history was fairly sensitive to such perspectives all by itself—and I get impatient with the idea of interdisciplinarity for its own sake.  In the ways I have been conceptualizing my own work on the science that increasingly supported fisheries policy I have been trying, thus far in ways I fear are too simplistic, to reconcile my environmental history with the history of science.  But as Jeremy Vetter pointed out in comments from the audience the marriage of these two fields has been a distinctly limited one, wherein attention to science has infiltrated our work in environmental history in rich and important ways, while environmental themes have achieved little penetration in the thinking and scholarship of historians of science.  I found this idea interesting and only wished the current state of my reading enabled me to assess the claim for myself.  I was trying to imagine how any history of science could overlook the environment—hasn’t science always been a means to understanding the world around us, and just as we as historians have broadened our conceptions in recent years of what an “environment” can be, so too, I expect, have scientists.  Vetter’s larger point though seemed to be that there was an impediment to these two sets of practitioners talking to each other, and a wonder if STS might be a means of transgressing that barrier.

To demonstrate just how naïve I was upon entering the room, the metaphor that animated much of the panel’s discussion, the “opening of the black box” was almost completely lost on me at first.  The only black box I could think of was the one that collects flight data on airplanes—the thing we always want to recover when one crashes in an effort to tell the story of what caused the crash.  But what everyone else seemed to recognize, and I figured out soon enough, is that the black box is a science and technology reference to anything that receives input and creates output (most any piece of technology I guess), without transparently reporting on its process of doing so.  Carolyn Merchant provided a humorous anecdote of someone trying to board a plane with an actual model of a black box (a story by the way that initially only confused me more), that TSA officers demanded be opened—the whole point of course being that if it could be opened it wouldn’t be a true black box!  So the point of environmental history and STS together is that it enables the historian to get a look at the actual mechanisms that turn those inputs into outputs.  And I do like that idea.  One of the panelists, perhaps it was Sara Pritchard, argued that we have for too long taken the science that informs our history more or less at face value.  While it’s important that science inform our work, we must be able to cast the same critical eye upon it as we do the historical sources we collect and knit together.   We also need to be able to understand our actors on their own terms, which means understanding science the way scientists themselves did in 1860, or 1890 or 1920.

One of the unfinished conversations of the week that I hope to be able to continue was with Sam Muka, who presented her work on aquariums in the panel chaired by Vetter.  In our brief conversation after my panel it became clear that we had very different notions of when, how, and why science in America became a professional undertaking—and she was inclined to date that transition much later than I did—relating it, if I was understanding her correctly, to the emergence of specialized research laboratories like those discussed on her panel by Keiner and Raby.  I had observed what I believed to be an important element of professionalization in the dramatic late nineteenth century expansion of the university system and the creation of endowed chairs in the sciences, the rise of cooperative extension, and the growth of government and industry support.  I would see Taylorism and the rise of scientific management and industrial efficiency as consequences of scientific professionalization as opposed to causes.  Though, as my paper struggled to point out, dealing in such trends is messy business and we are compelled to simplify and explain that which often defies both simplicity and explanation.  Natural history, many have observed, gave way to science.  But certainly it did not disappear when it did.  Its museum continue to dot our landscape and reach the public with arguably greater adeptness than modern science has, and its approaches to questions are evident as major contributors to the modus operandi of both ecologists and, notably, environmental historians!  Perhaps it is too simplistic to say, but I wonder if for the sake of argument there is value in saying that Muka was inclined to define professionalization from the perspective of science, while I was defining it from the perspective of natural history.  If we consider that the purpose of such exchanges is to illuminate perspectives not seen and paths not taken, then I’d call it an unqualified success.

In the spirit of questioning science as the roundtable advocated, I found myself both compelled and distracted by Christine Keiner’s talk about the Panama Canal research station of the Smithsonian.  Keiner was getting elbow deep in the very questions of government, science, and national interest that I had hoped to hear more about at the conference generally—though again, the problem with those other nine rooms.  One of the concerns with “upgrading” the canal to a sea level canal, which would establish an unobstructed flow between Atlantic and Pacific and enable passage to vessels irrespective of size limitations as imposed by a locking system, was the introduction of species between previously isolated marine ecosystems.  The term used in her presentation and by her actors was “invasion biology.”  At this point I largely lost my footing in her talk because it brought to mind some of Matt Hatvany’s work, which I’ve seen him present both at CHESS 2011 in St. Andrews and in an invited lecture here at Dalhousie last fall.  In brief, Hatvany studies erosion, and uses observation, mapping, and aerial photography to track changes in coastline over time.  What he has found along the St Lawrence is that while there has been erosion in some specific locations, almost as many locations have seen expansion of coastline—so cumulatively less of an erosion, or loss of coastal space, as a continual shifting and reshaping of coast.  However, when he matches these observations to the historical scientific literature he’s met with some stark disconnects.  Scientists, he finds, have been warning of widespread, even epidemic, instances of erosion in places where it has been minimal if not altogether absent.  In his discussion of such trends, Hatvany talks about the problems of “crisis science.” (And I don’t know if he uses that term, or if others do, or if I just coined it—I’m inclined to doubt the last.)

In the 1860s the government provided support to nascent scientific societies in exchange for the efforts of thoughtful, educated men (and at that time, sorry, they were men) to solve practical problems presented by modern warfare.  Thus government initiated and supported the inquiry, shaped the questions and approaches to them, and gained greatest from the results of experimentation and analysis.  And (to go back briefly) in my view the money and the institutional infrastructure that it helped establish among scientists helped make them “professional.”  Hatvany finds a not altogether different phenomenon though, in that the discovery of erosion creates a need for inquiry.  And the threat of diminishing coastline compels money from government on behalf of coastal interests to understand and “fix” the problem.  So there emerges centers and institutes dedicated to the study of coastal erosion—in effect preempting the most important question:  is coastal erosion actually happening?  Clearly a university-based scientific center with infrastructure and personnel to support it is not likely to conclude that that which they’ve been appointed to fix is actually not a problem.  Why would they present evidence that might support the assertion that their own existence is without purpose?  That’s not to say that coastal erosion is not happening or that it’s not a problem.  But it’s not a problem everywhere.  And will scientists succeed in giving us an appropriately rich and full understanding of its operation if they are compelled to study and report only on those places that experience it the most?  Certainly not when next year’s salary and benefits and travel grants depend on the continued fear of coastal erosion amongst government appropriators and their constituents.

This is not to say that scientists are greedy or duplicitous, but they are, and have long been, understandably self-interested actors within a complex set of relationships, made more complex by the presence of government.  So I’m compelled by Keiner’s inquiry into the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama and the extent to which its coordinated research findings do or do not support the government interest in a sea level canal—and how that might relate to a crisis-based “invasion biology.”  And whether the emphasis of Hatvany’s erosion centers and scientists is skewed by the need to report findings that underscore the existence and severity of erosion.  Certainly the example we’re being faced with now is climate change, and the institutes that have been funded to understand it—which have already come under highly partisan political criticism.  But some of that criticism, inconveniently, has been based on some questionable and highly self-interested practices.  Scientists are political actors.  And they’ll never be as good at politicking as politicians.  But it is an interesting trend that the best known and most influential of our modern scientists seem to have been the more politically adept and articulate ones.  Still, the dynamics of “crisis science” bear some observation, and it might be an interesting place for environmental historians interested in professionalization and the role of government in science to begin to unpack that.  Perhaps in the form of a panel for Toronto and ASEH 2013!  In the meantime, can anybody shed some light from things they may have heard in the other nine rooms?

Other reflections from ASEH are emerging on various blogs and hopefully there is much updating and expanding of our blogrolls.  See tweetlogs by Wilko von Hardenberg and Finn Arne Jorgenson.  And reflections by Adam Mandelman at his great new blog.  Please add others in comments as they appear.