Category Archives: history of science

Scholarly societies, subscription fees, and open access

Strategic planning with historians. :-)

Strategic planning with historians. :-)

This last weekend I flew to Chicago for a two-day strategic planning meeting for the History of Science Society (see my photos). The task, for me and about 40 others historians of science, was to figure out who the society should be trying to serve and what its goals should be. One of the key issues the society is dealing with is our membership model: joining the History of Science Society (HSS) currently consists of becoming a subscriber to the society’s main publications, ”Isis” (a quarterly journal) and ”Osiris” (an annual thematic journal), which are published by University of Chicago Press. The lion’s share of the society’s budget comes from subscription fees for these journals, but individual subscriptions (from about 2200 members, and falling) make up only about a third of that revenue; institutional subscriptions, mainly from libraries who subscribe to large bundles of content from academic publishers, make up the rest. This institutional subscription revenue has actually been increasing recently for HSS. But library budgets are being increasingly squeezed, and can only absorb so much of the cost of traditional journal publishing before many start cancelling the bundles they cannot afford.

Michael Magoulias of University of Chicago Press was part of this meeting, and he submitted a report on university press publishing as part of the ‘environmental scan’ document that was sent out before the meeting. In it, he frames the option of going open access for journals outside the sciences  like those of HSS, and probably many other scholarly societies as well  as shifting the costs from libraries to individual others. Author-pays OA options (or large grants to cover traditional journal costs) are the only ones Magoulias mentioned, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of how OA publishing in the humanities is trending. In fact, there are huge numbers of journals  in humanities, as well as social sciences and mathematics  that are run entirely outside of the traditonal publishing industry. Several open source journal management platforms are available and developing rapidly. (Open Journal Systems seems to be the most widely adopted.) These are essentially DIY, digital-only options, but they can be run with *very* low infrastructure costs (perhaps a few hundred dollars per year for cloud hosting), with the usually sorts of unpaid labor of editing the journal and managing peer review. This approach may mean losing some of the fringe benefits of a high-quality traditional journal  professional typesetting and copyediting  but it doesn’t have to mean a fundamental difference in the quality of the scholarship.

But in the case of HSS  and probably other scholarly societies as well  shifting away from traditional publishing to a low-cost OA model on an free and open source platform would actually mean losing revenue as well. I’d never considered this before. The real issue, then, is not about shifting costs from libraries to individual authors. It is about libraries  through their bundled subscription fees to academic publishers  subsidizing the activities of scholarly societies (after the publishers have taken their cut). Is that how scholarly societies want to be funding themselves? I know that’s not how I want HSS to be funding itself.

Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  It’s great read; I went straight through in one sitting, en-route to San Francisco.

At the start, Johnson sketches out his ambitions for a “natural history of innovation” by looking at three different kinds of environments that have been extremely conducive to innovation: coral reefs and their enormous biodiversity; cities and the rich cultural and subcultural diversity they generate; and the Internet, the key generative platform that underlies so many of the most celebrated innovations of recent years.  Patterns of innovation are fractal, he says, with recurring features to be found for ecological and macroevolutionary innovation, microevolutionary innovation, the physiology of innovation (that is, the neuroscience of how ideas come about), habits and lifestyles that foster innovation, innovation-friendly work environments, and social and political structures that promote widespread innovation.  So Johnson takes a “long zoom” approach, using examples from every level of zoom–but primarily, the stories of particular scientific and technological developments–to identify seven patterns that are part of innovative environments.

Johnson also makes clear at the outset his overall conclusion, which will be familiar to anyone involved with the free culture movement: “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”

The seven chapters on Johnson’s seven innovation concepts are fun and interesting.  I won’t go into detail; I’ll just say that each of them—the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error (as a goad to try new things), exaptation, and platforms (upon which further innovation can be built)—is a useful tool for thinking about innovation.  Johnson doesn’t convince me that this is any sort of natural or complete set of concepts for understanding innovative environments, but I don’t think he really tries to (despite the definitive subtitle: The Natural History of Innovation).  Others attempting a similar analysis of innovation would no doubt frame it in terms of different concepts.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s chosen concepts are satisfying and he puts them to good use.

It’s the concluding chapter that leaves me frustrated.  Here, Johnson tries to generalize about innovative environments using a framework from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.  He plots four “quadrants” where innovation might take place: market-focused individual environments (the entrepreneur inventor working alone), market-focused network environments (the group of firms or individual entrepreneurs sharing ideas and collaborating), non-market individual environments (the amateur inventor, the cloistered academic), and non-market network environments (the academic community, amateur open-source projects).  He categorizes two hundred “good ideas” (with no defined criteria for how they were selected) according to these four quadrants, and concludes that markets (with their intellectual property regimes that produce artificial scarcity for ideas) are not the ideal drivers of innovation they are often characterized as.

I agree with the conclusion itself, but I don’t think Benkler’s framework is a particularly useful way to categorize innovation here.  As Johnson notes, ideas happen at the level of individuals (with an enormous role, of course, for their environments).  A market/non-market dichotomy obscures the more fundamental issue of the motivation of individual innovators.  Taking an historical view, the political economy of science and technology has shifted dramatically from the Renaissance (where Johnson begins his catalog of innovations) through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Era into the century of Big Science.  Simply plotting the major innovations coming from each quadrant doesn’t account for the changing number of people trying to innovate in different types of environments.  And even within a given environment (say, the patronage scene in 17th century Italy, an Eastman Kodak R&D lab in the mid-twentieth century, or an academic molecular biology lab in the 1990s), the mix of market and non-market motivations for a given researcher doesn’t sort out neatly according to private sector vs. public sector.

Conspicuously absent from the bibliography is Steven Shapin’s brilliant The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, which has shaped a lot of my thinking about environments for innovation and the relationship between markets and professional research.  I’d love to see a discussion between Shapin and Johnson; their ideas, in Johnson’s words, “want to connect, fuse, recombine.”

The Two Cultures, 50 years later

7 May was the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow‘s famous lecture The Two Cultures. Snow, a novelist who had studied science and held technology related government positions, decried the cultural rift between scientists and literary intellectuals. Snow’s argument, and his sociopolitical agenda, were complex (read the published version if you want the sense of it; educational reform was the biggie), but, especially post-“Science Wars”, the idea of two cultures resonates beyond its original context. The current version of the Wikipedia article says:

The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as a shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are

  • The increasingly constructivist world view suffusing the humanities, in which the scientific method is seen as embedded within language and culture; and
  • The scientific viewpoint, in which the observer can still objectively make unbiased and non-culturally embedded observations about nature.

That’s a distinctly 1990s and 2000s perspective.

Snow’s original idea bears only scant resemblance to the scientism vs. constructivism meaning. As he explained, literary intellectuals (not entirely the same thing as humanities scholars) didn’t understand basic science or the technology-based socioeconomic foundations of modern life, and they didn’t care to. Novelists, poets and playwrights, he complained, didn’t know the second law of thermodynamics or what a machine-tool was, and the few that did certainly couldn’t expect their readers to know.

Humanistic studies of science (constructivist worldview and all) would have undermined Snow’s argument, but humanists were only just beginning to turn to science as a subject for analysis. (Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not until 1962. Structure did mark the acceleration of sociological and humanistic studies of science, but was actually taken up more enthusiastically by scientists than humanists. Widespread constructivism in the humanities only became common by the 1980s, I’d guess, and the main thrust of constructivism, when described without jargon, is actually broadly consistent with the way most scientists today understand the nature of science. It’s not nearly so radical as the popular caricature presented in Higher Superstition and similar polemics.) Rather than humanists understanding the scientific method or scientists viewing their work through a sociological or anthropological lens, Snow’s main complaint was that scientific progress had left the slow-changing world of literature and its Luddite inhabitants behind (and hence, scientists found little use for modern literature).

Snow wrote that “naturally [scientists] had the future in their bones.” That was the core of the scientific culture, and the great failing of literary culture.

Looking back from 2009, I think history–and the point in it when Snow was making his argument–seems very different than it did to Snow. Who, besides scientists, had the future in their bones in 1959? In the 1950s academic world, literature was the pinnacle of ivory tower high culture. Not film, not television, certainly not paraliterary genres like science fiction or comic books. History of science was a minor field that had closer connections to science than to mainstream history.

Today, in addition to scientists, a whole range of others are seen as having “the future in their bones”: purveyors of speculative fiction in every medium; web entrepreneurs and social media gurus; geeks of all sorts; venture capitalists; kids who increasingly demand a role in constructing their (our) own cultural world. The modern humanities are turning their attention to these groups and their historical predecessors. As Shakespeare (we are now quick to note) was the popular entertainment of his day, we now look beyond traditional “literary fiction” to find the important cultural works of more recent decades. And in the popular culture of 1950s through to today, we can see, perhaps, that science was already seeping out much further from the social world of scientsts themselves than Snow and other promoters of the two cultures thesis could recognize–blinded, as they were, by the strict focus on what passed for high literature.

Science permeated much of anglophone culture, but rather than spreading from high culture outward (as Snow hoped it might), it first took hold in culturally marginal niches and only gradually filtered to insulated spheres of high culture. Science fiction historians point to the 1950s as the height of the so-called “Golden Age of [hard] Science Fiction”, and SF authors could count on their audience to understand basic science. Modern geek culture–and its significance across modern entertainment–we now recognize, draws in part from the hacker culture of 1960s computer research. Feminists and the development of the pill; environmentalists; the list of possible examples of science-related futuremaking goes on and on, but Snow had us looking in the wrong places.

Certainly, cultural gaps remain between the sciences and the humanities (although, in terms of scholarly literature, there is a remarkable degree of overlap and interchange, forming one big network with a number of fuzzy division). But C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures seems less and less relevant for modern society; looking back, it even seems less relevant to its original context.

Stanley Fish and saving the world one book at a time

Stanley Fish has a challenging column in Sunday’s New York Times: “Neoliberalism and Higher Education“. As the contents of Cliopatria (my new blogging home away from home, now that Revise & Dissent is being shuttered), and indeed much of the academic blogosphere, attest, the trend of market approaches to the running of universities is on a lot of minds.

Fish’s own philosophy of the academy is largely orthogonal to neoliberalism: he exhorts academics to “stick to your academic knitting”, to “do your job and don’t try to do someone else’s”, and to leave off “trying to fashion a democratic citizenry or save the world”. Critics of neoliberalism, naturally, see such a perspective as backing up the power of university administrators (i.e., furthering neoliberalism in the academy). But Fish has also argued that “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever”, that the humanities (including his own field of literary theory) are intrinsically worthwhile but will not contribute to the saving of the world or other political ends. That is not a persperctive that meshes well with the instrumental approach of neoliberalism.

As I explained in my first post to the now-defunct Revise & Dissent, my view is something along the lines of: if you’re not trying to save the world, what’s the point? Nevertheless, I mostly agree with Fish when he says we should not (in the name of academic freedom) erase the distinction between political action and scholarship (much less teaching). How, then, ought academics try to save the world? The most viable approach, I think, is through careful choice of what topics to apply the methods of ones discipline to.

Take the work of historian of science Steven Shapin. In The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008), Shapin explores the complex ideas of what it was (and is) to a be a scientist in the modern world. Despite media images where the academic scientist predominates, most scientists in the U.S. have been working in industry since the rise of the military-industrial complex in the 1940s and 1950s (and a large proportion were doing so even at the beginning of the 20th century). But the working life of the industry scientist is hardly the caricature of scientific management (squashing out the creativity and freedom that is a natural part of science) that has been circulating at least since the work of Robert K. Merton.

Although it’s not explicit in the book, Shapin’s work is a response to the trend of running universities like businesses. Successful businesses that revolve around original inquiry and research, Shapin shows, are a lot more like universities (pre-scientific management) than is generally appreciated. The implication is that, if universities are to be patterned after businesses, the appropriate examples within the world of business (as opposed to distorted ideas of business research that adminstrators might have) are actually not so foreign to the cherished culture of universities that opponents of neoliberalism in higher education seek to defend.

In his preface, in defense of his tendency in much of his historical work to address “the way we live now”, Shapin says this:

“I take for granted three things that many historians seem to find, to some degree, incompatible: (1) that historians should commit themselves to writing about the past, as it really was, and that the institutional intention of history writing must embrace such a commitment; (2) that we inevitably write about the past as an expression of present concerns, and that we have no choice in this matter; and (3) that we can write about the past to find out about how it came to be that we live as we now do, and, indeed, for giving better descriptions of the way we live now.”

In thing (3), I would replace can with should. Scholars have a moral responsibility to make their work responsive to the needs (as the scholars themselves see them) of the society that supports them.

The Paranoid Style in American Science

Slate has a very interesting three-part article by Daniel Engber: The Paranoid Style in American Science. Engber begins with a discussion of agnostic and sometime intelligent design proponent David Berlinski’s new book critiquing the “New Atheists”; Berlinski, explains Engber, is a archetypical embodiment of a recent trend in American culture of turning the scientific virtue of skepticism against science itself. Engber argues that the same approach, exploiting the limits the scientific knowledge and the evidentiary shortcomings that often accompany even the most complete scientific consensuses, is part of an unhealthy trend, what the defenders of science on Wikipedia call “pseudoskepticism”.

Pseudoskeptics — many of them with clear political, commercial or ideological agendas — sow doubt about human-caused climate change and suspected carcinogens, focus on the unproven safety of nonorganic food and GMO crops, and of course, point to gaps in evolutionary explanations to make room for religious ideas.

As Engber concludes, “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” He sees the trend of immoderate doubt as a parallel to what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics” in his 1964 essay by that title. (Famously, at least, among Americanist graduate students.)

I agree with Engber’s final conclusion, that “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” However, I don’t think the trend of increasing skepticism about scientific matters indicates the rise of a “paranoid style”, where society as a whole is moving toward immoderate doubt. Rather, it seems that people in general (and scientists themselves no less than nonscientists) are increasingly skeptical because they have a better understanding of the way science works and the social limitations of science on the large scale of modern research.

If the distribution skepticism in society is some sort of bell curve (not an unreasonable assumption), then the center of the distribution is moving closer to a point of healthy moderate skepticism, away from an overly credulous point (when it comes to science, among other things) where it has been in the past. The result of this is a dramatic increase in the number of people at the “immoderate doubt” end of the distribution, but the reduction of the other extreme more than makes up for it.

As an argument to retreat from the cliffs of untempered skepticism, Engber points to Simon and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump to the effect that despite the Royal Society’s motto of Nullius in verba (on no man’s word), “the first society members were just as dedicated to the notion that organized science engenders trust, and that it requires the acceptance of some degree of doubt.” But Simon and Schaffer famously conclude that “Hobbes was right”, that “Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions.” (Famously, at least, among history of science graduate students.) As that matter of fact about the way knowledge is generated increasingly becomes ingrained in American culture, it’s only natural that the political and scientific discourse will increasingly overlap. We can’t take the politics out of science, so the only way to overcome the problem of “paranoid style” science is to fix American politics.

History of science viewing stats on Wikipedia

For the first time, there are accurate hit counts for comparing arbitrary articles. User:Henrik has a hit counter utility for Wikipedia pages, with statistics going back to mid-December 2007. (Estimated hit counts were available for up to the top 1000 most popular pages through the currently-offline WikiCharts.)

In browsing hit counts for history of science-related articles, it quickly becomes apparent that biographies have a much larger readership than explicit history articles. The monthly hit counts for the histories of science, medicine and technology (13829; 16925; and 15442, respectively, for February) are in the same range as the daily hit counts for Albert Einstein (ranging from 8,000 to 18,000 in February). Newton and Darwin bring in about half what Einstein does, and many other important figures in the history of science are in the 1,000-2,000 per day range. Unsurprisingly, most scholarly jargon concepts (important as they may be) are not read much: less than 100 hits per day for things like “Medicalization” and “Commensurability (philosophy of science)”, and narrower concepts (the ones that even have articles) may get less than 10 hits per day. “Paradigm shift”, however, gets almost 1,000 hits per day, and Structure of Scientific Revolutions gets a couple hundred.

I’m disappointed with what I expected to be the “head” of the distribution, the main historical overview articles, but the level of activity towards the “long tail” is relatively impressive. See, for example, the following sequence for total hits in February:

1. Science – 108271
2. History of science – 13829
3. History of biology – 4677
5. History of molecular biology – 1994
6. Phage group – 191
7. Max Delbrück – 1501
8. Luria-Delbrück experiment – 1230

These are in order of scale of the topic (and represent a possible trail of clicks), but are obviously not in order of popularity (or historiographical significance). The biography and the still-pedagogically-relevant experiment stand out with high hit counts relative to the scale of the topic.

For historians who want to reach a broad audience through Wikipedia, putting historical context into biographies and topics of contemporary interest is probably more effective than writing concept-, artifact- or event-based historical articles.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at what kind of hit count boost time on the Main Page brings, and how hit counts vary according to article quality for topics of similar significance.

Presentism and the history of science on Wikipedia

Christopher D. Green, a professor of psychology and philosophy at York University and president of the Society for the History of Psychology, has a strong post on the reasons academics are often turned off by Wikipedia. In the wake of my recent call to Wikipedia arms in the History of Science Society Newsletter, Green looks back on the development of the history of psychology article in the period since he expanded it by about 6,000 words (in the middle of 2007). I have a short reply on Green’s blog.

The End of the History of Science?

I went to a handful of interesting talks at HSS this year.

The first was the tail-end of a session on astrology (Kepler’s, in particular), which underscored the importance of the social and political forces that were driving–and have been written out of–the Scientific Revolution. The need for better, more accurate astrological advice for kings and emperors was the reason people like Kepler and Tycho Brahe had the support to do their work, and to a large extent astrology was why they were doing astronomy. Disagreements over the scope and validity of astrology also were part of the under-explored dynamics of intra-Protestant theological politics that buffeted Kepler and Tycho from patron to patron. The situation with early modern alchemy, driven more by practical than mystical concerns, has similarly been neglected in the big-picture accounts. Neither astrology nor alchemy figure much into Peter Dear’s 2001 Revolutionizing the Sciences or Steven Shapin’s 1996 The Scientific Revolution, supposedly the two main post-“social turn” Sci Rev reevaluations.

The next good talk was Stephen Weldon’s on Francis Schaeffer and his influence of modern American Protestant attitudes toward science. Anyone trying to understand the Intelligent Design movement and the reasons it has been considerably more successful among non-Fundamentalists than the Creation Science of the 1970s and 80s was, needs to know about Schaeffer.

But the most interesting session was The End of Science. It was nominally organized around John Horgan’s 1996 book The End of Science. Unfortunately, Horgan phoned it in on this one, delivering a talk that basically consisted of his 2006 Discover magazine article (which I blogged about a year ago when I first discovered Horgan’s work). But between Horgan and Andre Wakefield’s talk on “The End of the History of Science?”, discussing the disciplinary fate of history of science as something set apart from garden-variety history, there was plenty to rile up the crowd (as much as historians can get riled up). Wakefield was celebrating the facts that (unlike in the bad old days of Sartonian handmaiden-to-science history) one no longer needs to understand the science one does the history of, and that history of science is being absorbed into the disciplinary structure of straight history.

One of the striking things about HSS is how little one historian has in common with the next. There were up to 12 sessions going on at once, so you could stay within your temporal, geographical and disciplinary areas of interest (and probably within your historiographical approach, as well). One of the things meetings like this make apparent is the degree to which collegiality and networking (along with university press editors) drive careers in history of science (and in history more generally), rather than peer evaluations of intellectual output. It’s all about the parties and receptions after the day’s talks are over.

Back from History of Science Society meeting

I’m home from an exhausting weekend at the History of Science Society meeting. For a number of reasons, I had a great time: I now know enough people that I can make introductions between people with similar interests; I had my camera (see my Flickr set); I wasn’t giving a paper; my reputation as a Wikipedian occasionally preceded me; and I even learned something at a couple of talks.

I had intended to do some live-blogging during the sessions, but the connectivity wasn’t good enough. I’ll have to settle for a few reflective posts (forthcoming) on good sessions, on the state of the field, on the historian social scene, etc.

What are historians good for? Part II

In my first post to Revise and Dissent, I lamented that historians don’t have good answers to the question: “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?” I heard two very engaging talks over the last 8 days, from two historians of science and medicine with very different takes on the issue.

Last week, Alice Dreger gave probably the most provocative colloquium talk I’ve heard at Yale. Dreger is an intersex rights activist and “medical humanist” who has worked to change the barbaric practices of genital surgery for children with disorders of sex development (or whatever you want to call the conditions; terminology is a charged issue here), often without even informing the parents. She also became involved in recent controversies over transsexualism and the book The Man Who Would Be Queen, and she’s written social/medical histories of hermaphrodites and “unusual anatomies”.

In a great talk that simultaneously made her seem brazenly self-promoting and bracingly altruistic, Dreger explained how she has been doing what she calls “onion-peeling”: private histories about individuals (shared only with the subject) that place people’s lives, or specific traumatic events in their lives, into historical context. She described how powerful these short (4-6 pages, usually) self-contained histories were to their subjects. For many, reading their own history in someone else’s words was a cathartic experience that let them understand and accept their pasts (e.g., why a doctor had performed an infant clitoridectomy, and why their family had never discussed the issue during childhood).

These personal histories are nearly useless for doing academic history, since they are performed on the explicit condition of privacy and the subject-driven interview-and-revision procedure introduces grave reliability problems by normal oral history standards. As Dreger explained it, the main benefit of doing these “onion-peelings” is the personal satisfaction of seeing your work have a direct and substantial positive impact on someone’s life. She hinted that she sees normal history as a powerful force for social good as well, but with effects that are harder to see (and so harder to feel good about). The end-game of the talk was that Dreger is considering starting a non-profit to help other historians do “onion-peeling” (client-centered histories), and maybe even provide funding for them to do so.

Topics of discussion after the presentation included: the line between onion-peel history and psychoanalysis; legal and emotional liability; the permissibility of glossing over historical ambiguity for the benefit of an audience of one; and how such pro bono work could fit into the expectations of modern academia. I, for one, find the idea of client-centered histories compelling, but not something I would actually consider doing. It’s a better answer to the blog title question than nothing, but I think there are more efficient (though maybe not as personally rewarding) ways for historians to serve the public, if they are actually willing to do something outside the professional norms.

Today, William Newman gave a talk on why Newton (and many other smart people in the 17th and 18th centuries) practiced alchemy, and how there was a smooth transition from alchemy to chymistry to chemistry. Even Lavoisier, says Newman, was doing basically the same kinds of things Newton had been doing a century before–just with more sophisticated and precise apparatus (and a clever theory of combustion). Despite substantial treatments of Newton’s alchemy by earlier historians such as Richard Westfall, Newman thinks that most work on the Scientific Revolution is badly flawed because early historians of alchemy didn’t understand the technical aspects of alchemy (and so overemphasized the metaphorical and occult aspects).

Newman and others have been working out what Newton was actually doing in his workshop. (He described a Newton not so different from the character in The Baroque Cycle.) Newman did a live alchemy demonstration, showing how certain minerals would show signs of life (substances that form fast-growing crystals when put in a chemical solution, e.g., a “silica garden“), and how nitric acid could be (and was) used supposedly to transmute silver into gold (by depletion gilding). Newman explained why transmutation was part of the agenda of the legitimate, “scientific” alchemists like Newton: in the 17th century there was no NSF; the promise of transmutation was a sort of “grant application” of sorts, which he compared to modern justifications for research funding that promise a cure for cancer (which the young field of molecular biology used to great effect in the 1950s and ever since, but with a cure still seeming as far off as ever.) Transmutation wasn’t inconceivable, but the alchemists had more practical, immediate goals for their work and would use the lure of unlimited alchemical wealth for their patrons to their own ends.

With NSF funding, Newman is building a complete online collection of Newton’s alchemy manuscripts (which are scattered about the globe, since many were auctioned off in the early 20th century): The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. The site has seen considerable popular interest; there is a lot of enthusiasm about Newton among non-historians. But when I asked Newman “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?”, he stumbled. (This after his eloquent, obviously well-practiced explanation of why it matters to other historians of science). Answering that question, he said, is like “tilting at windmills”; historical myths like Columbus discovering that the Earth is round persist, even though historians have known them to be false for several generations. The misinformed “army of middle-school teachers” create a closed loop of misinformation that propagates from generation to generation, a seemingly insoluble problem.

Myths about alchemy (and the flat earth, and the conflict between science and religion, and Ptolemaic astronomy, and many others) are doubly pernicious and recalcitrant because they serve as a purpose, as foil for their modern counterparts. Newman is pessimistic that any significant changes in public (mis)perceptions of the history of science are possible, since these myths acquire their own momentum.

I think Wikipedia is changing that, and changing the whole way the public uses and understands history–e.g., see Flat Earth and Flat Earth mythology–but that’s a topic for another post (and for the article for the History of Science Society Newsletter that I’m working on). If you got this far, thanks, and sorry for the blogorrhoea.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent]