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Why Blog the History of Science?

The University of Virginia’s Benjamin Cohen discusses his motivations in blogging the history of science and the possible uses of blogs.

The World's FairI co-author a blog titled The World’s Fair about the history of science, environmental history, science studies, and sometimes cannonballs or jokes about Einstein. Although many blogs affect the style of an online diary, The World’s Fair endeavors to be a cabinet of curiosity in hyperlink form, a by-product of my belief that all blogging should be understood along the Ayers-Onuf axis.

About that axis. Two historians began a call-in radio show earlier this year. One of them, let’s call him Ayers, considered it an opportunity to contribute to the public debate about current issues by discoursing on historical context – voting, race relations, the environment, what have you. His ambition was to offer greater nuance to issues of political and cultural import. The other, whom we shall call Onuf, thought that Ayers over-stated it. He’s doing the show because he likes talking about history, he’s interested in the conversation, and he enjoys spending time with his colleagues. If someone learns something, well, that’s almost incidental, but let’s not go overboard. Thus the Ayers-Onuf axis defines the range of motivations for engaging in academic topics beyond the campus confines. It hits at the very core of academic identity in democratic societies. On one side is the idealist, on the other, the realist. They both have fun, but they get there from different routes. Those who write a Web-log (“blog”) find themselves somewhere along that axis, either with the belief that they are generating and/or influencing public conversation or with the motivation to explore a given subject in depth.

This blog world (the “blogosphere”) is all part of Web 2.0. Along with podcasts, wikis, social networks sites, music hosting sites, and video hosting sites, it’s a world where users generate the content. This recent phase in Internet history is itself the consequence of recent technological possibilities, of new economic models for online content that took a decade to work out, and of the shift in work practices away from rooms and buildings, where colleagues interact, to individual computer desks and screens where interaction is mediated via a keyboard or touchpad. People spend a lot of time online. You may have heard.

Of the more than 100-million blogs on the Web (that’s not a typo), most are personal blogs, of the type where one may discover what new band little Timmy listened to after gym practice last night. Since many of the first blogs were of this type, many people still associate the term with a form of self-celebration. Others are corporate blogs – which might be considered advertisement – and media blogs – which might be considered plain old journalism except they are updated and revised and commented upon. Still others are genre blogs focusing on fashion or music, politics or NASCAR, science or history. Blogging about the history of science is a subset of all of this.

I started co-authoring The World’s Fair in 2006 with a molecular geneticist at the University of British Columbia, David Ng. We’d met after he contributed science humor pieces to a Web site (McSweeney’s) I was at the time helping edit. We decided to team up to co-author the blog at a collective with (now) over 70 others at http://www.scienceblogs.com. We hoped to do an end-around to the two-culture quagmire by constituting the blog with various cultures from the start – he the scientist and developer of new models of science education and communication who, all the while, sought to write for a wider audience; me the former polymer researcher and current history-of-science and environmental-studies scholar who, all the while, harbored a literary interest in thinking about new discussion models. In common, we’re also interested in audience and how Web readership helps calibrate our own sense of how others read, reply, and interpret discussions of science on the Web.

Our tagline is “All Manner of Human Creativity on Display.” The central premise of the site is to offer a place to illuminate expressions of wonder, curiosity, and imagination in culture writ large, historically or today. Those expressions come about in many forms and, historically, some have come to be called scientific, some labeled artistic, some categorized as poetic or literary or otherwise. The visual metaphor guiding us is a thick cultural garden out of which sprout those different ways of seeing and making sense of the world (as opposed to a side-by-side positioning of two monolithic forms of inquiry, the scientific and the otherwise). The blog’s metaphysics stem from that vision – that interpretations of the world come from particular cultural contexts that merit attention and that fascinate or inspire us.

Seed magazine, whose tagline is “Science is Culture,” sponsors the site. They hope to sell magazines from it. The majority of their bloggers are scientists and graduate students in the sciences and medicine. Several are journalists. A few are philosophers. At least one other, John Lynch, is a historian of science. There are history of science blogs beyond the small corner of the scienceblogs collective, some of which are very well done, more direct in their discussions of the history of science, and good examples of creative engagement with the material and import of the work HSS members do. Some are insider blogs, looking mainly to give more space to conversations otherwise left at the seminar door rather than to spread the word to others. Other Web 2.0 examples – Elizabeth Green Musselman’s “The Missing Link” podcast is a notable one, as is the 24-part CBC interview series “How To Think About Science,” and Audra Wolfe’s “Distillations” from the Chemical Heritage Foundation (all discussed in the HSS July 2008 Newsletter) – help form the background of new ways to talk, and hopefully to think, about science in historical context.

Why do it? Beyond talking about things differently, beyond the opportunities of a more relaxed, less regimented, and more flexible forum, why blog? I’ll choose my words carefully here: I don’t know. Personally, I’m caught sliding back and forth on the Ayers-Onuf axis. Some folks enjoy playing piano, or mountain climbing, or crafting scale-sized replicas of antique furniture. For my sake, I enjoy writing – about the environment, about science, about history, about the future. I’ve written a series of science humor pieces for McSweeney’s and published interviews with historians and philosophers of science for a monthly periodical (The Believer). Those non-blog examples of talking about the history of science in different ways go along with The World’s Fair. They’re fun. They require no justification. They’re purely Onufian.

Yet blogging about the history of science has a close alliance with my professional activities and as such is not the equivalent of shellacking a two-inch Bourbon armoire. It has pedagogical value – I’ve been able to use sources and posts from blogs to supplement material in class. It also helps my research – I use the site to post notes and links as a kind of electronic set of note cards, compiling stories about a given topic. Such an approach helps me develop new research questions. It has value in examining thoughts on relationships among and between science and society – i.e., to see what assumptions are challenged by readers who are not science studies scholars. One of the best reasons to blog is that it offers a way to think about – and be attentive to – audience. It can help historians find out how presentations of the history of science that don’t rely on anachronistic assumptions are received and interpreted. In these examples I’m more Ayersian, with a quiet belief that discussing historical contingency might help people see the contingencies of our own age.

There are some questionable reasons to blog, as well. These include the claim that writing a blog will directly change the public conversation; that more readers, as measured by page views at a blog, equates directly with greater public understanding; or that the mere circumstance of more text on the Internet somehow means we all know more. I remain respectfully skeptical about such claims. Underlying them is a latent technological determinism – that the fact of an Internet connection and html code will somehow lead directly and unproblematically to more democracy or more community or a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between relativity and Weimar culture. Having more information is just as likely to decrease deeper engagement in issues as it is to increase it. Here we are with the depth vs. breadth issue; i.e., who can keep up with all of it?

Two efforts at The World’s Fair in the past year highlight how I’ve attempted to negotiate the A-O axis and avoid the pitfalls of blogs. The first is a series called author-meets-blogger. Here, I’ve had the good fortune to corner authors of recent books in the history and social studies of science and the environment for discussions of those books.(1) The second is a 14-part series of mini-essays on the theme of visual evidence, epistemology, and truth. It was instigated by intertwining three readings I happened upon simultaneously: first, a series by the documentarian Errol Morris, ostensibly about some famous 1850s photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death in the Crimean War (these were posted at his own New York Times blog); second, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s new book, Objectivity; and third, Richard Powers’ first novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985). The three readings appeared to me as contributions to a much larger conversation on science, knowledge, and society.(2) The blog offered the unique creative opportunity to discuss examples of creative opportunities.

Both examples came from Onufian impulses, yes. But I’ll own up to the Ayersian ones still lurking underneath, because the two efforts above are about showing, not telling. Rather than making a claim that science is neutral or not, that Darwin was great or wasn’t (spoiler alert: he was), I’ve sought to show examples of what historians actually find in their empirical work. Often the science corner of the blogosphere is filled with combative and counterproductive arguments with readers – good for ratings, bad for civic-minded conversation. Instead of mere assertion, one might instead use the blog space to offer images of science as a historically and culturally embedded enterprise.

Lurking beneath all of the above is the time-honored debate about influence, readership, and scholarly purpose. I take this as the point broached by Robert Kohler, et al. in their Isis focus section on “The Generalist Vision” (Vol. 96, No. 2, June 2005); I take it as the reason for the questions Jan Golinski, et al. raised on what we could learn from historical novels (Isis, Vol. 98, No. 4, December 2007); and I take it as the issue again brought to the fore this past summer on what difference the history of science makes (Isis, Vol. 99, No. 2, June 2008). Roughly speaking, the first focus section was about the audience; the second was about how we address the audience; and the third was about why. In my experience, blogging about one’s work and other areas of interest or intrigue has the chance to represent the curiosity of historians of science across this range of who, how, and why.

To add a note of caution: a friend observed in a recent conversation about the online world that discussing intellectual things in the public sphere does not make one a public intellectual. This points to the possibilities and difficulties of an individual blogger – namely the low barrier to entry – and confronts the over-statement that blogs will somehow change the intellectual dynamic of public conversation. But I wouldn’t worry about it. Blogging about the history of science may not be revolutionary, but it could be an arena to explore one’s passion for historical inquiry. It could and likely will do much more too, but I’ll leave that for others to point out. In the best light, and from my particular experience, blogging can help historians-as-writers calibrate their sense of audience and learn more about the assumptions at play on the other side of the text. Plus, you know, lots of people do spend considerable time online.

Benjamin Cohen will be participating in a workshop on electronic scholarship at the HSS Annual Meeting. As for his own research, his book,
Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside, will be published next year by Yale University Press.

Join the discussion online at The World’s Fair. And find these related links, too: The Cannonball posts; Author-meets-blogger:

1 Among the dozen plus so far, Jan Golinski, Graham Burnett, Gregg Mitman, Michele Murphy, Michael Egan, and Aaron Sachs have contributed thoughtful, summative, and accessible discussions of their work for an audience of science enthusiasts who very likely would not have come across this work otherwise.
2 I’d add that the series took five months, was a point of increasing enthusiasm, inflected my thinking about my own new research project, and, due to its organic and unplanned development, could not have been written in any other manner or form.


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