The names are a little clunky: the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science (CHSS) and the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine. But the work coming out of these two programs is anything but dull.
and the Fishbein Center
organize all the history of science activities at Chicago: everything from an undergraduate major to a joint graduate program with the Pritzker School of Medicine.
The two programs share many faculty members, including Arnold Davidson (philosophy), Jan Goldstein (history), Adrian Johns (history), Robert Richards (history, philosophy, and psychology), Stephen Stigler (statistics), William Wimsatt (philosophy and evolutionary biology), and Alison Winter, AB’87 (history).
Johns, who also serves as chair of CHSS, and Winter spoke with Dialogo
contributor Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93, about the two programs and their own work. Johns is the author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making
(University of Chicago Press, 1998) and Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). Winter is the author of Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain
(University of Chicago Press, 1998) and Memory: Fragments of a Modern History
, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.
Could you explain the history of the history of science at Chicago? How has it changed over the years?
CHSS was originally founded in 1970 as Conceptual Foundations of Science. For its first generation, it focused on philosophical analysis of the hard sciences, especially physics. Now there’s been a shift toward the life sciences—neurology, biology, evolutionary science. In the last decade, in a quiet, unannounced way, Chicago has developed one of the strongest interdisciplinary programs in the country. We have great strengths in the social sciences.Winter:
Another new strength is our MD–PhD students. They usually work on some aspect of humanistic study—anthropology of medicine, history of medicine, philosophy, ethics.
How many centuries must it take them to finish?
I’m very impressed with the people who do it.
What are your current academic projects?
Last Sunday, I finished Memory: Fragments of a Modern History
, about the history of the sciences of memory in the 20th century. I was particularly interested in autobiographical memory—how you remember events from your past, rather than, say, classroom or book learning. Now I want to work on the history of film: scientific films, training films, research films in psychology, psychiatry, the neurosciences. I haven’t done much yet. It’s only Wednesday.Johns:
I’m between projects, because I just finished two things: Piracy
, about information piracy but going back 400 years, and Death of a Pirate
, about 1960s pirate radio in the UK and popular experiment.
In The Nature of the Book, you mention that science and scientist are often used anachronistically.
The term scientist
was invented in the 1830s by William Whewell, the polymathic Cambridge don. Prior to that, if you investigated nature, you were a natural philosopher. It’s important to bear that in mind when looking at people from much earlier—say, Newton. To call Newton a scientist is to risk placing him in the wrong category altogether.
How was Newton not a scientist?
What we tend to remember now is Newton’s work in mathematics, astronomy, optics, and later, running the Royal Society, advancing notions of method. But he spent at least as much time doing Biblical exegesis, apocalyptics, alchemy. The discourse of God, as Newtown said, is part of natural philosophy. We would not now take that to be the business of the scientist.
What is the difference between critiquing science and doubting science?
Historians of science are skeptical in the humanistic sense. We see scientific achievements as worthy of admiration but not adulation. It’s a delicate public issue, not least because of the so-called science wars. There’s a convention in the media that everything has two sides. So reporters dig up the tiny, tiny proportion of the scientific community who are relatively skeptical about climate change, in order to give an impression of evenhandedness.
When you say "science wars," does that include the parody paper written by physicist Alan Sokal in 1996, in which he claimed gravity was a social and linguistic construct?
That was the heart of it. The pastiche is brilliant, actually. I think one should salute the Swiftian with of that paper.
Would you have been taken in?
I wouldn’t have thought the paper was fake. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me. I just would’ve thought it was worthless.
I don’t know. The stuff it was making fun of is very far from any areas that I work in or am ever invited to review. I have a great distaste for that genre.
A lot of academic work that’s published is basically rubbish.
What’s it like working with undergraduates in this discpline? Do they have different questions or different perspectives from grad students?
I love working with undergraduates. I love how totally open they are. My field, the modern history of science and medicine, is new enough and researched enough that it’s very easy to get to the edge of it. It’s possible to push undergraduates in some general direction, and as a soon as they take a couple steps, they trip over some totally new, amazing topic.
Can you give an example?
I certainly can: the history of film in the human sciences. It’s incredibly important, but there’s almost no scholarly literature. In my History of Medicine course, I have three different students who have discovered films that probably haven’t been studied since they were made. They’re doing primary research in areas that have no secondary literature. One of them is working on films of LSD research in the 1950s and 1960s. I thought those were still classified. He showed them to me on YouTube.
How did you get interested in the history of science?
When I started college here, I wanted to major in physics and English. Around the middle of my second year, I realized I could major in HiPSS (History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine). I decided that during the second quarter of Science, Culture, and Society. And this quarter, I’m teaching it.
So you’ve come full circle.
Yes. Also this quarter, I’m coteaching Literature, History, and Science: 1750–1900 with James Chandler (English), who taught my first-year humanities course and became a wonderful mentor to me. I did an independent study with him on a Newtonian poem of the 18th century—which I now find really boring. This is the first time I’ve ever taught with him. It’s made me very nostalgic.