Science is not fun

Opinions personals de membres del CEHIC i alumnes de postgrau

març 30 2009

Temporal myopia. Continuities and parallels in popular science in the 18th and in the 19th century

Posted in General |

Science popularization has become a huge topic in the history of science. One of the reasons for this boom is that we learn a lot about science itself if we analyze how it interacts with the media and the general public. Yet my impression is that despite a large amount of excellent scholarship we still lack some kind of overall picture, a history of science popularization that starts in the early 18th century (or even earlier) and leads into the 21st century. Recently, the lack of a grand narrative in the history of science, dominated by an avalanche of isolated case studies, has been lamented. How would the “big picture” of popular science look like?
The historical study of science popularization suffers, in my view, from temporal myopia. Most studies, even collected volumes and large research projects, focus only on a given period of time, usually the 18th, 19th and 20th century. There are practical reasons for this limitation (you can only investigate so much) as well as reasons with respect to the subject matter (historical periods differ in many respects from each other, therefore comparisons are tricky).
Still, I think there are a large number of continuities between the centuries that not been sufficiently explored. What triggered this kind of discontent in me is the reading of Science in the Marketplace. Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (edited by Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman, Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 2007). This is a marvelous collection of eleven articles on popular science in Victorian Britain. Yet time and again I thought: what they claim about 19th century popular science is very similar if not identical with what has been said about the 18th century popular science.
True, the nineteenth century differs in many aspects fundamentally from the previous one. To name but a few: the printing revolution, the increasingly literate masses, the new venues and the new medias to present science to an audience. Yet looking at the enormous work that has been done on enlightenment science the parallels are even more striking than the obvious differences.
There is a number of patterns out there that we use to describe how popular science works, what kind of tensions there were etc. Historians of science seem to resort to these without always noticing that there is a certain “timelessness” about them. Without going into any detail here I will sketch a few of these features.

1. Entertainment versus Instruction
The juxtaposition of entertainment and instruction goes even further back than the 18th century. The debate on how entertaining science has to be in order to be appealing to the general public is fought with practically identical arguments. Time and again natural philosophers scolded the lecturers for being to amusing, in love of the spectacular instead of instructing their audience. Yet popularizers of all sorts, be it an itinerant lecturer of experiment physics or a school teacher, always insisted that you had to grasp the attention of your audience first before you can teach them anything. And nothing is more useful than a heavy explosion or a ghost appearing on the screen. Hence appealing to the senses, in particular the eyes is prerequisite of any attempt to popularize. Where instruction ends and the mere spectacle begins is and has been an open question since the enlightenment.

2. The variety of venues for popular science
World exhibitions, the Royal Institution (Faraday) and the Singspiel Academy (A.v. Humboldt), the zoological gardens and aquariums, the societies for the distribution of useful knowledge and the associations of the working class, the penny magazines and the popular encyclopedias, the natural history museums and the freak shows. Indeed, we find a large variety of sites in the 19th century where in one way or another science was taught or at least “shown”. And I have named only those who did not exist in the previous century (or hardly played a role in popular science).
Yet the list of venues of 18th natural philosophy is hardly shorter or less varied: the court of kings and princes, the lecture halls of academies and universities, the salon of the aristocracy, the convent, the theatre and the pub, the fair and the market place, and many other public places such as huge squares or parks where balloons went up into the air or even rivers where explosions were staged.

3. Competition for audiences
In Science in the marketplace this is a central theme. The popularizers of science are competing for the attention of their audiences (and for their money). This is a very convincing argument that helps us to understand 19th century popular science much better. Yet again practically the same can be said about the previous century. The fierce competition of lecturers for paying audiences has has been described recently for 18th century Paris by Michael Lynn. (Popular Science and Public Opinion in Eighteenth-century France, Studies in Early Modern European History. Manchester: Manchester Univ Press, 2006.) And already years ago for 18th century London.

4. Gaining credibility and ghost-busting
Competition for audiences means struggling against other practitioners of popular science. Not necessarily but very often this leads to conflicts. Popularizers tended to attack each other both in the 18th and the 19th century to defend their own business and ruin the business of their competitors. A good reputation was crucial for their work. In order to strengthen their position and their credibility they often tried to establish a good relationship with scientists. A very effective way of doing this consisted in debunking colleagues as tricksters. To show that a performer was in fact fraudulent or even fostering superstition earned him a lot of points with scientists eager to police the public practice of natural philosophy respectively science. There are numerous examples for this uncovering of charlatans or even of “ghost-busting” from the early 18th century onwards.

5. Specialization and the retreat from polite society
Historians of science have stressed the importance of polite society in granting science status as a respectable activity. For a while it was fashionable to talk about comets or even mathematics at dinner parties. Yet the specialization of the disciplines made these topics incompatible with the demands of polite conversation. Science was exiled from polite society because you could not talk about the subject anymore you could only be lectured at. My point: I have paraphrased the argument of two eminent historians resp. sociologists of science: Steven Shapin argued that this happened in the course of the 18th century, James Secord makes the same case for the 19th. And both for good reasons.
(Steven Shapin, “The Image of the Man of Science.” In Eighteenth-Century Science, edited by Roy Porter, 159-183. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. James A. Secord, “How scientific conversation became shop talk.” In Science in the Marketplace. Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, edited by Aileen Fyfe, and Lightman, Bernard, 23-59. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.)

One might push my point even further and include the 20th century in this comparative scheme. But for the moment I shall leave it at that. I repeat: I do not want to take an ahistorical and structuralist stand. The differences between the centuries are too numerous and too obvious for that. Yet I think historians of science should be aware of this temporal myopia. With so many well-researched case studies at hand it might be time for try a diachronic and comparative approach in the study of popular science. Let us not be afraid of drawing a big picture!

Oliver Hochadel

This entry was posted on dilluns, 30 març, 2009 at 23:38 and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “ Temporal myopia. Continuities and parallels in popular science in the 18th and in the 19th century”

  1. Says:

    This deletion is an injustice. Must restore control in the history of science. This is not a game.

  2. visit link Says:

    visit link

    Science is not fun » Temporal myopia. Continuities and parallels in popular science in the 18th and in the 19th century

Deixa un comentari

Si us plau, demostra que no ets un robot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.