Thesis Question Brainstorm

Blog post, Thesis Research

There are a few different directions I could go with my thesis at this point, and I think one of the best ways for me to work through them is to write them down and read them later. Here’s to hoping one of these sounds doable when I reread this in a couple of weeks.

I’m studying with some great professors here at OU, but most of them focus on the history of science, not medicine (and the two are very different fields — believe me). I was a little upset by this at first, but I think that ultimately I can use this as an advantage in writing this thesis and in my overall intellectual development as an historian.

I revisited some of the primary sources I’d been looking at, and this time I noticed how, especially as we reach the late 19th century, the arguments presented for why the waters healed were largely formulated with an appeal to science. Numbers — in the form of data like charts, percentages, and statistics of other kinds — began to appear, and the experts behind their development were emphasized (professors at universities in St. Louis, physicians who trained at prominent medical schools). Did the inclusion of more scientific arguments for the efficacy of the waters reflect a growing trust in medical science? If so, what engendered this trust? What role did scientific medicine play in the choices vernacular audiences made in regards to their health decisions, and was this in a state of accelerated change at the end of the 19th century?

I can also see some major boundary-work going on in my primary source base. It seems that what was considered “medicine” and what wasn’t was in a state of heightened ambivalence at the end of the 19th century and on into the 20th. The backlash initiated by the realization that age-old “heroic” therapeutics — based largely around violent purgatives and emetics — were not effective rendered medical authority questionable. Could the rise of hydrotherapy be indicative of the uncertainty that surrounded the therapeutics of the era? Is it evidence that…? Is it also a reaction against the lack of agency patients were beginning to see in the more cold, clinical doctor-patient relationship that was characteristic of the “new” medicine, based as it was on the numerical analysis of disease and cure?

I keep coming back to the role that statistics and numbers seem to have played in the changing location of trust in medicine. Without statistical evidence to the contrary, patients placed their full trust in their doctor and the immediate effects of his treatment. As statistical methods made their way into medicine, however, patients had to decide where to place their faith — with the family doctor, who often gave them more agency in their own medical decisions, or with a new and increasingly numerous class of physicians that, backed by the authority of science, advocated new methods, new characterizations of disease, and espoused new therapeutical strategies. Personal experience and agency vs. scientific expertise and delegation of medical responsibility.

I’m considering dropping the micro-historical approach and instead focusing on a few different spa towns. Is that a stupid idea for something as short as a masters thesis? Hm.

I tried to come up with a witty, history-sounding title for this post and failed, which is further evidence that I’m far, far too broad in my research interests here. Sigh. 

“…these places [spa locations] became sacred to healthseekers; “taking the waters” embodied a basic and important but fleeting relationship with the natural environment. People searched for the healing powers of nature and found them in mineral springs. They sought companionship, leisure, and alleviation of bodily pain in an inspiring and comfortable environment.”

— Janet Valenza in Taking the Waters in Texas (2000)

Thesis Research

"There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think — which is fundamentally a moral problem — must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process…"

— Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth (1933)

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Health & Water in the Middle Ages

Papers

Health and Water in the Middle Ages: A Historiographical Survey

            As a requirement for life, water has enjoyed an interactive relationship with humanity through the ages, and this is no less true of the medieval era this survey will cover from about the ninth-century to the fifteenth AD. Because of its cleansing properties, symbolic associations, and the importance it is given in the Hippocratic and Galenic corpus, water has also often been associated with health — both as a healing agent itself and as a factor in the maintenance of the all-important equilibrium of the living body. It should come as a surprise, then, that the Anglophonic scholarship surrounding water and its role in medieval health can be best characterized as embryonic and fragmented, and certainly as lacking a developed methodological discourse or unity of approach.[1] Although calls have been made since the early twentieth-century for a more systematic analysis of medieval cleanliness, usage of and beliefs about water, and relationship with bathing and bathhouses, most scholars continue to focus on the early modern and modern periods.[2]

The Science of Sympathy

Summaries & Reviews

The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilization, Rob Boddice

Rob Boddice makes the argument in The Science of Sympathy that a new, scientific sympathy was developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century by Charles Darwin and his (mostly) like-minded contemporaries, that this sympathy was at odds with what he terms “common compassion,” or vernacular understandings of sympathy, and that the harbingers of this novel morality employed it to justify research practices, to campaign for political and social action, and even attempted to live by it through their personal belief systems and actions. His goals in advancing such an argument are many, one of the principle ones being that histories of emotion are both valid and informative, offering insight into topics, like eugenics and vaccination, that already have well-developed historiographies. Emotions, Boddice argues, are accessible to the historian through “measur[ing] feelings by actions, by the practices they produce.”[1] By looking at how historical actors internalized ideas about what was sympathetic and what was not, we can “trace… backward, the sympathetic impulse.”[2] In this way, historians can analyze emotional change over time, throwing out the assumption that emotions are static historical actors.

The author often references public interference via the subjection of scientific theories to public opinion, but very rarely does he provide evidence of this outside of the second chapter. The absence of these sources is particularly evident in the chapters on vaccination and eugenics. Boddice’s analysis is thus lopsided; he only considers works written by the scientific actors in his history, citing and analyzing the counter-narratives of public advocates relatively rarely. Instead, he reads between the lines in the sources he does offer an in-depth handling of in order to uncover the strands of common compassion/sympathy he places in opposition to those of the Darwinians. While this is an interesting strategy and is no doubt useful, a fuller portrait in which the lay perspective is more fleshed out would have rendered his argument more complete. The very structure of the book should have reflected this; instead of relegating the discussion of common compassion to a single chapter, it should have been a component of all of them. This would have both provided evidence that this scientific brand of sympathy was indeed new and would also have lent credence to his claim that it was largely unintelligible to the general population.

 

  • What is the connection between morality, sympathy, and emotion? Why can someone write a history of sympathy and call his approach one of history of emotions? What does it mean to write a history of emotions? Does morality (or ethics) have to be based on or associated with emotion? The book seems to be making that assumption, and I’m not sure if I agree. Perhaps my understanding of “emotion” is at odds with Boddice’s? I realize that these topics are discussed at length in the first chapter, but I could use a little clarification.
  • What is evolution’s relationship with socialism? A fair number of Darwinists (Spencer, Wallance, and Pearson, for example) would have identified as socialists, seeing it as the next step in the evolution of morality. In other works I have read, however, it has been argued that evolution by natural selection has very capitalistic undertones of cutthroat, uncaring competition. How can these differing perspectives be reconciled?

[1] Rob Boddice, The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilization (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 5.

[2] Ibid., 6.

Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior

Summaries & Reviews

Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, Robert Richards

The three chapters of Robert Richards’s work we were to focus on for class dealt with how a few prominent Victorian thinkers — with a decided emphasis on Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer — integrated the theory of evolution with human morality and ethics. Richards attempts to analyze the theories put forth by his chosen actors within the context of their own intellectual climate; instead of looking for the roots of modern-day scientific understandings by searching for pieces of old theories that “glow,” he advocates an approach that assesses the validity or value of work by “those standards actually employed by contemporaries in the scientific community of the time.”[1] In this way, he hopes to escape the dubious reputation often ascribed to Herbert Spencer by scholars who fail to recognize his contemporary success as an intellectual and also to avoid the hagiographical tendencies that tend to be characteristic of writing on Charles Darwin.

The main men addressed in Richards’s work had different reasons for embarking on their journeys to provide a natural explanation for human moral development, and their backgrounds and methods were also quite varied. Darwin’s interest in morality came as a consequence and extension of his work on evolution. Conversely, Spencer constructed his ethical framework first and then attempted to explain its conception in terms of long-term biological change.[2] Thus, the two were interested in the evolution of human morality for quite different reasons, and this was reflected in their similar but distinct theories.

Spencer was out to prove that his ethics were grounded in the natural world and placed much more emphasis on acquired inheritance, which was important in his argument for the end goal of evolution being a perfect, socialist society. Darwin’s motivations for entering the discussion about human morality lay in defending his theory of evolution by natural selection after the publication and subsequent critiques of The Origin. He was far more hesitant about teleological understandings of evolution and thought natural selection played a more important role in evolutionary change. He needed to prove that all aspects of humanity were the result of evolution and not divine intervention. Both men integrated their unique goals in constructing their theories into the theories themselves, a testament to how important the cultural and intellectual climate surrounding historical figures is to their lives and work.

 

  • As I was reading, I noticed how frequently the main actors relied on analogy as a way to understand evolution and morality. Analogies between human and animal intelligence and emotion are common in Chapter 5, along with the interesting discussion of linguistic and biological evolution sharing important similarities. Spencer’s idea of society as a living organism is another example. Is this analogous reasoning particularly characteristic of mid-19th century theorizing about evolution, was it a broader trend in 19th century science, and do we still employ similar strategies for understanding the natural world? Is this a valid, scientifically-sound strategy?
  • What is the difference between morality and ethics, as Richards and those he writes about define them?

[1] Robert Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 244.

[2] Ibid., 247.

Science & Religion: A Global Perspective

Summaries & Reviews

This week’s readings took on a more global perspective, offering an increasingly holistic picture of what the relationship between science and religion — and the academic analysis of it — looks like. As was expressed in class, religions other than Christianity and locales outside the West have received scant attention from historians of science, and the extant scholarship reflects this in its lack of depth and consideration of actors outside the European infrastructures that colonialism imposed upon its subjects. That being said, scholarship must start somewhere, and the work that has been done contains merit, particularly as a model for further research in the area.

Sivasandaram’s piece in Science and Religion, while commendable in its treatment of commonly neglected areas of study in the field, does not provide such an example. While his conception of global history, defined as “a label of historical methodology indicating analysis of broad patterns and connections across space,” offers a good starting point for non-Western histories, he fails to successfully write a non-Western history. Most of the actors in his narrative are Western, giving the impression that those receiving “science” from their colonizers were a relatively passive audience, ready to reformulate their religious convictions in light of the knowledge bestowed up on them. He does leave room for diversity of opinion and belief among the native population, acknowledging that the response to European science was varied, but even as he expresses this, most of the voices in his story are Western ones. He does not provide much cultural, political, or historical context in which to situate the native narrative. He does, however, suggest that in cultures that do not have native educational institutions, different methods than the one he employs will be required. In the end, what Sivasandaram has to offer is a Western-centric view of the relationship between Western science and native religions.

In contrast, Weldon and Yoshida’s discussion of science in the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and India provides a better model for extending the study of science and religion out of the Western context. They provide ample background — historical, cultural, and political — that bring vitality to the population whose interactions with science they are attempting to understand. They spend more time discussing the philosophies of the religions they cover, and the voices are almost entirely Asian ones. The reader can see how cultural and religious authorities were integrating or rejecting the science their Western contemporaries were exposing them to, and equally importantly, can understand the unique, local reasons, in addition to the intellectual ones, why they were or were not doing so. That being said, the lack of lay voices — a demographic that can be accessed, in one way, through their integration or rejection of Western medicine — is noticeable.

I am, however, again left asking the question, why the focus on Western science? Was there not some form of “science” in place before the West made it over to Asia? What was the relationship between Asian science and Asian religion? And, if an author is going to be discussing the relationship between only Western science and Asian religion, should this distinction not be made at some point during the discussion of methodology? Science can take many forms and, as we have discussed in class, can look very different depending on cultural and temporal context. The term should not imply Western.

The last reading for the week that I found particularly thought-provoking was Efron’s piece, “Science and Religions: what it means to take historical perspectives seriously.” In it, Efron confronts the complexity thesis and offers some interesting insight. While many historians have assumed that the complexity thesis implies what Efron terms “narrative complexity,” in which the relationship between science and religion has been historically complicated by the changing definitions of both terms in different contexts (temporal and cultural), he offers complexity of a different kind. “Moral complexity,” Efron argues, has more explanatory power. He states that, instead of looking at broad, historically contingent trends in the dynamics of science and religion, the historian should instead approach the issue from the perspective of individual actors and delve into how they, in their own understandings, hold the two sets of beliefs. I think that Stanley’s approach when he was trying to understand Huxley and Maxwell’s conceptions of scientific and religious beliefs is an example of such a method in action; Stanley reads their philosophies and teases out how each drew boundaries between the two ways of knowing, and particularly in Maxwell’s case, found them compatible.

I think that this would be a great way for historians of science and religion to move beyond the conflict thesis, and I would be very interested to read works that employ similar methods. The individual human mind, after all, is the fountainhead from which the understood relationship between these two entities flows.

Science & Religion: Debunking the Conflict Thesis

Summaries & Reviews

In my junior year as an undergraduate, I took a collaborative class titled, “The Darwin Course.” It was put together and led by a science education professor, and we covered the science of evolutionary theory (via physics, anthropology, geology, and biology professors in two-week stints), Charles Darwin’s formation of it, its troublesome reception (although this discussion was largely confined to twentieth century America), and the philosophical and legal issues that surround it. By the end of the course, the lead professor had made his goals quite clear; we were all more than prepared, trained as soldiers to fight for the cause of secular scientific education, to argue against those — largely portrayed as religious zealots — who would be so dense and dogmatic as to stand in the way of the biological enlightenment of the adolescent masses.

The somewhat hyperbolic rendition of the class I have just presented is influenced by our discussion and readings this week. While I learned a good deal and would hardly take back my decision to enroll in the undergraduate course, the dichotomies and essentialist rhetoric employed by the authorities in the classroom embody the conflict thesis, an outdated and, as the readings suggest, inaccurate portrayal of how science and religion interact and intersect. I think that the professor’s position as a science educator played into his views of science and religion, and as the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in high schools shows few signs of being ultimately resolved, his position on the defensive is understandable. The consequences of coming out on the losing end of this conflict, in his eyes, are quite dire — an uninformed populace that defers important decisions to the authority of a book written thousands of years ago.

That is part of the reason why I find this perceived conflict so fascinating — it is incredibly intelligible, not only from the “science” side, but from the “religious” one. If someone understands a scientific theory as being ultimately incommensurable with their fundamentally-held, lived-by religious beliefs, they would naturally be upset that their children were being forced to learn it simply because someone somewhere has deemed it more intelligible. It would seem especially threatening if it was understood that these scientific beliefs undermined, and in some cases even directly contradicted, the very tenets on which religious belief was established.

It would appear from this perspective that the views of science and religion are completely incompatible. What these conflict narratives fail to address, however, and what the reading this week did, is that these essentialist distinctions between science and religion are historically contingent and socially constructed. One of the episodes highlighted in my undergraduate course was that of the Scopes Trial; it was presented as the ultimate showdown between scientific and religious understandings of the world, made more visible by differing opinions on what should be taught to impressionable youths. Shapiro’s piece confronts this interpretation, teasing out the complicated dynamics that, in the unique atmosphere of Dayton, Tennessee, led to the trial. The battle lines were largely drawn between urban and rural ideas about what high school curriculum should entail at a time when states were attempting to centralize their education systems, and textbook production and distribution played a major role in igniting the controversy when and where it occurred. The conflict was sensationalized and made into the universal example of science v. religion in the media firestorm that surrounded the trial, a narrative that continues to be told in undergraduate classrooms today.

Your introduction to “Science and Religion” discusses these issues further, elucidating how and why conflict narratives like the Scopes Trial are constructed and what pitfalls we can avoid falling into in order to avoid perpetuating them. Telling the story of the Scopes Trial in the format of a conflict narrative requires applying essentialist definitions of “science” and “religion” and juxtaposing them, when, as Shapiro has proven, neither one is simple or clear-cut, and they often are not even in direct conflict. Not all scientists hold the same set of beliefs, and similarly, not every religious person does either; this is compounded by the fact that these beliefs, different as they are from person to person, also change dramatically with time. Medieval Christianity is quite different from its modern equivalent, and scientific ideas that might have given one trouble might not seem problematic to the other. By applying definitions of science and religion that are over-simplistic and reductionist, historians and others engaged in the perpetuation of the conflict thesis impose terms that are usually anachronistic and presentist. This leads to an inaccurate portrait of the past relationship between science and religion and often results in pitting the two against one another in a way that those practicing either or both at the time would have found incomprehensible.

With his intellectual history of Maxwell and Huxley, Stanley provides a good point of departure for the last topic of discussion in this response. He presents a case study in which he looks at how naturalistic and religious scientific thinkers understood scientific endeavor, and he finds that they often had what he calls “valence values.” Both parties, committed as they were to their distinct worldviews, held similar ideas as to what constituted good science; the uniformity of natural laws, appropriate limits (set at what could be observed and tested), and intellectual freedom from dogma. Maxwell, a deeply religious individual, and Huxley, a self-proclaimed agnostic, participated in the same scientific community, which adhered to these rules. Both believed that the motivation behind a good scientist’s work was largely irrelevant to his practice as long as these rules were upheld. One chapter does highlight some clashing over science of the mind, but in most cases, religion and science for these nineteenth century men were not in conflict at all. This story stands in stark contrast to the one normally told about post-evolution nineteenth century scientists.

While my experience in the Darwin Course was instructive, I have come to the realization (which was already underway before class last Thursday, but has certainly accelerated by our discussion) that science and religion are not in a struggle for survival in the human quest for absolute truths; nor, as proponents of the conflict thesis would have you believe, are they monolithic, homogenous terms that can be applied unqualified to any set of beliefs or practices that might fall under their multi-faceted umbrellas. The relationship between science and religion is, like most things historians grapple with, more complex and dynamic than meets the eye.

“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Summaries & Reviews

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?

The Empire of Chance

Summaries & Reviews

The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life, Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger

            In their collaborative work, authors Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger attempt a cohesive study of how the science of statistics “transformed our ideas of nature, mind, and society.” (xiv) The first three chapters present a timeline on which the intellectual development of the science of statistics — with some consideration of its particular applications — is situated, the middle three deal with statistics in particular fields, and the last two concern broader implications of statistical analyses, ideologies, and methodologies. A central theme of the book is the idea that the science of statistics was both shaped and shaped by the sciences that it aided and that helped to develop it for their own explanatory and predictive goals. Professing to be the first of its kind, the survey offers detailed technical descriptions and examples that flesh out the mathematics and theories with which its actors are working.

The passages dealing with mid-nineteenth century debates surrounding the viability of statistical methods for physicians reminded me of S. Lochlann Jain’s criticisms of the same methods in her work, Malignant. Jain and her unlikely intellectual compatriots cite similar issues with the “numerical method” in medicine; it denies the complexity and uniqueness of the individual patient, aiming “not to cure the disease, but to cure the most possible out of a certain number” (Risueño d’Amador, 1836, 46). This results in the emotions Jain so skillfully articulates in her first-hand account as a cancer patient. Reduced to numbers, cancer sufferers are identified by the statistical methods their doctors use to diagnose and treat them. Equally concerning is the reliance of pharmaceutical companies on results from statistical studies to produce drugs that will target cancer on a broader scale, to the detriment of patients who would have benefitted from more personalized treatments. Perhaps these nineteenth century critics were not off base in their hesitancy to adopt such a dehumanizing method of handling disease.

Another bit I found particularly interesting was section 3.5, “Hybridization: the Silent Solution.” Having taken statistics and seen it in what I am now realizing was a surprising amount of my undergraduate science classes, I was struck by the fact that the statistical methods we learn as absolute and established are in fact far from it. Integral tenets to the type of statistics I was taught are, in actuality, theoretically at odds with one another, and yet, as the authors contend, “Statistics is treated as abstract truth, a monolithic logic of inductive inference.” (107) Because statistical methods are so widespread, I find it both surprising and alarming that these obvious impediments to its image as a well-established and unproblematic method of analysis are kept more or less hidden. It lead me into thinking about how oftentimes, when scientific disciplines are “successfully” mathematized, we deem them somehow more intelligible; they become more solid, their results more trust-worthy. Is this a valid logical jump to make, especially if statistics, one of the mathematical sciences that is employed most often, rests on shaky ground?