Why Popular Science Matters

“Popularizers provided syntheses, synoptic overviews, and more: at heart, as storytellers who engaged with questions of meaning as well as providing information, they brought the larger public into communication with the search for natural knowledge by incorporating their hopes and dreams and fears and speaking directly to their experiences.”

— Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader in “Science in the Everyday World”

Vernacular Knowledge

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China, Dagmar Schäfer

            In her analyses of the writings of Song Yingxing (1587-1666?), author Dagmar Schäfer elucidates the intricate and complex systems of knowing in seventeenth-century China. Song was part of a society in which individuals were divided into four major classes: scholars, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. While Song’s writings reflect these subdivisions (and the social hierarchies in which they were placed), they also defy his society’s unique knowledge classification systems by emphasizing the role of qi in universal harmony and understanding. In a method markedly different from his contemporaries, Song proposed a chaos-defying system based on qi and “natural phenomenon and the production of material objects,” instead of on “moral categories of ‘heaven’” imposed on humanity.[1] Schäfer brilliantly highlights how cultural, political, and societal influences play a role in knowledge production and understanding through her case study analysis of a single, at times abnormal and at times quite typical, lower-ranked Chinese scholar. 

Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter, Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader

            Science in the Everyday World brings attention to the tendency for scientists and historians of science to discount or altogether ignore the importance of those “outside the temple of science” and in the realm of popular culture in the production and perpetuation of knowledge.[2] To assume that all knowledge is synthesized in the laboratories of professional scientists leaves out the many, equally important actors at play in the lay world. If historians will venture into the realm of popular cultures of science, Pandora and Rader argue, we have to gain “the positive transformation of relations between expert scientific practitioners and nonexpert public science participants.”[3] The authors then illustrate how this type of analysis should be carried out by discussing three examples: historians’ work on the nineteenth-century scientific popular culture, the development of and motivations behind scientific museums, and twentieth century media portrayals of the scientist. By understanding the ways that the scientific community and laypeople communicate with one another, scientists can benefit from historians in a way that will make future conversations far more rewarding.

Pandora and Rader’s piece on popular science reminded me very much of Nancy Tomes’s work, The Gospel of Germs. Tomes appears to use the exact analytical strategies proposed by Pandora and Rader; she attempts to understand the lay American reaction to an awareness of microbial disease-carriers. A marked difference between this approach and the more traditional, top-centered strategy can be located in the source base. Pandora and Rader’s brief discussion on popular representations of scientists in the twentieth century focus on film and television shows, while Tomes uses similar sources that lay outside of the professional realm, including advice books, patent applications, advertisements, and oral histories. While these sources may not always be the most visible, apparent, or traditional, they offer insight into a completely different aspect of scientific culture — one that is equally important to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.

I find the indirect approach to the historical study of scientific understanding the most fascinating, and arguably the most important. While scientists like to isolate themselves physically and professionally, they are still part of the worldly, human-comprised community. They are not immune to its structure, politics, culture, or ideas, as many proponents of the SSK school would argue. I think, however, that one of the most effective ways of understanding the context in which science is conducted is to study the consumers of science. Their role in the creation of scientific knowledge has been paramount; after all, without public support science (usually) cannot operate. And how science sells or isolates itself from the common people can have major implications for what kind of science is done. Equally interesting and useful is the study of how science has affected the communities for which it operates; how did your average American understand germ theory, and how did this change how they behaved? A question taken up by Tomes, this kind of inquiry can lead the historian to better understand what role science has played in the overall history of humanity, and like Pandora and Rader argue, it can facilitate important modern-day conversations between scientists and common audiences.

[1] Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of 10,000 Things, 52.

[2] Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader, “Science in the Everyday World,” 350.

[3] Ibid, 354.

The Jewel House

The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Deborah E. Harkness

            In her quest to elucidate the complex foundations of the Scientific Revolution (a concept the author ironically does not entirely agree with), Deborah Harkness adopts an ethnographical approach to “science” being done in sixteenth century London. By telling the stories of several different hubs — individuals and communities — of technological, theoretical, and practical innovation or conversation, Harkness paints a picture of a society that was already doing the sort of scientific work that Francis Bacon suggests is imperative to advancement in New Atlantis. Elizabethan London provided an intellectual atmosphere of diversity, communication, and “urban sensibility” that led to a sort of utilitarian version of science not restricted to elite classes and based on and directed towards a practical understanding of the natural universe. This, Harkness argues, is where the basis of the Scientific Revolution is found — not in the critical works of Bacon, whose ideas only served to restrict the plurality of participation sixteenth century English science enjoyed.

The approach was microhistorical, similar to Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body. Both books focused on a few particular, seemingly unrelated episodes and traced underlying similarities and trends that linked them. Focusing on interactions between and among groups of people, both authors paid special attention to how cultural beliefs fostered particular brands of scientific endeavor. The two books differ in their focus on distinct parts of the scientific method; while Schiebinger looks at how gender and race became important in the formation of theories of difference, Harkness hones in on how culture, economics, and environment inform methods of doing science. Harkness is also unique in her focus on vernacular science, something I have read very little of in the past, probably because of the scant source base.

I was quite taken by the author’s approach, especially when I read her explanation of and purpose for it in the coda. Because historians tend to focus on people whose names and careers are easily analyzed due to their contemporary fame, we miss a vast majority of the populations’ experiences. I think that, especially in turbulent times of rapid change, it is important to get the full picture, even if this requires what sounds like quite a rigorous and organized method that embraces sources not normally given much thought. As Harkness has proven, these can provide a wealth of information about those people who, while quite impactful, simply did not make it into the print and other source mediums traditional historians have deemed the most significant.