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Why a historian of science needs to remain a tiger outside of the zoo

From Hans Schouwenburg’s ’emotional call to arms’ for a more activist history of science, on the Shells and Pebbles blog:

I think that we, PhD candidates in the history of science, should help our colleagues in the labs. For too long we have passively described science in action, without answering the climate scientist’s call for practical action. Even worse, as Latour observed, our critical apparatus of cultural deconstruction is now being used by the ‘worst possible fellows’ to deny global warming. We are scholars who try to describe the political, ideological and social aspects of science, but we are also humans who care about the future of our planet and humanity. Because of climate change, and because of ‘bad guys’ who refer to us to trivialize the problem, our very future is at stake! We can no longer observe these developments from a distance. It is about time to draw a firm line and come into action.

I can hardly express how much I believe we should remain passive. Or at least, if we choose to get active as concerned citizens, we should seriously doubt whether we can still function as historians.

From the first time I read this piece, I’ve had fundamental problems with it. Floor Haalboom addresses the philosophical implications of Schouwenburg’s position, but my objections are much more practical, and have to do with the integrity of a profession, a craft, that I think has such a valuable social role because it can never be activist.

As historians of science, we are the interpretators of cultural phenomena. In order to do so, we need to take a step back. Not to attain a ‘view from nowhere’, but to provide for a perspective on the past, not the present. That is difficult enough as it is, without adding further and unnecessary distractions. In the words of Frank Ankersmit:

The scepticistic reproach often levied at the writing of history, i.e. not to be based on a direct observation of its object of research, is as misplaced as a reproach directed at the […] railway company that there are still distances between cities. The whole purpose of an institution such as a railway company is to conquer those distances.1

More than anything else, Schouwenburg’s plea comes across as an error of category. Allow me to paraphrase (and firmly pull out of context) the museologist Kenneth Hudson by stating that ‘a tiger in a zoo is always a tiger in a zoo, and never a tiger’. An activist historian of science is always that, and can never be ‘just’ a historian of science focusing on the past or ‘just’ an activist aiming for reform in the present. Being a historian of science means being a observer of science, however unsatisfying that may be in many respects.

On the other hand, an essential part of being an activist is the abandonment of such humility, to become an actor in those events that the historian should reflect upon. To combine the two can only damage the historian and his work: either he abuses the integrity of his craft in his role as an activist, or he puts himself open to justified attacks interpretative abilities among other historians.

As an important aside, we need to ask ourselves who needs activist historians of science. Not the scientists: with a 97-3 advantage against climate change deniers they’re covered. Things are different with the media, of course: always on the lookout for controversy, many media outlets choose to give deniers a disproportionately large platform. But are historians of science a suitable party to change that, to actively compromise their credibility as observers? The strength of our position is that we’re not led by the compulsion to react immediately.

Let’s just do our job. That way, activists will have all the material they need.


Image: Tiger (Panthera tigris) at Franklin Park Zoo, MA, USA.. CC-BY Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Ankersmit, F. R. Denken over geschiedenis : Een overzicht van moderne geschiedfilosofische opvattingen. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1984, p. 85. My translation. 

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