Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2)

When we thought about the possibility of creating an academic blog more than one year ago, we immediately thought of what is for us one of the best references on the subject: Ether Wave Propaganda (EWP), a history of science blog created by Will Thomas in 2008 co-animated since then with his colleague Christopher Donohue. Their posts deals with various subjects on the history of science and technology; they are always informative and well-argued, frequently caustic and constantly uncompromising. The reading of EWP has been a breath of fresh air for us, and we tried to replicate what we understood from this side of the Atlantic as a productive and ambitious “thought-collective”. We too wrote our Zilselian “manifesto “ (a contre-manifeste!) and we strive to implement it in all our posts. And that is why we decided to conduct an interview with our colleagues of EWP, focusing on a series of issues that we all confront in our research, as we shall see in the next paragraphs. We wished to identify Will and Christopher’s motivations; we also wanted to understand the history of their project since the very beginning, and finally their positioning within the field of Science and Technology Studies in the U.S. The following questions were prepared by the entire team of the Carnet Zilsel (Thomas Béraud, Volny Fages, Morgan Jouvenet, Jérôme Lamy, and Arnaud Saint-Martin). We’ve left the responses in English in order to preserve the freshness of the words and their possible double meanings (!). We are quite excited that it has been possible to create such a transatlantic conversation. The interview is divided in two parts. The second part will be published next week.

First of all, could you explain to us the genesis of EWP? In which intellectual and professional context did you create the blog? What were the initial motivations and the problems you wanted to cover? You have already written this story (cf. here and there), but it would be interesting to go back on it because maybe your perception evolved since then…

Will Thomas (WT): I finished my PhD at Harvard University in June 2007 and took up a three-year postdoc at the American Institute of Physics in September. At that time I had become frustrated by the tendency of the historical literature, which others (I later learned) had also noticed and described as “fractured.” There simply wasn’t much engagement or coherence among historians’ books and papers, among their projects and interests, except maybe at a very broad, thematic level, although I think even that is more feigned than real. I had also found much of the prior professional literature on my dissertation (now my book) topic misleading. That created space for me to make (I think) some strong contributions, but it was also, in some ways, disillusioning to discover that I couldn’t trust the professional literature.

 Ether pur, Tubes Sterilises Clin, Musée Somme 1916 (copyright: Great War Observer, 2013, via Flickr)
Ether pur, Tubes Sterilises Clin, Musée Somme 1916 (copyright: Great War Observer, 2013, via Flickr)

The AIP postdoc also traditionally did some teaching at the University of Maryland, so I took the opportunity to do an introductory history of science class in the spring of 2008. I had a really difficult time finding any straightforward, synthetic literature to guide my studies of periods and subjects I hadn’t previously concentrated much on. That, too, seemed to me symptomatic of larger methodological issues that I didn’t think were being addressed. Chris Donohue, then a master’s student, was assigned to be my teaching assistant for that course, and he can talk more about that experience and how he got involved with EWP.

Anyway, it seemed to me that, while there was some methodological discussion in the literature, there was no way of having sustained, probing methodological discussions. With most people, you really didn’t even know if they had noticed the things I was noticing, or if they had opinions about them. I had become aware of blogging, and it seemed like a good way to have sustained, informal, heuristic conversations. I started EWP on New Year’s Day 2008. There were a couple of history of science blogs already, but the phenomenon really only took off a couple years later. Even now, I think EWP remains in a distinct minority as far as its heuristic and methodological orientation is concerned.

It is encouraging that Michael Bycroft’s Double Réfraction and Carnet Zilsel have picked up on this general style. I don’t think Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data follows EWP in quite the same way. Alex was a colleague of mine at Harvard, and was my successor in the AIP postdoc position. I admire what he is doing with his blog. It is in the same spirit of learning, and probing the boundaries of what we know. A lot of blogs simply replicate the same non-heuristic “show-and-tell” spirit of scholarship that EWP was reacting against. Popularization is a legitimate use for blogs, but it’s not the peculiar potential that I saw in the medium.

Christopher Donohue (CD): I was Will’s teaching assistant at the University of Maryland in his history of science class, in, I believe, 2005. Although now we agree broadly on the connections between history and philosophy of science and the problems in the academic community, when Etherwave Propaganda began, there was no such consensus or even clarity of approach. Will brought me on to Etherwave when I was his research assistant at the American Institute of Physics, but the conversations which began that started much earlier.

Will and I began to debate in this office the university had given him for the semester when he taught the history of science class. I think given our differences- I thought of myself primarily as a philosopher (which I still do) but was much more beholden to certain argumentative tropes in literary criticism and especially poetics- a consensus had to emerge. Otherwise, we would have quit speaking to one another. In fact, thinking about how small that office was, I now am slightly embarrassed at how loud we must have been. Although Will has a pretty reasonable history of science education with dogmatic assumptions he shed really quickly once he started questioning them, I must have appeared from Mars, as I was neither a scientist, nor a historian, but someone interested in philosophic issues, the history of philosophy, and the connections between philosophy and poetry.

My philosophical education had been (until 2005) mostly under Allen Grossman at Johns Hopkins, who was certainly one of the foremost theorists of poetry and of poetic language to emerge after the Second World War in the United States. He was extraordinarily famous and was the successor of Hugh Kenner, the noted Ezra Pound scholar, at Hopkins. By his death (late June 2014), he was far more famous than Kenner. I came to Hopkins to study Ezra Pound and poetics with someone. I ended up with Allen (not having any idea how famous he was). By that time in his career, Allen had established a “George Sarton reputation” (as being somewhat unapproachable). This was probably why he liked me, I was too naïve to be nervous. Pound and poetics did not get very far; Allen torpedoed that idea (too much written on it already (this is absolutely true.))

What got really quite far was my study of philosophy with Allen, who thought that this young, excitable person with about ten ideas a minute needed a little grounding in reality.

Within about three weeks of studying with Allen I had noticed the works of Hans Blumenberg in his office. Hans Blumenberg was the first philosopher I read in college. He was also the first philosopher I read seriously. I read first the Genesis of the Copernican World; then, Work on Myth, and finally, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. (Allen gifted me his annotated copy of Work on Myth as well as Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) He gave many people books in this way.

More to the point, all of my notions about ideas and the history of science are tied to this accidental first impression- and totally idiosyncratic exposure to Blumenberg. I then read Fichte, Kant, Hegel, Benedetto Croce, and then Wittgenstein (in that exact order.) This has very much privileged my intellectual development and my writing style.

Allen, though he was a professor of poetry, was perfectly content to have me read philosophy, with some excursions into poetry itself (a great deal of Homer, Virgil, Dante and John Donne, the early 17th century metaphysical poet.) At the same time, I enrolled in philosophy classes (which were very good) and got a grounding in the classics. This eventually led to early modern philosophy (with the noted Leibnitz and Malebranche scholar Sean Greenberg) and early modern intellectual history (with Locke impresario John Marshall, one of J.G.A. Pocock’s students) and philosophy of science with Peter Achinstein.

From Peter Achinstein, I took one thing, read Paul Feyerabend (‘the worst enemy of science.’) This very recently has led me to immerse myself in the philosophy of science, but more on that later. Peter had a profound effect on the blog early on as insofar as one of my most popular early posts is on Paul Feyerabend himself.

All this is to say, that by the time I met Will, I had some very firm ideas which were very different from his. But by the time of the launch of Etherwave Propaganda, Will understood enough of my approach to realize that it could be complementary. Also, if not for Will, I would not be working in history of science at all, most likely. So from my point of view, Etherwave is entirely accidental and should not have worked.

How did you design the blog? Did you have any models within the science blogging world? Can we say that there is now a “EWP style”, whether in the treatment of themes as in the preferred modes of writing?

WT: If EWP has a “style,” I would define it as heuristic, critical, and candid. This is self-consciously in contrast to a culture of politesse that dominates humanistic writing and presentation in the US and UK, where critical discussion is highly constrained. You can make criticisms, but don’t ever kid yourself that they’re going to cause someone to change course with their research. Of course, we at EWP have been careful not to cross over to an opposite extreme of rudeness and unrelenting criticism.

When I started EWP, I didn’t read blogs very much; science blogs have never really captured my attention. I was actually more influenced by pop culture. I’m not a cineaste, but one model that was in my head at the time was how the French Nouvelle Vague directors got started writing for the Cahiers du Cinéma. Here you had people like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut who didn’t like the staid “qualité” cinema of the time, so they wrote about movies, and then they actually went out and started making these exciting films in a new style. I felt like something like that was needed in history.

(copyright: Romana klee, 2010, via Flickr)
Free ether! (copyright: Romana klee, 2010, via Flickr)

More in the present, I was a big fan of the A. V. Club website. These people were having very serious, critical discussions about 20-year-old guitarists and singers, that we seemingly couldn’t have about sophisticated scholarship for some reason. A lot of those writers are now with a website called The Dissolve, and they remain very good.

Economics is a big interest of mine—I have strong materialist sympathies—and so I was also influenced by economist Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal blog at the New York Times website. He can be repetitious, but I liked how he used that repetitiousness to sustain conversations and to develop ideas over time, and to use the ideas he was developing to react to new events. That sense that repeating yourself was OK was very important as EWP was developing its own critical toolkit, mainly between 2009 and 2011.

CD: I agree with Will on the style of EWP. I’ve never read blogs of any kind regularly, until very recently. I read Zilsel and Ye Machine, the blog of my friend and collaborator Simon Cook. I tend to read monographs exclusively, but this is changing.

Depending on the topic, and especially what I am reading at the moment, my ‘style’ (such as it is), and interest change radically. Some of my early blog posts for EWP have a dogmatic quality to them for this reason. I also tried to write a little like Will in the beginning. Now, I think of my blog posts as the presentation of research results from my inter-connected projects.

In person, I like provoking people and going off on tangents that I find interesting. In my writing, I am much more reserved than I am in person. This is why I am writing more. As someone who approaches all of his work from the standpoint of poetics and hermeneutics (and deep reading in both subjects as well as working with a poet), I obsess over the interpretation (and multiple reinterpretations) of every word that I write. I have learned to overcome this and to see text as dialogue between oneself and one’s possible audience and to think more and more of scholarship as conversations. This is also poetical.

In addition to the favorite subjects on which each of you works (see the finding aid), could we identify a guideline? Is there any epistemological orientation? Something that would transcend the vast sum of posts published since the very beginning of EWP?

WT: I don’t think we have an explicit epistemological orientation. In fact, one of the insights I’ve used EWP to develop is the idea that good and bad history probably doesn’t have as much to do with “good” and “bad” sociological and epistemological ideas as the “1980s” generation of scholars led us to believe. Most of the time, we actually don’t make ourselves into better historians by worrying about the validity of cryptic aphorisms like “all knowledge is social.”

For the sake of argument, I would say I’m more of a “realist” than a “relativist,” insofar as I think we focus too much on “contested” claims and “negotiations,” and neglect heuristic reasoning, critical evaluation of evidence, and rational persuasion in scientific (not to mention non-scientific) thought. But I’m not a hard realist by any means. I believe that epistemological and social legitimacy are interconnected in interesting ways, and I think a lot of my own research, which gets into these issues, could actually be characterized as SSK, albeit unorthodox SSK.

Although Chris and I blog about different things, and in a different style, one thing that unites us is our resistance to using concepts like reductionism, determinism, and scientism for historical analysis. As others have readily accepted, “pseudoscience” has always functioned as a polemical term, but that’s true of these other terms as well. Some science no doubt is reductive, but scientists have also gotten a lot of traction out of accusing each other of being reductive.

If we in turn apply these categories, a lot of the time we’re going to be preventing ourselves from understanding all the facets of historical actors’ thinking. It can be tempting to do so, because we may want to use that polemical tool to remove a sense of definitiveness from, say, certain strands of military science, or certain strands of anthropology or biology. But if we’re wrong in our portrayals, it doesn’t serve the cause of scholarship—then we’re the ones being reductionist. And, in the long run, that doesn’t serve the cause of critique very well either.

CD: By nature and some training, I am a rationalist and realist rather than a relativist. I do not like grand theory at all, nor systems-building, nor do I like tidiness in explanations. Everything is provisional and subject to revision in my writing. I’ve revised my own positions for EWP several times.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Will’s approach and my own is that in writing for EWP, Will begins with historiography while I begin with source text, typically from c. 1850 to c.1960. We agree on the perniciousness of “isms,” such as ‘determinism’, of narratives and of distinctions such as pseudo-science which historians and philosophers use for the benefit of the coherence of their own arguments. My objections to the label of “geographical determinism” and my posts on Ellsworth Huntington, Henry Buckle and others attempt to recover the arguments of subjects in context with scrupulous reference to text. “Isms” speak to a manufactured relevance; if one author’s argument is ‘pseudoscientific’ then it is presented as an important lesson for the present generation as a dire warning of how not to think. “Isms” denote ideology and ideology means a suspension of analysis. ‘Isms’ are the history and philosophy of science’s attempt to demarcate what is worthy of analysis and discussion and what is not.

In connection with the previous question, and to get back to the editorial issues, could we read somehow EWP as an attempt to regain control and to share more widely debates/discussions that have been privatized by an elite of the major contributors of the Science Studies, we mean the “Great ones”, even the “greatest” (i.e. this elite that has its access to good editors, its entries in journals, etc.)? When you talk about the Schaffer v. Latour controversy, for example, you deplore that this debate has been settled around a good bottle of wine, secluded, even though this controversy engaged the community beyond what Christopher calls a “court of understanding”. What’s your opinion on these matters?

WT: A few people now have responded positively to my take on the “wine summit”—nobody’s said much about whether they think I’m right about the relationship between Schaffer’s and Latour’s points of view! In retrospect, I think that was one of those cases where disagreements about historical portraits get unnecessarily cast as deriving from fundamental epistemological errors, in this case Latour’s “hylozoism.” Is that the conclusion that they reached, though? Do they understand each other’s’ intellectual projects even now? Were their points of view reconcilable? We still don’t know! But that’s our culture of politesse for you in a nutshell—bonhomie matters more than resolving intellectual problems.

But, to answer the question, I think the elites of the profession have been consistently poor stewards of our intellectual gains. They don’t articulate or organize their ideas very well; we don’t know who agrees with whom—on big methodological issues, or on all the small points of detail we have to evaluate—and we certainly have no clue whether and how differences might be resolved.

(copyright: Kieran Huggins, 2007, via Flickr)
The current cognitive state of STS? (copyright: Kieran Huggins, 2007, via Flickr)

Frankly, I don’t think there’s a lot of incentive to iron these issues out. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be free to study whatever it is they want to study and not be questioned too much about it. It’s a kind of club, and traveling and drinking are a part of that. You are, of course, supposed to question others—but not too much. Start to press your point, and you’ll be asked to resolve the dispute over drinks where it doesn’t matter. And I don’t see this changing. It’s an attractive culture, and it’s one that almost all the junior people have bought into as much as the senior people. But, yes, insofar as these debates do happen and are taken seriously, one could view EWP as trying to clarify and democratize them a bit.

CD: I have nothing further to add on this. My thoughts are very much Will’s on this issue.

The writers of EWP are historians of science, and the blog itself is clearly registered as a niche within the discipline despite the repeated incursions into neighboring areas (STS, sociology of science or philosophy of science). Could you clarify this position (which has the merit of being clearly settled)? What is your relationship to the philosophy of science and philosophy in general, and above all, for which relates to the core of our respective blogs, namely the STS?

WT: I think history and philosophy and sociology and other disciplines have a lot of insights to lend to each other, but I do think they are distinct enterprises, and that they’ve become too deeply intermeshed under the banner of STS. You have a lot of historical studies that are intended to make either a general “socio-epistemic” point, or they supposedly are representative of the socio-epistemic culture of their general historical milieu. And I’m not convinced that this ends up being good history, good sociology, or good philosophy. It’s sort of this bland mix of superficial features of each of the three domains.

STS purports to be this broad church, but, in practice, I think there are some dominant concerns within it having to do primarily with the social authority and the social divisiveness of knowledge claims, both within science, and between science and society. A lot of historical work gets “captured” by those STS concerns, and the particular lessons about them that most STSers aim to convey.

A lot of good historical studies get done, but I think history outside the ambit of STS concerns could flourish more, and be more integrated, if it stood a bit more independently of other science studies disciplines. I’m certainly not opposed to STS, but I also think both history and STS would benefit if they could play by some other disciplines’ rules for a while—write some straight-up policy history, legal history for a bit, maybe, or even some philosophy of science—rather than trying to incorporate them into this existing, too-comfortable niche we’ve carved out.

Now as Chris mentioned, he actually regards himself as a philosopher, so perhaps he’ll have a different point of view here.

CD: These are issues that I have just begun to mull over. I think Will is absolutely right about STS- but I find STS provocative and challenging, even in its most radical formulations and even if I think many of its tenants misplaced or incorrect- because I find STS good to think with. That said: I am always surprised at the ambitions of STS relative to the depth of their case study; it makes as many leaps and jumps as positivistic approaches, but from another vantage. Rationality, objectivity and method are not merely languages (rhetoric or rituals), but realities, and not everything can be reduced to politics and power. Nor should everything be reduced to cognitive factors! Somewhere in the middle; this kind of indecision is OK.

Much of what is articulated in ANT (actor-network theory) is very, very interesting. Most fascinatingly, Latour’s theory and its associated postulates is a series of truisms: no one would disagree that the boundaries between the natural and the social are porous or problematic; that science is dependent upon networks, where the key is agreement; that science is a material enterprise which renders metaphysical speculations ludicrous; that laboratories transform nature into something comprehensible on a human scale and by human sensory faculties; that science and engineering progress by reducing complexity and by rendering messiness undetectable.  But one of the intriguing things about truisms is that when clearly presented, especially with empirical elaboration and with case studies, they become very controversial.

Thus, much storminess surrounding the connections between biology and human nature revolves around the clear articulation of truisms (example, man is a product of evolution) which almost every geneticist and anthropologist has, in the least, thought of, and, at most, takes for granted; when confronted with the implications of half-digested ideas, or when such are substantiated in some way, this is when controversy begins. The work of Robin Fox is a testament to this fact.

The amount of jargon and theory in STS (and philosophy of science, frankly) is sometimes unhelpful. It speaks to clubbishness. At least, it gives this impression (which is probably mistaken). As an outsider, I find some STS texts hard to follow and approach.

In order to read STS and history and sociology of science more broadly, there is a great deal that you must read and understand beforehand in order to gasp the arguments at hand. Our field uses a great deal of shorthand and casually refers to works in ways which are not fully spelled out. There are many tacit references to the field’s self-concept and self-understanding. This is elitism, which is against our field’s profession to increase the publicity and transparency of ‘science,’ to remove its privileged position as a special kind of knowledge.

Rather ironically, when one reads enough of the field, it feels as though the author is speaking to friends within a closed salon. An undergraduate or a member of the public would be confused and not a little bit intimidated with academic work on science these days- this should not be the case. Joseph Agassi (the Israeli philosopher of science and student of Karl Popper) has a great discussion of this in the first chapter of his Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology (1977). This is ironic, of course, because Agassi’s own style is very daunting, at times- but fun!

My work has always been influenced by the philosophy of science, but I don’t think EWP has ever been moved in that direction- just because I have not written enough or have not been clear in my influences.

I think it is certainly possible to have theoretically robust, detail-rich case studies that unify both history and philosophy of science; my work for EWP attempts to do this, with only some recent success in my discussion of the post-war biological and social sciences in the US and Britain.

(copyright: Global X, 2008, via Flickr)
Acronym (copyright: Global X, 2008, via Flickr)

Regarding philosophy of science proper- in discussions of, say, discovery and justification, I am always a little dismayed at the reach of philosophy of science as well. It tends to present a coherent picture, model or process that universalizes at the expense of nuance and empirical robustness. I am intrigued by how especially canonical philosophy of science (such as discussions of the nature evidence or debates over realism) draw from a particularly narrow but rich bank of case studies (usually turn of the century physics or early modern science) and then attempt to generalize about ‘science’ or ‘rationality’. Of course, this is what rationality means and implies as a commitment; but I think the breadth of the conclusions should give individuals pause. Relatedly, philosophy of biology has a well-established well of evidence from which they draw conclusions- but do their conclusions hold for recent science?

Philosophy of science also has a very intriguing way of rewarding insiders and banishing outsiders through its long history. And the boundaries have always been very porous. At one point, Joseph Agassi and Mario Bunge were insiders to the philosophy of science. At one point, to so were Feyerabend and Lakatos. Now they are all much less read. Kuhn was an outsider and is now, more or less, an insider. Gellner was at one point considered a philosopher of science, but very few people are interested in his works outside of his studies on nationalism.

Even journals and serials have an outsider status in the history and philosophy of science- who reads Philosophy of the Social Sciences or “Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science.”  So, I think the field has closed itself off to some approaches and not others.

EWP has been created six years ago. What are the most significant changes since 2008? What conclusions do you draw from this past and on-going experience? What are the topics that you both want to deal with in a near future? Do you have feedbacks on your posts, in addition to the comments posted on the blog? 

WT: EWP used to be much more informal, and much more actively in search of itself than it is now. Posts were shorter and more frequent. By 2012, for me I think two things had been accomplished. First, I had moved from vague discontent to having a well-developed critical vocabulary. Second, I had gauged the extent of the audience for ongoing methodological introspection and reform to be existing, but not very large. So, in that sense, the function of the blog as “propaganda” has more or less reached its limit, I feel.

One of the critical tenets that the blog developed early on was the perpetual need for the historiographical “consolidation of gains.” EWP needs to take its own advice and reformulate some of its old heuristically written posts into better summaries. I think it also needs to develop “positive” (as opposed to “critical”) content on some defined set of issues—on physics, say, or the social sciences—probably blending history and historiography better than most publications do. It may be that that would best be done through a separate website, organized so as to present that content in the most effective way.

I’m reluctant, though, to simply discard a useful tool. One of the things I’ve always liked about EWP is that it is more about discussing others’ works than it is about talking about my own research (though there’s that, too). I’d like to use EWP to do that in maybe more of a directed way, whether through interviews or some other format.

CD: My work for EWP is much more focused and more developed than it was in the beginning. Whenever I am in Moscow, I always meet a new person at a conference who assists me in a better unification of my research interests (turn of the century social sciences, philosophy of science, political economy in antebellum America, post-war social sciences in America and Britain) and whom in general encourages me to continue in my work. I also talk to my Moscow friends about everything that I am working on and they are critical, but very accommodating.

I use EWP in a very different way than Will. It is almost exclusively (and has been for a very long time) a drafting space for the presentation of my various projects. I am much more inclined to produce “positive” content rather than theorize about how to do “good” work. I cannot think in a methodological or programmatic way without considerable encouragement. Because of my philosophical pretentions, I think of everything as case studies. Will is the one with the coherent program, the developed critique.

Without EWP, I would not have found my friend and collaborator Simon Cook (of Ye Machine) and The Grote Club where I am contributing author with John Gibbins. Simon began commenting on a number of my posts about 3 years ago. We have continued this dialogue through to the present day.

Simon’s role on the Grote Club blog is very similar to that of Will’s on EWP. Simon and John Gibbins conceived of the Grote Club and are the ‘experts.’ I merely supply case studies which are extensions and confrontations with the intellectual and scholarly model that Simon and John have done a great deal to articulate and to present. Like Will, Simon has encouraged me to write more and has provided a forum for my work and I work very happily within the boundaries of both projects.

(The next part will be published on December 20.)

Interview made by Thomas Béraud, Volny Fages, Morgan Jouvenet, Jérôme Lamy, and Arnaud Saint-Martin

Cover image: CAT fight, by emptyage, 2006 via Flickr.

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