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

In the second part of our interview, Christopher Donohue and Will Thomas discuss the possibilities offered by scientific blogging. Despite the usefulness and heuristicity of writing posts (clarifying theoretical or empirical aspects of a research that has just started, moving forward in the exploration of new objects of study, facilitating the flow of fresh ideas, interacting with other scholars, and so on), they both point out the fact that this activity is still far from being considered a legitimate part in an academic career. And at the same time, it requires a significant investment in time, energy, collective coordination and discussion. So there is something of a dilemma in the pursuit of this cognitive aspiration, and we thought it was useful, even essential, to reopen the interview on this issue. We also wished to ask what is their position towards the idea and practice of debate and open criticism (organized skepticism, in Robert K. Merton’s terms) within the academic world, given that we still think that it’s easier to engage in critical thinking and discussions in the US than in France. Another thing: like the Carnet Zilsel, EWP has its obsessions. The long series of posts written by Will on Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre is a good example. For its part, Christopher took the opportunity of this interview to announce the forthcoming publication of a series on Joseph Agassi, a now totally forgotten philosopher of science. (We also take this occasion to publicize that Chris will give a talk on Agassi in the Sociology of Science [a.k.a. “SoS”] Seminar of the Printemps, on March 20, 2015.) To sum up, we are delighted to have caused this interesting transatlantic conversation, and we hope that the discussion will continue for the coming years!

Even today, it seems that researchers are cautious about the idea of being involved in a scientific blog. It is true that it takes time and, above all, that this sort of contribution is not taken into account in the academic CV. This blurs the boundaries between ordinary usual scientific contribution evaluated within the peer-review system (which represents a huge temporal investment), and the desire to popularize and communicate on topics in a much more spontaneous manner. What is your position on these issues? How do they resonate in the United States? Could we say that it challenges the professional ethos of researchers?

Will Thomas (WT): Blogs can be a distraction if you’re not self-disciplined enough to budget your time, and I don’t think they can be anything other than a supplementary item on a CV, simply because of the lack of peer review involved. But they can also be a good investment in terms of their ability to help develop ideas. Alex Wellerstein’s blog is really great at this.

Interestingly, I think that due to universities’ emphasis on documenting “impact”—as well as the “evangelical” streak running through the humanities (i.e., the belief that ultimately research should speak to a public need for humanistic ideas)—the popularization function of blogs is fairly well accepted by now. I can’t think of any instances where I’ve heard someone look down on that. (Again, Alex has had great success in addressing the public, though he does have the advantage of writing about nuclear weapons!)

(credits: Charlie Broome, via Flickr)
Give Me a Keyboard and I will Raise a Blog (credits: Charlie Broome, via Flickr)

The biggest barrier, I think, is that many senior scholars look on blogging as something that is beneath their dignity. In my experience, scholars are reluctant to let people see what they are doing before their ideas are well polished. When they do write for blogs, one definitely gets the sense that they are mounting the lectern rather than talking off-hand, and calling attention to questions about details they don’t know the answer to. They want to project a kind of knowing authority. They might also have a sense that Internet discussions always get invaded by trolls, which is not my experience when you’re working in a specialized area. I think even the ugliness of the word “blog” may have something to do with it—it’s easy to disdain. This is too bad because there are at least some senior scholars, who I think could make good use of the medium. Their participation would do a lot to integrate it into the scholar’s accepted toolkit.

In economics, figures like Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Simon Wren-Lewis are using blogs to drive important intellectual and policy discussions concerning how to properly analyze and respond to conditions in a liquidity trap. Closer to home, James Schmidt, a historian and political philosopher at Boston University, uses his blog, Persistent Enlightenment, to explore very detail-oriented questions concerning the history of the concept of the Enlightenment.

Christopher Donohue (CD): For me, everything is a distraction. I find the blogs I work on to be very helpful in order to try to systematize everything I have read and thought about. I try to write something for EWP, Grote Club or my new blog Vice Versa nearly every day. I am far more successful these days than I have been in the past in producing content that I think ready for public presentation.

Academics are career-oriented and blogs do not contribute to their CVs, so with limited time and resources, academics, as a rule, do not blog. I think also a lot of seniors scholars are overwhelmed with administrative and university duties and frankly just do not have the time.

You are the main driving force behind EWP, but have you tried to enroll new colleagues? If not, why? We ask the question because, considering the many comments posted in reaction of your texts, one may imagine from the outside that a collective emulation does exist and that, sooner or later, other authors might help you to maintain the regularity and quality of EWP contents… 

WT: My first blogging partner was Jenny Ferng, a friend from my time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who did architectural history in an STS vein. She discovered my blog before I’d done anything to promote it, and proved eager to join up. For no particular reason, that collaboration just never really took off.

As he observed earlier, the pairing of Chris and I was not immediately obvious. Early on, we tried to coordinate our posts, but ultimately doing that depends on everyone being on the same schedule. We had some success, but ultimately we just developed distinct lines of inquiry. It still works, though, because both of us are interested in the history of science, in particular, but we like to run back and forth between different literatures, he probably a bit more far afield than I. (Chris’s posts are the most popular, evidently because they draw in a lot of people from anthropology and legal philosophy—we’re apparently big in Russia, where he spends some time, and where there is apparently a big interest in legal and political philosophy.)

I tried to recruit others early on, but most people really don’t have, or don’t feel they have the time. I think there’s also maybe a slight discomfort with our somewhat anti-academic-establishment line of analysis. And, having developed a particular style, I’m not eager to dilute that with writing that reinforces the professional mainstream style. I’m not averse to expansion, but, since people can so easily create their own blog anyway, it would have to clearly fit in with what we’ve already built. One can also adopt the more flexible “blog collective” model, or simply direct followers on Twitter to relevant posts elsewhere. You may be right, though, about the virtues of larger group blogs in keeping discussion flowing.

On the threshold of something (credits: I’m Emmanuel Burton, via Flickr)

CD: I have nothing to add here other than to say that the Grote Club is a collaborative blog and I think many interesting ideas (and possibly a more sustained intellectual project) are emerging. Collaborative blogs take time, patience and nearly daily emails. Because any one individual can post on a collaborative blog, there is less pressure for each individual to do so. One has to be very careful to make sure that enough content is posted on a regular basis so that the blog does not just die.

Have you been tempted to experiment new configurations of collective work? For example, by organizing a seminar which would incorporate the topics covered in the blog, to set up a panel at a conference, or even by offering a publication?

WT :It’s not a bad idea, but I’m not sure who we would get to contribute. It would be a lot of work, and if it just ended up being a collection of swiftly forgotten essays, it wouldn’t really be justified. Let’s say we took two reasonably like-minded outfits like EWP and Carnet Zilsel, would there be something to be gained by just putting our ideas side by side? Would a synthesis emerge? For something like that to generate useful conclusions, I think a lot of collaboration would have to precede any conference or publication so that we could really work out a proper synthesis of ideas.

CD : Here I disagree with Will. I think it would be perfectly reasonable to try something between us and another blog collective such as Carnet Zilsel. It all depends upon how much work individuals are willing to put into such an effort. Having helped a great deal with The Grote Club, I can say from some experience it is difficult and time consuming to collaborate on projects- but very worthwhile. So, for me, it would not be impossible for an edited journal or a conference to be designed around EWP.

What strikes immediately on this side of the Atlantic, it’s your involvement in the discussion, and even the disputatio. Here in France, the debates and controversies are quite rare. You don’t hesitate to criticize the texts of some STS superstars which are irrelevant to you. We have been strongly marked by the powerful critical reading that Will has made of the Peter Galison’s “ten issues” paper, or even Lorraine Daston’s discussion of the troubled relationships between the history of science and STS. Have they responded to your comments so far?

WT: I was Peter Galison’s student, and in grad school at Harvard I took classes with Raine Daston and Steven Shapin. I found them to be friendly and reasonable people, and have never feared to disagree with them, or with people of their echelon whom I don’t know.

These are also interesting people with definite intellectual projects. They might not articulate—or perhaps even know—exactly what they’re trying to accomplish, but they’re definitely trying to do something genuinely creative with history, where most people just churn out studies. However, I don’t think people read them carefully enough to figure out what they are doing, and whether they really agree. For example, I don’t think a lot of people realize how important the idea of “historical epistemology” is at the Max Planck Institute, even though the MPI has traditionally been highly influential in determining what sorts of historical analysis count as “interesting.”

(credits:  thinkmoncur, via Flickr)
Wordiness (credits: thinkmoncur, via Flickr)

Instead, there’s a lot of deference to the top names in the profession. The basic idea of historical epistemology may sound reasonable enough, but, the way it’s actually done, does it make sense? Personally, I think we see a lot of really questionable concept history these days that is accepted far too trustingly. It’s true there’s some limited debate that pops up in journals such as Critical Inquiry or Erkenntnis a year or more after the fact, but I don’t think that model of debate is really up to the burden of giving this history, and various methodological trends, the intense, continuous critical scrutiny they require.

Now, I don’t think any of the big names in the field would suppose themselves to be above criticism. But I do think they would be reluctant to descend from the celestial realms, in which they travel very freely, and into the blogosphere, no matter how cogent the arguments presented there. Maybe they don’t have the time, maybe they don’t want to interfere in others’ dialogues, maybe they don’t think it’s an important thing to do. Shapin did say to me once that he appreciated some posts I did on early SSK. So maybe it’s not such a crazy idea that big names could see value in blogs yet.

CD: I will answer this question from my own perspective. Every night I dream that Robin Fox (or Napoleon Chagnon) will one day comment on one of my post-war anthropology posts, or that a well-known philosopher of law will say something about my post on John Austin. I am shocked and amazed that for as much traffic my posts have attracted, and how, in many instances, I am the second or third Google search return for a particular historical subject or disciplinary exploration, how little comment I get, critical or otherwise. Perhaps I am perfectly right. I doubt it.

Will is a fine “connoisseur” of Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre (our readers may know that the Carnet Zilsel is also a place for the Schaffer studies!). In which circumstances Schaffer became the focus of your attention? Did he respond to your persevering and acute readings?

WT: The thing that struck me when I started the Schaffer series was that a lot of historians are known for just one article or book. I was curious what one could discover if one read over the entirety of what somebody had written. Now, I think with a lot of scholars, you can feel reasonably safe in assuming that their most important ideas will make it into their book, so you can just read that and be OK.

Schaffer, of course, is one of the most well-known historians of science we have, and yet he has never written a solo book. I could not have told you what his principal historical interests were, let alone what makes his work so special. A lot of people will tell you their esteem comes from their personal interactions with him. My dealings with him have been limited—I had lunch with him once; and he was editor of BJHS when I published my “Heuristics of War” article there—but I’d have to agree. But surely there’s got to be something in the writings as well?

It turned out to be a great idea. First, Schaffer definitely has certain analytical techniques that he favors, and he has certain “moral lessons” (a term he likes to use) that he often uses his writing to convey. That was worth learning. I also learned a lot about what “natural philosophy” was—it wasn’t just “science by another name.” Its epistemological structure really intrigued me, and the 18th century has become one of my favorite periods to write about on EWP, even though I’m a historian of the 20th century.

I’ve received appreciative comments on the Schaffer series, though the man himself has never dropped me a note. I hope that the way I do the series is measured enough that it doesn’t come off as some sort of deranged obsession!

(credits: mkhmarketing, via Flickr)
Reminder (credits: mkhmarketing, via Flickr)

CD: I really like the Schaffer series and it is a really good model for further projects. I am going to start a series on Joseph Agassi along the same lines, which seeks to understand why and how he transitioned from an insider in the history and philosophy of science (being one of the first in the post-war period) to today, where his voluminous, very interesting publications attract very little notice and seem to be confined to specific journals and small publishers.

What is your opinion on the cognitive state of STS today? We must say that we are not particularly optimistic about the good health of the field. It became shabby by the controversies of the 1990s (the “social construction” dispute, the Sokal affair, and so on), the multiple “turns” (practical, semiotic, cultural, and now ontological [!]), to which one could add the lack of renewal of the problems… We are especially struck by the routine use of to the same STS mantras like “scientific results are always local”, “instruments reflect the social order”, “there’s no boundary between science and politics”… You could almost write an article with all these pseudo-evidence, and it takes so much time to disassemble it. Is this a sign of decline?

WT: STS is OK. “Decline” may be too strong a term—the number of people who now consider themselves to be in the field is quite large. But, intellectually, it does feel stagnant and a bit “paint by numbers.” None of the methodological changes we’ve supposedly been undergoing have ever seemed to signal any actual profound change, or even diversification, of direction, emphasis, or attitude.

The big problem with the field, in my mind, is that it is burdened by an undiagnosed conflict of interest (another conclusion I reached through EWP). STS regards itself as flexible and “thick” where other work, especially in the sciences, is rigid and “thin.” STS regards itself as savvy about the way interests and intellectual prejudices work in the world, where others’ naïve views about objectivity prevent them from taking a mature view of how knowledge is formed, and how it operates. As a consequence, STS does not spend a lot of time worrying about its own rigidities and superficialities.

The problem, as I put it in my forthcoming book, Rational Action, is that a historiography (or sociology, etc.) that regards itself as a harmonizing force in science-society relations is heavily incentivized to regard and portray those relations as plagued by ideas and ideologies that systematically sow discord in them. In other words, STS sees everywhere the very disease it purports to be able to cure. If you’re a historian, that’s a problem. It means you are populating history with events that reinforce the need for the heroic role you purport to be playing in the present. David Edgerton has called this “inverted Whig” history.

CD: STS is not particularly self-critical or reflexive in its criticisms- this also goes to my critique of jargon, which has the effect of insulating any academic investigation of criticism from outsiders.

To conclude our (first) exchange, we would like to know how you perceive, from the United States, the work of French researchers in STS, sociology, history and philosophy of science. We understand that you classify your work under the disciplinary matrix of the history of science, so what are the researches in France that seem to you interesting and useful in the advancement of the discipline (if at least they exist!)?

WT: What impresses me most about France is the number of dedicated, detail-oriented scholars working there, who are not well advertised. I like Amy Dahan’s work on physical modeling a great deal—of course, she’s well known from her time as director of the Centre Alexandre Koyré. Christophe Lecuyer is a tremendous, highly competent historian of the applied physical sciences. If you don’t work in the area you probably won’t get a lot out of his work, but he’s a very valuable asset to an underpopulated historiography. I’ll take a Lecuyer over a Latour any day.

I’m very optimistic about the history of economic thought right now, and there are some good historians in France. Beatrice Cherrier is my favorite, and there’s Yann Giraud as well. I’ve had a couple of good chats with Ronan Le Roux, who I believe you know. A couple years ago I was invited to a conference on the history of mathematics and war in Paris by Laurent Mazliak, and that turned out to be an interesting community of historians of mathematics, whom I was completely unaware of. I particularly liked the work of, and had good conversations with, Jean-Guy Prevost, a historian of statistics who is actually Quebecois and works at UQAM.

At Imperial College, I was colleagues for a while with Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. We didn’t agree all the time, but I always thought he had independent judgment about things.

Periodically, I’ve run into miscellaneous French works that also suggest to me that there is a strong French research tradition in general. Some time ago I wrote up a piece for EWP on an article I had run across by Stéphane Schmitt on the comparative anatomy of Félix Vicq d’Azyr—again, part of my interest in the 18th century. I found the explication very clear-headed. I think we have a lot to learn methodologically from the way good researchers describe difficult intellectual problems, and the history of their development.

CD : Coming from a mostly Anglo-American/German/Russian focus, I cannot address this question in detail.

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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