Book Review: Reading Golinkski’s “Constructivist Bible” in its Third Decade

Jan Golinski. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 236 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-226-30231-8.

In this text, now in its second printing and with a new preface from the author to show for it, Jan Golinski successfully makes a case for the application of a constructivist framework to the history of science. Tracing the use of constructivism in the field to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Making Natural Knowledge functions as an extended historiography of constructivism as applied to the study of science both historically and as a discipline. Golinski’s argument is reasonably straightforward and, to my eyes, not very contentious: constructivism, he says, has changed the way we study the history of science for the better. Constructivist studies have contributed to a richer, more complete understanding of how scientific knowledge can be (and has been) shaped from a variety of sociopolitical forces rather than simply discovered. Golinski seeks to encourage academics, and especially their students, to adapt this framework for future work. The book also functions as a necessary evaluation of the “state of the field” in which Golinski asks the reader to consider what science means as a discipline and how historians of science shape knowledge.

Golinski defines constructivism loosely as a methodological orientation that “[draws] attention to the central notion that scientific knowledge is a human creation, made with available material and cultural resources, rather than simply the revelation of a natural order that is pre-given and independent of human action” (6). Golinski frames constructivism in opposition to more traditional “Whig history,” which implies that the history of science is a march of progress toward a more perfect and complete understanding of the universe. This line of thinking suggests that there are natural realities and truths simply waiting to be discovered, and that it is the scientist’s job to make the discoveries and the historian’s job to recount them. Believing that the best case to be made for constructivism lies in its successful application, Golinski unites works of scholarship which forego this empirical, often teleological, approach in favor of an approach which emphasizes the role of “human beings as social actors” (6). He does so, it should be noted, with little regard for whether or not the scholars themselves considered the work constructionist, making “constructivism” more of a flexible tool than a strict doctrine.

Golinski makes smart organizational choices to make the book as functional and readable as possible. He chooses to organize his historiography thematically rather than chronologically, an organization which itself resists the urge to establish a narrative of progress and gradual enlightenment in favor of a more nuanced perspective. The first chapter is dedicated to what Golinski perceives as the roots of constructivism in application to the history of science; he traces this back to Kuhn and through the strong programme and SSK (the sociology of scientific knowledge) in the 1970s and ‘80s. The chapters that follow establish different thematic areas in which a constructivist approach in the scholarship has provided enlightenment on how scientific knowledge is made: the identity of the scientist, the locations where scientific knowledge is created (the laboratory and in the field, for example), the nature of scientific discourse, the representational techniques scientists use in experimentation and communication, and the “culture” of science. Finally, the book ends with a brief examination of the narratives historians of science can and should be telling in the constructivist tradition, acknowledging that the work of historians (telling stories about the past in a meaningful way that is not necessarily linear or progressive) is often “at cross-purposes with scientific practitioners’ own narrative understandings of the development of their fields” (192).

Golinski mentions in his new preface to the second edition that the book has found an audience with graduate and upper-level undergraduate students of the history of science. This is for good reason; the book is an excellent introduction to the field and to the scholastic opportunities constructivism presents for finding fresh angles on old stories. Graduate students will find scholars they are already familiar with tucked between new names, making this text a logical companion to other texts about historical methods and practice. Just this semester I read Foucault and Geertz for a class on historical methodology; in Making Natural Knowledge these foundational works serve as jumping-off points for Golinski’s exploration of different elements of constructivism, helping me draw the kinds of connections that make reading academic scholarship, and historiographies in particular, so rewarding.

Also in the new preface, Golinski insists that he is not defending constructivism, merely illustrating what the approach has offered thus far and suggesting possibilities for the future (xix). However, that’s obviously something of a misrepresentation; by listing out constructivist contributions to scholarship, he is implicitly arguing that the approach has been a success and that future scholars (for example, the graduate students reading the book) should consider it for their own work in lieu of other, more conservative, approaches. If he thought constructivism was no good, he wouldn’t have devoted a book to lovingly drawing out its historiography, so this half-hearted claim to neutrality seems unnecessarily coy. I wonder, too, what perceived need drove the creation of this book—was constructivism under attack from unnamed conservative scholars in the late 1990s? From where I’m standing, a product of a liberal arts education in 2014, the general approach Golinski highlights in this book seems de rigueur, to the point that it almost feels as though practicing scientists need this book more than historians do. A crop of historians raised on post-structuralism, as I sense my peers and I have been, may appreciate this book mostly because it puts a name and a lineage to the way we’ve been trained to think about history and provides insight into how this general approach can be brought into conversation with the sciences.  

Book Review: Dancing at the “Cotillion of Co-Evolution” with J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires

John R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-459105. Paperback. 371 pages. $25.99.

In Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, environmental historian and Georgetown University professor John R. McNeill advances the arguments offered by Alfred W. Crosby in The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Crosby argued that the story of Columbus could and should be understood in an ecological framework, as an exchange of diseases (particularly smallpox), plants, and animals from old world to “new”; McNeill continues this line of argumentation chronologically, tracing the connection between ecology, disease, and imperialism in the greater Caribbean through the age of high imperialism and up to the beginning of World War I. Using an abundance of case studies, McNeill moves through time and space with dexterity, crafting a clearly-presented argument that acknowledges the important mutual relationship through which humans manipulate their environment and this ecology, in turn, acts as an agent of historical change in human affairs. As McNeill says in his introduction, “humankind and nature make their own history together, but neither can make it as they please” (6).

Although laid out with elegant simplicity, McNeill’s argument is deceptively complex: in the Greater Caribbean, creole ecologies created by the invasive imperialism practiced by white Europeans during this period served as the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos (brought over on European ships) carrying yellow fever and malaria. Local indigenous populations and early colonizers built up some immunity to these diseases, but those from higher latitudes possessed no such immunity, and new waves of military troops and civilians bent on further colonization provided the mosquitos with fresh supplies of humans to infect. This imbalance (McNeill calls it differential immunity) allowed native and local populations to remain relatively healthy while new arrivals perished in crippling numbers, essentially a reverse of the pattern set during the Columbian exchanges. The eventual result was, McNeill contends, that disease played a powerful role in complicating imperial efforts and often tipped the scales in favor of revolting and rebelling indigenous populations. European imperialists laid the ecological groundwork for their own destruction by importing, unwittingly breeding, and feeding the mosquitos which carried diseases primed to kill them.

It is to McNeill’s credit that he makes this complicated argument, spread over centuries and a reasonably large geographical area, accessible even to non-scholars. When necessary he uses scientific terminology like differential immunity (acquired when exposure to a disease makes individuals more resistant to re-infection) and herd immunity (conferred upon a whole population when a certain number of individuals possess immunity, cutting off the disease’s ability to circulate effectively) clearly, always careful to define how his use of the terminology is applicable to his argument. McNeill is similarly unafraid to adapt or create words of his own, allowing him to be both specific and concise. In the first chapter he defines the geographical spread of the work by establishing the term “Greater Caribbean” in reference to the “Atlantic coastal regions of South, Central, and North America, as well as the Caribbean islands themselves, that in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became plantation zones” (2). This allows him to move freely between Cuba and the Southern United States, between Haiti and Surinam, in service of his argument without particular concern for modern geopolitical boundaries. Perhaps the best example of this technique in action is the phrase “creole ecology,” a concept that beautifully encapsulates the process by which European imperialists, through trade and agriculture, unwittingly shaped the land they conquered into the ideal breeding ground for imported mosquitos and created a “motley assemblage of indigenous and invading species, jostling one another in unstable ecosystems” (23).

McNeill carefully cultivates a light, almost conversational writing style that makes reading this substantial book a real pleasure. Robust footnotes allow the text itself to flow like a cohesive narrative, undoubtedly appealing to non-scholarly readers, while scholars need only look to these footnotes for a wealth of primary evidence and historiographical connections. He doesn’t shy away from humor or the occasional colorful rhetorical flourish (as when he calls “the mutual and reciprocal impacts of geopolitics and ecology” a “cotillion of co-evolution”), even when it might threaten to damage his credibility to some readers (7). McNeill acknowledges that he is privileging a readable and entertaining narrative over the “standards of the historical profession” by describing 17th century medical practices in less-than-neutral terms (63). He’s equally up-front in anticipating accusations of environmental determinism (or “mosquito determinism”), admitting in the introduction that the elevation of one factor of historical change in an argument (in this case, disease) sometimes necessarily requires downplaying other contributing factors (6). Getting this out of the way early and clearly prevents endless hedging and caveats throughout the book. It’s refreshing to find an author willing to pull back the curtain and let the reader see how the sausage is made; I’d argue that in a book this complex, that straightforwardness is necessary.

If I have a concern about McNeill’s occasional tendency to sacrifice subtlety for readability, it’s that he often finds himself in the position of using historical accounts to diagnose diseases, primarily yellow fever and malaria but also dengue, smallpox, and others. As a caveat of my own, I’ll acknowledge that I don’t have much experience with this technique as a form of historical evidence, and I’m not nearly as familiar with the symptoms of these diseases as McNeill is. However, this seems like a risky endeavor; modern scientists, doctors, and historians understand these diseases completely differently than they did two or three hundred years ago, and there’s considerable crossover of symptoms. Misdiagnosis from historical accounts would be easy to do, but McNeill sometimes has to stand on this shaky ground or he’d have nothing to work with. In other cases, McNeill makes deductive leaps from data that I don’t think quite proves his case; for example, when discussing malaria in the Southern U.S. during the American Revolution, he points to the fact that 77% of deaths of people under twenty in a parish in Charleston occurred during the malaria season (209). This correlation is certainly suggestive of a malarial epidemic, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to prove causation or eliminate other possible causes of death. Some things historians can never know for certain, and that can’t and shouldn’t prevent them from trying to tackle important topics anyway, but every once in a while a minor crack like this appears in the armor of McNeill’s argument.

Mosquito Empires is a valuable addition to the fields of environmental history and the history of the age of imperialism. It’s not a complete historical account of the myriad complex factors and historical agents that impacted European imperialism in the Greater Caribbean, but then it doesn’t claim to be. What it is, however, is clear, well-reasoned, honest about its contributions and limitations, and fun to read. In a way it’s also powerfully provocative; the fundamental argument of the book encourages the reader to think critically about the changes humans have wrought on their ecology, and the consequences these ecological changes can in turn have for shaping human events. We might do well to note the parallels as the chickens of our own heavily-industrialized society—species extinction and climate change—come home to roost.

For Women Scientists on Wikipedia, the Devil’s in the Details

In 2011, the New York Times published a story on the gender gap on Wikipedia. A survey indicated that something like 87% of Wikipedia editors were men, despite the fact that men and women read Wikipedia in relatively equal numbers. Some in the sciences raised concerns that women scientists were being neglected on the website. The articles of women scientists were less substantial, less meticulously-cited, and failed to meet Wikipedia’s good article criteria. Despite recent efforts like the 2013 Ada Lovelace Edit-a-thon and the Royal Society Edit-a-thon, the Wikipedia articles of female scientists still bear the marks of this gender gap. Even as larger inequalities are slowly corrected, seemingly-inconsequential details reveal a troublingly gendered treatment of women scientists on Wikipedia.

Take, for example, the case of Rosalind Franklin. Her early and mostly-unacknowledged contributions to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA helped James Watson and Francis Crick create their DNA model, an achievement that won the two men a Nobel Prize in 1962. In the scientific community Franklin’s reputation has been (mostly) rehabilitated to correct this slight, and her Wikipedia entry addresses this controversy in a reasonably frank and detailed way. However, a look at Franklin’s “Talk” page hints at less obvious problems. In October of 2013, a user noted that “the article focuses more on her family and activities than on Franklin’s life itself. If you compare this to someone like Francis Crick…Franklin’s early life [section] is severely lacking in information about her.” And it’s true—the section of Franklin’s article on her early life and education is twelve sentences long, fewer than half of which are about Franklin herself. Mostly the reader learns that her father taught at the Working Man’s College, her uncle held a political position in the British Mandate of Palestine, and another uncle literally whipped Winston Churchill. While the latter is an interesting tidbit, it doesn’t tell us much about Franklin, and defining her by the achievements of her male relatives is a poor start to any description of Franklin’s life and work.

I’d also suggest that the names we use to talk about these women matter just as much as some of the big picture issues of Wikipedia editing. In July of 2013, an anonymous user on Franklin’s “Talk” page pointed out that in reference to the TV movie Life Story, the article referred to male characters by their first and last name (James Watson, Francis Crick, etc.) but called Franklin “Rosalind.” The user says, “The use of a first name alone to refer to a historical figure should be reserved for situations where that is necessary or appropriate.” In this case, use of their full names conferred respect and authority to the male scientists, and the casual familiarity of using just Franklin’s first name subtly dismantled her scientific credibility. Similar issues appear on the Wikipedia page history of Esther Lederberg, a microbiologist who discovered specialized transduction in the virus lambda phage and developed laboratory procedures like replica plating that changed the practice of genetics. In 2008, user DGG pointed out, “When not using the full name in a formal context, her name… is Lederberg, or E. Lederberg. It is not Esther, which would strike many people as sexist condescension.” Like Franklin, Lederberg’s authority was undercut by the use of her first name only. You wouldn’t catch anyone referring to Francis Crick as “Francis” in his Wikipedia article.

Lederberg’s Wikipedia article also contains some out-of-place trivialities that, combined with the less-than-robust nature of the rest of the entry, encourage the reader to take her less seriously as a scientist. The section “Other interests” discusses Lederberg’s love of Gilbert & Sullivan and her dislike of Michael Crichton’s pop-science fiction. The information is cited and probably true, but what relevance does it have for Lederberg’s career and legacy? The article for Lederberg’s husband and fellow scientist Joshua Lederberg contains no such fluff—it is carefully curated and clear. I’m not saying we should forget that women scientists were people with interests, but nobody is talking about how Niels Bohr liked to dance the foxtrot. The inclusion of such information in Lederberg’s Wikipedia article trivializes her work.

In the larger conversation about gender bias in Wikipedia articles, these issues—first names, Gilbert & Sullivan, an uncle who beat up Winston Churchill—may seem like nit-picks. Really, they’re emblematic of how deep the gender gap runs, how pervasive our use of gendered words and conventions is, and how elusive Wikipedia’s standard of neutral POV continues to be when it comes to the entries of women scientists.

Historical Storytelling with Digital Timeline Tools

Screenshot of the "Tower of London" timeline from TikiToki. Notice the palimpsest--three timelines layered on top of each other.

Screenshot of the “Tower of London” timeline from TikiToki. Notice the palimpsest–three timelines layered on top of each other.

I remember the timelines from my high school history textbooks well, but not fondly—a march of names and dates through time, not especially welcoming to interpretation or creativity. The good news is that historians are in the position to profit from a wealth of new digital timeline technology.  In this post I will take a look at five digital timeline tools, the features they provide, and the possibilities for conveying historical information. Without sacrificing clarity or ease of use, the best timeline tools encourage the reader to really interact with history: to access primary source documents, videos, and images and think analytically about historical patterns and relationships.

If history is, in its most basic form, telling stories about the past, timelines resemble a children’s picture book. There’s room for text, but we can probably assume that the reader will be unwilling to invest a significant amount of time reading an essay on every entry. With that in mind, digital timelines should find other ways to tell their stories. Educational videos, images, or primary source excerpts are great ways to convey information and encourage active engagement with the material while providing visual interest.  Tiki-Toki, a highly customizable timeline tool, features photo, audio, and video embedding. Timeline JS places a similar importance on the integration of multimedia, also providing the means to embed social media and maps; however, it depends so heavily on these features that space for text is limited. Dipity allows for embedded photographs, video, and maps, but its visual presentation of these features is comparatively lacking. Timeglider and Timetoast are the most limiting. Timeglider allows for images but not video, and the images are confusingly disassociated from the entries they represent. TimeToast appears to have space for only one photo per timeline entry.  

One important task of the historian is to identify patterns in historical stories and articulate them to readers; these patterns impart meaning and lead readers beyond the basic “who, what, when, where” questions to consider why and how historical change occurs. Some digital timelines have a feature that will help us do just that: tagging.  We can tag individual entries in a timeline the way we might tag a post in a blog. This makes the entries sortable or identifiable according to the themes they speak to. Of these five timeline tools, only Tiki-Toki and Timeglider provide for such categorization.  In Tiki-Toki, events can be color-coded by theme, allowing the reader to visually identify patterns and make connections while moving through time.  Creators can build multiple timelines and lay them on top of one another like a palimpsest, which allows the reader to compare events happening at the same time and consider the relationship between them. Timeglider’s tagging system theoretically performs a similar function, but unfortunately it is much less user-friendly; its pop-up legend for identifying these tags clutters the screen. Timeline JS, TimeToast, and Dipity have no tagging functionality.

Finally, usability and visual appeal are concerns that we can’t discount. Timeline tools that are frustrating to work or look sloppy will discourage use. Timeline JS is very attractive and user-friendly. Its design is crisp and minimalist, but its storytelling capacity is limited; per the designers’ admission, it works best with chronological stories and discourages jumping around. Tiki-Toki is more customizable, giving the creators a great deal of control over the look and feel of the timeline, and also encourages more non-chronological movement; however, it can look cluttered and messy if not carefully curated. It is the only timeline tool to feature 3D viewing capability, which doesn’t add enormously to the content but does give the reader an immersive experience. Dipity and Timeglider both utilize a zoom function to let the reader focus in on smaller stretches of time or pull out again to see where events fall on the “big picture.” While useful in theory, this feature is frustrating to use because it is tricky to zoom to the appropriate scale. TimeToast allows the user to toggle between the timeline and text view for a more traditional reading experience, but otherwise offers little in the way of interesting functionality or visual appeal.

Digital timeline tools are a significant improvement over their paper-and-ink predecessors because, when done right, they encourage readers to really engage with historical stories. They morph from basic chronological tools to interpretive ones. In my opinion, Tiki-Toki and Timeline JS are by far the best timeline tools for historians. Users who would like to create a simple, functional, and attractive timeline with integrated images and video can do no better than Timeline JS.  However, users looking to create a more complex timeline or layer several timelines on top of one another to encourage pattern-recognition and interpretive thinking should consider Tiki-Toki.