Nick Tosh and Lorraine Daston have, separately, made some intriguing remarks about the affinities between fiction and the history of science. Their remarks follow on nicely from my last post. Daston compares historians to readers of mystery novels who know in advance how the story ends. She means this as a criticism. By contrast, Tosh praises authors who freely acknowledge the gap between themselves and their subjects, a stance that Tosh labels ‘postmodern.’ My position is somewhere in between: it is OK for readers to know how the story ends, but this is not a particularly postmodern phenomenon. Daston made her remarks in a 2012 interview with the Canadian radio station CBC:
Imagine you’re the kind of person who cheats when you read mystery novels, and you read the last page first, to find out who did it. And then when you read the rest of the mystery story, you know that everything is building towards this climax. You read it in a very different way than the person who has to retrace all of the red herrings that have been planted in your way by the author, to throw you off the scent of the real villain. We the historians of science were always the people who read the last page first, and we knew how the story ended.This statement is plausible on the surface: you read a novel differently if you know the outcome, and historians of science usually know the outcome of the scientific debates they study. But note that Daston has compared two different ways of reading a detective novel, and that she uses this comparison to assess two ways of writing history. Foreknowledge may change the way we read, but does it change the way we write? The analogy to detective fiction suggests that it does not. Mystery writers do know the outcome of their stories, and despite this they revel in the kind of red herring to which Daston refers. And why not say the same about readers? If the prescient writer can appreciate the red herrings, why not the prescient reader? As per my last post, mystery novels can be gripping even when we know in advance who committed the crime and why. Daston continues:
Moreover, we were complicit in this with the scientists themselves, who wish to have a story about why we believe what we believe now, and why it is right, because the scientist knew, in a way that the historian did not know so viscerally, that everything—or most things—that we now believe in science will be overturned, if not in a generation then in two generations. This is the progress of science, but it is the pathos as well. Therefore the reassurance of that kind of history of science was: it is inevitable to believe what we believe now, indeed there are no other possible positions one could have...it was that deep reassurance which more than we the historians needed, the scientists needed.In other words, by writing history with the outcome in mind, historians made those outcomes seem more rational than they really were. This reassured scientists because deep down they knew that most of the outcomes were not particularly rational. My objection is the same as the one I stated above. Historians and their readers can include all the red herrings—all the accidental developments, the roads that led nowhere, and the roads that might have led somewhere but were not taken at the time, and might still be taken—they can include all of this even though they are perfectly aware of what scientists now believe. What I find especially odd is the idea that knowledge of the status quo is a conservative force, one that stifles dissent and disagreement. In the political realm, those who seek change are usually well advised to study the way things are. This knowledge can be rhetorically as well as strategically valuable. It allows the revolutionary to present his cause as a lonely struggle against massive opposition—not so much opposition that the cause is hopeless, but enough to endow it with romance and urgency. Animal rights activists do not ignore the mistreatment of animals. On the contrary, they spell it out in gory detail. Feminists do not turn a blind eye to laddish behaviour—they hunt it down and string it up. Many skeptics about climate change do not deny that there is a scientific consensus on the topic—instead they try to show that the consensus is rotten. The grain of truth in Daston’s statements is that historians who overemphasise the present condition of science are usually the ones who exaggerate the naturalness of that condition. My point is that the source of this exaggeration is not knowledge of present-day science but the way this knowledge is used. The principal error is to assume that the theories of present-day science were as defensible in the past as they are today—that there was as much evidence for them in the past as there is today. In history and in mystery novels, it does not matter whether we know how the story ends. The important thing is to not mistake the story for the ending. Nick Tosh follows in my next post. Expand post.