Overzealous, Overcommunicating

Tag: history

The “Science” of history

by Jon

At my undergraduate institution, I took a seminar on Early Modern England. The first day of class, we all introduced ourselves and mentioned our areas of study. When I said that I study the history of science, one particularly aggressive (and not overly bright) classmate attempted to correct me: “You mean the Science of History!” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant. After all, history isn’t a science, and no one these days even thinks that it should be.

Well, almost no one. It turns out that there are a group of scholars led by Peter Turchin, a professor of ecology and mathematics at the University of Connecticut, that do think that the discipline of history just isn’t scientific enough. Last week, a bunch of nerd-media outlets (Endgadget, io9, Neatorama, and Metafilter to name a few) picked up on the existence of “Cliodynamics”, as Turchin refers to his new-and-improved version of history. These accounts were all based on an article in Nature which provided a brief overview of the state of the emerging discipline.

The Nature article points out that historians are skeptical of this approach (the journal launched by Turchin in 2010 failed to get a the contribution of a single historian in its first issue), but it fails to engage with any criticisms of Cliodynamics beyond the most superficial (primarily the “lack of data”). The problems with Turchin’s approach, however go much deeper, and stem from the fact that he is trying to remake a discipline he is completely ignorant of.

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What exactly do you do??! Part 1: History

by Increase M

I read an article today, I can’t remember what it was (actually yes I can, it’s this Ask a Queer Chick on the Hairpin I lurve you Ask A Queer Chick, I lurve you the Hairpin!!!!!) And I’m totally not nitpicking because, this really has nothing to do with the amazing advice she’s laying down but I wanted to circle in on this because it touches on some Thoughts I’ve been having:

“[Grad students are] working hard, putting in long hours for little pay or no pay or the ever-popular negative pay, usually on projects so specialized they’ve given up trying to explain them to anyone outside their department”

What she’s referring to is what here in these parts we refer to as The Struggle. It starts innocently enough, someone will ask what I study. This conversation goes several different ways:

1. Q: What do you study?

A: The history of science.

Q: What’s that?

ENTER THE STRUGGLE: How do I explain this without getting all like “well, you know what science is don’t you?….” And generally being a condescending pile of stereotypes about somebody who paid to much money for their Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless degree.*

A: It’s like the history… of… science, you know? Like science in the past, I guess?

Q: Oh, right, like Galileo.

A: Right!*

2. Q: What do you study?

A: The history of medicine.

Q: Oh yeah, what part?

ENTER THE STRUGGLE: This is actually rougher then the bit outlined above. How specific do you get? Chances are, the person asking isn’t looking for a dissertation, or even a moderately long research paper. At the same time, I hate dumbing down my own thoughts on the assumption that the Q in this Q & A has NO HOPE of understanding what it is that I’m talking about.

A: I generally look at 20th century medicine, although lately I’ve been getting into this collection of 17th century medicinal recipes. I’m particularly focused on gender and women.

[We’re assuming that Q is not going to get all “gender and women… LOL” -Ed.]

Q: That’s cool.

A: Yeah.

3. Q: What’s your thesis on?

ENTER THE STRUGGLE: How do I say “I’m looking at how gender as a metaphorical category shaped and was shaped by the study of hormones in the context of the disciplinary development of endocrinology in the early 20th century” without actually saying that?

A: I’m looking at how gender as a metaphorical category shaped and was shaped by the study of hormones in the context of the disciplinary development of endocrinology in the early 20th century.

Q: That sounds complicated.

A: Yeah.

The problem with these scenarios is that, when moving between the two polls of “needlessly simplistic” and “needlessly esoteric” I’m not actually communicating anything about what it is that I study, or why I think it’s important. And I do think it’s important, important on more levels then just “important to my future relationship to Sallie Mae”.

Historical narratives are powerful, and I don’t just mean in that reductive history repeats itself  kind of way. People (historians and lay public) have this unfortunate tendency to view the work that historians do as producing an immaculate chronicle of The Past as it Really Was, and that if we are doing a good job, then we are producing a pristine set of data points, each point being a distinct event and maybe if we were lucky we could then begin to piece out What People Actually Thought. Wouldn’t that be great? Our historical TV would be so much better (ahem, The Tudors, ahem).***

Then maybe we could turn to whether or not our friends are Actually Racists.

See, it’s bullshit. I’m sorry, but it is.**** Historical events are too complicated, to multi faceted and unique. They can’t be dissected, anatomized, plotted out, or totally explained. There are too many contingencies, too many nodes in the network. Furthermore, besides being lazy and boring, this way of thinking about history serves to obfuscate the very real participation of historical narratives in contemporary discourse.***** It’s like Ronald Reagan. Do you think that all this political trumpeting about who is more like Reagan, is Reagan the best president ever or the very best?, what would Reagan do now has shit all to do with the what Ronny actually did whilst he was president? The supplicating to the Holy Relics of St. Gipper have more to do with legitimation then they do with the past, in ways that completely transcend the historicity of any given claim.

Which is why I get all bent about The Struggle, why I keep fussing and bothering about how to best communicate what it is I spend all of my time doing: because people need to understand that history is not about what happened in the past, but how those things function in the present.

*Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless are the cows in Cold Comfort Farm, which is a really hilarious book, btws. It’s a C/C- level metaphor, I think.

**Except that I don’t study Galileo AT ALL. In fact, I never talk about Galileo unless it’s to score cheap rhetorical points.

***J/K I love the Tudors, dubious historicity and all. Is it accurate? Of goodness no. Is it a fine approximation of what I want when I bother to tune into a dramatization of the life and time of Henry VIII? Absolutely. It’s really not taking itself seriously, nor should you.

****Not really.

*****You know shits about to get real when I start throwing down the D-word.

Links, rechts, geradeaus

by Increase M


“ The creepy thought that the reason a lot of outspoken, committed, passionate atheists are choosing this as their arena is because they’re too selfish, too entitled, or too sheltered, to allow any other issues to really matter to them. That they choose this ONE civil rights issue to dedicate themselves to, because it’s the ONLY legitimate civil rights issue that actually effects them, secure in their absence of ovaries, melanin, exogenous hormones, medical devices/supports, welfare checks, track scars and rainbow flags.”


“So. I would like to see a world where women can speak up directly when they don’t want to do something. They will be more likely to speak up if they have a reasonable assumption that they’ll be believed and not punished. One way men can make this world more possible is to take women seriously and stop telling women they are overreacting when they do speak up. Mocking someone for being a Humorless Bitch Who Spoils Everyone’s Fun is a silencing tactic and makes you part of the problem. Reading about or witnessing someone’s experience of harassment and looking for the ways it’s all the victim’s fault and probably didn’t really happen anyway makes you part of the problem. Making bad things that happen to other people – real, true bad things, like sexual assault – about your own feelings of hurt about getting called creepy that one time by a girl you liked…makes you part of the problem.”


“The world economy is crumbling and unemployment is soaring. But let me talk to you about an intangible tipping point that could change your life forever or tell you what happens in your brain when that proverbial light bulb goes off in the cartoon equivalent of a thought bubble. Because talking about the actual economy is much too real and depressing.”


“Every softer discipline these days seems to feel inadequate unless it becomes harder, more quantifiable, more scientific, more precise. That, it seems, would confer some sort of missing legitimacy in our computerized, digitized, number-happy world. ”


“People… make the mistake of thinking that because they have been ‘indoctrinated’ by the modern education system into believing in a heliocentric worldview that such a worldview is logical and obvious to anybody who would just open their eyes. It isn’t.”

[I actually take issue with significant parts of this post, but the overall point that geocentrism was an empirically valid worldview until the modern era is a good one – Jon]


“With his choice of Ryan, Romney has seized the reins of the race. The real consequence of Romney’s choice is that at exactly the time our country needs a serious debate about the best way to grow the economy, and end the jobs crisis, we’re going to get the opposite.

What will ensue is yet another argument over whether people of color and the working poor are to blame for the current economic catastrophe.”

…So why blog?

by Increase M

Why bother with anything when there are cats in baskets with their paws crossed?

Obligatory “so why are you doing this???” post.

1. Because I have shit to say.

2. Because I have shit to say about stuff that doesn’t necessarily have to do with my academic writing.

2b. Because I have shit to say about my academic interests that doesn’t necessarily fall into the        PEERREVIEWRESEARCHPAPERARTICLECHAPTER format that I know and love.*

2c. It will benefit my academic writing if I write more. Full stop. Even if it is just jibber-jabbering about my garbage-cats on the internet.

2d. I have a deep, long-standing interest in public history. Specifically in how to convey complex, multi-faceted ideas to a lay-public. Not that I think I could necessarily convey a complex, multi-faceted idea to a puddle of mud**, but it can’t hurt to try. My cats aren’t any the worse for it.

3. As a hobby, since I have none.

4. The cash monies.***

*Truth. I wouldn’t joke about serious bidnezz.

**Not the mid 2000’s “rock” band. Apparently Puddle of Mudd was formed in part thanks to Fred “like a chainsaw, I’ll skin yer ass raw” Durst. Apparently the lead “singer”, Wes “I love the way you smack my ass” Scantlin gets pissy if you ask him about it, so cut it out, guys. Side note: aren’t you glad all the sad parts of the music business hang out together? Also source, because I’m a historian and we believe in CREDIT.

*** LOL