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Do historians understand the history of science better than scientists themselves do?

Historians of science and practitioners of science haven’t always gotten along. There’s an interesting piece about their stormy relationship in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  (The article’s behind a paywall, but you can get a taste of it at HNN.)

Although it entered academe as science’s explanatory sidekick, over the past few decades the history of science has emerged a full-fledged discipline, drawing practitioners mostly from the humanities.…Where scholars based in the sciences documented a rational march toward knowledge, historians—inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—have asked how science is socially constructed and culturally received.

In other words, historians of science who are trained as scientists see a progression toward the truth, as scientists generally tend to have a great deal of faith in their own discipline’s capacity to get things figured out.  It’s analogous to the Whig interpretation of history as a progression toward greater human freedom, except in this case it’s progressing toward knowledge and truth.  All those dumb guys in the past were wrong, but over time there were smarter guys who started figuring things out.  And finally we come to us, and we’ve got more figured out that anybody.

Historians of science who are trained as historians, on the other hand, see the history of science the same way they see the history of any other human activity—subject to power relationships, personal biases, vagaries of fashion, and all the other foibles and quirks to which groups of humans are prone.  Humans and their foibles, after all, are the stuff of history (and of the humanities generally).

Of course, historians sometimes fall into a view of their own field of study as an inexorable upward progression, too. After all, when we talk about historiography, don’t we tell ourselves that all those benighted historians of days gone by ignored race/class/gender/memory/discourse/whatever, and that we know better now because we’re hip to all this stuff?  Sure we do.

But I think historians are a more attuned to the human factors that influence fields of study, since humanity is basically the subject of history.  Because historians study humans (and human institutions, societies, and so on), they assume that the discipline of history itself is influenced by human factors.  You don’t always see farther by clambering up the shoulders of your predecessors.  Sometimes you have to knock over whatever those predecessors are standing on.  In a methods course my first year of grad school, we read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, because his arguments could apply to history or any other field of study as well as science.  And in all the courses I took, we spent much of our time discussing how historians’ conclusions and interpretations have developed out of the social circumstances in which scholars have worked.  It’s a basic part of getting ready to do history.

I can understand why scientists would be uncomfortable when historians point out the role of human foibles and quirks in the development of scientific knowledge.  But an awareness of the human factors that influence scientific thought can only make science better, because scientists who have that awareness will take care that their conclusions aren’t the result of these non-scientific factors.

Furthermore, I think that coming to terms with the role of human foibles in scholarly endeavor is necessary because it means an awareness of the way things are.  Things like power relationships and the vagaries of fashion do, in fact, play a role in determining what scholars think about the world.

But maybe I think this because I’m a historian by training instead of a scientist.  To borrow some terminology from Kuhn, my “paradigm” is a historical one, influenced by a belief in the role of human contingency, human institutions, human shortcomings, and so on.

One thing scientists and historians should share is a devotion to the truth and a belief that we can, at the very least, approach it.  If approaching it means incorporating the insights of other disciplines into our own, then so be it.

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Wyatt’s weapons

A few days ago, somebody paid $225,000 for a revolver carried by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, perhaps the one he used in the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gun came from the estate of Glenn Boyer, a controversial Earp researcher and collector who died last year.

Was this the revolver Earp carried to the Old West’s most famous gunfight? Maybe, maybe not. The serial number’s been removed, but X-ray tests indicate that it matched a weapon Earp owned. That doesn’t mean he used it at the O.K. Corral, of course. Western researcher Bob Boze Bell writes, “Wyatt Earp owned over two dozen weapons while he was in Tombstone.” Still, any Earp-owned gun is an extremely cool thing to have.

Probably the only eyewitness description we have of Earp’s weaponry on the day of the gunfight comes from a Tombstone butcher named Bauer who witnessed some of the events leading to the shootout. At a hearing held a few weeks later, he claimed under oath that Earp was carrying “an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.”

Wyatt Earp in the 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

That’s pretty darned long for a revolver, and way too long for the standard single-action Colts that most people associate with frontier gunslingers. Maybe Bauer was mistaken. Or maybe his testimony reveals a kernel of truth at the core of some gunfighting folklore.

Stuart Lake, one of Wyatt’s early biographers, claimed that dime novelist Ned Buntline was so grateful to Earp and a few fellow Kansas lawmen for providing him with material that he gave each man a custom-made Colt revolver with an extra-long barrel. Put a ten or twelve-inch barrel on a Colt, and you’d end up with a gun long enough to fit Bauer’s description.

The problem is that Lake was to Wyatt Earp what Parson Weems was to George Washington–a biographer who wrote down as much legend as fact. There’s no solid evidence that the “Buntline Special” existed, let alone that Earp had one with him in Tombstone. Colt has no records of any such order.  Some folks have accused Lake of making the whole thing up, but he apparently believed the Buntline story, because he tried to track down the pistol’s whereabouts.

Interestingly, a Tombstone gunfighter named “Buckskin” Frank Leslie ordered a special long-barreled Colt in 1881, the same year as the Earps’ showdown near the O.K. Corral. Did he see Wyatt carrying an extra large pistol and decide he wanted one of his own? Some writers have raised the possibility.

Bauer also testified that Wyatt was wearing a short coat that day, and that he drew his pistol out of one of its pockets, which indicates that he had the gun tucked in his waistband and pulled it through a special pocket slit. But at least one O.K. Corral researcher has argued that Earp put on a specially modified overcoat before the gunfight, one which had deep, customized pockets lined with leather to make a less conspicuous holster for a longer pistol.  And some Earp scholars think he didn’t use any kind of Colt six-shooter at all during the Tombstone shootout, but a Smith & Wesson instead.  As you can tell, there’s quite an extensive secondary literature on the O.K. Corral gunfight, with incredibly minute analyses of who carried which type of gun, who was wearing what, who shot when, and who said what before the shooting started. I’ve seen reconstructions of the armaments and tactics in that tiny Arizona lot that are so painstaking and thorough they’d put any study of Antietam or Gettysburg to shame. It’s a fascinating little historiographical niche.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Earp owned a souped-up Colt, or which of his guns he used at the O.K. Corral fight. But the uncertainty hasn’t stopped showbiz from customizing Wyatt’s sidearms on the big or small screen. ABC’s Wyatt Earp TV series featured the Buntline, and in the movie Tombstone Kurt Russell’s Earp goes to the shootout armed with a special long-barreled revolver.

Many years ago I got to hold the six-shooter Russell used in the movie, one of many singular experiences that resulted from having a mom who enjoys researching about gunslingers. Maybe someday I’ll blog more about all that. For now, I’ll just say that if you think the Civil War enthusiast community is colorful, you should spend some time in Earpdom.

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Paul Ryan proposes eliminating the NEH

Not cutting it, mind you, but doing away with it entirely.

It’s hard to overstate how important the National Endowment for the Humanities is to historical education and preservation in this country. It provides critical help to small museums, historical societies, archives, researchers, and documentary filmmakers.

If you’ve ever visited a history exhibit, used an archive or historical society to research your family background, or watched a historical documentary, there’s a good chance you’ve benefited from NEH support.

And the NEH budget accounts for barely a drop in the ocean of federal expenditures. Cutting it would have very little impact on overall government spending, but would drastically affect those institutions that benefit from it. In short, it’s a terrible idea.

I say again: Russell Kirk defined a conservative as “a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions,” and noted that conservatives believe the past to be “a great storehouse of wisdom.” If we can’t spare even a small portion of our public funds for history and culture, then what is it we’re trying to conserve?

Hat tip: John Fea

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West Coast priorities

I’m in Los Angeles this week, so maybe I’ll set aside some time to broaden my perspective of early American history by visiting a few Spanish colonial sites.

Or maybe not.

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Chance to do your good deed for today

This is off-topic but well worth your attention; I ran across this information on one of the religion blogs I read.

Sean Lewis, who’s a professor at a Catholic college in Wyoming, and his wife Becca lost two of their young daughters in a car accident yesterday.  A friend of theirs has set up an online fund to help cover funeral and medical expenses.

Pitch in if you can; the girls were flown to Utah before they passed away, and the cost of that level of emergency care is apparently really high.

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Congresswoman apparently thinks the Constitution is 400 years old

It’s good to see such high standards of historical literacy maintained in our nation’s capital.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, speaking on the House floor: “Maybe I should offer a good thanks to the distinguished members of the majority, the Republicans, my chairman and others, for giving us an opportunity to have a deliberative constitutional discussion that reinforces the sanctity of this nation and how well it is that we have lasted some 400 years, operating under a Constitution that clearly defines what is constitutional and what is not.”

The charitable thing to do would be to chalk this up to a verbal slip and assume she had the founding of Jamestown somewhere in the back of her mind.  But since this is the same person who thought Vietnam was still divided in 2010, and who once asked someone from NASA if the Mars Rover had taken a picture of Neil Armstrong’s flag, I’m not optimistic.

quotespictures.net

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Arguing over Benedict Arnold

The U.S. ambassador to Britain, puzzled by a plaque marking Benedict Arnold’s last residence in London, wondered why it refers to Arnold as an “AMERICAN PATRIOT.”

NBC News has found the guy who got it put there: a distant relative named Peter Arnold.

“I think he was a good guy, you see. I don’t see him in the same light as so many Americans do,” Arnold told NBC News, explaining that he didn’t mean to upset anyone with his plaque — or create a diplomatic incident.

Arnold said he has received telephone death threats — gruff American voices telling him he’s a traitor just like his ancestors. But he’s amused by them and used to other interpretations of Benedict Arnold and his deeds.

“His heart was in America and he felt that what he was doing was in the interest of America as a country and the people who lived there. And at the end of the day he didn’t think we should be divorced from England and the king,” he said. “So somebody loved us!”

I’m not sure I share Peter Arnold’s appraisal of his distant kinsman. Benedict Arnold was an extraordinarily brave man, one of the most enterprising and gifted officers in the Continental Army. If we’re going to remember Benedict Arnold as an “American Patriot,” we should do so for his exploits from 1775 through 1777.  His eventual decision to offer his services to the British wasn’t exactly an act of pure principle, as Peter Arnold seems to indicate.

Having said that, I find it downright bizarre that Americans are apparently taking the trouble to contact Peter Arnold by phone and threaten him over something that happened more than two centuries ago. I’m more interested in the Rev War than most people, but there is such a thing as being a bit too emotionally invested in a subject.

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