1676 OR 2017?

Science hasn’t been this controversial since 1676

Trivializing or impactful?
Trivializing or impactful?
Image: Reuters/Chris Wattie
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This Saturday, a vast cohort of scientists and their allies will descend on Washington to take part in the DC March for Science. Researchers and educators, academics and civilians, town and gown, will stand together to “express their fealty to reason, data, and, above all, the scientific method,” as a recent New Yorker article put it. Striking back at an administration that has openly denied scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, even going so far as to purge scientific data from government servers, scientists are marching against what seems to many like a sudden and shocking politicization of science.

The experts don’t get to tell us what the facts are, the new know-nothings say, and so dismiss inconvenient truths as nothing more than the ideological impositions of a liberal elite. In response, the marchers have planned less a day of protests than a public witnessing for the core values of objective truth, empirical inquiry and peer review. The event will be something like a cross between a protest rally and a science fair, where researchers will set up tents and hold teach-ins about just what it is that they study and why it matters to the public. Organizers intend to put pressure on politicians to heed scientific expertise, but they are also looking to put on the kind of show that will win back the hearts and the minds of America. Nevertheless, there has been handwringing among some scientists who fear the march will “trivialize and politicize the science” and turn scientists into just “another group caught up in the culture wars.”

As Pacific Standard has rightly pointed out, we should not be so quick to assume that science has never been and shouldn’t be politicized. The scientist as a non-partisan figure is a Cold War innovation, born of a time when the government began investing heavily in university science programs, and when there was leverage in taking the position that “scientific ideas were apolitical and value-neutral.”

But there’s a much longer and complex history here. Modern science as we understand it — the empirical study of natural phenomena, the accumulation of experimental facts that lead to hypothetical explanations, in short, the scientific method — was the product of a late seventeenth-century controversy about the value of experimental knowledge. Few of us realize that in its very moment of emergence, modern science had to invent the concept of scientific objectivity in order to prevent itself from being strangled in its cradle. Scoffers attacked the reliability of knowledge gained from experiment precisely because the actual outcomes could seem so uncertain and trivial, even as early scientists made a grand spectacle of their experiments to establish their authority.

I’ve written a book about how the new science struggled to establish itself as truthful and useful in eighteenth-century Britain, and I can’t help but marvel at how similar those early debates about the reliability of experiment are to the controversy we find ourselves in today. In our “post-truth,” “post-Trump” world, scientists fear that their hard-won expertise is not being respected anymore, while skeptics delight in calling bullshit on their claims to objectivity. Scientists point to data sets, experimental controls, and peer review, while deniers will say that science can be little more than a flim-flam: A dog-and-pony show that tries to dazzle us with data while pushing an ideological agenda.

It’s like its 1676 all over again.

With its strategy of making a spectacle of science in order to reclaim its cultural authority, this Saturday’s March for Science serves as a powerful reminder of just how deep and vexed modern science’s debts to theatricality and performance really are. After all, the modern fact had to be fabricated through the making of experiments, and those facts had to be witnessed and verified by experts in order to be accepted as truth. Early science really was a kind of performing art, subject to regimes of stagecraft that reverberated across the laboratory, the lecture hall, the anatomy theater, and the public stage. Scientists had to employ elements of performance that proved difficult for them to square with their need to present their work as objective, “apolitical and value neutral.” Early critics pointed to this reliance on spectacle as proof of the new science’s frivolousness or partiality, yet science attained unprecedented cultural authority once it hit upon the right formula for exploiting the theater of experiment.

A shining instance of the scientific method

Nothing demonstrates the vexed relationship of science, spectacle, and authority better than the story of Robert Boyle. Historians of science have extensively studied the career of this seventeenth-century natural philosopher, but he deserves to be better known today, because he shows us how crucial it was to make a show of science, even if that risked drawing the scoffs of critics.

An aristocrat by birth but a scientist by calling, this unmarried, deeply pious son of extraordinary privilege spent his life “addicted to natural philosophy” as he memorably put it, using the term for what we call science today. Boyle was a key patron and prime mover of the Royal Society, one of the earliest scientific organizations. As such, he was England’s most eminent virtuoso, a fashionable term adopted by early scientists that highlighted their supposedly selfless and virtuous dedication to the pursuit of pure knowledge.

A first-rate experimentalist, Boyle conducted foundational research into the nature of the physical world. (His considerable achievements are remembered to this day in Boyle’s Law, that fundamental relationship between the pressure, temperature, and volume of gases that we all learned in high school.) Boyle is most famous for the ground-breaking experiments he conducted with his celebrated air-pump, which enabled him to manipulate the amount of air inside a glass globe. In light of the revolution it sparked in matter theory, it’s not too much to call this device the particle accelerator of the seventeenth century. Indeed, in his epochal New Experiments Physico-Mechanical (1661), Boyle used his air-pump to overturn the ancient assumption that a vacuum could not exist in nature. He was able to contrive one under its glass dome, and in doing so discovered previously unknown properties of air that revolutionized the emerging sciences of physics and chemistry.

Keeping his air-pump in mind, let’s shift the scene to the night of February 15, 1672, when Boyle’s well-earned sleep was interrupted by an assistant who burst into his bedroom with some surprising news. A kitchen servant, upon going into the larder, “was frightened by something Luminous that she saw.” Intrigued, the natural philosopher leapt into action: “I presently sent for the meat into my Chamber,” he later wrote, “and then I plainly saw, both with wonder and delight, that the joint of meat did in diverse places shine.”

Boyle didn’t get much sleep that night. Instead of going to bed, he launched into an hours-long series of experiments and observations on the shining slab of flesh, right there in his bedroom. In the eight-page letter he eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions, the house publication of the Royal Society and the world’s first scientific journal, Boyle relates no less than eighteen distinct matters of fact, such as:

  • The neck of veal glowed in upwards of twenty different areas, most of them no bigger than a fingernail
  • The “more resplendent spots” were sufficient to read by. Boyle happened to have a copy of the Philosophical Transactions by him, and he could make out a few letters on the title page
  • The light emitted was generally “a fine greenish blewe,” kind of like glowworms
  • It did not emit heat, as affirmed by the touch of a bare hand, as well as by the application of “a seal’d Weather glass”
  • No one could smell “the least degree of stink”
  • The wind was out of the southwest that night, blustery and warm, air pressure was 29 3/16 inches of mercury, the moon past its last quarter
  • The light was extinguished in pure alcohol, but water would not quench it

Just think about what it would have taken — in terms of time, effort and expertise — to amass this register of facts. But let’s also consider what filter, if any, Boyle placed on his research. You get the sense that Boyle believes literally every single detail could be relevant, and so he omits nothing that fell under his gaze. And why should he? Naturalists like Boyle cultivated exquisite states of affective enthrallment in spectacular natural phenomena as part of their scientific practice. And this immersion in the spectacles of science served a crucial purpose.

While historians of science are apt to characterize early scientific activity as a cautious and sober empirical activity, the production of scientific facts paradoxically required natural philosophers to carefully perform and re-perform their experiments in semi-public assemblies until all those present arrived at a consensus about the findings. They then wrote up their experiments in often excruciating detail so that absent virtuosi could “virtually witness” the new facts and thus give their approbation to new discoveries. This meant that experiments had to “pop” — to command the senses and fill the eye of the mind — in order to be effective.

As Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have explained, this dynamic give birth to what were then absolute novelties in human history: the fact that speaks for itself, and the scientist who is merely its objective witness. And vouchsafing these two great innovations of early modern experimental natural philosophy was a new kind of man, a figure Shapin and Schaffer call the “modest witness.” With his prolix, cautious experimental reports, with his dazzling new scientific instrument, and especially with his unimpeachable gentlemanly ethos, Boyle was of course their paragon and exemplar.

My own research seeks to trouble that story just a little bit. Once you start reading outside the lines of the texts that contemporary science has deemed canonical — Boyle’s air-pump experiments for example — we encounter scenes of experiment that are neither modest nor objectivity.

After all, in the case of the shining veal, Boyle postponed his sleep for what must have been hours, working through the night, mostly in the absolute dark, making painstaking observation after observation: inspecting, rubbing, sniffing, measuring, and defacing the raw and bloody neck of a calf that, on the sudden report of a servant, was whisked out of the larder and summoned to his bed-chamber. Instruments and contraptions were gathered from all parts of the house, data were recorded, trials were performed, and then re-performed, and a scrupulous account was produced. All of this makes me ask, what if the signal legacy of experimental science was not the modest witness’s modesty, but rather the irrepressibility of his witnessing? What if the scientist’s absolute dedication to observation betrays not a rational and ascetic erasure of self-interest, but rather a highly unstable, affective immersion in the spectacle of facts?

Riveted “both with wonder and delight” (his words), Boyle is a witness to something above and beyond bare modesty. Such an absorption in the spectacles of science is entirely expected from someone who kept his eyes shut tight as his assistant refitted the air-pump by candlelight, so as to not compromise his night vision….Or from someone who, in another set of experiments on a luminescent gemstone, reported that he went so far as to “take it into bed with [him], and hold it a good while upon a warm part of [his] naked body.” Indeed, even for an acknowledged titan of science, the scene of experiment is a fraught space, full of surprise and wonder and potentially unruly affect, where the work of the lab remains a perpetual lure for the imagination.

But there is no need to take my word for it. This is precisely the portrait of experimental science that appears in an influential and long-lived satire of natural philosophers that first appeared on the stage in 1676.

Eager spectators in the theater of experiment

The London playhouses were powerful sites of cultural mediation. They satirized trends, made political statements, insulted public figures, and set fashions. Accordingly, over the course of the long eighteenth century, there were dozens of plays featuring crackpot scientists, sketchy doctors, randy anatomists, doltish antiquaries, and shifty projectors peddling questionable technologies (sort of the early modern equivalent of flash-in-the-pan start-ups). But the play I want to bring into view is The Virtuoso, which appeared at the epicenter of a crucial anti-science backlash in the 1670s. The play proved to be a smash hit for the author Thomas Shadwell — and a major embarrassment for the Fellows of the Royal Society.

The play itself is a conventionally-plotted Restoration sex comedy. The misguided scientist Sir Nicholas Gimcrack and his foolish friends attempt to keep his two young, rich, and beautiful nieces out of social circulation. The impecunious Gimcrack wants power over their purses to finance his experiments, while his friends want access to their persons. The pleasure-loving young rakes Longvil and Bruce must chisel their way into Miranda and Clarinda’s affections while extricating themselves from the sexual advances of Lady Gimcrack, Sir Nicholas’ neglected wife, who spends all her time trying to cuckold him abundantly.

As delightful as all this sounds — and this play really is a lost gem — the real draw of Shadwell’s play was the new kind of fool that Gimcrack is. The “virtuoso,” in Shadwell’s telling, is fatally distracted from his proper duties as a husband, a guardian and a citizen by his useless experiments. The play’s popularity derived from how effectively it diagnosed and demolished this new species of idiot. Indeed, the play has retained a long hold on our imaginations even if most of us are unfamiliar with the source. Shadwell’s anti-hero served as a touchstone for critiques of scientific credulity and insignificance throughout the Enlightenment — a satiric “Will of the Virtuoso” was published in the Tatler a full 34 years after the play premiered. In fact, it’s not going to far to say that Gimcrack is the point of origin for the stereotype of the nerd scientist, hopelessly befuddled by his narrow interests, who is socially and romantically clueless for all his vanity. The precise antitype of the mad scientist (who finds his origins in Victor Frankenstein), the ghost of Gimcrack is still very much with us, as anyone who’s ever caught a rerun of The Big Bang Theory can plainly see.

We know that contemporaries identified a number of satiric targets in Shadwell’s fool. Some discerned a vicious and personal lampoon on Robert Hooke, Boyle’s former lab assistant and the author of Micrographia (1667), a work that created a sensation with its astonishing and unsettling images of the sub-visible world.

Once Hooke finally saw the play after being needled about it by frenemies, the terse account he recorded in diary suggests a public humiliation of the most acute kind: “Damned Dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed.” But Hooke wasn’t the only scientist parodied and insulted in the play. The play is full of sharp satirical jabs at many prominent members of the Royal Society, and some of the best jokes are saved for Robert Boyle himself. Gimcrack boasts of having weighed — and bottled — air from all over England. And he even claims — you guessed it — to have read a Geneva Bible by the light of a rancid leg of pork.

Shadwell’s satire goes far beyond personal insults and jokes about scientific obsessiveness and credulity, though. More than anything else, the play criticizes the virtuosi for their unmindful absorption in the objects of their curiosity, and the utter disregard they show for what the real-world applications might be. In other words, the play mocks the scientists and, by implication, the validity of science itself. In what is probably the play’s most well-remembered scene, the young suitors ask to meet Gimcrack in his laboratory — strictly for the lulz, of course. At the gallants’ request, the moveable screens slide back, and the audience peeps in on a remarkable scene. The stage directions read: “Scene opens and discovers Sir Nicholas learning to swim upon a table; Sir Formal and the Swimming Master standing by.”

In an instant, the scene moves from a pleasant English garden to the close confines of the natural philosopher’s cabinet, “his laboratory…where all his instruments and fine knacks are.” There, Gimcrack is revealed, high and dry on a table, gravely pantomiming the motions of a frog swimming in a basin before him, with his fellow virtuosi earnestly coaching him along.

With this scene, the players have staged in Dorset Gardens another type of performer on another type of stage: a virtuoso caught mid-experiment in his laboratory, showing off for his friends in the theater of the new science. In staging what is specifically called Gimcrack’s “physico-mechanical excellencies” — deliberately echoing the title of Robert Boyle’s foundational air-pump experiments — Shadwell seems determined to paint early scientists as utterly neglectful of the world at large. What Boyle might claim is a healthy objectivity — a pure focus on experiment, and a dedication to following a research program no matter where it leads — Shadwell unmasks as pure folly. There is no objectivity to be found in the scene of experiment, he is saying; you cannot abstract the scientist, with all his foibles and failings, from the facts he claims to discover.

Although the jokes were better in the seventeenth century, the logic of Shadwell’s attack on scientific credibility is fundamentally the same as that of science deniers today: discredit an entire field of knowledge by painting the scientists who profess it as credulous or corrupt.

Ultimately, the experimental form of life lived by Boyle and other Fellows of the Royal Society valorized a mode of spectatorship that encouraged early scientists to abandon themselves to spectacle. This was the new science’s greatest liability in the late seventeenth-century culture wars, but it was also the secret to its eventual triumph. What I call the “theater of experiment” really did create the conditions for the production of self-evident facts and objective witnessing, even as it proved a lightning rod for criticism at the time. However, this theatricality also offered a powerful means of enlisting allies and supporters. Natural philosophers began taking the spectacles of science out of the lab and into polite society in the early eighteenth century — scoffers like Shadwell be damned. This triggered an explosion of popular science initiatives that placed science at the center of Enlightenment culture. Members of the elite classes subscribed to courses of demonstration lectures held in coffee-houses and fashionable spa resorts. Eventually even middle class folk began organizing microscope parties and experimenting with table-top air-pumps and electrical apparatuses in their drawing rooms after tea.

This account of science’s struggle to first establish its authority would seem to offer a lessons for our contemporary moment. Despite the considerable effort to portray natural philosophers as modest witnesses in response to the virtuoso crisis of the 1670s , what was in fact required was not a modest witness but an eager spectator in the theater of experiment.

Science as political theater, then and now

When American scientists and their allies gather on the National Mall this weekend, they will be facing down an anti-science polemic, and an array of cultural forces responsible for it, that should not strike us as unprecedented. If anything, science is reckoning with a return to its origins as a highly politicized, culturally suspect practice.

The scientists and their allies who are marching this weekend have a genuine challenge ahead of them. They will need to reassert their credibility even as they seek to recapture the imagination of our nation. If history is any guide, the folks lining up behind science will need to carefully weigh their methods. Reconverting the American public into eager spectators of science will have to be done in a way that scientists can simultaneously be seen as objective and credible, and enthusiastic, and inspiring.

I wish them luck.