Hi all, from the team here at the HPS Podcast we welcome you to a new episode. This week I, Indigo Keel, am your host and I'm talking with Samara Greenwood about the relationship between societal context and science. She takes us through key issues of context as a factor in the history and philosophy of science and the role of second wave feminism in shaping primate field studies.
Why is it important to consider context in the study of science? Who loses out if we omit context from our analysis? And is it always needed to be able to do good scientific and HPS study?
Hi Samara, glad to have you on the podcast.
Samara Greenwood (00:40): Hi, Indi. So good to be here. Can I just say before we start, this was not my idea for this interview, this was all Indi.
Indigo Keel (00:48): So Samara, can you tell me a little bit about how you came into HPS?
Samara Greenwood (00:52): So mine is a very unusual path, I would say, even though there's a lot of unusual paths to HPS. I could probably tell the story in several different ways, but let's go with this one. I ran my own architecture practice for many years and at one point I became ill and couldn't run it anymore. While I was recovering from that illness, I stumbled across what I thought was a vaguely interesting subject at my old university, The University of Melbourne. The subject was 'God and the Natural Sciences', which was a second year subject. So I emailed the lecturer, who's Kristian Camilleri - friend of the podcast - <laugh> and my now PhD supervisor, asking if I could sit in on the first lecture. I came along expecting to just sit in on one or two lectures, check it all out. But after that first lecture I was transfixed. So why was I transfixed? Looking back, there was obviously interesting content in that particular subject, but it was really the way the topic was approached in that very transdisciplinary kind of way. So even in that first lecture we talked about looking at the issue of religion and science from all these different viewpoints. From the historical viewpoint, philosophical, sociological, anthropological. We looked at neuroscience and even cosmological perspectives on the issue. And that just hooked me in. I think my mind loves looking at problems from lots of different directions, which I can relate to my architecture, you know, looking at plans, elevations, different perspectives. I think that's just how my brain works. And so from that initial subject, I did another single subject, then I did a Grad. Dip. in HPS and then here I am now as a PhD candidate.
Indigo Keel (02:39): And we're glad to have you. God and the Natural Sciences does have a way of hooking people in. So what is a topic in HPS that you believe would be of interest and value to a broader audience?
Samara Greenwood (02:52): Okay, so I thought I might talk about the relationship between science and its broader societal context. This is basically the topic of my PhD <laugh>. So I have some background in it, but it is also a really longstanding problem in HPS, particularly for historians and sociologists of science. I typically put the broad problem question this way: How do changes in large scale societal conditions relate to changes in science? So clearly we have many kinds of change possible in society and in science and they all kind of come under this general banner. So, for example, just looking at the 20th century, some more obvious examples might be: How did the events of World War II come to shape the practices and products of physics in the post-war period? There's lots of connections made there between funding, the military, all of these kind of things. Or another very straightforward case: How did the rise of environmental activism in the 1970s come to shape the rise of various environmental sciences after this period? Again, a clear connection between a social political movement on one hand and changes in science, even the emergence of new sciences, through this period. But we also have less obvious examples. For example, how did the rise of second wave feminism from the sixties in the United States come to shape various sciences? It does this in much more subtle and indirect ways, but at the same time, powerful ways. Or even going back to the early modern period, a classic area of interest for HPS. How did the rapidly changing societal conditions and interactions in Europe and the so-called new world come to shape the emergence of various strands of modern science? These are really interesting and really involved kinds of questions. And, as I said, these kind of questions have a long and often contentious history in HPS and so are of great interest I think both within the field, but I also think outside the field as well.
Indigo Keel (04:53): I imagine not everyone doing science wants to consider context all the time. So can you tell me about some of the controversies that arrive when doing context driven studies of science?
Samara Greenwood (05:03): Absolutely, and it's not just scientists. Also within HPS, scholars have had various objections or responses to these kind of studies going right back to the 1930s. Often it's been considered studies of context are related to Marxist approaches to history of science, which has its own political overtones. At various times, particularly in the Cold War period, these approaches were strongly rejected in western traditions. But, at the same time, if you move past some of those more political controversies, there's some really interesting, you know, juice behind this. But there are still some remaining controversies. So let me just mention two. First, as Rachael Brown mentioned in a previous podcast, there's this strong tradition of viewing science as value-free. In other words, science should be largely divorced from the vagaries of typical human politics, interests and culture. That's the way science works best and should work, right? That's how it gets its value. It's supposed science is at its best when it's free from outside impingements on science and therefore any influence at all from societal context to science is often considered to be intrinsically detrimental to good science. However, just like we've realised that societal values are not only unavoidable in science, but can even be beneficial when used appropriately, so it seems to be the case that a range of contextual influences beyond values on science are also not only unavoidable, but can also be beneficial for science. For example, it could be argued that the environmental movement helped scientific attention be directed towards pressing problems for humanity, or the feminist movement helped direct scientific attention towards false taken for granted assumptions around gender stereotypes in many sciences. So you can see there's a positive way that we can see how changes in social context can come to shape science. This isn't to say of course that they are always beneficial or that they can't actually also be highly detrimental. For example, when overly strong beliefs or adherence to particularly ideologies can certainly blind scientists to alternative viewpoints or to really committing to something beyond the point of where it's really reasonable to be committed to a particular viewpoint. The point here is that contextual influence isn't intrinsically a bad thing. And what I suggest for scholars, scientists, the general public is to be more open-minded about considering the different ways it shapes science - for good, for bad, for indifferent, for however. A second controversy around considering contextual influence on science is wondering about the nature and degree of the influence on individual scientists. So, for example, some scholars have claimed that if we suggest scientists are influenced by the societal contexts that they live in, we are actually arguing that scientists are under the influence of an outside force and this robs individuals of agency and choice. And this seems to be really a detriment not only to science itself, but to individual scientists. Now I think this claim is fairly easy to refute, right? Of course, if the claim was that societal contexts were really driving scientists to make particular choices or make particular decisions or to take up particular subjects without their own choice playing a factor, then yes, absolutely, this seems an extreme view and one that very few scholars would adhere to. But that isn't the typical claim, right? The typical claim is that it's a shaping effect, it's an influence in this more subtle way. And so this can take many forms. For example, scientists grow up in a particular context even before they become a scientist, before they train as a scientist. And so you're coming into science with some ready formed beliefs, ideas shaped by your family environment, by the schools you went to, by the culture and politics that you're engaged with. And it would be false to say that that has no bearing on the science that you do, even on what particular discipline you choose to take up or what particular problems or how you even interpret data when you get down to it. But at the same time, once you become a scientist, you don't automatically divorce yourself from the society that you live in. So again, you might read a new book or come across a new interesting controversy in the society around you and that might have you revisit what you're studying and how you're studying it and you see it perhaps in a new light, it gives you a new perspective. All of these things are these more subtle interactions between the influence of society on scientists that I think we can all fairly legitimately say, yeah, look, that happens and it's not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a good thing as well.
Indigo Keel (10:02): Yeah, absolutely. Can you tell me a little bit more about how this is put into practice?
Samara Greenwood (10:08): Hmm, absolutely. So I think a good way of doing this is to look at a case study and one of my central case studies is the way in which the rise of second wave feminism from the sixties through to the seventies came to impact primate field studies. And so this again, has been actually a controversial case study for quite a period of time. Almost immediately after these kind of occurrences came during the late seventies through the eighties, there was lots of discussion about what was the impact of feminism on primate field studies. And so it has a long history and it's one that I revisit bringing in some of the interesting developments we've done in history of science since then to revisit this problem in some more intricate and detailed ways. And so what I look at is I've gone out and I've actually re-interviewed a number of these feminist primate scientists who are working in the sixties and seventies and really looked at what kind of things they were reading, particularly in feminist literature, what kind of experiences they had that informed their practice, particularly again related to any issues of sexism, gendered experiences, also positive things that they came across, whether they got involved in activist feminist groups, many of them didn't. For many of them it was more of a subtle alignment between feminist ideas and what they were doing in their work. And what I then found is, okay, having had that background information in feminism, how did it shape the work that you did, particularly in challenging [the status quo]? So there was, as we previously discussed in the Rachael Brown interview, during this period leading up to here, we have a lot of primatological theories developing very rapidly in a very rapidly growing field. And what you find is, there is - now we realise - a strong male bias. There's a real emphasis on looking at male primates, so male gorillas, male baboons, and what their social activities are and really focusing on that as a key explanatory network for what is happening in primate societies. But at the same time, you have a number of female primatologists training up, practicing in the field. Jane Goodall is obviously a clear early example who then - just by being so prominent - influences a real influx of women into the field, along with other reasons. There are other reasons also why a lot of females enter into this field. They start revisiting the work that had been done so far and particularly bringing in this awareness from feminism that potentially there is this general male bias in society that male activities are seen as the first port of call. They're the first things you look at. They're the first things you study and females are the secondary set. Bringing this awareness they're like, Hey, we can actually see this pattern occurring in the science that we are doing. And so what can we do to revisit this? How can we challenge this perhaps in the literature? And they do. And there's a number. So we've got Jeanne Altmann, we have Jane Lancaster, Sally Slocum. There's any number of wonderful scholars who were scientists and feminists. So it's this dual interest they have that helps them see their science in a new way and actually has quite a large transformative effect on the whole discipline. Because there's a significant number of them, because they are able to produce works that are taken up by others. Not just female scientists, but male scientists. Not just feminists, but also those who might not partake of feminist philosophy, but yet they can see the value in revisiting taken for granted assumptions. So I think that's a nice example of how, when you dig down... At first glance it might seem unusual, how on earth could feminism affect science in any really strong way? But once you dig down into these individual stories and then see the patterns that occur, you can see how they are connected and how they can have a great effect over time. It's like this knock on effect. And so that's what I study and I think it's really interesting and valuable <laugh>.
Indigo Keel (14:23): I think so too. Can you tell me a little bit about why the consideration of context in science is so important for us to be doing?
Samara Greenwood (14:32): Absolutely. I think all of us, so the general public, scientists, general researchers like us, grew up with a fairly strong image of science as working best when it is divorced from society, right? You're meant to be this objective, neutral kind of a person who doesn't get involved in the hurly burly of the rest of the world. But having now been a part of the HPS world, as Greg Radick put it, for some years, and from working particularly on the problem of context, I've really come to see the value in developing a more complex and sophisticated view of the ways in which science and society are interconnected. This is not to say that we don't need to be objective <laugh>, we can just be subjective people and just go along with the flow. The idea is that it's more complicated than that, right? So, sometimes we need to step away and really distance ourselves and be as objective as possible. And other times, well, it's useful to draw in some of those outside influences, not to coercively drive us in any particular direction, but so that we can actually make sure we're being responsible researchers, be aware of the creative capacity that can happen when you have outside points of interest that can drive you to see things in a new light. So that's why I think it's important. I think it gives us actually a better image of science. One, we can probably relate to it more because it is more human, it's bringing it a bit down off its pedestal and really seeing how it is part of human society just like anything else. But also I think it's just more truthful, right? Like it's driving us to a better image so that we can, as people in the public looking at scientists and scientists themselves reflecting on their own work go, yeah, no, it's okay. I have permission here to bring in those parts of myself that aren't necessarily strictly in old school scientific terms because they could potentially be useful, but be careful about it at the same time.
Indigo Keel (16:37): I'm wondering who loses out if we omit context from our analysis?
Samara Greenwood (16:41): I think that's a really good question, and it's one you did tell me just before we started the podcast. I'm like, excellent question, I'll have to think about that. Actually, one thing that I found in studying context and science is that I'm personally drawn to those cases where what you see is often these shifts in science occur when people that didn't previously have a voice are elevated, their social status is elevated, they suddenly have a bit of a platform and they can make a change. So we talked about feminists and women, obviously second wave feminism really brought - in a very broad societal way - attention to this possibility that, hey, hang on, maybe we haven't been taking female points of view seriously enough. And that legitimising context gave women a voice and a platform that they didn't previously have. If we go back to the early modern period, which is another area of my favourites, another case study that I look at is the changing societal status of what you might call plebeian artisans. So you know, those people that work with their hands - engineering types - what we would call mathematical practitioners. So these are practical people who use maths to do, for example, surveying or geography in that sense of actually laying out maps and things like that. So prior to the early modern period, there was this real social division. Craftspeople are very lowly. 'Rude mechanicals' is one of the terms I think Shakespeare uses to talk about these lowly types. And then scholars. So the philosophers at the university are in this much higher realm and there's not much interaction between them. There is a thesis that part of the revolutionary period of the early modern period, particularly as it came to influence the development of many of the modern sciences, came about partly because there was this new interaction. So for instance, in Renaissance Italy, in say places like Florence or Padua, you have this breakdown of this barrier. You have new civil works happening, engineering works that the nobility are really engaged with, new developments in war technology. You've got cannons that are now mobile and so you can actually move them around. And so new kinds of warcraft. You need to develop new fortifications. So engineering in general becomes really highly valued. This is new, right? So suddenly their status, their social status is raised and through various different avenues you start to see scholars and rude mechanicals interacting. And this actually develops a whole lot of interesting outcomes. Galileo for example, he not only refines the telescope, but he also works with engineers. He does teach even how to do fortifications. He's an excellent teacher of perspective, which I think is fascinating. He's very involved in the arts. This kind of combination of knowledges really has some fruitful outcomes.
And so when you are asking, when we leave out context, what are the disadvantages? I think we, again, there's this whole realm of people, social groups, and we can overlook their contribution in science when we don't look at context. Same when we look at incursions into the new world during the early modern period and all the absolutely amazing knowledge interactions that occur there, which are now coming out as being fundamental to a lot of knowledge developments there on in. These are the things that I think once we start to acknowledge them and study them, it gives us a richer, more accurate picture of science and it does justice to the range of individuals who have actually contributed over time.
Indigo Keel (20:27): Absolutely. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Samara. On the other side of the mic today, so to speak.
Samara Greenwood (20:35): Thank you, Indi. It has been lovely. I hope I have done an okay job <laugh>. Thank you everyone.
Indigo Keel (20:44): Thank you for listening to the first season of the HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science. We want to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their support. To learn more, check out our website at hpsunimelb.org. There you can also find links to our blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Insta, as well as show notes for today's episode. I'm Indigo Keel and my co-producer and guest is Samara Greenwood. We look forward to having you back again next time.