Exploring the DNA of Discovery

SHC Program: Deep thinking about how we know

By Matt GolosinskiJune 8, 2017

Conceptually, at least, the roots of the Internet are sunk deep into 300-year-old soil.

Early modern European thinkers imagined a world of unbounded knowledge transmission, where state borders dissolved and information could travel freely and to the benefit of all.

This ideal inspired the “Republic of Letters,” an extended community of scholars that believed humanity could better itself through open collaboration.

“Knowledge really did flow, if not quite globally, then across long distances,” says Lydia Barnett, a historian who explores the intersection of science, religion, and the environment in 17th and 18th-century Europe. “Social networks and infrastructure — roads, shipbuilding — made the transmission of information beyond political borders much easier.”

Members of this transnational community claimed that differences, whether political, religious, economic, or racial, didn’t matter. In practice, says Barnett, “all those things mattered, and there was a big gulf between rhetoric and reality.”

How Do We Know the World?

Barnett is one of about 30 Northwestern faculty members affiliated with the University’s Science in Human Culture Program (SHC), which aims to show how knowledge has developed along with the institutional frameworks and technologies informing it. SHC is a deeply interdisciplinary offering housed in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences that brings together scholars from many fields — including history, law, sociology, philosophy, and communications — to ask questions such as: Why have we come to believe scientific explanations? How has scientific knowledge been translated into new technologies? What are the religious implications of our changing understanding of space, time, and evolution? How do different knowledge systems interact? Students in the program tend to be evenly split between those focused on the “hard” sciences and those concentrating on the social sciences or humanities. What they all share is a passion for inquiry that is broad and deep.

Barnett’s research provides historical perspective on human discovery as an enterprise, insights that can help today’s thinkers build on existing foundations and create new ones to address emerging complexities within, and across, domains of expertise. This historical lens can yield surprises for students, Barnett says. If today the schism between science and religion seems wide and irreparable, it wasn’t always the case, even if the two were uncomfortable bedfellows.

“Prior to the 19th or 20th centuries, most scientists within the European tradition, at least, were very religious and wore their faith on their sleeves,” says Barnett, who is currently writing a book called Imagined Disasters that explores religious and secular views on global environmental crises in the early Enlightenment era. “Lots of people were drawn to science precisely because they were religious and because the study of the natural world was for them a pathway to greater knowledge of God.”

Religious narratives could sometimes inform scientific inquiry, and a theory of global climate change was a hot topic even in the 17th century, says Barnett. The conversation focused on the biblical Flood and offered a historical, rather than predictive, view. Even so, the discussions encouraged thinkers to consider the environment as a whole, beyond the local scene.

“People started viewing the Garden of Eden in global terms, as a kind of geological age; a time when the planet was really healthy,” she explains. “This climate, they believed, could be the reason why the Bible claimed patriarchs lived for 800 years and grew to be eight feet tall. They argued that, after humanity’s fall, God sent the Flood and the environment degraded.” As a result, people now die much earlier and have fewer children — and giants no longer walk the Earth.

Even today, “a lot of crypto-theology” appears in popular climate discourse, says Barnett. Some of this material emphasizes the view that humanity has “sinned” by inventing agriculture, building factories, and exploiting natural resources. In making such critiques, or exposing the fallacy that science and religion have always been hostile to one another, the SHC Program fosters a deeper understanding of the dynamics shaping human discovery.

“I want us to be more mindful of the ways we might be recycling older ideas,” says Barnett. “Knowing those historical origins can help us, today, think and talk about subjects such as climate change.”

‘Research for the Long Haul’

In fact, Northwestern faculty have pursued such inquiries for decades. This year marks SHC’s 20th anniversary, though the program grew out of an even earlier history of science offering, albeit one that emphasized philosophical foundations rather than sociopolitical ones.

The modern program — designed as an adjunct major or minor field for undergraduate students, many of whom are enrolled in pre-med courses — delivers a holistic understanding of science, medicine, technology, and the environment, framing its efforts within the University’s exemplary liberal arts curriculum. The program appeals to those passionate for an educational experience at the intersections of various fields. With the addition of scholars such as sociologist Steven Epstein in 2009 and historian Helen Tilley in 2012, the SHC Program has continued to flourish, deepening its perspective on science as a global phenomenon, rather than one defined only by research in the United States or Europe.

“This is teaching and research for the long haul. It’s work that helps historicize complex problems, whether in medicine, technology, environmental policymaking, or other areas, and demonstrates that every problem has a wider context,” says Tilley, current SHC director and an expert in colonial and post-colonial Africa.

Tilley’s first book, Africa as a Living Laboratory, epitomizes such scholarly commitment. The text is a deeply researched project, a decade in the making, that explores the intricate relationships between imperialism and scientific expertise in Sub-Saharan British Africa. Tilley says the book “cuts across the grain of some standard arguments interpreting colonialism” to reveal how a relative few scholars who were devoted to “deep, sustained fieldwork” could produce knowledge that actually undermined the colonial enterprise.

This “thin white line,” as she calls it, exerted an outsized influence on colonial development policies. The book integrates an array of subjects, from environmental and racial science to medicine — the kind of capacious terrain that Tilley says makes SHC so compelling for students.

By connecting multiple disciplines, the program offers a space for “big picture” thinking, she says. Often, SHC students have an interest in environmental studies, medicine and global health, or the comparative development of science and technology around the world. The research they pursue is equally varied, though rigorous: Anna Cassell ’15, for example, wrote an outstanding thesis on the technologies behind concussion measurements and the dangers posed by head injuries to college athletes, especially female soccer players like herself.

Erik Baker ’16 (now pursuing a PhD in history of science at Harvard) explored the scientific controversies about the origins of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, creating an award-winning thesis that analyzed this history to show how expert consensus emerged against a complex social backdrop. Jaimie Morse, a current PhD student in sociology, is writing a dissertation on rape kits, the forensic exams used as evidence in sexual assault cases.

Morse is producing a comparative global study to look at how forensic exams have circulated since the 1970s, including the effect of reforms led by activists, doctors, and nurses to standardize the tests internationally, even in settings of armed conflict and mass violence. Through archival research, fieldwork, and more than 40 detailed interviews of healthcare practitioners, activists, lawyers, and other experts, Morse says she is tracing the “’global assemblage’ of actors and technologies that have been instrumental in a novel form of legal mobilization in medicine to seek rights to justice and healthcare for surviving patient-victims of violence.” Her work also examines the “forging of an intentionally porous boundary between medicine and law, both in practice and clinical knowledge,” and the global impacts of this permeability.

SHC students “the cream of the crop,” says Tilley. They are intensely curious and unusually creative thinkers who combine deep disciplinary knowledge with an ability to bridge knowledge domains to “get at the interstitial spaces of real-life problems.”

“What SHC does, and part of what we should be doing in universities, is cultivating deeper thinking for better policies, not only solving immediate problems,” says Tilley, a longtime advocate for environmental and social justice issues that often are woven into her scholarship. “We have the luxury to step back and explore the connections and cyclical patterns that people might not perceive unless we shed light on them.”

In his study of the “politics of knowledge,” Epstein, Tilley’s immediate predecessor as SHC director, has made such connections at the intersection of social activism and biomedical research. A celebrated scholar, Epstein has focused on the relationships among social movements, domain experts, and health institutions — an important nexus for what he calls the “contested production of knowledge.”

His work is helping shape a new generation of thinkers, including Morse. In award-winning books such as Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research (2007) and Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (1996), as well as in his current research examining the social discourses around sexual health, Epstein has shown how the agendas of various stakeholders, including the government, medical professionals, and individuals, affect the credibility of knowledge claims.

“What we come to know — knowledge — becomes political,” he has said.

In his study of the history of AIDS activism, for example, he has detailed how protest movements helped reshape medical research and practice: individuals, including those infected with HIV, came to represent not merely a “disease constituency” but an “alternative basis of expertise” that contested the medical experts using the very language of the medical establishment. Epstein believes that an interdisciplinary program like SHC is beneficial for students looking to understand the “genealogy” and “social manifestations” of such discourses within a larger web of relations.

One of the recent initiatives by SHC faculty that helps to unpack those complexities even more is the Global Medical Cultures and Law project, a three-year effort supported by a “Big Ideas” grant from Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies. It deliberately combines the expertise of several Northwestern scholars, in addition to Tilley: Carol Heimer, sociology; Rebecca Seligman, anthropology; Laura Pedraza-Fariña, law; and Jeannette Colyvas, education and social policy. They wish to investigate the intersection of law and medicine to show how global legal frameworks influence biomedical advances and codify arenas of “traditional medicine.”

“One of the foundational issues for this group is the interplay between law and medicine across time and space,” says Tilley. “What is the dividing line, in different parts of the world and at different times, between what is considered science and non-science? Sometimes this has been put in terms of a division between magic and medicine. There are all sorts of implications for legal studies and global health and related questions that law schools address.”

Constructing Knowledge

SHC brings many different expert areas together, so the research questions can extend in many directions. The program’s mission is to help students learn how knowledge is constructed and how science changes over time, says historian Ken Alder, the program’s founding director and the Milton H. Wilson Professor in the Humanities.

“Science is one of the most powerful mechanisms for determining how things are, and yet science is constantly changing, producing new insights — some of which radically overturn earlier ones,” he says. This dynamic is driven by technological shifts that are themselves enmeshed in a network of social, political, and economic forces. Even so, Alder is careful to emphasize that “construction of knowledge” is a “loaded term” that can be misinterpreted.

“To say that knowledge is made is not to say that knowledge is made up,” says Alder, who is chair of the history department. “Science is not born immaculately, as if through platonic discovery. Scientific knowledge is created by people who work within carefully nourished institutions, like Northwestern, and it is in those contexts that scientists create robust, potent ways of knowing and shaping our world.”

Alder says that a history of science program, by revealing the social and material conditions that allow science to thrive, can make valuable contributions that complement the “tremendously important” primary work of scientists.

He says that SHC offers students knowledge that should contribute to better research outcomes or deeper clinical insights, in the case of physicians.

“By studying the social history of medicine over the past 100 years, we see how the profession has been completely transformed as it’s become more scientific, and that’s changed the relationship doctors have with patients, and the way they think about disease categorization in their daily work,” Alder says. “What do you gain and lose with a new form of evidence-based medicine?”

Such considerations supplement the way that science is often taught: as “prepackaged” knowledge in textbooks organized around theory and problem sets, and with the answers in the back of the book, says Alder. Those books streamline knowledge, but leave out much of discovery’s messiness. “It makes sense that you would teach science that way,” he says, noting the method’s efficiency. “But what students miss with that approach is how open-ended, flexible, and dynamic real science is, and how it has changed over time.”

In his own scholarship, Alder has tried to highlight the complexity of science in its social context. His books include The Measure of All Things (2002) — a gripping account of the metric system’s 18th-century origins — and The Lie Detectors (2007), a history of the polygraph that situates the technology in a specific time and place that gave rise to it. Alder aims to “go behind seemingly banal technologies” to reveal the many assumptions that give rise to those tools. In the case of the lie detector, science was seen as providing a high road to the truth; a dispassionate, objective solution that removed an examiner’s prejudices.

“The lie detector was born in an early 20th-century moment, when a set of social sciences claimed to help Americans solve a set of very complicated, conflict-involved relationships, in the workplace and within the criminal justice system. The detector would be neutral. It would be a machine. That’s very appealing and egalitarian, in its way,” Alder smiles. “But it’s a mirage. It doesn’t do what it claims to do.”

The SHC Program also provides a richer understanding of seminal figures, such as Charles Darwin. By (re)introducing students to these authorities, SHC makes connections that are usually absent, but when demonstrated offer a better sense of the origins of pivotal ideas. Many others before Darwin had posited theories similar to his own. Why does Darwin’s version of natural selection arise when it does?

“It turns out, he was inspired by physics and the ways physicists, especially in astronomy, began to talk about change over time,” says Alder. “Similarly, you can’t understand the rise of thermodynamics in the 19th century without understanding the Industrial Revolution and transformations in medicine, including how physiologists like Hermann von Helmholtz were among those reconceiving of the human body as a kind of machine. Many of the most important transformations in the sciences have come from people who have been able to read or study outside their own domains.”

‘I Will Teach from the Body’

If inventions like steam engines contributed to the advance of disparate fields like physics and medicine, so too did earlier technological revolutions, including those that changed how people represented the world.

Helping SHC students unpack this evolution is art historian Claudia Swan. An expert on northern European visual culture from 1400-1700, Swan has written widely on the relationship between art and science, producing scholarship on early modern botanical and medical treatises. Her publications include works on the imagination and collecting — such as “cabinets of curiosity,” diverse congeries that featured art objects, scientific specimens, and a miscellany of other artifacts.

She credits an early modern emphasis on visual observation as one key for scientific revolution during that period.

Cultural changes gradually allowed individual eyewitness perception, rather than traditional or expert transmission alone, to be considered valid. This shift, in combination with the arrival of the printing press about 1450, ushered in a new era of discovery and knowledge dissemination.

“Up until the later 15th century, images circulated in manuscript form,” says Swan. “These included anatomical and botanical images that were foundational for medical science.” The problem with that practice was that each time an image was copied (by hand), there was a risk of altering or deforming the original.”

Stable representation brought visual consistency. Plus, the new books offered a more economical and portable means of sharing knowledge. That development proved crucial for groundbreaking anatomy texts such as De humani corporis fabrica by Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius.

“It’s a huge change,” says Swan. Not only could many more doctors and medical students gain access to scholarly work previously unavailable, but these experts could now themselves begin responding to the earlier texts, imparting their own expertise and contributing to a burgeoning disciplinary literature. How anatomy was taught also changed, shifting from mere recitation of classical authorities to a more intensive, sometimes literally visceral, experience.

“Up until Vesalius’ time, the standard format for a university demonstration of anatomy involved a professor who sat ex cathedra, in a chair, reading from one of the classical texts,” says Swan. Down below him in the lecture hall, a demonstrator would perform an actual dissection, showing the body parts as the professor recited. “But there was not necessarily any correlation between what the professor was describing and what the students were seeing! Fundamentally, what Vesalius did was jump out of the chair and say: ‘Away with this! I will teach from the body and teach you what you see.’ And he published it.”

Swan says that art historians can help medical practitioners and researchers better understand how “image conventions” operate, which could help researchers question important assumptions and even have a clinical impact.

In the venerable Gray’s Anatomy, Swan says illustration rather than photography is still used, despite the camera’s great technological advances. “What you can’t do with a photograph of a dissected arm, is delineate the mass of tendons, ligaments, muscles. It’s a bloody mess.” So we rely on conventions to outline structures, or designate to what a surgeon would see in the operating room. Likewise, color conventions — using red to designate hot things in astronomical charts or weather maps — are artificial, since the hottest part of a flame is actually blue. Even sophisticated modern imaging tools, like MRIs and CAT scans, deserve a second look to understand how conventions work: What are we really seeing when we look at this information? How do physicians, medical students, and researchers decipher this visual data, coming away with the belief that the representation truly offers an “in depth” analysis? For that matter, Swan asks, how do humans fundamentally perceive depth?

“There is no universal system for representing space. They are all conventions and widely divergent,” says Swan, offering the cartographical example of the Mercator projection. This is the map developed in 16thcentury Europe that has long been a standard in the West, despite being wildly out of scale in ways that happen to favor its creators: areas farther from the Equator appear disproportionately larger.

“If something is depicted in a particular manner, how does that affect perception?” asks Swan. “Does depicting something with a limited range of colors, or with a lot of lines, make you believe the representation might be more accurate compared with a rendition with blurred outlines or with a more colorful array?”

Swan says it frequently comes as a “resounding shock” to some students that science is not as objective as they believe. “Science as a language, as a discipline, as a practice is shot through with preconceptions, ideology, and local practices that differ from place to place,” she says, adding that in her own work on the imagination there are many examples of where art and science blur.

By providing a holistic curriculum for engagement with this vast enterprise of meaning-making, SHC offers frameworks for understanding knowledge and how people decide what is scientifically true. That mission seems vital in today’s “post-fact” world, where social media shapes public opinion and where torrents of data threaten to overwhelm critical abilities. Even so, Tilley is reluctant to say that the contemporary context is unprecedented: “Historians have ‘precursoritis.’ Whenever someone says ‘this is unprecedented,’ someone will go back a little farther in time and find a precedent.”

She does think there exist eras that seem to be radical ruptures from the past. She sees today’s “proliferation of disciplines and the scaling up of certain types of science, technology, and medicine” — and the political and financial power invested into those advances — as crucial subjects for inquiry.

“Where does science stop and technology begin? Where does science stop and medicine begin?” asks Tilley. “In the SHC Program, we’re looking at domains of expertise, the historical geographies of expertise, the philosophy and anthropology of knowledge and innovation around the world. Our discoveries will help shape future inquiry, and help understand the role this discovery plays in our lives.”