One Giant Leap? It’s Just Like That

Welcome to Leaping Robot! This is my place to explore some areas where contemporary ideas and issues intersect the histories of science of technology. Much of my thinking in these directions has been spurred by the research I did for my new book The Visioneers. There were many alleys and thickets that I didn’t wander into as I kept the book’s narrative on track. So this blog is an opportunity to go back and re-visit some of these places that I first glimpsed out the authorial window.

Besides a sandbox in which to play and test some new ideas, Leaping Robot is also an experiment in what historian John Heilbron once called “the applied history of science.”1 Heilbron noted that the contribution of historians to the understanding of real(i.e. contemporary) science was once as promising as the “contribution of scholastic philosophers to the art of ballistics.” In other words, historical scholarship on science and technology was unappreciated, overspecialized, and relentlessly esoteric. Hence the call for an “applied history of science” that would engage with policy makers and the public.2 To ignore history when thinking about contemporary topics, Heilbron said, was to willingly be as the “infants or savages…deprived of memory and blinkered by myth.” And who wants to be in this unenviable spot?

If you’re reading this, however, I probably don’t have to convince you that the histories of science and technology have a great deal to say about and to contemporary issues. But what shape should this dialogue take?

One of my favorites places to open this dialogue is by considering the deployment of historical analogies. For example, there was a great of attention last month to the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 2012 being its 50th anniversary. The New York Times ran a great op-ed by Michael Dobbs that picked apart the “lessons” of the Crisis. Dobbs concluded that the famous “eyeball to eyeball” moment (a line supposedly uttered by Secretary of State Dean Rusk) from the Crisis was exactly the wrong lesson to draw from those thirteen days in October. The Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles to Cuba were not a few miles from the “red line” the U.S. had drawn with its blockade when they turned around but were instead, as Dobbs’ historical research showed, some 750 miles away. There may have been “eyeball to eyeball” moments during the Crisis but this was not one of them. Policy makers, such as those calling for a “red line” in response to Iran’s nuclear program, should look elsewhere for examples.

Historians know that the analogies they choose have power. Politicians believe likewise – “Is Afghanistan in 2012 like Vietnam in 1973?..Is the U.S. today like ancient Rome?”. Such comparisons and counter-comparisons shape and re-shape the frameworks in which we understand contemporary issues and debates. While they do not establish proof, analogies suggest possibility. For the broader public, analogies also generate useful connections and relations, emotional as well as logical. At the same time, false or poorly constructed analogies promote misunderstandings and bad policy.3

So, how about we press “reset” when some pundit or politician says “We need another Manhattan Project for X” or harkens back to the “glory days” of Apollo program when we were supposedly all pulling for the common cause. Really? Initiate a program that eschews long-term goals for a single spectacular feat or develop a new technology under classified, wartime conditions and while not considering its potentially profound social and ethical implications? Historians can’t ensure the use of smart analogies…but they can help debunk the use of dumb ones.

What about an example of this from today’s technoscientific realm? Here’s one – on-going debates about need for the regulation of nanotechnology. Images of leaping robots notwithstanding, this debate is not based on any sci-fi inflected version of the nanotech future with its swarms of self-replicating nanobots. It’s instead grounded in more quotidian concerns about the use and release of nanoscale particles. I’ll say more about this in a later post. But, to give a hint, if you think comparisons to genetically-modified organisms are the best way to build a policy, you’re wrong.

  1. J.L. Heilbron, “Applied History of Science,” Isis, 1987, 78, 4: 552-63. []
  2. Heilbron’s suggestions parallel those in Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986) which was published a year earlier. In their Preface, Neustadt and May claim a goal of seeing history “better used on the job by busy people preoccupied with daily decisions.” (xii). The first example they give in their book is the Cuban Missile Crisis. []
  3. A great chestnut on analogical reasoning is Bruce Mazlish, “Historical Analogy: The Railroad and the Space Program and Their Impact on Society,” in The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy, edited by Bruce Mazlish (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1965), pp. 1-52. I’ll be coming back to this in a later essay. []

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