Taking “No Snark” to the Next Level

Historical figures briefly previewed in the first episode of Cosmos - can you name them all?

The first four episodes of the new Cosmos reboot have now aired,1 including a few somewhat problematic animations involving Giordano Bruno, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and William Herschel.  I won’t try to summarize here the many responses that these portrayals have prompted, although many of them make for fine reading.  Instead, I want to talk about a different kind of response, a creative one.

I started this blog at the end of 2012 because I was in the middle of helping to launch PHD TV – a collaborative spinoff of PHD Comics that focuses on web videos – and I found myself with the opportunity to create a new thing, something I hadn’t seen before in the online video environment:  a history of science web series that could be entertaining without sacrificing historical complexity and could explain scientific concepts without oversimplifying how we came to our present understanding.  That’s hard.  Really, really hard.  Let me be the first to say that my attempts so far have not quite hit it out of the park, although I am proud of them and I’m excited to tweak things to see what will make future episodes better (after I graduate! Priorities.).  I’m going to keep trying, and I would like to see more others try too.

That’s the essence of the “no snark” attitude I tried to convey in my post about Giordano Bruno a few weeks ago.  Since I joined Twitter, I’ve seen several flare-ups between (generally speaking) scientists and historians, but more often than not, I’ve seen someone in the the history of science blogging community take a scientist or journalist to task for spouting irresponsible history, usually to little effect.  It’s like the MIT/Harvard rivalry over here! 2 3

Why does it matter? Cosmos has sparked a lot of conversations about history of science in the last few weeks, and that’s a good thing.  It’s an opportunity for historians to demonstrate to scientists and science communicators why it matters to get the history right, and (more importantly!) what it means to do history in the first place.  Coming from science myself, I know that this is not self-explanatory, and I’ve gotten my fair share of blank stares when I mention my history of science work.  I’m trying to get better at these conversations, to get to the point of what it’s all about – we study how people SCIENCE, guys!4 – and to dispel the idea that we’re all working on lists of dates and facts waiting to be inserted on a blank timeline somewhere (No.).

Until the science community – scientists, engineers, science communicators, journalists, movie consultants, writers, etc. – know what it is that historians actually do, there won’t be much incentive to include our perspectives and enlist our expertise in programs like Cosmos.  We should be making it easier on them!  As satisfying as it is tear apart shoddy history (and it is oh so satisfying!), complaining alone isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the value of historical work to science communication and public appreciation of science.  So, what do we do?

In my opinion, creativity is always the answer.  We should be creating alternatives to the Cosmoses (Cosmoi?) out there, not just trying to tear them down.  It’s incredibly hard to balance entertainment with accuracy, catchiness with nuance.5 We should try to do it ourselves before (or in addition to) criticizing, and if we succeed, the world (or at least the internet) will be a little bit richer for it and the Seth MacFarlanes of the world will have a little more to go on when it comes to hiring consultants.  I imagine an ecosystem of resources that viewers could turn to after watching an episode of Cosmos:  snarky blogposts coexisting with narrative podcasts and snappy video explainers of key ideas.  If there’s a problem with how the stories of science past are being told, the solution is to tell better stories.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done, considering the limited time and resources any given person has to devote to “extra” activities like I’m suggesting, but every little bit helps.  Institutions who create YouTube channels (e.g., the Chemical Heritage Foundation) are moving in the right direction, and the new co-curated Twitter effort @WetheHumanities is a great step toward making work in the humanities more transparent and more accessible to the public.  The network of history of science bloggers is always growing, and it’s good to see the #histsci and #histtech hashtags used to continue conversations over the important issues that Cosmos, in all its glory, has started.

Let’s keep these conversations constructive! And creative too.

  1. The image shown is a collage of screenshots from the first episode, which briefly previewed several historical animations.
  2. Sorry MIT, but you know Harvard doesn’t care!
  3. Or the Caltech/MIT rivalry for that matter…
  4. …and what does it mean to “science” (and to whom) and who’s paying the bills and what kinds of things did people do to learn about the natural world before that was a word, etc.
  5. See, for example, this excellent post on the challenges faced by science museums by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova.
Posted in Extra Credit, Reflections

2 Responses to Taking “No Snark” to the Next Level

  1. […] suggestions that historians of science need to tell more compelling stories and that we need to provide better alternatives to the Cosmos style of […]

  2. guthrie says:

    This and other blog posts have raised a number of issues, which I might blog about myself later, but I have a few comments first.
    Your discussion of “we”, meaning the history of science community, and that we should be doing exciting interesting things kind of misses the point that there are already a wide number of blogs out there. The problem is not people who are passionate about their subject or who have not engaged with the public, I know plenty of history/ archaeology people who lecture to the public when they have the opportunity.

    The difficulty is two-fold – in an era of cuts and increased pressures of work, the experts don’t often have time to carry out real public engagement, even if they are actually quite good at it, and of course plenty of academics aren’t (And demanding that they be so is foolish). Then there’s the other side of the problem, which you have skated over – the media and what they want. From what I’ve read/ seen/ learnt from people, the media (in general) are seriously dumbed down, and will twist whatever you tell them to fit whatever narrative they want to push or think will resonate best with the audience.
    Hence Cosmos and Bruno. They will not listen to what they are told, and will cut whatever they are given to suit themselves and the time available, not to fit the reality of the history.

    Against that attitude, there’s simply nothing historians of science can do.

    I agree, a program with an allied network of blogs, tweets, youtubes etc would work well, but unless you manage to seize control of the making of a TV program, you’re not going to get it.

    Finally, not everything is a story or suitable to be put into a story, or can even be explained in a story in a half hour TV show.