THEODORE M PORTER
Office: 5256 BUNCHE HALL
6265 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473
I teach various topics pertaining more or less directly to history of science. My first book, The Rise of Statistical Thinking (1986), was about the development of statistical ideas and methods in fields ranging from the social science of statistics to biological evolution and thermodynamics. This interest in the relations of the natural and the social is also central to my Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (1995). There I emphasize that effective quantification is never a matter simply of discovery, but always also of administration, hence of social and technological power. Quantitative objectivity is in a way a form of standardization, the use of rules to confine and tame the personal and subjective. Science did not always idealize this mechanical form of objectivity, but has come to do so (at least in its rhetoric) as an adaptation to modern political and administrative cultures—which it at the same time has helped to shape. In both of these books I invert the usual account of the relations between natural and social science, by showing how some of the crucial assumptions and methods of science arose within contexts of application. The history of quantification is the history of a social technology, reflecting a sensibility that is as closely linked to fields like accounting and cost-benefit analysis and to social science as to physics. The ethic of systematic calculation as a basis for social decisions—and often, as in inferential statistics, also for scientific demonstration—responds to a political culture marked by distrust of elites and even, in a way, of experts.
In 2003, Dorothy Ross an I completed a book on the history of the social sciences, volume VII of The Cambridge History of Science on The Modern Social Sciences (2003). This is our pioneering effort to provide a synthetic history of social science since the eighteenth century, in relation to each other and to the sciences of nature. The volume tells a story not of detached knowledge, but of tools, theories, and images that have helped to create the modern world.
My most recent book is Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (Feb. 2004). This is a biographical study of a scientist who was ever in revolt against the confines of this or any professional identity and who lived his life, with conscious reference to Goethe, as a bildungsroman. At the age of 23, after his German Wanderjahre, he published a fictionalized autobiography under the title The New Werther, and followed it with a passion play for the nineteenth-century. For a decade after that he threw himself into writings on socialism, on the cultural history of the German Reformation (he loathed Martin Luther), and on sexuality, friendship, and the status of women. I’ve been fascinated by the continuities between his works and experiences in these years and the statistical labors that absorbed him after about 1892. I am interested, too, in his deep relationship to nature as an object of passionate attraction, which yet, when approached in the true spirit of science, must always be remote. Pearson’s life displays a deep and revealing ambivalence between scientific method as a way of controlling the merely personal and science as an expression of the individuality that is inseparable from wisdom and maturity. Finally, I think I have learned some new things about the relation of statistics to all of this, as well as to ether theories in physics and graphical methods in engineering instruction.
I have advised or am advising graduate students working on a variety of historical topics: science and rational leisure; social science and colonial administration; nature and imperialism in the North Atlantic; Chinese mathematics; the British census; scientific exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean; and psychical research.
I am working at the moment on two book projects. One of them is about the history of the scientist as form of life and cultural role. I am interested in the interplay between science as an encompassing ideal of personal and public rationality and science defined more narrowly as a set of technical specialties. Paradoxically, the vast expansion of science since the late nineteenth century has encouraged a sharper distinction between science and ordinary knowledge, with important implications for what we may call public reason.
My other current project is about statistics and the study of heredity in the twentieth century. While the new science of heredity is usually identified with Mendelian genetics, it was always partly statistical, and human genetics (eugenics) was overwhelmingly statistical. It was associated not only with the laboratory and the breeding farm, but equally with insane asylums, prisons, schools for the feeble-minded, and life insurance companies. The importance of this statistical side of genetics has not disappeared but rather has expanded in the age of genomics and the Human Genome Initiative.
“Reforming Vision: The Engineer Le Play Learns to Observe Society Sagely,” in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck, eds., Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 281-302
“Statistics and the Career of Public Reason: Engagement and Detachment in a Quantified World,” in Tom Crook and Glen O’Hara, eds., Statistics and the Public Sphere: Numbers and the People in Modern Britain, c. 1800-2000 (New York: Routledge, 2011), 32-47; (earlier version in Spanish translation as) “La estadistica y el curso de la razón pública: compromiso e imparcialidad en un mundo cuantificao,” Empiria, 18 (July-Dec. 2009), 19-36
“How Science Became Technical,” Isis, 100 (2009), 292-309.
“Life Insurance, Medical Testing, and the Management of Mortality,” in Lorraine Daston, ed., Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 226-246.
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