Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 3 – Final)

Livingstone’s chapters on “Site” and “Region” followed recent scholarship, showing how historians have begun addressing the significance of the publication and spatial differentiation of science. In his final chapter on “Circulation,” he looks at the ways science moves from location to location and to how fundamentally local knowledge has taken on the appearance of universality.

On Circulation

“Circulation” considers the transmission of scientific knowledge from the local site to the validating authority, or from one experimental observation location to another. Livingstone challenges the idea that the movement of scientific knowledge is a function of its transcendent, neutral, and disembodied character, or, more fundamentally, it inherent universality. For Livingstone, what looks like universality has a great deal to do with the standardization practices across locales.

All aspects of science diffuse differently in different contexts. Take the diffusion of the Copernican theory throughout Europe during the early seventeenth century. While copies of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus were censored in Italy, elsewhere it found little suppression. In France, for example, most copies were available in Jesuit libraries.

The means of transmission of scientific knowledge varied greatly. Scientific societies, learned academies, field clubs, and circulating libraries diffused “ideas and instruments, texts and theories, individuals and inventions” from one place to another. Alongside these organizations there were peripatetic mathematical practitioners, public lecturers, merchants, itinerant clergyman, journalists, and a host of others who acted as conduits in the flow of knowledge.

But the transmission of scientific knowledge is never a straightforward process. Livingstone uses the case of the air pump, invented by Robert Boyle. In the 1660s various efforts were made throughout Europe to construct replicas of Boyle’s celebrated air pump. But the “air pump was in constant alteration: transmission meant transformation.” Because circulation required calibration, disputes arose. According to Livingstone, the knowledge acquired from the air pump experiments depended on “craft knowledge of the working of experimental devices.” “Its circulation beyond the confines of one venue is not simply the story of universal truths being manifest in particular settings.”

Scientific knowledge, for scientist and non-scientist alike, is often inextricably bound up with traveling reports from distant realms. Sciences like observational astronomy, geography, natural history, surveying, meteorology, hydrology, medicinal botany, and so on, depends on eyewitness accounts detached from the controlled environment of the laboratory. Travelers experience necessarily created problems for the ways of knowing for the new science. Who could be trusted? According to Livingstone, “finding out about distant things required discernment about people.” Traveling reports, moreover, were rarely composed spontaneously. They were usually the product of lengthy compositional revision. They were the outcome, writes Livingstone, of “editorial fashioning and rhetorical flourish…a composite product of stylistic convention, personal experience, and travelogue heritage.” The circulation of scientific knowledge, then, raised profound cultural and conceptual challenges.

Livingstone pursues in the next section the problem of verifying the credibility of scientific knowledge presented by local informants, maps, drawings, and photographs. Each of these “objective” formats, he argues, are constrained both by the local conditions of their making and by the community conventions that govern their interpretation.

The challenge of eyewitness testimony encouraged early scientists to develop certain techniques to circumvent these cognitive difficulties. Guaranteeing the trustworthiness of knowledge was supposed by “properly trained eyewitnesses.” This meant disciplining the senses through suitable instruments, instruction in technique, and data gathering. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a slew of texts were published intended to instruct travelers in the art of geographical observation. “Just what should be observed and how such observation should be taken were rehearsed in detail.” But acquiring trustworthy knowledge depended on more than technical know-how—it required moral fiber. “Trustworthiness and personal character,” writes Livingstone, “was all of a piece with trustworthiness in scientific reporting.” The mental, the moral, and the material of scientific traveler were thus merged. The circulation of knowledge, therefore, was an “inescapably social affair involving judgments about people.”

Maps, seemingly objective representations of reality and repositories of trust, were more than just typographic mapping of terrain. They charted magnetic deviation, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, linguistic families and climate patterns, distribution of animal species, poverty and disease, mammal migration, and religious affiliation. But the idea that the map is a straightforward representation of reality is a deception. According to Livingstone, “every map is a controlled fiction.”  When Christopher Columbus produced a new world map he effectively dissolved the local geography of its natives. When James Cook named hundreds of Australian capes, bays, and isles after European naturalists, he at once effaced local designations and brought those spaces into European vernaculars. More examples are readily available, but suffice it to say, “the maps uses of projection and simplification render it a useful fiction.” The map is thus a cultural production.

In the 1800s, photography became yet another strategy for accurately depicting reality. Artistic renderings, just as eyewitness testimony, were quickly called into question and thus untrustworthy. As a consequence, the photograph was a much welcomed instrument, for it was not only empirical, simple, and precise, it also provided vicarious travel, ecstatic visual experience, accurate representation, and unvarnished truth. In reality, however, photographic evidence created as many problems as it solved. Photography is undoubtedly an “artistic craft.” In reproducing the world, travel photographs constructed an imagined world through the lens of the camera. There was much deliberate set up to give the impression of something more visually appealing. “Photographs, then, like paintings and maps, have always been the work of situated observers.”

In the final section of “Circulation,” Livingstone turns to examining the mechanism by which science standardized its findings. What looks like the universality of science turns out to have much to do with replicating, standardizing, or customizing of local procedure. Instruments, training, questionnaires, maps, and images are the techniques of trust that instills knowledge as dependable. All of these techniques help create the illusion of “placelessness,” a requirement to give “universal science” credibility and objectivity.

In conclusion Livingstone offers suggestions for further work, the biographical, or life geographical studies, of the mutual making of scientist and science. Most provocatively, Livingstone calls for a closer examination of rationality itself, “the customary conventions of practical reasoning” as adapted and employed in local settings. “Rationality,” he says, “is always situated rationality. And it is always embodied rationality.”

Science for Livingstone is not a transcendental entity; it is a human invention that necessarily has a history and geography. The implication of this emphasis on social processes erodes naively realistic beliefs about the progress of science. “Bringing science within the domain of geographical scrutiny seems disquieting. It disturbs settled assumptions about the kind of enterprise science is supposed to be.” It complicates the taken for granted division between science, society, and nature. “It [even] renders suspect the idea that there is some unified thing called ‘science.'” Science is not about culture; it is part of culture. For all the rhetoric that science is independent of class, politics, gender, race, religion, and much else besides, Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place demonstrates how science indeed bears the marks of these very particularities.

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