Contributed Papers

Scientific Credibility

Presenter 1

Adorned, Embellished, and Ornamented: Science, Fashion, and Credibility in the Early Royal Society

Sadie Harrison

Independent Scholar


Eminent author and philosopher, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, visited an early meeting of the Royal Society on 30 May 1667. There were two notable mentions of this event in diaries of members of the Royal Society, both of which focus heavily on criticising Cavendish's clothing. Cavendish had been a critic of the society, but instead of mentioning her philosophical work, the men of the Royal Society articulated their dismissal of her presence through their appraisal of her appearance.

This paper takes Cavendish's visit as a case study in the history of how women came to be excluded from knowledge making through the lens of fashion, appearance, and clothing. In the pursuit of credibility, members of the Royal Society were complicit in a post-Restoration reformulation of masculinity: one that prized thrift and plainness over the luxury that had been a focal point of the previous English court. In this new cultural norm, Cavendish's luxurious feminine fashion emphasised her outsider status.

It is now taken for granted that a spectrum exists which separates, on the one side, science, seriousness, and masculinity, from fashion, frivolity, and femininity. The Royal Society was complicit in constructing this spectrum. Conspicuous consumption of fashion and ornament became thought of as opposed to the sobriety associated not only with proper masculinity but also proper knowledge-making. The society's rejection of Margaret Cavendish's presence was a specifically gendered rejection couched in the questions surrounding luxury, propriety, and sobriety in the early years of empirical knowledge-making.


Presenter 2

Scientists on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Alexis Turner

Harvard University


If one could take the pulse of LSD enthusiasts in 1962, it would have been trembling. Scientists had just been dealt a blow by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals and the FDA, who had restricted research access to the drug. At the same time, and with their help, the scientists' subjects, assistants, patients, and friends were enthusiastically bringing LSD to public attention all at once. Anticipating a moral panic, scientists took it upon themselves to launch a public relations campaign to reestablish their authority. It was a disaster. In the coming years, scientists' outreach efforts would coalesce with simultaneous anti-drug campaigns by pharmaceutical companies and legislators to actively generate the panic they'd hoped to avoid. Drawing on archival research, this paper focuses on the brief period when researchers began to distance themselves from their previous positions. I argue that the foregrounding of a handful of personae in the history of psychedelics began to take place in this moment, while others - particularly the assistants, subjects, family, and friends responsible for making such research happen - were shunted to the background. Ultimately, neglecting the role that such "normals" played in expanding awareness of LSD while hyper-focusing on two or three prominent public figures was a significant factor in scientists' failure to identify appropriate tactics for interacting with the public. This argument revises the current understanding of the history of LSD in the United States by moving beyond anti-democratic narratives that would pin a rejection of scientific authority on simple public irrationality. Instead, such reactions must be understood in their broader social, political, and economic contexts.


Presenter 3

Social Science for What? Wasting Taxpayer Dollars, Winning Golden Fleece Awards

Mark Solovey

University of Toronto


In 1975, U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) issued the first of many monthly Golden Fleece Awards, each given to a government-funded research project deemed to have little practical value -- implying American taxpayers were being "fleeced." The US National Science Foundation (NSF), a central civilian science agency, received many awards, including one for a 1979 grant to anthropologist Sherry Ortner for her project "Himalayan Mountaineering, Social Change, and the Evolution of Religion among the Sherpas of Nepal." Ortner had studied with the eminent cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, published a recent book called Sherpas through Their Rituals, and went on to a stellar career, marked by a 1992 MacArthur "genius" award.

Regarding her NSF grant, Proxmire explained that he did not intend to criticize Ortner's research per se. But at a time of "rampaging inflation," he asked why the government was spending taxpayer money "to send researchers half way around the world to study what is at best an esoteric question." To curb such abuse, he put forth a controversial policy proposal that would have made legislators responsible for reviewing individual grants awarded by science agencies such as the NSF. In response, Ortner suggested that Proxmire was an ignoramus whose misguided efforts had dangerous implications for American science and foreign policy. In questioning the value of her research, Proxmire, she claimed, betrayed a dangerous ignorance about the forces shaping international development and U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, Ortner tied her research to mounting critiques of modernization theory and its uptake in US-sponsored development plans around the world.

Here, I use the heated exchange between the politician Proxmire and the scholar Ortner to illuminate shifting contours of US science policy during the 1970s, NSF's particular role in the federal science arena, and the social sciences' conflicted position in American political culture.


Presenter 4

Tides of Irrationality

Taner Edis

Truman State University


Supporters of science express much concern about popular pseudoscientific beliefs and anti-science movements, from opposition to vaccines to climate change denial. Such worries are intensified in today's climate of post-truth politics, social media-driven conspiracy theories, and electorally successful right-wing populism. Similar concerns also surfaced in the United States in the 1970s, which saw the birth of organized skepticism aiming to defend the cognitive authority of mainstream science. Founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal did not just attack pseudosciences such as astrology, but associated a "rising tide of irrationality" with a danger of totalitarian politics. While fashions in claims rejected by mainstream science have changed-few today care about biorhythms or pyramid power-the history of the skeptical movement in the United States provides an illuminating example of an elite response to perceived public irrationality. In today's environment, it is particularly notable how skeptics have often showed an affinity to narratives of progress that implicitly affirm technocratic politics and an institutional conservatism. If much of the public continues on a more populist trajectory, more conventional defenders of science will have to confront more questions about who speaks for science, past and present, and which experts are legitimate.