'There's No Shame in Being a Hack' – The Chronicle of Higher Education

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The historian of science Steven Shapin, who has taught at Harvard since 2004, began his career as a geneticist, an experience he has drawn on across his work, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in his classic A Social History of Truth (University of Chicago Press). Hoping to demonstrate that, as he puts it, “Scientists, like the laity, hold the bulk of their knowledge, so to speak, by courtesy,” he begins by describing in technical detail some of his old laboratory work analyzing mammalian DNA:
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The historian of science Steven Shapin, who has taught at Harvard since 2004, began his career as a geneticist, an experience he has drawn on across his work, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in his classic A Social History of Truth (University of Chicago Press). Hoping to demonstrate that, as he puts it, “Scientists, like the laity, hold the bulk of their knowledge, so to speak, by courtesy,” he begins by describing in technical detail some of his old laboratory work analyzing mammalian DNA:

And so on, for several more sentences impenetrable to the lay reader. Finally: “This was DNA; I had it in my hand; I had verified the facts of its composition.”
But how did he know? Only by relying on an in-principle limitless set of assumptions, each grounded in trust — one of Shapin’s keywords and the major subject of A Social History of Truth. “Of course, I could have … adopted a skeptical posture about the truthfulness of the label on the ‘ethanol’ bottle, and consequently about the competence and honesty of whoever prepared the liquid.” But even if he tested the ethanol, he would only enmesh himself in further chains of faith. Scientific knowledge depends on these “trusting systems,” infinitely vaster than any given scientist or even any particular area of scientific inquiry.
Shapin’s major early works — Leviathan and the Air-Pump (Princeton University Press), co-authored with Simon Schaffer, as well as A Social History of Truth — blended sociology and history to tell a new story about early modern science, one in which the advancement of knowledge depends on reputational capital and the fundamentally social institution of credibility. “Cognitive order” and “moral order” are mutually interlocking. “What social conditions,” Shapin asks, “have to be satisfied for the collective good called knowledge to exist?”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, that question has become one to which almost everyone on the planet has some relationship. As Shapin wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2020, one of the “the biggest questions that the Covid crisis puts to us [is] whether we can recognize genuine expertise and act on it.” Nor are Shapin’s interests confined to the hard sciences. Like Michel Foucault or the philosopher Ian Hacking, Shapin has long pursued a concern, persistent if auxiliary to his main focus, in the way people’s sense of themselves is shaped by expert discourse.
Accordingly, Shapin, across his work, pays sometimes-glancing and sometimes-focused attention to psychology, phenomenology, taste, and perception — and, voluminously in the last two decades, to wine connoisseurship, a topic which, when we spoke recently by Zoom and by email, he did not neglect. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In the most recent History of Science, you published a history of the distinction between so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences.
That distinction doesn’t go back forever. It arose in post-World War II America, and, while it’s traveled around the world, it doesn’t sit well with non-Anglophone sensibilities about the human and natural sciences. I was interested in the hard/soft language because it contains both description and evaluation. It’s widely considered good to be hard, bad to be soft.
I called the distinction an “array” because it presumed the “soft” human sciences and the “hard” natural sciences to belong in one ordered series. People could think of sociology, say, as an inferior or undeveloped version of physics or chemistry. And, while there has been a certain amount of pushback, the human sciences — especially in this country — have labored to be “like” the natural sciences. Or at least to follow the methods ideally ascribed to the natural sciences. Not quite the same thing.
I’ve long been interested in the heterogeneities smoothed over by references to the nature or method of “science,” and I’ve also been interested in vernacular, as opposed to formally academic, sensibilities about what science is, how it proceeds, and the character of its knowledge. In past decades, there was considerable academic attention to what “hardness” or “softness” consisted of, but there was never great agreement about this. The most significant invocations of “hard” and “soft” flourished in journalism, general cultural commentary, and politics.
What was at stake, historically, in the desire to secure the hard/soft distinction?
The distinction belongs to political history because it specially flourished in and around public debates over whether basic research in the human sciences should receive state funding as well as the natural sciences. One way of saying “no” was to portray sociology and psychology as inferior, or immature, forms of physics and chemistry. And, since textural terms contain evaluation as well as description, the attribution of “softness” was favored by opponents, including politicians from the political right. In the febrile political context of the 1950s and 1960s, there was concern that the human sciences seemed unwholesomely associated with social reform — unduly interested in marginalized social groups and in desegregation, for example.
You write: “Social scientific knowledge can, under certain conditions, realize itself.” There’s a version of the claim in an earlier paper too, “Cordelia’s Love,” in which you refer to the way some expert categories, like the unconscious, “actually come to constitute the phenomenal base to which they refer.” I’m fascinated by this idea.
To generalize, the natural sciences inquire into things in the world; the human sciences may, under certain conditions, make things in the world. People can define themselves and others through categories originating in human-science expertise — to be “charismatic,” “neurodiverse,” “neurotypical,” “manic-depressive,” to have an “Oedipus complex.” True, high degrees of dissensus have been one index of disciplinary “softness,” but that same dissensus testifies to a great degree of interest and involvement in the claims of the human sciences. Theoretical physics is undeniably important, but people’s passions and interests are not much engaged by what’s going on with the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Academic views of race, gender, and intelligence are notoriously disputed, but such dispute is a sign that people care very much. Why not consider this sense of consequence a measure of “hardness”?
There’s an influential theory of modernity shared by sociologists like Niklas Luhmann and Anthony Giddens which, toward the end of A Social History of Truth, you summarize this way: “Trust is no longer bestowed on familiar individuals; it is accorded to institutions and abstract capacities thought to reside in certain institutions.” One of the big points of the book is to complicate that picture by explaining that face-to-face trust remains an essential currency.
It’s undeniable that the range of our engagements with potential knowledge sources has become immensely larger than it was pre-urbanization, pre-Gutenberg, pre-telegraph, pre-internet. Yet “trust in familiar people” and, indeed, the role of the face to face have not been replaced in late modernity by abstract trust in systems and institutions. The anti-vaxxers distressingly rely on stories passed on by family, friends, and neighbors, but so too do the pro-vaxxers.
Much of my confidence in vaccine efficacy and proper-masking behavior happens to involve what I’ve been told by my trusted and quite likeable primary-care provider. Long ago, I took graduate-level courses in microbiology and immunology, but my knowledge of Covid and of mRNA vaccines remains indirect. I find trustworthy sources, and I trust them.
In the Truth book and in some later writing, I argued that “trust in familiar people” and the role of the face-to-face domain are now of even greater significance than they once were. And this is especially marked in the worlds of high-tech and entrepreneurship, where “off the shelf” routines of “how things are done” are substantially lacking and where “charismatic” leaders — think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk — can embody disruptive principles of right behavior.
As a graduate student, some of my first reading in sociology was the work of Erving Goffman, and I’ve returned repeatedly to his writings about the face-to-face domain. If there is any originality in my appropriation of writers like Goffman, it is finding the persisting importance of the face to face and of embodied authority in domains where it has been presumed absent — science, high-tech, globalized bureaucracies. I find “disembodied knowledge” always and everywhere performed by people with bodies.
You’ve been in a sociology department, and “sociologist” seems as good a descriptor of your disciplinary location as “historian.” In the 2011 introduction to the reissue of Leviathan and the Air-Pump, you say of Thomas Kuhn that his interest in history “propelled him … probably unintentionally, into implicit sociology.”
Kuhn was a very complicated man, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a complex and subtle book. As a matter of record, he absolutely hated what the sociologists of scientific knowledge had done.
Is that interesting? Yes. Is it decisive? No. I think Kuhn was, indeed, an implicit sociologist, and a very perceptive one; I think the intellectual offspring that he denied or renounced produced some of the most constructive, interesting, and “Kuhnian” work on science, and their influence has spread over the academy, almost reaching the status of the taken for granted.
Kuhn didn’t think what he’d written had much sociological significance. I differ. Authors can exert little, if any, control on readers’ interpretations. And it’s an index of the richness of Kuhn’s Structure that some of its readers found in it resources for doing what the author reckoned wrong or impossible.
At the time he wrote his book, the conditions of possibility were there, for the first time, to deal with science in a naturalistic way. And Kuhn was one of the first to offer a systematically naturalistic account of science and how it changed over time.
What does it mean to deal with the history of science in a naturalistic way?
I think of naturalism in opposition to evaluation. The core of what I mean by naturalism is to approach science — how it proceeds, how it changes — in a matter-of-fact way, and to describe it without either denigration or celebration. Take it as an object of description and interpretation as you would take natural phenomena.
Darwin was a naturalist in both senses: He did natural history, and he approached species change and even the origin of the human species as natural history, where the alternative was surrounding these things with an aura of the holy. It was also during Darwin’s lifetime that naturalistic interpretations of the Bible became consequential.
Some of Leviathan’s initial reviewers, you note, were sort of baffled by what you could call its disciplinary promiscuity.
People look at that book and some other things I’ve done and, if they like it, celebrate it as an example of “interdisciplinarity” and, if they don’t like it, say “Well, this interdisciplinarity is a bit like doing philosophy without a license.” But I have not tried to do “interdisciplinarity”; I’ve tried to engage with concrete problems using whatever resources were available and seemed pertinent.
Some people might think — and in a certain sense, rightly — that I was not very well educated. I went to a small liberal-arts college where I was inoculated against what I saw as the narrowness of specialization. I spent just over three years as a graduate student — from start to finish — a testament far more to the then-formlessness of my department than to my brilliance or energy.
Or to put my unprofessionalism another way: I just like reading a lot of stuff, different kinds of stuff. I rarely fail to find a use for all this stuff, including fiction. I’ve continued that bad habit of reading promiscuously.
I was very lucky in my academic work environment, especially the first 20 years when I was in Britain, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was not then that uncommon to encounter academics from a range of disciplines — from astronomy to medieval history to psychology — who had some familiarity with and interest in the views of, for example, E.P. Thompson or Ernst Gombrich or Mary Douglas. Perhaps something to do with the BBC and with national broadsheet newspapers. Perhaps something to do with Oxbridge High Table conversation. We didn’t have High Table in Edinburgh; we did, however, have pubs. Many pubs.
Some of the wide-ranging debates at that time — including those swirling around realism, rationalism, and relativism — were all join-in topics. And the environment I was in was not much defined by disciplines. What would happen if you took a problem — and for my little group in Edinburgh the problem was how to describe science as a typical form of culture — and brought everything available to bear on that problem? That’s a world we’ve substantially lost. Disciplinary professionalism and the bureaucratic culture of continuous evaluation helped put an end to that sort of thing.
Should there be some incentive structure for introducing more of that kind of cross-fertilization, or is it too late?
I think it’s too late. Take the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford. I spent a year at Stanford, and the competent and well-meaning people running the place saw the change: People were supposed to have lunch and talk to each other, but some fellows resented time taken away from going into their studies and writing chapter three of their books. And you can’t criticize that — especially with increased professional responsibilities, this is the precious time you have to write. But the tradition was that you were supposed to have lunch and to talk to the fascinating and diverse people drawn together, and, during the splendid year I was there, many people didn’t want to do that. They didn’t have the time. I had just finished two books when I arrived in the mid-1990s, so I really didn’t have a writing project in hand. I wanted to talk to people and learn something new. I think I did.
That brings me to something that surprised me, which you mention in that 2011 intro to Leviathan. In your first 13 years in Edinburgh, you actually published very little. You didn’t turn your dissertation into a book. What were you doing instead?
I don’t offer myself or my past circumstances as a model to my students. I know perfectly well that things have changed. But what was I doing? I judged that my thesis was mediocre. And it was. I abandoned it — not as soon as I should have.
I was being educated. My colleagues were a sociologist (Barry Barnes) — by the way, without a Ph.D. (those were the days) — and a philosopher (David Bloor) whose degree was in experimental psychology, and we had the leisure to talk around common subjects. That was before Research Assessment Exercises and the bureaucracies of an audit culture. It was good.
No one was measuring my productivity, but I felt I ought to be doing much more. I wasn’t celebrating my freedom. However, it turns out that those were very important years for me. I’m afraid it sounds like nostalgia — “Those were the days my friend / We thought they’d never end.” It was very much the Mary Hopkin time. But that’s the way it was — and, of course, the days did end.
Let’s talk about wine. From the early 2000s, you’ve written both academic articles and general-audience essays about the cultures of food and wine — including an interest in the changing ways that wine people talk about the way wine tastes.
Many people who have been kind enough to read the things regard it as a digression, and I’m not inclined to argue with them. Many people regard it as bit of fun. And I don’t argue with them. And lots of people say that all it amounts to is getting to go off to Burgundy and Piemonte and the Willamette Valley — and I don’t argue with them either.
There are worse jobs!
There are, indeed, worse jobs. But I can make a case, if I’m obliged to, that this is quite serious stuff. It’s serious stuff because if you’re interested in objectivity, you should be interested in subjectivity. You should be interested in the how-they-do-it question: How is objective knowledge made and portrayed; how are subjective judgments made and portrayed? And the provocation of taking something as apparently full of bullshit, as arbitrary, as opposite as it’s possible to be from natural science, and trying to treat it as a culture that talks about the world and one’s experience in and knowledge of the world — this is serious. I want to understand how description and evaluation work, how judgment is shared (if it comes to be); how private experience is communicated and made, in terms of art, “intersubjective.”
That culture is everywhere now — the conventions for rating wine and for attempting to perceive its flavor components are highly portable; beer, whiskey, cigars, chocolate, and so on have all produced comparable discourses.
Oenophiles these days sometimes can’t compete with fanciers of supposedly less-elevated aesthetic objects — coffee, beer, tea, and on and on. The producers of Wine Spectator also put out Cigar Aficionado — both geared to the aspirational market.
Right, they share a publisher and a points-based scoring system. What don’t you like about Wine Spectator?
Nothing that it doesn’t share with so much present-day wine writing — joylessness, nervous concern with “distinction” and “getting things right” — and, yes, the damn points — though they’re practically everywhere these days.
What I especially don’t like about much wine writing is analysis into factors and the notion that this is what you must do to enjoy your wine (if that’s a word the analysts allow). I don’t much like the idea that goodness can and must be reliably assessed and measured, that you should make sure you’re getting the right amount of goodness-bang for your buck. And that if you do the analyses, or if you accept the analyses of a certified master, then you will be assured of getting the right QPR (Quality-Price-Ratio), and you will be recognized by others as having done so.
Why do we have to analyze wine into olfactory factors? Why do we have to have a linear scale of goodness? Why do we have to think of wine as a stable thing rather than as something whose pleasures, and, indeed, whose sensory characteristics, vary with scene, company, prior knowledge, and expectations? To say that is to remind ourselves of wine drinking in naturally occurring scenes, not in the controlled, lab-like conditions whose purpose is precisely to eliminate the variability of naturally occurring scenes.
Talk about wine should not be bullshit, and while it’s not some sort of sin to talk about things like color, sweetness, acidity, and maybe tannin or astringency, there’s inevitably an enormous amount of bullshit in assigning specific words to specific odors.
The limits of descriptive words don’t define the limits of experience or of knowledge. There are good reasons to object to analytic talk as defining what’s legitimate and permissible or what indexes knowledgeability. I use the example of my ability to recognize my wife in all sorts of conditions while being unsure that I can define her, or even allow others to recognize her, by an analytic list of her features — height, hair color, BMI, etc.
I can recognize her when I see her, and I can recognize family resemblances with her brother and sister. And, in the same way, why not say that people familiar with, say, Le Chambertin recognize it, and wines like it, when they taste it, even though they may have no or few descriptive words for “what it’s like”?
Modern wine writers reject what they think of as the Old Bullshit — vague or impressionistic aesthetic descriptors like “masculine” and “feminine”; “breed”; “elegance”; allusions to art and music. That was all “subjective” — even though speech like that seemed to make sense to past drinkers.
So now we have the New Bullshit, which is signaled as referential — pointing to what is actually “in the glass,” what sensations they cause when you smell and drink. So we have the “roasted lilacs,” “wet stones,” “unripe boysenberry,” that kind of thing — which is just ridiculous. It’s false objectivity, a ritual of objectivity. It’s not even nonsense. The great British wine writers of the past and near-past resisted — Waugh, Hugh Johnson, Kingsley Amis (when he occasionally turned his hand to it), the splendid Jancis Robinson (though she’s now made her peace with the people who like points and “damp stones”).
There must be quite a few of your readers who know you primarily through your wine writing.
Some of the wine and food writing comes in my general interest London Review of Books or New Yorker essays, and I really don’t mind giving readers a bit of pleasure, if I can. Or at least, I don’t mean to torture them or beat them into submission.
Pleasure is both a topic and a resource. Since Montaigne, the essay is a form designed for purposes other than bludgeoning readers into submission. I don’t mind leaving the door a bit open when I leave.
That penchant for the essay comes through in the academic work too, in the sense that you’re often quite fun to read. To what extent have you formed your career on consciously literary lines — do you think of yourself as a writer?
I’m really pleased that any readers find my things enjoyable. I’ve always respected the craft of writing; I think academics have shamefully neglected that craft; and I like the idea that we should all be able to, and want to, write in different idioms, for different purposes and readerships. I’m drawn to the example of Kingsley Amis — admittedly a man with many unpleasant opinions — who saw no shame in writing journalism and wine commentary as well as novels and poetry, pathos as well as comedy. There’s no shame in being a “hack,” in doing different kinds of things appropriate to the form and just as well as one can. Academic writers don’t have to write “for the file”; they can try to write to be read. And one way of getting read is not to bore people, to encourage them to read, and to keep reading.
I’m interested in rhetorical forms — commonplaces, proverbs, adages, aphorisms. These are all devices with which to engage readers and listeners, devices that present-day academics — natural scientists, of course, but humanists and social scientists too — seem determined to eliminate from their repertoire. It’s been a loss.
In the distant past, I wrote short stories and poetry. I don’t do that anymore — I wasn’t very good at it — but the inclinations persist. I read novels all the time. I sometimes learn things from novels — and from film too — that find their way into my academic work, but, of course, I’d read novels and watch film even if there was no professional benefit.
What novels do you like?
I like novels that are not apparently “serious” but that work on you in serious ways. I was raised on the great Russian novels that thundered on about life, death, and fate. I have no interest in those anymore. I like novels centered on the commonplace, the everyday, the apparently small. I’ve read all of Anne Tyler; I’ve read all of Elizabeth Strout. I like the English novelists of manners, past and present. I like Roddy Doyle; and I think the English playwright Alan Ayckbourn is a very great observer of ordinary social life — its comedies and its tragedies. I like books that don’t hit you over the head, whose meanings you’re allowed to discover. In film: the great Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu; the Talking Heads TV films of Alan Bennett. I’ve seen, and admired, everything by Mike Leigh; and I’m currently fixated on the films of Kelly Reichardt — Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, First Cow. Nothing much happens, and then you find yourself deeply moved.
Novelists and filmmakers and actors know about interpersonal relations, about how people make themselves up and deal with each other, infinitely better than the sociologists — with the possible exception of Erving Goffman.
I was told by my friend Matt Hunter, who teaches English at Texas Tech and has recently become a somewhat obsessive wine connoisseur, that I had to ask you what your favorite wine is. He’s read all of your wine essays. You don’t have to answer.
I can bore with the best about extraordinary wines I’ve had, but you’re right: I won’t answer a question about my “favorite.” Unflawed wines give pleasure or not according to the occasion. Tonight, I’m making a low-calorie version of eggplant parmesan, and I think a wine that would go with it really nicely is a Copertino Rosso Riserva from Puglia. It’s made from the Negroamaro grape. Is it the greatest wine in the world? No, I suppose not, and its $10 price tag indicates that few people think it is. But there’s nothing I’d rather drink with low-cal eggplant parmesan.

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