“It may safely be said,” wrote naturalist and U.S. Commissioner for Fisheries Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1878, “that wherever the white man plants his foot and the so-called civilization of a country is begun, inhabitants of the air, land, and the water, begin to disappear.” Particularly salmon at the heart of the thriving Pacific Northwest fishing industry were subject to this “fatal influence.” Baird’s warnings regarding overfishing and habitat destruction were among the earliest written accounts to caution against overexploiting the region’s resources. In other parts of the world, like northern Europe and Japan, it had long been “evident to every one how important it is to carry on the fisheries in accordance with certain well-defined rules based on a thorough knowledge of the nature and mode of life of the fish,” as Baird phrased it. He concluded that such knowledge was crucial for Americans, too, “if the future of the fisheries is not to be seriously endangered.”1 Today, salmon are at five percent of the abundance recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest is perhaps irreparably damaged.2
In early modern Japan, the study of nature, known at the time as honzōgaku, was primarily a bookish enterprise. The work of scholars who studied rocks and minerals, herbs and plants, flowers and trees, insects and fish, birds and animals—or, as they collectively called them, “myriads of things” (banbutsu) or “herbs-trees-birds-beasts-insects-fish-metals-jewels-grounds-stones” (sōmokukinjūchūgyokingyokudoseki)—began and ended with books. Canonical encyclopedias like Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (Honzō kōmoku in Japanese editions) and Kaibara Ekiken’s Yamato honzō served not only as foundations of scholars’ research and repositories of institutional knowledge but also as the ultimate source of legitimation for their claims on nomenclature, taxonomy, morphology, and aspect as well as for the pharmacological, gastronomical, agricultural, and aesthetic use of plants and animals.
Skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science. . . . Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.
The executive director of the American Meteorological Society, Keith Seitter, made this distinction about skepticism in his letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, on June 21, 2017. In that letter, he bemoaned the secretary’s rejection of empirically based knowledge about climate change. At the same time, he underlined the importance of related research and of taking the resulting evidence seriously.
The s that is now often added to turn the history of knowledge into the history of knowledges marks a huge challenge. While scholars working within European academic traditions increasingly recognize in principle that there are many kinds of knowledges and endeavor to respect them, any attempt to bring fundamentally different kinds of knowledge into sustained contact is extremely difficult.
The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it offers some food for thought.
In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway.