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On Science and the Past, with a Nod to Davy Crockett: A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

May 29, 2015Patrick NunnallyEventsComments Off on On Science and the Past, with a Nod to Davy Crockett: A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Some tales about the Mississippi River region are well known and are true, some are well known and are fiction, and some of the most important are true, and have been well known but are barely remembered.

Conevery Bolton Valencius, a historian of science from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, presented an entertaining and informative talk about the last kind of tale: the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12. Her talk kicked off the final day of the “Once and Future River” symposium by asking us to think about what we know, what we think we know, and what difference the difference makes.

To begin at the beginning, the New Madrid earthquakes violently rearranged the landscape of the river corridor south of the junction with the Ohio.  Not only were trees flattened for miles, and the river and its lakes and tributaries reordered, but nascent settlement patterns on the frontier of white settlement were disrupted as well.  New Madrid went from being a thriving regional trade center with many economic interactions between native people and incoming whites to a backwater community.  Native people lost what foothold they had retained in the region and fled west.

Within a generation, the earthquakes, which had been felt as far away as Boston, remained so well known that Davy Crockett’s autobiography could include casual references to chasing bears down into the fissures in the ground left after the quakes.  But shortly after that, by the time of the Civil War, certainly, the earthquake history had all but disappeared.

Valencius argues that, in part, this was due to the press of other events.  Significant Civil War battles were fought along the Mississippi River in the immediate vicinity of the quakes.  But as is the case with most good history, there appear to be other elements at work as well.  As the region became more and more a rural “backwater” the accounts handed down through families and recorded in personal data collections such as probate records became less “scientific,” more “anecdotal.”  Throughout most of the 20th century, science was seen as the purview of men with instruments (and they were mostly men for the vast majority of the 20th century) conveying knowledge that was otherwise inaccessible.

This is in many ways the real story Valencius has to share: what counts as scientific knowledge, who creates that knowledge, what is discounted in this celebration of “scientific” knowledge, and who is discounted as their knowledge is marginalized?  That’s a lot of questions, but they may turn out to be among the central questions of our time.

For example, and this is a case that Valencius only alluded to, what are we to make of the debates about the “science”  concerning climate change?  Few any more doubt that climate change is real; the debates are over the causes and the actions that should be taken.  The consequences of these debates are enormous, and we should not be surprised at how the battle lines have been drawn and how fiercely they are contested.  Still, though, we can be taken aback when basic scientific facts, or, here’s the kicker, what we take for basic scientific facts, are so hotly disputed.  As the saying goes “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Valencius’ talk, available by scrolling down through this link, does what good scholarship ought to do: have us think in a new way about something we thought we understood.  It’s a bonus–for me at least–that the talk was presented so well and had the Mississippi at its core.


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