Bulls, bears and now dinosaurs?

September 15, 1995

"Is economic history in decline?" Like all the best academic conference session titles it invited the response "It all depends what you mean by . .."

Any such debate tends to have hints of the dinosaurs gathering to discuss their impending demise. But a fair number of dinosaurs massed for the final afternoon of the International Congress of Historical Sciences here last week - a time when most participants have succumbed to fatigue.

Using popularity as the measure of progress or decline Patrick O'Brien, director of the Institute of Historical Research, London, took a gloomy view. He cited declining interest at undergraduate level and a falling number of professors. The future did not look promising either: "When I talk to young people I see little evidence they are excited by economic history in the way they are in the new cultural history. I get the impression our subject is regarded as difficult and rather tedious."

Quoting participation figures, Paola Subbachi of Bocconi University, Milan, suggested the balance of the discipline was changing, with Japan, China and Australasia making up for the decline among West Europeans.

China certainly put the concept of unpopularity into context. Huan Zhu of Northeast Normal University, Changchun, said: "Some monographs have only small readerships - maybe only 2,500", drawing titters from those accustomed to regarding 500 as a decent readership. Amusement redoubled as he pointed out that "other papers are really only read by their authors" - a state of affairs recognisable to all.

But if there is a loss of popularity, what do you do about it? Joel Makyr of Northwestern University, Chicago - evidently an exponent of that city's fast-talking good humour - had one answer: "The enemy of economic history is boredom. Unlike mathematical economists we can't prove anything. Unlike historians we can't write the definitive work on something. And that's our asset - controversy keeps economic history alive."

All of which assumes that being popular has some virtue. Gabriel Tortolla of the University of Alcala de Henares, Spain, and president of the International Economic History Association, felt there was a trade-off between popularity and academic achievement. "What is achieved at the expense of popularity is high-grade social science, and we have made the right choice. Work being done at the moment in economic history will endure, while much of what historians are doing, much of which is frivolous, will be forgotten in a generation."

But anyone seeking evidence that you can be interesting and academically serious need only have waited for Professor Makyr's second contribution, in which he pointed to the controversies giving the subject vitality: "We are seeing the rediscovery of institutions and a growth in extra-market activity, with a rejection of static equilibrium models and challenges to the simplistic view that the market does everything". It was hard to escape the conclusion that what economic history really needs are more practitioners with Professor Makyr's sharpness and humour.

END SEA /EADL/SLUG:whitekp-1 FROM:disk1/supps/thes/15.04.1HM.TXY EDITION: PAGE:4 NAME:Joanne SOURCE:The Times Higher Education Supplement ISSUE:1193 DATE:15 September 1995 COPYRT: KEYWORDS: HEADLINE:Rose slams film and TV portrayal of scientists;Steven Rose BYLINE:Kam Patel SECTION:Home news STORY: Biologist Steven Rose will next week attack cinema and television representation of scientists as naive and damaging to the profession.

He will argue in the annual BBC/Open University lecture at the Museum of the Moving Image that visual media rarely enable the viewer to share in the inner workings of science, to understand how experiments are made, the limitations of technology and the struggle to extract meaning from data. "By failing to do this, cinema and television permit science to appear authoritarian rather than authoritative, leaving it curiously open to the critiques mounted by either social constructionists or the new age and anti-science movements."

Professor Rose, director of the brain and behaviour research group at the OU, says visual media should make more of an effort to take "science out of the box" assigned to it by film-makers and show it to be an integral feature of 20th-century technoculture.

He will look at the changing image of scientists on film and will argue that before the second world war they were portrayed as harmless eccentrics with a line in laboratory explosions. With the war, they became unimaginably clever theoreticians like Einstein or boffins who invented smart devices to help with the war effort.

Later Quatermass and Dr Who presented questionable images. "The scientist in such fictions is a man of authority, outwitting bumbling bureaucrats, but above all with a glamorous dumb female sidekick."

Professor Rose singles out two postwar movies, Dr Strangelove and The Man in the White Suit, as transcending these simplicities. "In their separate ways these make clear the driving forces of modern science: the military and the search for profit and its overwhelming masculinity."

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