UCLA » College » Social Sciences » History
Faculty

Theodore Porter


Distinguished Professor of History & Vice Chair for Academic Personnel


Contact Information

Email    TPORTER@HISTORY.UCLA.EDU
Office  5256 Bunche Hall
Phone  310-206-2352
I teach various topics involving history of science, especially the human sciences.

Already by 1980, I was interested in diverse sites of knowledge-making--not just universities and academics, but mining boards, statistical agencies (notably census offices), engineering corps, and mental hospitals.  Most of my work has involved in some way the uses of statistics, calculation, numbers, measures, and data.  My most recent book, Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity (2018), recovers a long-forgotten form of hereditary investigation that took shape in the 1820s. As a medical-social field it was framed by bureaucratic demands, yet it extended beyond them right from the start. Its basis was patient data, gathered up and printed in annual asylum reports. Although patients formed the core population for hereditary study, some asylum doctors were working to extend their data empire to near and distant family members as early as 1840. Doctors and statisticians developed increasingly ambitious tabular technologies to draw out the implications of their data. After 1900, when Mendelism and biometry appeared on the scene, bringing bold ambitions for a new hereditary science, they quickly discovered that asylums and special schools were invaluable, not only for their data, but even for their research methods. Although an obsession with hereditary factors or genes appeared quite early, the work depended mainly on records of bodily measures and diagnosed health conditions, that is, on phenotypic more than genotypic data. Asylum numbers, in my view, were a notable early form of big data.

 Historical and social research on data and statistics has become by now a flourishing international enterprise.  When I was a graduate student, it was just beginning.  My first book, The Rise of Statistical Thinking (1986), was about the development of statistical ambitions and methods in fields ranging from the social science of statistics to biological evolution and thermodynamics. This interest in the relations of the natural and the social is also central to my Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (1995). There I emphasize that effective quantification is never a matter simply of discovery, but always also of administration, hence of social and technological power. Quantitative objectivity is in a way a form of standardization, the use of rules to confine and tame the personal and subjective. Science did not always idealize this mechanical form of objectivity, but has come to do so (at least in its rhetoric) as an adaptation to modern political and administrative cultures—which it at the same time has helped to shape. In both of these books I invert the usual account of the relations between natural and social science by showing how some of the crucial assumptions and methods of science arose within contexts of application. The history of quantification is the history of a social technology, reflecting a sensibility that is as closely linked to fields like accounting and cost-benefit analysis and to social science as to physics. The ethic of systematic calculation as a basis for social decisions—and often, as in inferential statistics, also for scientific demonstration—responds to a political culture marked by distrust of elites and even, in a way, of experts. 

In 2003, Dorothy Ross and I completed a book on the history of the social sciences, volume VII of The Cambridge History of Science volume on The Modern Social Sciences (2003). This is our pioneering effort to provide a synthetic history of social science since the eighteenth century, in relation to each other and to the sciences of nature. The volume tells a story not of detached knowledge, but of tools, theories, and images that have helped to create the modern world. 

 Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (2004) has the most human interest and the richest interpenetration with art and literature. It is, however, my least-loved book.  Nobody seems to want a pioneering statistician, much less a famous eugenicist, to behave like this. Pearson, in defiance of our expectations, was ever in revolt against the confines of this and every other professional identity.  He lived his life, with conscious reference to Goethe, as a bildungsroman. At the age of 23, after his German Wanderjahr, he published a fictionalized autobiography under the title The New Werther, and followed it with a passion play for the nineteenth-century. For fifteen years after that he threw himself into writings on socialism, on the cultural history of the German Reformation (he loathed Luther), and on sexuality, friendship, and the status of women. I’ve been fascinated by the continuities between his works and experiences in these years and the statistical labors that absorbed him beginning about 1892. I am interested, too, in his deep relationship to nature as an object of passionate attraction, which yet, when approached in the true spirit of science, remained elusive. Pearson’s life displays a deep and abiding tension between scientific method as the discipline to control the merely personal and science as an expression of individuality that is inseparable from wisdom and maturity. These ambitions and commitments played out in his work on ether theories in physics and on graphical methods in engineering instruction.  He turned eventually to statistics not merely or mainly as a technical field, but as the basis of knowledge and even wisdom that (he imagined) could provide guidance for a new socialist (and eugenic) order.

I have advised or am advising graduate students working on a variety of historical topics: science and rational leisure; social science and colonial administration; nature and imperialism in the North Atlantic; Chinese mathematics; the British census; scientific exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean; psychical research; museums and ethnology, scientific education, and research on mind-altering drugs.  I have advised three undergraduate thesis in the last few year, one on the Pasadena-based Human Betterment Foundation and its campaign for eugenic sterilization, one on the management of madness in the Civil War, and one on British strategic uses of decoded German messages during World War II.

My next research project, as I envision it, will be about the contradictions of quantification at the intersection of science, business, and government. An ethic of the simple fact, typically in numerical form, grew up over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, less as an export of science than as a political and bureaucratic role for which certain tools of science have been shaped. The ideal has been to reconcile central control with local autonomy, but the required faith in what I call “thin description” is often undermined by creative, self-interested deception. Ambitions for “evidence-based” practices under the neo-liberal governance have formed an unprecedented vulnerability to Funny Numbers (my working title).  The story line is often droll, even if when effects are dismaying.

Selected Publications

Thin Description: Surface and Depth in Science and Science Studies,” Robert Kohler and Kathryn Olesko, eds., Clio Meets Science: The Challenge of History, Osiris, 27 (2012), 209-226.

Funny Numbers,” Culture Unbound (online journal), 4 (2012), 585-598.

Reforming Vision: The Engineer Le Play Learns to Observe Society Sagely,” in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck, eds., Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 281-302

How Science Became Technical,” Isis, 100 (2009), 292-309.

Current Courses by Term

2018 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Teaching Apprentice Practicum

2019 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Teaching Apprentice Practicum

Previous Courses by Term

2018 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

2018 Spring Quarter

Introduction to Historical Practice: Variable Topics in History of Science/Technology

Topics in History of Science

2018 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Advanced Historiography: Science/Technology

2017 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

2017 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Introduction to Historical Practice: Variable Topics in History of Science/Technology

Seminar: History of Science

2016 Fall Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Seminar: History of Science

2016 Spring Quarter

Topics in History: Science/Technology

2016 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

2015 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

2015 Spring Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Introduction to Historical Practice: Variable Topics in History of Science/Technology

2015 Winter Quarter

Topics in History: Science/Technology

2012 Fall Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Topics in History: Science/Technology

2012 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

2011 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Advanced Historiography: Science/Technology

2010 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Seminar: History of Science

2009 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

Seminar: History of Science

2009 Winter Quarter

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

2008 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

2008 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

2007 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Advanced Historiography: Science/Technology

2007 Spring Quarter
2007 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Topics in History: Science/Technology

2006 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

2006 Spring Quarter

History of Modern Thought: Special Topics

2006 Winter Quarter

History of Modern Thought

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

Topics in History: Science/Technology

2005 Fall Quarter

History of Modern Thought

2005 Winter Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

2004 Fall Quarter

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

Topics in History of Science

Seminar: History of Science

2004 Winter Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Introduction to Historical Practice

2003 Fall Quarter

Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

Topics in History of Science

Advanced Historiography: Science/Technology

2003 Spring Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

History of Statistics

2002 Fall Quarter

Introduction to Historical Practice

Fiat Lux Seminar

2002 Spring Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

Seminar: History of Science

2002 Winter Quarter

Topics in History of Science

1999 Fall Quarter

Introduction to History of Science: Physical Sciences since the Enlightenment

Previous Courses by Course

CLUSTER 21A
History of Modern Thought

2018 Fall Quarter

2017 Fall Quarter

HIST 180A
Topics in History of Science

2018 Spring Quarter

2004 Fall Quarter

HIST 97I
Introduction to Historical Practice: Variable Topics in History of Science/Technology

2018 Spring Quarter

2017 Winter Quarter

2015 Spring Quarter

HIST 200O
Advanced Historiography: Science/Technology

2018 Winter Quarter

2011 Fall Quarter

2007 Fall Quarter

2003 Fall Quarter

CLUSTER 21B
History of Modern Thought

2018 Winter Quarter

GE CLST 21B
History of Modern Thought

2017 Winter Quarter

2016 Winter Quarter

2012 Winter Quarter

2010 Winter Quarter

2008 Winter Quarter

2007 Winter Quarter

2006 Winter Quarter

HIST 297B
Seminar: History of Science

2017 Winter Quarter

2010 Winter Quarter

HIST 297A
Seminar: History of Science

2016 Fall Quarter

2009 Fall Quarter

2004 Fall Quarter

2002 Spring Quarter

HIST 3C
Introduction to History of Science: History of Modern Science, Relativity to DNA

2016 Fall Quarter

2016 Winter Quarter

2015 Spring Quarter

2012 Fall Quarter

2009 Fall Quarter

2007 Fall Quarter

2005 Winter Quarter

2004 Winter Quarter

2003 Spring Quarter

2002 Spring Quarter

HIST 201O
Topics in History: Science/Technology

2016 Spring Quarter

2015 Winter Quarter

2012 Fall Quarter

2007 Winter Quarter

2006 Winter Quarter

GE CLST 21A
History of Modern Thought

2015 Fall Quarter

2011 Fall Quarter

2009 Fall Quarter

2008 Fall Quarter

2007 Fall Quarter

2006 Fall Quarter

2005 Fall Quarter

HIST 19
Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars

2009 Fall Quarter

2009 Winter Quarter

2008 Winter Quarter

2006 Fall Quarter

2006 Winter Quarter

2004 Fall Quarter

2003 Fall Quarter

HIST 99
Introduction to Historical Practice

2004 Winter Quarter

2002 Fall Quarter

HIST 195E
Topics in History of Science

2003 Fall Quarter

2002 Winter Quarter

HIST M296
History of Statistics

2003 Spring Quarter

HNRS 98
Fiat Lux Seminar

2002 Fall Quarter

HIST 3B
Introduction to History of Science: Physical Sciences since the Enlightenment

1999 Fall Quarter