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Theodore Porter

Distinguished Professor of History & Peter Reill Chair in European History (1450 to Modern)

Contact Information

Office  5256 Bunche Hall
Phone  310-206-2352
I teach various topics pertaining more or less directly to history of science.

My first book, The Rise of Statistical Thinking (1986), was about the development of statistical ideas 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.

My most recent book is Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (2004). This is a biographical study of a scientist who was ever in revolt against the confines of this or any professional identity and who lived his life, with conscious reference to Goethe, as a bildungsroman. At the age of 23, after his German Wanderjahre, he published a fictionalized autobiography under the title The New Werther, and followed it with a passion play for the nineteenth-century. For a decade after that he threw himself into writings on socialism, on the cultural history of the German Reformation (he loathed Martin 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 after 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, must always be remote. Pearson’s life displays a deep and revealing ambivalence between scientific method as a way of controlling the merely personal and science as an expression of individuality that is inseparable from wisdom and maturity. Finally, I think I have learned some new things about the relation of statistics to all of this, as well as to ether theories in physics and graphical methods in engineering instruction.

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 in imperial Germany..

My current book project, which I intend to finish during my stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2013-14, is about this history of human heredity, and more particularly how insane asylums and related institutions became important sites for recordkeeping on conditions regarded as hereditary, and for research on their presumed inheritance. These institutions developed the ideologies and some of the research methods of eugenics decades before Francis Galton announced this biological human science. From the beginning it was a science of data and statistics. The history of data practices and analysis is as central to the history of genetics and genomics as is the more familiar story of Mendelian breeding, fruit flies, and the decoding of DNA. This project highlights the key role of social and medical institutions, and of the expansion of state activities, in the rise of genetics, and conversely of hereditary ideas and practices in the shaping of welfare states.

On the back burner just now, but likely to develop before too long into a book, is a project on the contradictions of quantification at the intersection of science 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 deception. Ambitions for “evidence-based” practices under the neo-liberal governance have formed an unprecedented vulnerability to Funny Numbers (my working title).

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.