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Zero Gravity:The Lighter Side of Science

Footnotin' Frenzy

By Michael Berube

Editor’s Note: Michael Berube teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State University. He is the author of the recently published tome What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Until January, he also maintained an eponymous blog. In this excerpt from an October 2005 entry, he waxes ironical about authorial footnotes and the ongoing tension between science and the humanities as it relates to Thomas Kuhn.

Even though footnotin’ is hard work, it’s not all tedium and Googling and visits to the stacks. Not at all! Some of footnotin’ involves real argumentin’, just in a tinier font at the back of the book.

The last time I got together with my editor, on a weekday evening in a midtown restaurant in New York, he flagged the opening pages of the chapter on my postmodernism seminar and said, “You might want to watch the mention of Kuhn–because, as you know, there are any number of readers out there who are really tired of humanities professors citing Kuhn and getting him wrong. Likewise with Gödel and Heisenberg on ‘incompleteness’ and ‘uncertainty’.”

As you might imagine, this remark made me violently angry.  Yanking the bottle of pinot grigio from the ice bucket to my right, I smashed it on the edge of the table, stood up, and said, “All right, man.  I know all about those readers. And I’m as pissed off about sloppy appropriations of Kuhn as anyone.  But let me say one thing.”

At this point I had drawn the alarmed attention of all the diners-and-drinkers in the place, not least because I was waving the broken bottle around and making random stabbing motions. “I’ll put my reading of Kuhn up against anyone’s. Anyone’s, do you hear me? DO YOU HEAR ME? I’m serious, man–I don’t just go on about ‘paradigm’ this and ‘incommensurability’ that, people. I can take Kuhn’s examples about phlogiston and X-rays, and I can extrapolate them to Charles Messier’s late-eighteenth century catalog of stellar objects, or the early controversy over the determination of the Hubble constant, or the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson. GET IT? So don’t mess with my reading of Kuhn. Any of you.”

There were a few moments of silence, punctuated only by some nervous clattering of silverware.  Then a conservatively-dressed man in his early fifties got up from a table fifteen or twenty feet away. “People like you,” he said, trying to stare me down, “read Kuhn backwards by means of Feyerabend’s Against Method, and as a result, you make him out to be some kind of Age of Aquarius irrationalist who thinks that scientists run from paradigm to paradigm for no damn reason.” Then he tossed his napkin across the table. “And if you want to deny it, I suggest we step outside.”

Fortunately for that guy, the maitre d’ intervened at just that moment, imploring me to “settle this peacefully,” preferably with a footnote to the sixth chapter. And cooler heads prevailed.

Addendum: If you want to read the actual footnote, with Berube’s take on humanistic interpretations of Kuhn, you can find it online here: http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/footnotin_frenzy/


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff