Distraction Free Reading

[Author Interview] Tom Gieryn and “Truth Spots”

Ilana Gershon interviews Tom Gieryn about his new book, Truth Spots: How Places Make People Believe (University of Chicago, 2018). Gieryn is Rudy Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Indiana University.

Truth Spots began with a hunch that places matter in under-appreciated ways, and, in particular, with the question: In what ways does place matter for doing science? To understand this, however, one needs to understand the ways places become authoritative sites because they enable interactive orders that are locatable. Laboratories are counterpoised with sites seen as sparking political movements, sites that become the evidence for scientific classifications, sites that connect one to larger religious movements, and sites in which the future is predicted.​

 A small replica of Thoreau's cabin and statue near Walden Pond can be seen against a backdrop of green trees. The house is small, grey, one-room building with a red brick chimney. The statue is brownish in color, perhaps made of bronze.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin and statue near Walden Pond (Attribution: RhythmicQuietude at en.wikipedia)

Ilana: What is a truth-spot? What was the inspiration for the book? How did you choose your truth-spots?

Tom: I was working on a study of laboratory design in biotechnology and happened to visit my sister who lives near Walden Pond. I had been to the Pond before, and, of course, I had read the book, but I got to thinking: wait a minute, this is like a laboratory for Thoreau, a place from which he speaks with authority. It is the Pond itself, the woods, and his hut—and the geographic location of all that stuff—that adds credibility to what he writes for us, that makes us believe the book.

That visit to Walden reminded me that places of knowledge-making were certainly not limited to laboratory buildings and that other kinds of places lend legitimacy to claims and beliefs through processes that were probably different from how laboratories lend credibility. It would take me the next 20 years to develop fully this idea of truth-spot. It simmered for a long time.

I realized early on that the set of truth-spots for the book would need to display the full array of truths that people live by. There are scientific truths sometimes made in laboratories, but there are also philosophical life-lessons that Thoreau found in the supposed wilderness at Walden Pond. What other kinds of truths might be locatable and have some connection to the places where they are from? That led me to think about still more places of belief-making, places that persuade or affirm: religious buildings, reenactments of history, prototypes of the future, courthouses, monuments, museums, even oracles…. I was off and running, looking everywhere for truth-spots that made people believe different kinds of truth—and worked in different ways.

Ilana: The book opens at the Oracle of Delphi, but I want to jump to the last case-chapter about clean labs. How did your thinking about labs get transformed after you started comparing them to all those different kinds of truth spots, like the museums and Walden Pond?

Tom: The earlier work talked a lot about standardization in lab design and outfitting and especially about the process of designing a lab. But it didn’t get to the throughput, to the end result: so, what did it matter that labs were designed the same all over? As sites of scientific knowledge-making, labs add legitimacy to experimental claims—but in ways that were different from how Walden Pond added legitimacy to Thoreau’s philosophical reflections. The controlled and standardized arrangement of space in a lab seemed epistemically at odds with the “wild” and unplanned environment that Thoreau came upon at Walden Pond. But both kinds of places worked effectively as truth-spots.

Really, the biggest impact of expanding away from my earlier focus on laboratories was stylistic. I was finally free of having to “write sociology.” I had already written a 400-page book about cultural boundaries of science, a real weighty tome…but I wanted this new project to be something more personal, and it could be short, it could be readable and accessible. The chapter on labs begins with Laura Wasylenki, a geochemist and former colleague of mine at Indiana (she has since moved to Northern Arizona University). I visited her clean lab at IU, put on a moon suit, and went inside. That moment of entry became the start of my chapter, a highly subjective narrative designed to give the reader a visceral sense of the place and how I felt about this hyper-sanitized environment with dangerous acids and complicated machinery all around. I tried very hard in the book not to over-theorize or over-conceptualize that experience.

After interviewing Laura, I came to understand that a clean lab was not just a big tool for doing experiments. It was a collective and shared home-ground for an extended family of people—metal isotope geochemists like Laura. This particular community of scientists worked in labs that were materially almost identical around the world—not just for functional reasons but because the replicated labs were fundamental to their identity, their collective persona, their professional claims to cognitive authority.

And it had been that way since the field’s father-figure Clair Patterson built the first such lab at Cal Tech in the 1950s. In that lab, Patterson did experiments and made discoveries about lead contamination from ethyl in gasoline, findings that no other researcher at the time had made because their labs were not clean enough—they were contaminated by lead coming in from almost everything in the modern world. In a very real sense, Patterson’s lab itself convinced Congress later to outlaw ethyl additives and since that victory, bona fide geochemists everywhere work in labs essentially the same as Patterson’s. The lab as a place, as a physical, material and geographically locatable thing, became a cultural phenomenon. It was part of family lore, a source pf professional identity and self-justification—and its ability to function as a truth-spot depended on tight connections back to Patterson’s powerfully persuasive prototype.

Ilana: Let’s talk about some other truth-spots. In the chapter on Henry Ford’s outdoor historical museum (Greenfield Village), you have this evocative sentence on page 72: “Authenticity is more about authority than fidelity.”

Tom: Well, the book is full of aphorisms, and the idea behind that line might have come from something I read. In the late 1920s, Ford gathered up a bunch of buildings that were historically significant as sites where entrepreneurial capitalists had begun their impactful careers—the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop moved from Dayton, Edison’s Menlo Park lab moved from New Jersey, Ford’s own pre-assembly-line shop from nearby Detroit. He reassembled them around an invented New England common—and as I walked around the place, I thought: wow, this guy Henry Ford is a master of charades! I mean, for all of his pretenses about getting history “right,” he invents and imagines the past about as well as Disney ever could.

Greenfield Village might be the most incredibly artificial concoction of a place that I had ever been in my life where the goal is to make visitors believe a certain rendering of history—in this case, the salutary accomplishments of American entrepreneurial capitalism. And you know what? People don’t see through it, you know, like the visitor I quote in the book, “I had no idea that Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Ford himself lived on the same street.” Of course, they didn’t, but Henry’s reconstruction of them put their homes and factories adjacent to each other in a Village to support his preferred narrative about the small-town origins of pioneering industrialists who did a lot to destroy the very idea of “small town.” The authority of the place—Ford’s Potemkin Village in Dearborn, Michigan — made his story about seem authentic and credible, even if fidelity was wanting.

Ilana: You title one chapter “Obama’s Three Birthplaces.” What is that all about?

Tom: It’s just a joke, because the chapter has nothing to do with the “birthers” or where Obama was really born. But in his second inaugural address, Obama referenced birthplaces of three identity-based collective movements: Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. This chapter gets at the emplacement of identity-claims—how truth-spots can secure credibility for claims by various groups to be an “us,” entitled to certain rights and opportunities, by evoking a celebrated beginning in a memorialized place. Collective identities get rooted or grounded in such places but in an incomplete and partial way.

If you choose Selma as the “start” of the Civil Rights movement, you privilege a particular narrative of the African American Civil Rights movement, one that points to the “heroic” role of Martin Luther King but forgetting other stories, events, and people that were vital but happened away from Selma. The story of what took place at Stonewall was cleaned up almost immediately after the night of rioting, in order to convert a raunchy gay dive bar in the Village to a proper site worthy of commemoration (it is now a national park).

Ilana: So, truth-spots are always vulnerable to later reconstructions or even abandonment. I’ve been to Seneca Falls and found it disappointing. But clean labs also create vulnerabilities and risk among geochemists that are linked to the way such places are supposed to create truth. One can always ask: is it “clean enough?”

Tom: Right! While I was taping, Laura Wasylenki told me that I couldn’t identify this particular scientist she was talking about. So, there is a mysterious allusion in the book to “another scientist’s lab” that wasn’t so clean. No name or institution is mentioned right there and that was at Laura’s insistence.

Ilana: We didn’t have time for the courthouse in St. Louis, or Linnaeus’ Leiden, or the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela.

Tom: Another time…

Ilana: I think it is a beautiful book.

Tom: Thanks for that.

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