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Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 38(2), 113–132 Spring 2002
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Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10:1002/jhbs. 10036
䉷 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

THREE TRUTH-SPOTS Base of 1st


THOMAS F. GIERYN
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Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us
believe it, not merely allowing us to, may the account be the facts or a lie . . .
— Eudora Welty (1983, p. 119)

The late Eudora Welty, a writer from the American South, was thinking mainly about
fiction when she suggested that the emplacement of characters and events does much for their
believability. Vivid details of setting — think of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — con-
tribute to a story’s “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance,” Welty writes (1983, p.
125), as they enable a willing suspension of disbelief on which the enjoyment of any novel
depends. However, by including facts among the accounts whose authenticity is enhanced by
their location, Welty opens up the tantalizing possibility that the dependency of apparent truth
on place is not limited to literary fiction. Is the credibility of other sorts of claims — not
artistic, but religious or legal or maybe even scientific — also sustained by locating in some
particular place their authors, their making or their message?
Yes (at least, for the various scientific claims to be considered here). My argument takes
the form of a paradox: the paradox of place and truth. All scientific knowledge-claims have
a provenance: they originate at some place, and come from there. However, as they become
truth, these claims shed the contingent circumstances of their making, and so become tran-
scendent (presumably true everywhere, supposedly from nowhere in particular). Turning the
argument around: scientific claims are diminished in their credibility as they are situated
somewhere, as if their truthfulness depended upon conditions located only there.
That is only half the paradox. Not only do all putatively universal claims of science
necessarily have a particular place of origin, but: the place of provenance itself enables the
transit of some claims from merely local knowledge to truth believed by many all around.
The passage from place-saturated contingent claims to place-less transcendent truths is
achieved through the geographic, architectural and rhetorical construction of a “truth-spot”
(i.e., the place of provenance). Place1 allows claims to escape place, to transcend its suffo-
cating particulars; place achieves placelessness. What Welty said of fiction is also good as a

Editor’s note: This article, based upon the Keynote Address delivered in June of 2001 at the 33rd Annual Meeting
of the Cheiron Society at Indiana University in Bloomington, is the winner of the Cheiron/JHBS Award for 2002.
1. “Place” is not easily defined, but might usefully be conceptualized as having three necessary and sufficient
features: (a) Place is a unique spot in the universe, a geographic location of elastic bounds; (b) place has a physicality,
and its material form variably combines natural environment and built architecture; (c) place holds meanings and
value, and it is the object of labile and contested narrations and imaginations. See Gieryn (2000).

TOM GIERYN is Rudy Professor of Sociology and Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of
Science at Indiana University (Bloomington), where he has been since 1978. He is the author of Cultural
Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line (University of Chicago Press, 1999), which was awarded
the Robert K. Merton Prize from the Section on Science, Knowledge and Technology of the American
Sociological Association. One of his earliest publications, “Durkheim’s Sociology of Scientific Knowl-
edge,” appeared in JHBS in 1982. short
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description of claims-making in science: situating an account even of natural or social reality Base of text
contributes to the credibility of those claims.
Still, there is no single path from a truth-spot (where claims are born, or said to be) to
their arrival as legitimate scientific knowledge. I visit three truth-spots in an attempt to find
out how these places figure in the construction of authenticity for the scientific claims that
come from there. The journey begins at Thoreau’s Walden Pond, moves to an early twentieth-
century agricultural research station in India established by Sir Albert and Gabrielle Howard,
and ends at Princeton University’s Lewis Thomas Laboratory for molecular biology. Each
truth-spot — field, farm, lab — makes us believe that claims from there are true everywhere,
but each does it in a different way.

THOREAU AT WALDEN
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and
slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance . . . , till
we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This
is, and no mistake . . .
— Henry David Thoreau (1854/1983, p. 142)

Thoreau found truth amid the hard bottom and rocks at Walden Pond in Massachusetts.
His book about that place, Walden (1854), occupies a special space in the history of American
belles-lettres. The tale is at once an account of a man who goes and lives for a time in the
woods to test his mettle at self-reliance, and a philosophical record of the verities that he
finds there — common-sensical, spiritual, scientific. A strong case is made for self-cultivated
individualism and for the transcendence of the empirical world in a quest for absolutes. But
nature — the local and sublime environment that Thoreau observes so patiently — looms large
in his story as antipode to the moral and epistemic corruption of human society.
So much has been written about Thoreau and Walden.2 My focus is surgically precise:
How do the pond and woods, as constructed in the text itself, contribute to the credibility of
claims that Thoreau makes about life, the universe, and everything else? I suggest that Wal-
den — the place — becomes a kind of “register of authenticity,” making us believe that his
claims are true even when they are removed from Concord MA. This authenticating emplace-
ment has four sides.
First: Thoreau presents himself, in the words of Wes Jackson, as “a native to this place”
(Jackson, 1994). He was born in Concord in 1817, lived most of his life there and died there
in 1862. It was home for him. Thoreau draws on this lifetime of familiarity with Walden
Pond and its more civilized environs, and serves up the kind of local knowledge ordinarily
unavailable to those just passing through. “He who is only a traveller learns things at second-
hand and by the halves, and is poor authority” (p. 258).3 Thoreau, by contrast, spent “two
years and two months” (p. 45) beside the pond, long enough for him to observe the changing
seasons through two cycles. “. . . I can speak from an unusually complete experience” (p.
261). This up-close experience of living beside the pond yields accounts that are anything
but laconic, and — in their painstaking detail — convince the reader that Thoreau missed ab-
solutely nothing of the happenings. “My house was on the side of a hill, immediately on the

2. Within the abundant Waldensian literature, I have found most useful: Cavell (1972), Schneider (2000), and
Walls (1995). short
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FIGURE 1.
Image of Walden Pond.

edge of the larger wood, in the midst of a young forest of pitch pines and hickories, and half
a dozen rods from the pond, to which a narrow footpath led down the hill. In my front yard
grew the strawberry, black berry and life-everlasting . . .” (pp. 158 – 159) and on, and on.
Plainly, he succeeds in his ambition to “be Expert in home-cosmography” (p. 369). Thoreau
also speaks knowingly of Concord as home: “I was brought from Boston to this my native
town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes
stamped upon my memory” (p. 201). Who would, or could, contest one who speaks from
such first-hand and enduring familiarity with a place? This first register of authenticity might
be “credibility from nativity.”
Second: The location of Walden Pond at a distance from the hustle bustle of Concord
enables the solitude that is, for Thoreau, vital to his getting the universe right. “I preferred
the solitary dwelling” (p. 115). “I love to be alone” (p. 180). High on everybody’s list of
Thoreauvian aphorisms is this one: “the man who goes alone can start to-day; but he who
travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they
get off” (pp. 115 – 116). Having “a little world all to myself” (p. 175) is critically important
for Thoreau’s comprehension of “my own sun and moon and stars” (p. 175). Solitude has
epistemic payoff, not only because one can examine nature up-close on one’s own schedule,
but also because one is less distracted by possibly inaccurate interpretations from others. As
scientists, the good people of Concord leave much to be desired. Thoreau describes his neigh-
bors as a “society of our gossips” (p. 180) and as a “race of tit-men” (i.e., small and weak,
like the bird) who “soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the short
daily paper” (p. 153). It is in Concord where the “mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, standard
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and tradition, and delusion, and appearance” will thrive, as opposed to the banks of Walden Base of text
Pond devoid of crowds. Thoreau is equally distrustful of book-learning and expert, natural
philosophers: “Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many a visit to particular trees” (p.
248). His “residence” beside the Pond “was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious
reading, than a university” (p. 144). Thoreau would like to count himself among the “wild
men” who “trust other authorities than their townsmen” (p. 331). They are “as wise in natural
lore as the citizen is in artificial. They never consulted with books . . .” (p. 331). Thoreau’s
naive empiricism and his cognitive self-reliance is tied tightly to his construction of a truth-
spot at Walden Pond. This “credibility from isolated skepticism” is measured by the distance
from Pond to Concord, away from a society of yes-men to seeing nature immediately for
oneself.
The first two place-based registers of authenticity — nativity and solitude — create their
own problems for making truth. Staying home and remaining secluded could — in some cir-
cumstances — result in provincialism (itself a place-saturated affliction) instead of correct
insight into the transcendent. Thoreau handles the problem deftly: “this one hillside illustrated
the principle of all the operations of Nature” (p. 356) — a hillside that has been Thoreau’s
from childhood, known thoroughly and privately. But it is, at the same time, a hillside like
any other, capable of providing knowledge that is universal in its applicability, not merely
local. So, at the same time that Thoreau admits “Thank Heaven, here is not all the world” (p.
368), and goes on to enumerate the species of plants and animals that do not grow near
Walden Pond, he tells us: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats
in Zanzibar” (p. 370). For in this particular place, right in front of you, are “Nature’s uni-
versals” (p. 183), along with “God and Heaven” (p. 241) to boot.
Moreover, in this third register of authenticity, Thoreau reminds his fellow townspeople
that they are free to ratify his claims for themselves by looking not far but near — if only they
would “simplify, simplify” (p. 136). His book is both for and about “not so much . . . the
Chinese or Sandwich Islanders, [but you] . . . who are said to live in New England” (p.
46). Any resident of Concord could see what Thoreau has seen, except that “we are sound
asleep nearly half our time” and “we know not where we are” (p. 380). He urges readers to
dig deeper, no matter where they happen to be (Walden Pond will do, as good as any place).
“We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live. Most have not delved
six feet beneath the surface, nor leaped as many above it” (p. 380). If, instead, “we stay at
home and mind our business” (p. 136), we can understand the truths that transcend the
particulars of locale: “Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of
the Czar is but a petty state” (p. 369). In the end, “wherever I sat, there I might live, and the
landscape radiated from me accordingly” (p. 125). This is a credibility attached to the com-
monplace, not the exotic, claims about matters ready at hand for any skeptic to confirm or
not, rooted ultimately in the typicality of the Pond.
Fourth: Thoreau tries hard to make Walden into a wild place, as if the truths to be found
there were independent of artifice and contrivance, discovered not concocted, and so more
believable. This truth-spot is largely unbuilt, its architecture divine rather than mortal: “I
stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me” (p. 354). Thoreau located
his hut in a “forever new and unprofaned part of the universe” (p. 132), amid “that nature
which is our common dwelling” (p. 170). Here in the woods, one can “anticipate, not the
sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!” (p. 59). To build anything, it
seems, intrudes between the knowing subject and seeing clearly: “It would be well perhaps
if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the short
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celestial bodies” (p. 71). Thoreau celebrates “unfenced Nature reaching up to your very sills” Base of text
(p. 173), but he would have done better without the house at all: “we are often imprisoned
rather than housed in them” (p. 76) and “no dust gathers on the grass” (p. 79). He tells us:
“I love better to see stones in place” (p. 101), “watching from the observatory of some cliff
or tree” (p. 60), where a kind of cognition in the wild (Hutchins, 1995) can happen, “here is
life, an experiment” (p. 51). The place itself becomes a source of experimental variation,
spontaneously, in unexpected ways: “You need only sit still long enough in some attractive
spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns” (p. 275).
Thoreau submits to nature, he avoids the urge to control it, as he aligns himself once more
with wild men: “fishermen, hunters, woodschoppers . . . , spending their lives in the fields
and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, [who] are often in a more favorable
mood for observing her . . . than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with ex-
pectations” (p. 258). He takes delight in putting distance between his Pond and the labs or
libraries of Harvard (lesser truth-spots), and tells us almost smugly that “the mice which
haunted my house were . . . a wild native kind not found in the village. I sent one to a
distinguished naturalist [Louis Agassiz, as it happens], and it interested him very much” (p.
272). Call this last register “credibility from the unadulterated,” reality found unbuilt and
unmediated (except, of course, by keen eyes and crafty pen). Authenticity from an uncorrupted
truth-spot in the woods.
So: Thoreau did what any field scientist must do (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997; Kuklick
and Kohler, 1996) — create a place, situate inquiry there, fashion it into a truth-spot from
which abstract, universal, and transcendental claims might soar, give beliefs a provenance.
His ability to make others believe that his claims are not “about” the woods at Walden Pond
(or dependent upon them), but credible and applicable anywhere and everywhere, depends
paradoxically on how well the author constructs the local particulars of this place of truth.
Thoreau presents himself as “being there,” the native son who possesses an up-close and
personal relationship to this spot. He finds solitude there, isolation from the distracting false-
hoods of ignorant townspeople, away from the received wisdom of bookish experts. Walden
Pond is the “right place for the job” (Clarke and Fujimura, 1992) because of its typicality
and accessibility: it stands in for anywhere, but because it is so close at hand, skeptical New
Englanders might easily go there to check out with their own eyes what Thoreau has seen
and recorded. Walden’s sublime, pristine qualities require no intrusive fiddling from the
human visitor and observer: Nature is allowed to do Her experiments that need not conform
to the scientist’s hopes or wishes.
With Walden, Thoreau joins the ranks of field scientists before and since — ethnographic
anthropologists and sociologists who go and see human societies in vivo, ecologists and
epidemiologists who must leave the laboratory building behind. Emphatically, Thoreau’s four
registers of authenticity — nativity, solitude, typicality, unsulliedness — are not the only ones
available to field scientists as they locate their research somewhere, so that their claims may
be true everywhere. In fact, one might imagine Thoreau sitting at one end of a series of
gradients that connect place to truth in diverse ways. At the opposite end, for example, might
be the traveller whose special insights are enabled precisely because he or she is a “stranger”
(Simmel, 1971, chap. 10), equipped with a distanced naiveté about this place that allows
understandings impossible for natives. Or anthropologists and some field biologists whose
credibility is attached to the exoticism of their place of inquiry, rather than to its commonplace
typicality and easy accessibility. The Lynds’ “Middletown” (Lynd and Lynd, 1929) was
Anywhere, U.S.A. (Muncie IN, is not really that difficult to get to) and its credibility hinged short
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on implicit reality-checks (why, that sounds just like the situation here in . . . Peoria). By Base of text
contrast, Malinowski (1922) relied on the strange remoteness of the Trobriand Islands in
order to get readers to accept his general principles of social and cultural organization.
To be sure, construction of “the field” as a truth-spot is a literary accomplishment won
through skillful rhetoric. And not many writers have been as successful as Thoreau in creating
some place as “wilderness,” even while admitting that a railroad runs through it. The field
site must be made into a place that persuades: Scientific authors situate themselves there and
present a relationship between knower and place that would enhance insight, objectivity,
accuracy and trust. The place itself must be variously assigned qualities that carry epistemic
freight — exotic or close, typical or unique, pristine or instructively invaded, empty of people
or full of them. But the field outside the text — just like the laboratory that never appears in
the routine papers of natural scientists who work there (Latour and Woolgar, 1986, chap.
2) — is far messier than in its final literary representation. So much is left out, so much is
added. Through it all, the field scientist builds with words and images a place for inquiry that
“does most toward making us believe” that the truths announced from there are authentic all
over.

ALBERT AND GABRIELLE HOWARD AT INDORE


A passage to India from Walden Pond takes us through the mire. In Thoreau’s prolix
account of his bean field, he offers a scientific justification for why he “gave them no manure.”
Citing John Evelyn’s 1729 treatise Terra: A Philosophical Discourse of Earth: “there being
in truth no compost . . . whatsoever comparable to this continual motion, repastination and
turning of the mould with the spade . . . all dungings and other sordid temperings being
but the vicars succedaneous to this improvement” (pp. 207 – 208). Sir Albert Howard and his
professional collaborator Gabrielle Howard (also spouse) would have respectfully disagreed
with Evelyn and with Thoreau (who went on to say smugly that he had harvested 12 bushels
of beans even without manure). The Howards would easily agree that aerating the soil is a
healthy move, but . . . no manure? Albert and Gabrielle would have insisted on it and then
predicted twice the bushels of beans.
Albert Howard was born to Shropshire farmers in 1873, took a first in the Natural Science
Tripos at Cambridge in 1897, practiced mycology in the West Indies from 1899 – 1902, and
then returned to England and a post at the South-Eastern Agricultural College at Wye. He
stayed there until 1905, when he married Gabrielle (born to merchants in 1876, and whose
own botanical training at Cambridge took her in the direction of what would become plant
genetics), and they sailed together for India to become the First and Second Imperial Eco-
nomic Botanists at Pusa in Bihar — where they would remain until 1924. The pair enjoyed
great success in selecting and hybridizing new strains of wheat, including “Pusa 12” — her-
alded in London newspapers as superior for baking bread. Because of their growing fame,
the Howards were asked by the cotton interests of India to found a new research institute
dedicated to the development of improved varieties of cotton. That invitation, along with the
resources that came with it, enabled the Howards to design and build the Institute of Plant
Industry at Indore, which opened for business in 1924, and which becomes my second truth-
spot.4
To complete the biographies: Gabrielle Howard died in 1930, at which time Albert ends

4. The Howards’ tale is told in Gieryn (1999a). For a discussion that locates Howard within the organic farming short
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his relationship with the Indore Institute and returns to England for good. He emerges there Base of text
as an evangelist for organic agriculture, composting, and whole food, and becomes the bane
of orthodox agricultural scientists at the Rothamsted Experimental Station. Albert railed
against the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, recommending
instead that farmers lace their fields with humus — fertile soil “alive” with composted manure
and organic waste matter. His adversaries labeled Albert a pre-Leibigian neo-vitalist, even as
he was at the same moment lauded by J. I. Rodale, founder of the organic farming movement
in America, and who (after Albert’s death in 1947) carefully cultivated his moniker “the
father of modern composting.”
The centerpiece of Albert and Gabrielle’s lives as scientists and as zealots is the compost
pit. What exactly is it? Just a pile of green stuff and brown stuff that rot away into an humusy
soil amendment full of goodies for plants? Is composting an eons-old vestige of primitive
practices by people who understood no chemistry and worked, at best, from trial and error?
Is composting a scientific accomplishment, describable with precise formulas for the ratio of
brown-to-green, and predictably efficient if the size of the pile conforms to tested specifica-
tions? Could compost be even more: an agricultural panacea, capable of rescuing the earth
from the scourge of artificial chemicals? Might it be the fount of healthy food, healthy bodies,
and (with a stretch) healthy democracies? The compost pit was all of this and more for Albert
and Gabrielle, who tweaked the boundaries of sciences in order to get their beloved humus
squarely inside. They sought to use the cultural authority of science to persuade Indian cul-
tivators and skeptical scientists throughout the Empire that the case for composting, for or-
ganic agriculture generally, was credible. And for that, Albert and Gabrielle needed a
truth-spot quite unlike Thoreau’s at Walden.
The Howards were prolific writers, but the summum of their collaborative scientific
tracts is The Application of Science to Crop-Production: An Experiment Carried out at the
Institute of Plant Industry, Indore (1929), published during their final year together. In many
respects, the book is full of exactly what you might expect: technical descriptions of how to
build a proper compost pit, details on how vegetative waste-products might best be used to
improve the soil for growing crops like cotton. Sections are devoted to breeding superior
strains, eradicating weeds, irrigating fields, maintaining implements. But there is a lot in the
book that would not be expected from a text in agronomic science: equally detailed discus-
sions of the geographical siting of the Indore Institute, architectural renderings of the layout
of fields and buildings, along with photographs of laboratories, farm-buildings, the “model-
village” and (of course) compost pits. Moreover, the book ends with a chapter on “The
Organization of Agricultural Research.” The Howards’ work at Indore, it seems, was not just
an experiment on growing cotton organically; it was also an experiment on science itself.
They presumed that research into agricultural and botanical subjects could be done more
efficiently than how it had been practiced at their previous stops at Pusa, Wye, the West
Indies, or Cambridge — and, crucially, the betterment of science could be achieved in part by
designing and building better places where it happens.
The Howards’ truth-spot at Indore is a “mimetic place.” James Bennett uses the concept
of “mimetic instrument” to describe how some abstract principles (say, of geometry) are
translated — or better, reconstituted — in a material form as the instruments of scientific in-
quiry.5 In effect, theory is embodied in the tools of investigation — or, as at Indore, theories
are embodied in the geography and architecture of the research institute itself. The creation

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FIGURE 2.
Map of Indore Institute.

of such a mimetic place helped the Howards to secure credibility for their ideas about science
and crop production by making an exhibit of them. New ways of farming and new ways of
science were put on display in and through the architecture of Indore, whose arrangement of
spaces gave testament to the plausibility of the Howards’ theories, while at the same time
offering readable lessons to the many visitors who came through the Institute. Place-making
for Albert and Gabrielle became a vital act of scientific truth-making.
What holds together the Howards’ theories of scientific organization and their theories
of farming is a kind of “holism” (not unlike the Buddhist wheel of life) that prefers lumping
over splitting, inclusivity over exclusivity, cycles over linearity. The problem of crop pro-
duction is irreducible to any single magic bullet: “The center of . . . crop-production must
always be the plant itself, which obviously can only be effectively studied in relation to the
soil in which it grows, to the conditions of village agriculture under which it is cultivated and
with reference to the economic uses of the product” (p. 1).6 Nothing is left out of the orbit
of Albert and Gabrielle’s capacious science, and this holism requires organizational innova-
tion as well as genetic or agronomic: “As it is not easy to change any form of organization
from within, this involved the foundation of a new Institute for crops, at which the devel-
opment of the plant could be studied as a biological whole and not piecemeal” (p. 1). Among
the many problems stemming from traditional piecemeal approaches to crop production is an
inability to deal effectively with plant diseases. The solution (now a staple of organic farming)

6. Unless otherwise noted, page numbers in this section refer to A. & G. Howard (1929). short
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FIGURE 3.
Photo from Indore.

is a kind of integrated pest management that requires systemic sensitivities rather than toxic
sprays:

One of the consequences of the fragmentation of agricultural problems in the past is the
difficulty of considering together the influence of adverse soil factors on the susceptibility
of the plant to disease . . . Unfavorable soil conditions lead to changes in the acidity
and other characters of the sap and so prepare suitable food for the insect or fungus that
thrives just as long as this food supply is available. Favorable soil conditions, on the
other hand, bring about a marked increase in the resistance of the plant. (p. 20)

The problem, they conclude, is that extant agricultural research and practice is carried out
“on much too narrow a basis” (p. 20).
The lynchpin of Albert and Gabrielle’s vision of rural reconstruction in India7 is com-
posting, itself the epitome of cyclical renewal, from waste to riches, ad infinitum. Because
the Indore Institute’s financiers “very kindly agreed to design and erect these buildings from
our line plans” (p. 9), the Howards were able to design an architecture that would give pride
of place to the compost pits: “Adjoining the cattle shed is perhaps the most important item
of the farm buildings, namely the compost factory and the pits for silage” (p. 14). The amend-
ment of soil with humus produced from decomposed organic waste will improve “the per-

7. A different analysis of the Howards would center on India itself as a place sometimes useful as an authenticator
of claims (and at other times, not), and inevitably such a study would confront questions of imperialism and science
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meability of the soil,” so that “a great increase in the yield of cotton and of other crops will Base of text
follow” (p. 38). The very existence of a compost factory, not as an incidental afterthought
but designed and built at the very core of the Indore Institute, set it apart from Pusa or any
other Indian research station, and measures in a tangible, visible way the Howards’ commit-
ment to organicism and holism.
Even the location of the compost factory, and the buildings placed nearby it, becomes
an opportunity to translate abstract theory into palpable evidence for all to visit and see.
Albert and Gabrielle’s critics pointed to the fact that cattle dung was burned as fuel in India,
and without that manure there would be insufficient organic material to compost on a scale
that could increase crop production nationwide (and so, the critics concluded, expensive
chemical fertilizers were essential). The Howards’ rebuttal was, in part, architectural: “There
is a vast mass of vegetable refuse which, if treated properly, will produce a large proportion
of the organic matter and the combined nitrogen which the soils of India require” (p. 39).
That vegetable refuse would consist mainly of the by-products of farming, all the stalks and
leaves that did not get eaten by humans or other animals. But the organic waste needed
nitrogen to begin its decomposition, which is why “a regular compost factory has been laid
out near the cattle shed and demonstrations are given to cultivators and to other visitors” (p.
38). Here is how it works:
To prepare a supply of manure . . . the various residues . . . are broken up as finely
as possible and are used as bedding for the work-cattle. In this way, they absorb a certain
amount of urine and get mixed with some of the cattle-dung. . . . At Indore, the nitrogen
starter is provided by the urine absorbed by the bedding, by the cattle dung and by the
manurial earth from the floor of the cattle shed. . . . The fermentation is carried out in
the pits, each 30⬘ ⫻ 14⬘ ⫻ 21⁄2⬘ deep, with sloping sides. (pp. 39 – 40)
It is no accident, then, that “the compost factory at Indore adjoins the cattle shed. . . . This
manure factory, in which the Indian ox is one of the essential factors and in which indigenous
materials only are employed, now attracts many visitors” (p. 41).
Albert and Gabrielle’s holism extended beyond agricultural practices such as composting
and forced them to reconsider how science itself was socially (and architecturally) organized.
Specialization and fragmentation become their demons. The distinction between pure science
and its applications must be overcome as an impediment to effective attacks on the problem
of Indian agricultural development: “it became increasingly evident that the organization of
an agricultural research institute, on the basis of practical agriculture on the one hand and on
the separate sciences on the other, was by no means the ideal arrangement” (p. 1). This
splitting insures failure because it prevents what today might be called through-put:
The attempt to divide research into two classes — fundamental and local — imposes lim-
itations on both the groups of workers involved and seeks to maintain a distinction
without any real difference. Instead of being allowed to work out their own salvation,
and to follow the gleam untrammeled in whatever direction it may lead, both sets of
workers must either conform to the organization or come in conflict with it. (p. 60)
The Indore Institute was designed as a scientific truth-spot where basic research in biology
would co-exist alongside an illustrative cotton field grown with a lot of humus, and between
the two endeavors “the rule should be — no walls. . . . Everything must be done to prevent
the different sections of the organization from wearing themselves away through internal
friction” (p. 60). The walls to be avoided are not simply metaphoric, but a designed and built-
in absence. short
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entific disciplines, which were architecturally ignored as Indore took shape: “The best results Base of text
on cotton will therefore be obtained, not by following the methods of the past, but by breaking
new ground. . . . In other words, the cotton work of the future must be a well balanced
combination of agronomy and genetics with soil science” (p. 27). Laboratories for genetics,
plant physiology and chemistry are huddled close together, not just to save expenses but to
secure their interdependence at the level of routine social interaction among researchers. From
spatiality to sociality: “One of the tasks of the Director is to weld these two aspects of one
subject into a real working unit instead of a combination in name only. For this reason we
wished to place both laboratory and farm-buildings together” (p. 9).
But there is even more to the Howards’ inclusiveness: The Indore Institute is a place
where research, application, and now demonstration are pursued seamlessly, which means
that room must be made inside for landowners and farmers. “The art of demonstration and
of inducing cultivators to adopt improvements is as important as that of research . . .” (p.
60). As always, the propagation of ideas about growing plants is accomplished with the design
and construction of demonstration plots and a model village, none of them far from the labs:
“It was felt that progress . . . would be greatly facilitated if the Darbars could see for them-
selves how their dominions could be developed and their revenues increased by following a
consistent policy of rural reconstruction . . .” (p. 7). The selection of a site for the Institute
was governed by a concern for how easily visitors could get there: “Such an experiment
station must be easily accessible by road and rail, [and] it must be close to a large town” (p.
5). The Indore Institute was set up “to provide as useful an object lesson as possible for
visiting cultivators and zamindars” (p. 49). “This arrangement . . . tends to make the bond
between the research workers and the actual cultivator much closer and more intimate” (p. 3).
The place itself modeled Albert and Gabrielle’s theoretical principles, but just in case
the “object lesson” was lost on visitors, the Institute devised various training programs to
remind everybody of the truths on display: “The great need at the moment is a steady stream
of promising young cultivators, who can be trained for at least one year, who can pass through
the various sections of the Institute and then become available for service in the States” (p. 53).
A library and bookshop is on-site: “Very few visitors leave the Institute without purchasing
some book. The interest aroused by a visit to the Institute is thus crystallized and made more
permanent” (p. 11). The validity of organic agriculture had certainly crystallized for the
Howards: “No experiments are needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of more organic
matter for cotton and other crops. No mathematical formulae and no replication of small plots
are required to bring the results home to the people. . . .What is needed is to show the
cultivators where to find the organic matter required and how to prepare it in the best way”
(p. 38). Victory “is only a matter of propaganda and time” (p. 42).
In the end: the Indore Institute of Plant Industry is an architectural embodiment of Albert
and Gabrielle Howard’s holistic theories of organic agriculture and inclusive science. At the
level of social structure and practice, the Indore Institute brings together at one place research
scientists and cultivators, developing fundamental knowledge from diverse disciplines in close
proximity as it also makes practical inquiries into composting, cultivation and drainage. This
second truth-spot is a place of display, demonstration and performance: Knowledge is made
credible and disseminated as it is shown to visitors — see: it works! Those who go to Indore
find a place strategically designed to welcome them into an expansive science and into a
rogue theory of crop production and rural reconstruction.
The Howards’ ambition to combine a research station and demonstration farm persists
today in the agricultural extension services of American land-grant universities. The case of short
California “farm advisers” has been examined by Christopher Henke, who situates their ep- standard
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istemic challenge somewhere between Thoreau’s wild field and the disciplined laboratory Base of text
(my third truth-spot), as “standing between the standardized space of the lab and the messiness
of the field” (2000, p. 484). Such demonstrative truth-spots rely on visiting publics who
witness knowledge-making first hand in the geographic location and architectural arrange-
ments of spaces that render ideas about science and about nature into tangible, believable
forms ready for take-away. In this sense, Albert and Gabrielle’s place of truth fits loosely in
a category with lecture theaters and hands-on science museums, zoos, and botanical gardens,
or maybe even the clinic.8

MOLECULAR BIOLOGISTS AT THE LEWIS THOMAS LABORATORY,


PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
First, some particulars9 : design work for the Lewis Thomas Lab (LTL) began in 1982
by architects at Payette Associates of Boston, and the building was completed in 1986 at a
cost of $29 million dollars for about 66,000 usable square feet. LTL has a rectangular footprint
and spreads its 160 or so occupants over four floors. Twenty faculty scientists of Princeton
University assemble inside variously-sized teams of students, post-docs, technicians, and staff.
The top three floors are occupied by scientists working on different biological problems and
with different organisms: the third floor is for cell and developmental biologists working with
bacteria and yeast; the second floor is for cancer researchers studying viruses; the first floor
is for the study of mouse genetics and protein structure. The ground floor is mainly for
teaching — a large lecture hall, smaller seminar rooms, teaching labs (and, tucked away in a
corner, the mouse house). Administrative space for the Department of Molecular Biology
takes up some of the first floor, and it is always very busy because this major is very popular
among Princeton’s undergraduates. On the research floors, the labs and offices are located
around the perimeter of the building, while the interior spaces are occupied by inanimate
machinery only occasionally visited by humans (freezers, incubators, centrifuges, cold rooms,
glass washing facilities, and the like). The laboratory rooms themselves are essentially iden-
tical one to the next, in their arrangement of wet benches, desks, sinks, and fume hoods.
Some labs at LTL are bigger than others, but the increase in size is accomplished simply by
adding another row of wet benches and desks with cabinets or shelves above, and perhaps
some knee-hole spaces below (no other variations to the formula are needed). At the ends of
each floor are comfy lounges with upholstered furniture, blackboards for recording sudden
inspirations, and kitchenettes. The skin of the building is decorated in the high-postmodern
style of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, and the checkerboard pattern on one end
predictably gave rise to the nickname “chow chow chow.”
If you were to read every single research paper written from LTL by the molecular
biologists who call it home, you would learn nothing of these architectural details. Other than
the name of the department, the university, and Princeton’s zip code, 08540, the reader has
very little idea about the local geographic circumstances in which the reported scientific results
were produced. What rooms? What buildings? What settings? Quite in contrast to Thoreau’s
lush depictions of Walden Pond and the Howards’ design of buildings and grounds to teach

8. The growing literature on science museums and zoos has been helpful for my interpretation of the Indore
Institute, especially: Conn (1998), Findlen (1994), Forgan (1994), Macdonald (1998), Osborne (1994) and Yanni
(1999). A fascinating study of an urban “nature park” as a site for ecological research is found in Lachmund (2001).
9. These particulars derive from a ethnographic case study of the Lewis Thomas Laboratory conducted in the short
early 1990s with generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (cf. Gieryn, 1999b). standard
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FIGURE 4.
LTL inside.

scientific lessons to Indore visitors, this last truth-spot seems to pursue credibility for its claims
without recourse to place. Indeed, the place of provenance disappears in accounts of molecular
biological phenomena from LTL, and those accounts lose little of their epistemic warrant
because of that — in fact, they gain some. How so?
Paradoxically, the erasure of place from research papers by LTL scientists is enabled by
the place where they work. LTL is a “space” rather than a place: All of its architectural
particulars and idiosyncrasies, its nickname and unique histories, are eviscerated — leaving
behind featureless geometric volumes that are never narrated when scientific truths from there
are reported. As a space, I suggest, LTL becomes indistinguishable from contemporary mo-
lecular biology labs located anywhere else.10 There may be two kinds of cloning going on
these days in sciences like molecular biology: the genetic replication of organisms and the
architectural replication of the places where such research occurs. With the standardization
all over of research spaces for the life sciences, LTL (the building) creates the environmental
conditions that permit its absence from scientific papers written from there. The design of
this place allows it to become — for scientific purposes, as a site of experiment — an ignorable
space.
Before considering how the standardization of laboratory design in biology allows sci-

10. The historical and sociological literature on laboratories as sites of knowledge production has exploded in
recent years: Galison and Thompson (1999), Gieryn (1998, 1999b, 2002), Golinski (1998, chap. 3), Hannaway
(1986), Heilbron (1999), Knowles and Leslie (2001), Ophir and Shapin (1991), Shapin (1988, 1998), and Smith and short
Agar (1998). standard
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FIGURE 5.
LTL outside.

entific claims to leave their never-depicted birthplaces with an architecturally-enhanced cred-


ibility, I note a little irony. Nothing epistemologically spectacular happens as labs like LTL
get designed and built. The spatial homologies among biology labs here and everywhere
result from mundane negotiations that go on among architects, university facilities managers
and scientists — who are, as they plan and sketch, oblivious to the epistemic consequences
of their choices. Payette Associates designed several biology labs before starting on LTL,
and it was economically efficient for them to exploit the boilerplate designs they had used
earlier (especially if that plan made for happy clients, who told Princeton just how happy
they were with this architectural firm). The facilities managers at Princeton University were
ever-wary of exorbitant costs, and in order to bring in LTL under budget they specified off-
the-shelf casework, benches, sinks (and so on) that have already been standardized by the
few companies who manufacture such specialized items and sell them to lots of universities.
Moreover, both architects and facilities managers routinely attend “professional development”
meetings sponsored by TradeLinesTM , where they learn which ideas for lab design were given
“thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Peripatetic scientists involved in the design process treat the short
opportunity as a kind of experiment, make frequent site-visits to peers at other institutions, standard
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and bring back their own ideas about what does and does not work. All of these goings-on, Base of text
done with little regard for how a building might contribute to the epistemic authority of claims
made from there, yield a convergence of design that tends to toss out the idiosyncratic. What
gets built, not only at Princeton, is a repeated shape for molecular biology labs that varies
little from university to university.
Steven Shapin writes: “the wide distribution of scientific knowledge flows from the
success of certain cultures in creating and spreading standardized contexts for making and
applying that knowledge” (1998, p. 7). But how, exactly, does the standardization of research
spaces facilitate the flow of scientific knowledge — and judgments about its reliability? The
standardization of laboratory buildings in molecular biology enhances the credibility of claims
from there via a “presumption of equivalence.” Simply put, molecular biologists at Stanford
or Harvard read scientific papers based on research done at LTL under an assumption that
the circumstances of production there are essentially the same as those here. The philosopher
of place Edward S. Casey says this well: “I understand what is true of other places over there
precisely because of what I comprehend to be the case for this place under and around
me. . . . my grasp of one place does allow me to grasp what holds, for the most part, in
other places of the same region” (1996, p. 45). In effect, labs at Palo Alto, Cambridge, and
Princeton are “of the same region” in that they are designed and built in remarkably similar
ways (for reasons hinted at above), and because of that, scientists all over can make the
reasonable assumption that conditions of knowledge-production — material, social, and cul-
tural — are equivalent to what they have under their own feet. Place (as a unique spot in the
universe) no longer adds credibility to scientific claims, but only because those places of
inquiry have been carefully designed and built to be identical. Scientists trust the claims from
other laboratories as they would their own “home-truths” because they can safely assume that
whatever environmental factors are left out of a scientific paper from over there are essentially
the same as the environmental factors they leave out of their own papers.
The disappearance of laboratory architecture from research accounts mirrors the gradual
disappearance of detailed accounts of some experimental instruments that, with repeated use
and standardized familiarity, become black boxes. Early modern scientific papers often in-
cluded elaborate engravings showing precious details of (for example) an air-pump, accom-
panied by long discussions describing exactly what the natural philosopher did with the
machine in order to get it to work (Shapin, 1984). On those occasions where one-of-a-kind
experimental instruments move toward off-the-shelf mass production, detailed renditions of
the equipment and how it works recede from research accounts, as scientists all around assume
that the effects of the instrument itself on reported results are transparent (i.e., equivalent,
here or there). These days, the path from a “wire and chewing gum” bricolage to mass-
produced and routinized tool is traversed quickly, as in Paul Rabinow’s tale of PCR (itself a
cloned tool useful for cloning DNA inside cloned labs): “These rapidly developing varia-
tions . . . were integrated into a research milieu, first at Cetus, then in other places, then,
soon, in very many other places. These places began to resemble each other because people
were building them to do so, but were often not identical.” (Rabinow 1996, p. 169). It is
instructive that Rabinow scales-up his standardization argument from PCR as an experimental
tool to the “research milieu” in which PCR machines now routinely sit — even choosing to
call the latter “places.” Biologists no longer need to report details about the guts of their PCR
machines, just as they no longer report the guts of their benches, laboratories or offices —
and for the same reason.
But what, exactly, is architecturally standardized — and thus presumed by scientists short
everywhere to be equivalent in its effect on scientific practice and ensuing claims to truth? standard
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On one level, laboratory buildings function as gigantic filters, patrolling the passage of “stuff” Base of text
from wild nature outside to the sanitized and controlled spaces inside. HEPA air filters,
reverse-osmosis water filtration systems, and sophisticated glass-washing facilities are present
with little variation in molecular biology laboratories everywhere. Natural objects that might
contaminate experiments are typically excluded by an array of ordinary architectural features
that, once built, keep research spaces purified, even with little explicit attention from busy
scientists. To be sure, as Karin Knorr Cetina suggests, the physical laboratory removes objects
from their natural orders, and (for those bits allowed inside as “research materials”) reinstalls
them in a social order that permits manipulation and control that is “epistemologically ad-
vantageous for the pursuit of science” (1999, p. 27). The important point for me is that this
filtering and transformation of natural objects occurs in essentially the same way at LTL as
at any other molecular biology laboratory, guaranteed so by their architectural and mechanical
sameness. Scientists need not report the details of local HVAC arrangements (heating, ven-
tilating and air-conditioning) because they assume that their effects will be a constant for all
experiments done inside any laboratory. Indeed, to bring up such presumably standardized
infrastructural elements of a lab risks its conversion from a truth-spot to an epistemically
“stigmatized place” (Hayden, 2000). Pons and Fleischmann found that out when they spec-
ulated that perhaps strange humidity levels in their Utah labs might explain why scientists
elsewhere were having such difficulty replicating cold fusion (Gieryn, 1999a, chap. 4). To
foreground the particulars of a place of scientific inquiry — as Thoreau and the Howards surely
did, with salutary consequences for the received credibility of their claims — invites suspicion
that the research is going on in non-standard circumstances that scientists elsewhere cannot
know because it is no longer presumed to be equivalent to their own. Doubt creeps in.
This “presumption of equivalence” extends from the purification of natural objects to
the social behavior of scientists and their local culture. That is, standardization of the labo-
ratory enables scientists to presume that research in other labs involves people who are like
them and who are behaving as they do. In the seventeenth century in England, Shapin reports,
the threshold of experimental spaces allowed only gentlemen inside, and their moral virtue
as trustworthy witnesses gave credibility to reports of what was seen. These days, the doors
of the lab swing open for experts (and for their staff) whose credibility is based less on moral
virtue than on credentialed specialized training and other “insignia of affiliation with the
institutions in which expertise lives” (Shapin, 1994, p. 413) — like a photo identification
badge, for example. There is nothing amazing about the way buildings deter unwanted people
from entering: uniformed security guards or locked doors (with restricted distributions of
keys) are effective, but so too are the semiotics of decoration that announce certain passages
as dangerous, confusing, or just uninviting — as are the stares of insiders who make unwel-
come visitors feel out of place. The laboratory building, as a bounded and guarded place,
reduces the promiscuity of people inside by filtering out those who lack expertise (or, at least,
a justifiable ancillary reason to be there). Scientists at LTL and everywhere else know that
neither hunters nor woodschoppers, neither darbars nor cultivators, will be found inside.
Those who made scientific knowledge there are not unlike the skilled and credentialed experts
that I rub shoulders with here.
The walls of the lab also create a “normative landscape” in which certain practices or
behaviors are presumed to prevail. Tim Cresswell suggests that “ideas about what is right,
just and appropriate are transmitted through space and place. . . . The geographical setting
of actions plays a central role in defining our judgment of whether actions are good or bad”
(1996, p. 9). As Durkheim pointed out well before, even monasteries have their deviants, but short
what is a transgression within those walls would be a trifle outside the cloister (1982, p. 100). standard
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So it is, one suspects, with laboratories. Because modern labs in biology have become “ge- Base of text
neric,” as Robert Kohler puts it, “we know what kind of place they are, and that the same
rules of procedure and evidence apply in all” (forthcoming, ms. p. 12). For example, the in-
principle openness of most laboratory behavior to scrutiny by other qualified experts could
easily be considered an invasion of privacy in other settings. The normative correctness of
such policing has made the lab “a great Panopticon of Truth” (Shapin, 1994, p. 413), and
that is assumed to be so at Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. The lab purifies nature and
culture both, the first with HEPA air filters, the other with widely-shared assumptions about
how one should act once inside the doors, walls, and accouterments that make a lab distinctive
from a monastery or any other place. Conformity to any code of behavior is far easier to
achieve (or presume) when normative expectations are emplaced in circumscribed and easily
identified regions: Architectural reminders are all around you.11
There may be an even more deeply embedded way that place allows for the presumed
equivalence of practices of those permitted inside. The architectural landscape of a lab does
more than define normatively appropriate behavior. Physical surrounds routinize behavior in
a more mechanical way that does not depend upon manifest judgments of ethical propriety.
For Andrew Pickering, “around machines, we act like machines,” in that the repetitive “per-
formativity” of a machine demands of its users a “standardized sequence of gestures and
manipulations” (1995, p. 16). What is a lab, if not a walk-through machine whose spatial
arrangement of smaller machines (fume hoods, sinks, beer coolers, blackboards, comput-
ers . . .) creates a “routinized and disciplined” “field of practices” (Pickering 1995, p. 16).
And if the laboratory itself, like the many machines inside, assumes an off-the-shelf cookie-
cutter arrangement of spaces, then scientists will be equivalently disciplined and routinized
no matter where the lab happens to be geographically located.12
Sociologists of science have made much of the observation that contingent social prac-
tices during experiments are normally excised from the final write-up. What allows some of
those details to be left out, with no diminution of the credibility of claims in the eyes of other
scientists, is (in part) the presumption that the place of inquiry there is sufficiently equivalent
to my own place of inquiry here that such social and cultural matters become “constants”
inconsequential for the reported results. But does science these days depend exclusively on
laboratories as a validating but absent place of provenance? It may be no accident that my
other two truth-spots — Walden and Indore — happened historically well before the Lewis
Thomas Laboratory at Princeton. Perhaps, as Bruno Latour has suggested, the laboratory
today is the truth-spot nonpareil, replacing the field and the demonstration farm (along with
the gentleman’s house): “in the laboratory and only there new sources of strength are gen-
erated” (1983, p. 160). Aspiring sciences build labs explicitly to legitimate their work as
genuinely scientific, as Capshew notes for psychology: “the laboratory was invested with an
almost talismanic power and viewed as a sacred space where scientific knowledge was cre-
ated” (1992, p. 132). When Latour follows some soil scientists (specifically, pedologists) into
the Amazonian field, he suspects that: “For the world to become knowable, it must become

11. The disciplining consequences of place are discussed in Markus (1993), who acknowledges his debt to Foucault
(1977).
12. The cognitive scientist Andy Clark (1997) has suggested that because humans possess a rather limited on-
board mental capacity (i.e., brains), we off-load cognitive tasks onto the design and construction of “external scaf-
foldings” in the built environment— which function to guide bodily behavior along certain paths without the need
for us to think much about it. Clark mentions the ordinary kitchen spice-rack, with its bottles and cans typically
arranged in alphabetical order, as an example of the mnemonic qualities of place. My thanks to Ron Giere for short
bringing Clark to my attention. standard
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a laboratory” (1999, p. 43). The soil extracted from the rain forest floor becomes a sample Base of text
specimen as it is cleaned and categorized and classified and compared to other soil samples —
“analyses that cannot be performed in the field but must done in the laboratory” (1999, p. 46).
What has happened in the transit through time and space from Walden Pond, to the
hybrid Indore Institute (which had labs, of course, but so much more), and on to the Lewis
Thomas Lab? Latour concludes: “stage by stage, we lost locality, particularity, material-
ity . . . ,” and in the “unending round of scientific credibility . . . each turn absorbs more
of Amazonia into pedology, a motion that cannot stop lest significance and signification be
immediately lost” (1999, pp. 70, 78). Place has disappeared as an authenticating trope, but
only because the spaces of scientific inquiry are everywhere designed with a template that
insures an accurate copy, justifying a “presumption of equivalence” that allows scientists to
assume that the “surrounds” of experiments are a negligible constant.

CONCLUSION
posit v. To put forward as truth; postulate. [⬍ponere (pp positus) to place]13

Geographers have this wonderful term: “ground truthing.” After gathering as much data
as they can from aerial or satellite images of a place, geographers will sometimes come down
and check out details on the ground. That is ground-truthing: bring truth down to earth, by
walking in and through the places seen previously only from afar. Ground-truthing is also
what I have tried to do: take claims back to their place of provenance, at which they were
born, but from which they have escaped into the universal space of transcendent truth, no
longer necessarily tied to the woods, farm or labs just visited.
The claims, however, took different escape hatches — each enabled by the place itself.
Thoreau’s Walden Pond was a place celebrated: a sublime wilderness deftly concocted as a
unique site from which one could — with sufficient patience, nativity, submission, and soli-
tude — plumb the depths of eternal verities. The Howards’ Indore Institute of Plant Industry
was a place on display: designed and built to translate abstract theories about nature and
about science into object lessons that could teach visitors the virtues of holism and organicism,
truths that they would then carry outside to others. Princeton’s Lewis Thomas Laboratory is
a place denied: a space designed and built to control the vicissitudes of ordinary places by
standardizing them into a cloned array of lab modules, allowing molecular biologists to
presume equivalence in the conditions of their work and thus ignore them — no matter where
it all happens.
Maybe I am wrong about all of this. A mere cartoon has me nervous about the argument
that place matters for the reception of claims to truth. It shows the archetypal guru, complete
with disheveled long hair, beard and maybe naked, squatted at the peak of the archetypal
mountaintop in the wilderness — another truth-spot? The yogi’s laptop computer is flipped
open before him, and it reads: “You’ve got mail.” In the immateriality of cyberspace, and as
institutions and social interaction become increasingly disembedded (Giddens, 1990, p. 21),
does credibility or authenticity depend anymore on where anybody is? I’ll stick with Welty.

13. Thanks to Doug Mitchell for this suggestion. The definition comes from The American Heritage Dictionary short
of the English Language. standard
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