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Public Displays of Knowledge: The Scientific Spectacle of Quackery in England, 1660-1740

Mihailescu, Ion

Historians have generally favored the production of science to the detriment of its experience and perception by a lay audience. This paper goes against the general trend by using the medical phenomena of quackery in England in between 1660-1740 as an approach for the study of the scientific popularization process. Approaching quackery from the perspective of public displays of knowledge has the advantage of preserving a symmetric and unbiased perspective which does not insert predefined differences between the scientific claims of accepted communities (like the Royal Society) and the "pseudo-scientific" advertisements of different quacks. Because the activity of quacks was mainly a commercial one, quack pamphlets contain to a great extent those scientific ideas which most appealed to the general public. At the same time, these pamphlets not only reflect but have also shaped the scientific understanding of common people. This approach allows me to address some fundamental issues in the writing of history of scientific popularization. The immediate advantage is that such a narrative does not reduce the popularization of scientific ideas to a diffusionist model which presents a one-way exchange process and denies agency to the audience of these ideas. The analysis of quack pamphlets will allow me not only to evaluate the influence of the public on the displayed knowledge, but also to speculate on the response of the audience. A careful analysis will bring in the audience as an active part of the exchange process, and it will also explore the plasticity of certain scientific ideas -- the way their meanings change as they are translated and transmuted into a different context. Compared to other historians of quackery, I am less interested in the way quacks "tricked" people into buying their products (in the sense of a history of advertising), but fascinated to explore the ways scientific knowledge was displayed to the public, and especially how it was perceived and experienced by it.



More About This Work

Academic Units
B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 12, 2010


Senior thesis.