Historians weigh personality, place and politics in the creation of knowledge
By Donna Emert
Sixteen intrepid members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition set out across tundra and sea ice in 1913, under the split command of explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson and scientist Rudolph Martin Anderson.
Funded by the Canadian government, their goals were to find new land and to conduct scientific study. They completed the expedition in 1918 with those goals accomplished, locating four large uncharted islands in the Canadian Arctic and producing an official 14-volume official report, among other scholarly and autobiographical work.
Almost 100 years later, University of Idaho Associate Professor of History, Adam Sowards, and history undergraduate and McNair Scholar, Brad Tyson, are exploring the economic, environmental, social and political context of Stefansson and Anderson's discoveries. Their findings raise questions about the acquisition of knowledge that resonate across centuries.
"Historians search for compelling stories to tell that illuminate greater issues," said Sowards. "Wedding an exploration narrative to a critical account of how knowledge is made in the field and in the public view makes this research not only an interesting story to tell, but a useful way to investigate how science intersects with people, politics and place."
Sowards describes Stefansson as "charismatically dangerous: Part visionary, part charlatan." While Anderson's goal was to conduct serious scientific inquiry, Stefansson sought glory - and continued government funding - at a time when the promise of northward expansion was a cherished dream of Canada's government and its citizens.
"The difference between the two men was that Stefansson was an explorer looking for an Arctic continent, which they were pretty sure existed in 1913, while Anderson was a true scientist," said Tyson. "They were different people with different goals."
As a McNair scholar, Tyson is a first-generation college student. Under Sowards' guidance, he is collaborating on the research and co-authoring a conference paper and journal article. Through the mentorship, Tyson is meeting the requirements of his McNair Scholarship: to learn best research practices by conducting faculty-guided research.
"Working directly under Professor Sowards improves my understanding of historical research," said Tyson. "There are some mistakes he prevents me from making and others he allows me to make, only afterwards explaining what happened. I'm learning things you won't find in a book, things graduate students might not find out until they're nearly finished with their degree."
Tyson is gaining additional insights into best research practices - specifically, how knowledge is shaped and communicated - as he and Professor Sowards weigh the methods employed by Stefansson and Anderson.
According to Anderson's account of the expedition, Stefansson commandeered scientific equipment to serve his own purposes, putting the researchers behind schedule and sometimes making it impossible for them to work at all. In his own report, Stefansson declares the scientists "insubordinate." His spin on the five-year expedition, which took the lives of three members of the party, is captured in the pages and title of his memoir, "The Friendly Arctic."
Others expedition members do not corroborate Stefansson's assessment of the region's hospitality.
The apparent rift at the heart of their varied accounts of the expedition has become a legacy of the Arctic, which now serves as a focal point of climate change research: In the 21st Century, some scientific reports on global warming also appear to be shaped by social, economic and political and agendas.
The focus on personality conflicts has prevented scholars from assessing the historical Arctic expedition's myriad scientific contributions, and how they were made--a shortcoming Sowards and Tyson are remedying.
"Scientific inquiry is always embedded within social and political contexts," said Sowards. "Although scientists do remarkable work and employ safeguards to prevent too much bias from intruding on their work, the larger context always influences the science. Carefully investigating how scientists make claims credible, or assessing whether those claims are credible, seems to me to be a critical element that deserves greater attention."
The goal of the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program is to increase Ph.D. attainment by students from underrepresented segments of society. The McNair Achievement Program is a federally funded educational assistance (TRiO) program designed to prepare undergraduate participants for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.