Barry Commoner Revisited & Revisualized

A dirty secret to start: course preparation is never as smooth as one would like. Behind in my work, I needed a big body of text to run through data visualization tools, so I turned to my dissertation, which I still had on my computer in .pdf. The work consisted of roughly 100,000 words—10,644 unique words. Modest for big data analysis like this, but sufficient for sharing with students in order to show them how digital tools can be used in historical analysis. Here’s a word cloud of the dissertation as a whole:

"Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival." My dissertation from 2004. Word cloud generated by wordle.net.
“Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival.” My dissertation from 2004. Word cloud generated by wordle.net.

At a quick glance, this looks like a decent rendition of the work and its points of emphasis. But word clouds are simply snapshots in time and don’t provide any kind of chronological information. A good starting point, but limited. From here, I took the same text to voyant-tools.org to show my students how we could get under the hood a little more. The results surprised me a little. Not a lot, after I thought about it, but Voyant revealed some interesting evolutions within the text. Compare the relative and raw frequencies of my use of the words “science” and “environmental” throughout the dissertation in the images below.

Relative frequencies of "environmental" (716) and "science" (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on voyant-tools.org.
Relative frequencies of “environmental” (716) and “science” (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on voyant-tools.org.
Raw frequencies of "environmental" (716) and "science" (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on voyant-tools.org.
Raw frequencies of “environmental” (716) and “science” (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on voyant-tools.org.

About halfway through the dissertation, there seems to be a pretty clean transition from the history of science to environmental history. This is pretty consistent with the dissertation. The first two chapters engage Commoner’s participation in a number of scientific debates and his emergence as a scientist-activist. Heavy emphasis through these chapters considers scientists and their social responsibility, and investigates concerns over nuclear fallout (an issue that Commoner would later recall is what made him an environmentalist). The third chapter considers the Age of Ecology and scientists as public intellectuals in the developing environmental movement. This is the point where the blue line starts to climb and before the green line drops off. Eventually, I start to focus on the environmental movement as a whole and Commoner as an intellectual leader within that movement rather than as a scientist.

On a lazy morning—and buoyed by having played with some similar searches recently—I thought I could quickly pull Commoner references in The New York Times to see if I could draw any comparisons between my work and the primary source hits. Again: this is hardly a comprehensive or satisfactory methodology, but I think it provides sufficient material for working with undergraduate students as a means of showing them how historians might visualize and analyze bigger chunks of information.

“Barry Commoner” AND (science OR environment)

My search showed up in 252 articles. I elected to not use TV or radio guide references and a quick eye-test of article titles eliminated a number of non-relevant articles, so the total number of articles was reduced to 151. Too small to be a worthwhile dataset, but the articles totalled roughly 200,000 words, twice the number in my dissertation.

Here is the chronological distribution of the original search.

NYT references to Barry Commoner AND (science OR environment) by decade (1950-1989). 252 total responses.
NYT references to Barry Commoner AND (science OR environment) by decade (1950-1989). 252 total responses.

Not surprisingly, Commoner’s role as an environmental leader and outspoken activist reaches its apogee in the 1970s. His continuing work, his return to New York, and his presidential campaign likely contributed to his ongoing presence in the 1980s, even if he had technically “retired.”

Breaking up the newspaper findings into three sections—1950-1969, the 1970s, and the 1980s—the resulting clouds offer a story that is somewhat consistent with the Voyant trajectory shown above.

NYT references to Barry Commoner between 1950 & 1969.
NYT references to Barry Commoner between 1950 & 1969.

Commoner’s work in the 1950s and 1960s as a biologist, working on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (for which he won the Newcomb Cleveland Award from the AAAS). This put Commoner within a ring of biologists informed about the developing events around heredity and the Watson-Crick discovery of DNA’s double helix. I should write about Commoner’s response to molecular biology at some point. But DNA, protein, and virus suggest this emphasis in the newspaper literature (life, too).

Another running theme in the newspaper articles and in the early stages of my dissertation is the treatment of social aspects of science. Too: Commoner’s outspoken opposition to funding for space travel, which he saw as a disconcerting expression of the military-industry complex and the Cold War arms race.

This first cloud also shows the beginning of environmental issues with “water” and some others. What else? This analysis is roughly consistent with the narrative I presented in the first three chapters of my dissertation/book (phew!).

Moving to the 1970s:

NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1970s.
NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1970s.

This second cloud shows a marked decline in “science,” “scientist,” and “university,” which suggests Commoner’s ascendance in environmental circles and his standing as a public intellectual.

NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1980s.
NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1980s.

In the third cloud, note the emphasis on “Carter” and “Reagan.” Perhaps the Reagan reference is not so surprising, but note that a goodly number of the Commoner references in the 1980s came from 1980 during Commoner’s presidential candidacy on the Citizens’ Party ticket (Harris refers to Commoner’s vice-presidential candidate, LaDonna Harris). The “Queens” reference is also indicative of Commoner’s retirement from Washington University in St. Louis and his move to CUNY Queens College (a return to his native New York City). Given my recent post, it’s also interesting to see “toxic” (in the bottom right corner) present in the 1980s.

One might also identify a change in environmental themes. “Atomic Energy Commission,” “atomic” and “radiation” in the 1950s and 1960s. “energy” in the 1970s; “recycling” and “waste” in the 1980s. “Environment”/”environmental” grow steadily in each word cloud. Clearly I prefaced this evolution in my dissertation and book—the benefit of looking backwards. And more. Again: limited as they are, I think clouds like these provide students with an interesting departure point for looking at big amounts of information, thinking about what might be present, and asking questions that will shape subsequent research. Play along: in the comments below, what evolving trends can we infer from the three newspaper clouds? What isn’t present, or surprisingly underrepresented?

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