History Is Not Science

Over at Slate last week, our Junto colleague Eric Herschthal reviewed some of the latest popular histories of revolutionary America, including two new studies of the years around 1776 by Richard Beeman and Joseph Ellis. Eric takes a very critical view of the analytical stance of the books–arguing that they are too in thrall to outdated and invalidated historical techniques; focusing too much on elites and ‘leadership’ at the expense of more recent trends in scholarship, such as the new emphasis on those who stayed (or tried to stay) neutral during the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the most provocative part of the review is this statement:

“If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?”

To me, the answer seems self-evident. When scientists conduct their research, they are governed by laws of the scientific method. Progress in science rests on systematic testing, observation, and measurement of phenomena, normally requiring that results can be repeated if experiments are carried out with the same conditions. This allows new knowledge to be integrated into scientific scholarship once the validity of testing has been accepted. Thus the notion of progress within scientific research shouldn’t cause too much hesitation.

Historians, by contrast, are always, necessarily, dealing with incomplete information. Indeed, we lose more of the raw material we need to understand the past the further away we get from it. When we talk about new research on the past, very frequently what we mean is a reinterpretation of the materials that formed the evidentiary basis of older monographs. That might be by comparing groups of archival material previously thought not to be linked to each other; alternatively, it might involve the adoption of a new theoretical lens. In any case, is it that surprising that historians (especially from different generations) might read the archival material differently? I’m hesitant to endorse Eric’s view that modern historical scholarship necessarily represents ‘progress’.

(NOTE: I’m well aware that all sorts of published printed editions of papers, and more recently, digitized collections, mean that it’s possible to do new kinds of historical research that weren’t previously possible. I’d still submit that doesn’t necessarily mean that new conclusions are ‘right’ and older ones flawed).

Ultimately, there isn’t such a thing as “the historical method.” The reason that popular histories don’t necessarily keep tracking developments in scholarship the way popular sciences do, is simple. History is not science.

After all, that’s why I became a historian in the first place. Math problems were always interesting to me, and certainly intellectually fulfilling. There was always a disappointment, though, in the finality of completing a math problem. No matter how logical, rigorous and thorough you are in the course of writing history, you still get to have an argument at the end of it.

We could just as easily frame Herschthal’s question in a different way. If previous generations of historians, studying the same sets of sources we have, came to very different conclusions, what makes us so certain that we are right? Or even a third formulation – if modern research is so correct in interpreting the past, why is the reading public so resistant to its insights?

One answer comes down to the quality of our storytelling. While I was an undergraduate at Oxford, Richard Beeman was visiting professor for a year. He was a fantastic teacher, and an even better lecturer. He gave the only lecture series I saw where more people attended his final lecture than his first one. If all historians were as good at engaging an audience as Beeman, then we would live in a considerably more historically literate world.

A further anecdote: Beeman’s previous book, Plain, Honest Men, could easily be described as part of the same popular historical genre as the books Herschthal covers in his review. Though there are other journals and monographs that deal with the same subject (perhaps in a more academic manner, too), I set the chapter on slavery for my class on the Constitutional Convention. At the end of this semester, one of my students came to me and thanked me for setting the reading, as it had helped him see the Constitution in a new light. I’m not at all certain that other (more worthy, less “popular”) writings on the same subject would have engaged that student in the same way.

Another answer comes to the sorts of stories we tell. It’s fashionable to criticize many “Founders Chic” histories as some sort of hokey “leadership studies.” That is, they’re no longer really books about historical context, but rather timeless lessons that if only today’s leaders could learn …

There’s a real opportunity there for historians performing more “cutting-edge” research, though. I can think of numerous books in the past few years that speak to questions of leadership from a decidedly more subversive angle than Joseph Ellis. Herschthal mentions Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s recent book The Men Who Lost America on the problems of British governance; I would throw in Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution or Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War as other alternative takes on how political leadership really operated during the revolutionary years. Academic historians know that there are many alternative stories to be told about the operation of power and the role of popular activism in the Revolution.

But instead of trying to tell these stories (which I think, if well told, would have significant popular appeal), the latest trends that Herschthal particularly identifies in his review is that of the neutrality of most people in the Revolution. With the best will in the world, this is never scholarship that is going to excite a wider audience (though it may well invigorate new and innovative studies of political leadership). We are naturally most interested in stories of change over time. Histories of the early twenty-first century will focus on the Arab Spring, or the astounding leaps forward in technology, or popular movements like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, rather than the vast swathes of people who have little time  for political discussion. That doesn’t mean that historians should ignore topics that aren’t in popular vogue. But nor should we ignore topics that are.

Of course, academic historians are more than just storytellers. Most academics, I’d venture, believe there is some use for modern society in terms of a rigorous approach to studying the past. (See Tom’s post last week for an excellent example of this). But there isn’t a linear relationship between the past and the present. Many popular histories are reductive and fall victim to that linearity. But if, as academics, we’re calling for sensitivity to context in understanding the past, we should be more sensitive to the sorts of conversations amateur enthusiasts have about history, too. That means changing the sorts of stories we tell, and the sorts of arguments we make, to hold broader conversations–not just outside of our discipline, or outside of the academy, but to consciously engage those we know have a real interest in history but all too often don’t see academic historians as talking about their historical interests.

When we study history, we are not providing answers to definitive scientific problems. We are always dealing with a sample size of one. There is no such thing as repeatable historical conditions. That means that academic historians should be more sensitive to the sorts of histories that gain popular attention. If we want to influence public debates–and there are all kinds of recent histories whose messages would be very salutary for modern politics–we have to mold our arguments to fit into contemporary conversations. We need to be very careful that we don’t just talk to an echo chamber of colleagues. If our fundamental questions and organizing axioms aren’t in conversation with a wider audience, then we will never move towards the popular history academics would like to see.

6 comments on “History Is Not Science

  1. Very well said Ken. And I would add that excellent writing and story-telling can make just those cutting-edge, non-mainstream stories exciting and interesting to a wider public and thus become revelatory and remain ground-breaking. That is why teaching writing (and all great story-telling comes from great writing) is a fundamental component of what I teach. In academe far too much innovative thinking comes in forms far too difficult and tiring to wade through. BUt we have it way better than lets say our kin in American Studies or Anthro. One of the things I love about history particularly as an epistemology is that our relatively large market tends to encourage good writing and story-telling.

    On the other hand, we DO have a built-in teleology in our epistemology. It is a discipline of rigorous and evolving standards and with a set of tools (see Allan Megill’s recent excellent book Historical Knowledge, Historical Error) whose end goal is a closer stab at TRUTH. That is not the scientific method, but it is a near relative of the scientific method. Without that teleology we lose the pressure to be absolutely truthful in our work. We have to believe that what we are saying is going to be definitive even if we realistically know we can never be truly definitive.

    Therefore, I guess I am arguing for a boring middle ground between the two.

  2. This is really good stuff, Ken (and Taylor). I would just add that far too often we academic scholars treat as a given histories and stories that are unknown–if not indeed misrepresented–in broader public conversations. Which is to say, while there’s obviously a place for debating among ourselves, I believe there’s just as much of a place for bringing what might seem obvious or old hat to us to broader audiences for whom it’s anything but.

  3. pastnow says:

    Reblogged this on pastnow.

  4. Roy Rogers says:

    Ken, in a few respects I agree with you 100 percent. History is not a science. We are not gradually moving towards Truth where the fog of the past will break and suddenly everything will become clear.*

    I must argue, however, that generally speaking our (post?)modern historical narratives are better they were before – certainly compared to nearly all of the pre-1950s scholarship. This is largely because historians today – no matter their methodology or politics – are required to take a variety of subjects and historical actors seriously in ways that simply were unheard of in mainstream historical discourse before the 1960s. Even Gordon Wood’s “Empire of Liberty” has a section or two on women, the working class, and slaves.

    Put another way, if the Doctor transported Richard Beeman to, say, the 1940s or the 1950s would this counterfactual version of “Plain, Honest Men” even have a chapter on slavery? I think not.

    A lot of this, as we discuss on the first podcast, is political. Politics along with cultural change and historiographical fads have expanded our historical landscape. I more or less think this is a great thing.

    Now, as you say, we historians need to do a better job of communicating this expanded landscape and its consequences to the public. But how do we do this? One of the more interesting conclusions (to me at least) of our discussion in the first JuntoCast was the difficulty in this. Becoming better writers may help, but is clearly not enough. We can all think of well-written “revisionist” histories that fell flat sales wise. What else can we do? What else should we do? I don’t know.

    Anyway, excellent post Ken (as usual).

    *As most historians and philosophers of science, these days, will tell us that scientists aren’t really doing this either.

    • “Becoming better writers may help, but is clearly not enough.”

      Absolutely. This is the point I always try to make. General readers do not read historians primarily because they don’t like our writing style (or lack thereof). General readers of early American history (of which I was one, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) appear to choose books primarily by topic. They are obviously fascinated with biographies of powerful individuals. They are also greatly interested in the founding of the nation.

      In terms of the founding, popular political histories and biographies provide our national origins myth. This is why some people will brush aside Roy’s comment that “Even Gordon Wood’s “Empire of Liberty” has a section or two on women, the working class, and slaves.” But it’s not about Gordon Wood. More and more popular history writers cannot ignore those topics completely anymore and that is because of the scholarship. So I disagree with Eric that academic scholarship has no impact on popular history. It may not be as great as we academic historians would like, but it is there.

  5. Too often, the criticism of popular political histories are that they ignore other important issues like race, class, gender, religion, etc…. The long-desired “synthesis” of the American Revolution or early American history is more pipe dream than holy grail. The complexity of the actual history and the historiography is too great for one all-encompassing synthetic narrative. Neither the story of early America nor the American Revolution could ever be completely told in one book. And that is as it should be.

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