Tag: Adam Gopnik

History is Always Advocacy

In the comments to the post Gopnik on Galileo people have raised some good points that warrant further reflection.

I want to begin by underscoring my point in that post:

  • Gopnik repeats a number of problematic historical tropes.
  • Historians of science have for years refuted those tropes, revealing how and why they are fallacious.
  • Despite the historians’ efforts, those tropes continue to be so alluring that authors and audiences ignore or dismiss the historical research.
  • There is no reason to hope that more historical research will change this situation.

But I believe the situation needs to be changed.

So maybe the way forward is to ask a different set of questions, to figure out why Gopnik et al. continue to value these tropes, to understand what work these tropes are doing for readers today.

Spoiler alert: Accuracy be damned, those tropes are unrecognized ways to advocate for a particular position that today’s authors and readers hold dear.

Michael Weiss asked me to be more precise about my objections. I don’t want to be more precise because that way leads to madness, or at least frustration (witness Thomas Mayer’s plight). As Becky pointed out, it is too easy to be read as nitpicking, pedantic, annoyingly fixated on the details and context that Gopnik dismisses as “much loved by contemporary historians.” Becky also suggests that we articulate why it matters that the details are right. We would do well to justify our concern. And historical accuracy is not, and never will be, sufficient.

Peter Canellos from the Boston Globe recently took Academy Award nominated movies, each “based on true story,” to task for historical inaccuracies: “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” In an interview with Robin Young on “Hear & Now,” Canellos nicely summarized the errors in these movies (See Thony’s excellent “A Play is not a History Book” for an analysis of Brecht’s Galileo, a play that has been characterized on an academic webpage as “probably the most famous conflict between the search for truth in science and religious authority.”).

According to Canellos, in “Argo”, the CIA is given the lion’s share of the credit for formulating the escape plan and members of the British Embassy are portrayed as being unwilling to help. In fact, the Canadians devised and executed the plan, not the U.S. CIA. And members of the British Embassy secreted the U.S. staff around Tehran and to the Canadian Embassy. In “Lincoln”, the congressional debate about the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery two of Connecticut’s four representatives vote against the amendment. In fact, as Representative Joe Courtney has pointed out to Steven Spielberg, all four voted for the amendment. Finally, in “Zero Dark Thirty”, torture made possible U.S. efforts to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. But, as various senators have pointed out, the portrayal is “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

Canellos also articulates why it matters, at least for “Lincoln” and for “Zero Dark Thirty”. Spielberg has expressed interest in having his movie “Lincoln” used as a teaching tool. He apparently wants it to find a place in the classroom. Suddenly, inaccuracies begin to take on new meaning when knowingly inserted into educational contexts. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty”, it makes a strong claim about the value of torture, a very real and live debate in the U.S. In “Argo”, the images of both the Canadians and the British are tarnished.

That seems to be the reason it matters. Portrayals of the past are always used in the present. The past exists only insofar as people today call it into existence for their own purposes. History is never value neutral, to move on to Michael’s other questions. Peter Dear argues this point in a recent essay.1 Rejecting the hope of being neutral, Dear seems to be saying that neutrality, even if it were possible, would deprive history of science and history more generally of its purpose:

Thoroughgoing historicism (in its usual contemporary sense) suggests that differences in basic categories of understanding and action render people living in past worlds, such as that of last week, wholly other than ourselves and not to be explicated in our necessarily anachronistic terms. They must be understood, we say, in their own terms, as early modern courtiers or natural philosophers, or Victorian “men of science,” rather than as modern scientists. All this is well and good, and a standard presupposition in the history of science. But fears of anachronism, or of loosely defined whiggishness, while they have been crucial to creating sensitive and insightful historical studies, cannot adequately define what historians of science do and, in particular, what they are good for in the enterprise of science studies. There remains the issue of what kinds of questions, originating from what foundations, and subject to what social or material constraints, drive historical inquiries (p. 51)

Dear draws on two excellent articles by Wilson and Ashplant where they argue that all questions, all research projects, all motivations to study the past, to pick out particular relics from that past, and to elevate those relics to the status of evidence are inextricably linked to our present. We can mitigate the distorting effects of our present, but we can never eliminate them.2 Later, more succinctly, Dear says: “Anachronism is a form of advocacy, and usually a suspect form, but advocacy is an integral part of what all historians do, whether deliberately or not.”

That seems to get at the heart of the problem and why the details matter. History is always advocacy. And advocacy is always serving somebody’s interest usually at the expense of somebody else’s. I would suggest there is still a deeper problem. Because most people do not see (or cannot see) their own advocacy, they do not have to take responsibility for it. They do not have to admit to themselves or their readers and viewers that they have an ax to grind. They never have to examine their own prejudices and biases.

Mark Attorri rightly noted that historians can’t do much about “simple human prejudice (and there’s obviously plenty of that when it comes to Galileo and the Church).” He also points to one way forward: give up the point-by-point refutation because “that just comes off as defensive,” and history has shown it doesn’t work. Instead, tell our own story “as if the other guy isn’t even in the room.” Sure, the motivations for telling the story, the relics elevated to the level of evidence, and the conclusions are all based on our worry about the “other guy.” Sure, we are advocating for a position. But that’s the nature of the historical project.

1 Peter Dear, “Science is Dead; Long Live Science,” Osiris 27 (2012): 37–55 (behind a paywall).
2 See, Adrian Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, “Whig History and Present-Centered HistoryThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 1–16; T. G. Ashplant and Adrian Wilson, “Present-Centered History and the Problem of Historical KnowledgeThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 253–74 (behind a paywall).

Gopnik on Galileo

Adam Gopnik’s essay in The New Yorker, “Moon Man. What Galileo Saw,” swings between unfortunate mischaracterizations and reasonable statements.

We sigh as we read the worn-out myth about Galileo as the founder of modern science (there are various critiques of such founder myths):

The founder of modern science had to wait three hundred years, but when he got his play it was a good one: Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” which is the most Shakespearean of modern history plays, the most vivid and densely ambivalent.

Then a paragraph later, we rejoice in reading Gopnik reject another common myth about Galileo, that he said “eppur si muove:”

The myth that, once condemned, he muttered under his breath, about the earth, “But still, it moves,” provides small comfort for the persecuted, and is not one that Brecht adopted.

To be sure, Gopnik grounds his essay in some scholarship. He refers to John Heilbron’s biography, Galileo, and echoes Samuel Edgerton claims about perspective and the rise of modern science. He also refers to Thomas Mayer’s two recent books (Mayer attracted some attention schooling Governor Rick Perry on his understanding of Galileo). Yet Gopnik ignores considerable recent work on Galileo—noted by Henry Cowles—and dismisses both Mayer’s work and historical scholarship more broadly (in language reminiscent of Roger Highfield’s):

Mayer believes that had Galileo been less pugnacious things would have worked out better for science; yet his argument is basically one of those “If you put it in context, threatening people with hideous torture in order to get them to shut up about their ideas was just one of the ways they did things then” efforts, much loved by contemporary historians.

It’s all too easy to criticize Gopnik’s essay, but maybe there’s another way to look at Gopnik’s piece. What was Gopnik trying to accomplish in writing his essay? Why did he bother? Why did The New Yorker publish this essay? What is Gopnik’s and The New Yorker’s audience looking for in such an article? Maybe we should try to avoid our reflex to criticize and, instead, adopt Lynn Nyhart’s suggestion: “Instead of noticing (and complaining about) science writers who take our best material and get it not-quite right, we could sometimes choose–and then learn–to write the way they do.”

That’s not to say we should forgive Gopnik his missteps, mischaracterizations, misleading over simplifications, misinformation, and mis-whatever-the-error, but to acknowledge that he’s doing something we are not. We can retreat into our safe haven of esoteric and expert knowledge, from which vantage point we can revel in pointing out Gopnik’s errors, or we can risk adapting our knowledge for a wider audience. We can try to see what Gopnik accomplished, how his essay on Galileo was relevant, and why readers of The New Yorker will read and enjoy it. Maybe we can learn how to contribute to the broader discussion. And I think we should contribute to that discussion. As Nyhart wrote last January: “We know this stuff. But we don’t own it.” Perhaps, if we try, as Nyhart urged again this January, historians of science can make a difference in the world instead of relegating ourselves to the disgruntled margins.