Historical Expertise

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).

5 replies on “History is Always Advocacy”

Three cheers!

When I asked for more details on your objections, I didn’t mean a point-by-point refutation of the inaccuracies. As I elaborated: The oversimplification of history? A mischaracterization of Mayer’s work? Or the fact that Gopnik insists on rendering a value judgement? Or the value judgement itself?

As I said in my other comment, Gopnik attacks what he perceives as the value-neutral stance of modern historiography.

Here’s why I think Gopnik went wrong. The urge to judge is a basic part of human nature. (Right now on Slate, for example, an intense discussion is taking place on the ethics of reclining your airplane seat, and strong judgements are flying right and left.)

As I understand it, historians shy clear of anachronism (whiggism, teleology, whatever) mainly because it poses many pitfalls to understanding. Of course, professional historians need to be more careful than most, but anyone with a real interst in the past will want to understand it on its own terms.

But you can still indulge in the joy of judging, as long as you don’t let it slip over into prejudging.

Gopnik interprets Mayer’s historical approach as exonerating the Catholic Church’s actions. He apparently thinks that because Mayer seeks to understand their viewpoint, he must also condone it. He asks, effectively, “Why don’t you say that what they did was wrong?”

Well, I have no problem saying that Church took the Wrong Side in the Galileo affair, in full knowledge that I am applying 21C western “freedom of speech” values — values that no one involved, not even Galileo, subscribed to. Also in full knowledge that the scientific story was still mixed, and that the heliocentric theory still had some major hurdles to overcome.

(I feel especially sanguine judging the 17C Roman Inquisition, since hey, what do they care?)

Gopnik, however, accepts the standard myth in its essentials. Early on he says: And the best argument, often the only argument, for all the beliefs was that Aristotle had said so, and who were you to say otherwise?

His article is filled with examples like this. And yet it seems Gopnik did read more recent research. I suspect the piece was in a sense “written backwards”, starting with the moral and ending with the facts.

And that is the main pitfall of teleology.
[Note, edited as per Michael Weiss’ request.]

I’ve got a worry and a proposal.

The worry is about your argument for the claim in the title, ie. that history is always advocacy.

Is the argument just that “The past exists only insofar as people today call it into existence for their own purposes”?

My worry is that this argument is guilty of conflating “purpose” with “advocacy.” A historian might write a book with a purpose that has little to “advocating for” a present-day group of people or political cause.

Consider Peter Dear’s own book “Discipline and Experience.” You might say that this book “advocates for” the Jesuit mathematicians who (in Dear’s view) represented the high road to modern experimental science. But that is a pretty innocuous form of “advocacy”; indeed it is a bit misleading to call it “advocacy” when all you mean is “arguing a case.”

My proposal is to distinguish between neutrality and impartiality (I borrow this distinction from the philosopher of science Heather Douglas). Roughly, to be neutral with respect to some contentious question is to give no evidence relevant to deciding the question. To be impartial is be free from bias, ie. to not let your prior opinions on some contentious issue interfere with your reasoning.

Perhaps your claim in this article is just that historians can (and should) be impartial even where they cannot be neutral?

First, let me say how much I enjoy your doublerefraction blog, which I discovered via reverse googling Jardin’s Whiggism articles.

You write: to be neutral with respect to some contentious question is to give no evidence relevant to deciding the question. Is this standard terminology in HPS? As an outsider, I would never have read ‘neutral’ that way. I would have said that was being silent on the issue.

You also write: To be impartial is be free from bias, ie. to not let your prior opinions on some contentious issue interfere with your reasoning.

I guess it depends on how you define bias — I would have said that was controlling your bias.

For my part, I find it hard to believe that any historian is ever free from bias, in the sense of lacking inclinations about the subjects of their[1] study. Where could the drive to investigate come from, if not one’s human sympathies? I would expect these feeling to shift, to acquire shading and nuance as the historian delves deeper into their topic.

In the absence of any explicit statements from the historian, I inevitably engage in guessing games about their hidden motivation. “Inevitably” because this also stems from a basic human trait, what psychologists call the “theory of mind”.

No doubt I sometimes guess wrong. OTOH, when a historian — or indeed any writer — is upfront about their biases, I usually end up trusting them more.

[1] I subscribe to the “singular they” viewpoint. In case you haven’t encountered this usage controversy, googling the term will yield millions of web pages, espousing every possible point of view.

Hi Michael,

Thanks for this reply, and I’m glad you like my blog.

No, my “neutral/impartial” distinction is not standard in HPS. I found it in a book by Heather Douglas, as I said; but it seems like an obvious distinction to make, and I doubt that Douglas is the first to make it.

I take your point that “neutral” is a bit ambiguous. It could mean “adopting a middle position on the issue.” Or it could mean “adopting no position at all on the issue,” or in your words “being silent.” I meant the latter, as you guessed.

I’m less convinced that “freedom from bias” is a poor paraphrase of “not letting prior opinions interfere with your reasoning.” Usually we use “bias” as a critical term, ie. it implies not just that the victim of “bias” has preconceptions, but that those preconceptions have compromised their conclusions.

But these are just terminological issues, and from the second half of your comment it sounds like we’re on the same page. We both think that historians come to a topic with prior opinions or suppositions, some of which may be false; but we also think that historians can correct their presuppositions in response to the evidence they come across in the course of their inquiry.

My reason for distinguishing impartiality from neutrality is that a failure of the latter does not imply a failure of the former. So even if “history is always advocacy” (ie. even if it is never neutral), it can still be impartial.

Indeed, if this were not the case then there would be little point in consulting history to deal with politically charged issues, because the historian would always be blinded by his or her presuppositions.