by Jeremy Young | 2/22/2009 12:57:00 AM
New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt pronounces the definitive epitaph for Patricia Cohen's article of article about the Nixon Tapes, declaring that "The Times blew the dispute out of proportion with front-page play, allowed an attack on a respected historian’s integrity without evidence to support it, and left readers to wonder if there was anything here that would change our understanding of the scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency." (H/t HNN.) The story is pretty well warmed-over by now (previous coverage at ProgressiveHistorians here, here, and here), so I won't belabor it here. However, I do want to respond to a quote Hoyt received from a prominent historian:

But David Greenberg, a Rutgers historian and the author of “Nixon’s Shadow,” argued that the tale did not involve a significant dispute and was more like the Watergate version of global warming, with most historians long ago coming to a consensus and only a few outliers arguing against it. “Professional scholarly consensus is not sacrosanct, but it should count for a lot,” he said.


Assuming Greenberg was quoted and paraphrased properly, I understand what he was getting at, but I wish he hadn't gone there. For one thing, it's just not true that the critics of Kutler are "a few outliers" in the sense that scientific critics of global warming are. Joan Hoff and Frederick Graboske, for instance, are highly-respected scholars whose opposition to Kutler is bolstered by impeccable academic pedigrees. Even Peter Klingman holds a doctorate in history from a reputable institution (the University of South Florida) and has taught at several such institutions, which makes him hands-down more reputable than virtually any of the global-warming deniers.

But there's a more important point to be made here: historians just don't deal in the kind of certainty or near-certainty that scientists do. The reason is that the scientific method, which is built on the falsifiablity of hypotheses, is only sporadically useful for historians. Many claims in history can't be proven or disproven -- what was going on in Stanley Kutler's head when he mistranscribed parts of the Nixon Tapes is an excellent example. True, there are some things that historians have pretty well figured out; for instance, no reputable historian today argues that large numbers of black slaves in the U.S. South enjoyed their captivity, as many scholars once claimed. But even a cut-and-dried situation like that isn't comparable to the sort of certainty science can offer.

The late Steven Jay Gould, who during his life was the most dogged and most eloquent defender of evolution, once remarked that scientists have more evidence that evolution occurs than historians do that Caesar lived. It's a wonderful comment, and it elegantly sets out the difference between the two disciplines. Science is fundamentally the quest for certainty, even though scientists acknowledge that true certainty is never attainable. Historians, on the other hand, seek to understand human nature at a more intuitive level; they are satisfied with interpretations that match the available evidence, so long as those interpretations prove useful in understanding ourselves. Greenberg's comment was unfortunate because it gives people outside the profession the idea that what we do is comparable to what scientists do, which is far from the case. The historian's work is different from the scientists, but I'd argue that it's no less important.

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14 Comments:


Blogger mark on 2/22/2009 11:51 AM:

Hey Jeremy,

Most of the scientific critics of global warming advocates are not actually "global warming deniers". Most of them accept climate change but have quite valid criticisms of the methodologies, modeling, data and framing presented, especially by non-scientist alarmists with axes to grind like Al Gore.

Some of these "deniers" so-called, are eminent scientists ( which is why they were invited to participate in the first place) refused to go along with the top-down *political* way the majority were writing the UN's doc on climate change and the preferred policy responses the majority wished to see happen.

Politics and science are not the same thing and "global warming deniers" is a politically loaded phrase designed to shut down scientific debate on the results of global warming research and public criticism of far-Left environmentalist policy proposals.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/22/2009 12:22 PM:

Mark, I'm not talking about those people. I'm talking about these people, and I assume Greenberg was talking about them too. Serious scientists disagree about whether global warming is man-made or not. No serious scientists disagree that it is happening -- or that it's a bad thing for human civilization.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/22/2009 6:03 PM:

I'm not convinced that you're reading Greenberg correctly, because there's several other possible readings, each of which are equally plausible in the total absence of any statement from him about the nature of the consensus. He doesn't say in the article -- his omission or, more likely, the reporter's -- what the consensus is: is it that Kutler is fine, that Kutler is a hack, or that (most intuitively likely but there's no evidence to support it over the other two) Kutler's work is flawed, but not obviously biased.

I also disagree with you about the issue of consensus, but I really don't have the time or energy for a full-bore epistemological discussion right now. My short comment is that there are certainties in history, just as there are in science, but that historical narratives, like scientific models, are subject to refinement with with new evidence and new formulas. "Caesar" isn't the analogue to "evolution"; "The decline of Rome" is the proper analogy, and the evidence is multifarious and rich, incontrovertible by quantity and consistency.

 

Blogger mark on 2/22/2009 9:33 PM:

Hi Jeremy,

Fair enough.

The jump between scientific results and public policy is large. When the science has to do with modeling complex systems, it is even larger of a jump. Small changes in data or new variables can create huge discrepancies in outlier possibilities. Case in point: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601130&refer=&sid=aIe9swvOqwIY

We have to try to not rush through analyzing a planetary scale system when we are still figuring out how to model as we do it.

Re: Klaus

Policy responses to complexity problems should be very simple yet systemic because complex but local responses are unlikely to ever have their effect disaggregated and quantified succeesfully. For example, a broad, uniform, global anti-desertification/ reforestation initiative to increase "carbon sinks" is probably more likely to yield use quantifiable data than a half dozen advanced nations issuing different regs on fossil fuels for autos, phasing in at different times with uneven enforcement. Who the hell will be able to draw hard scientific conclusions from that ?

 

Anonymous Ralph Luker on 2/23/2009 2:46 AM:

Just a marginal issue, Jeremy. Peter Klingman taught briefly at the University of South Florida, but I think that his doctorate cannot be from there. If I'm not mistaken, its doctoral program is too recent to have yet produced even its first ph. d. I haven't been able to find out where Klingman earned his doctorate, but I think it cannot have been U.S.F.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/23/2009 5:37 AM:

Ralph, thanks for the catch. According to ProQuest Dissertation Abstracts, his Ph.D. is from University of Florida. I'm updating the post accordingly.

 

Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 2/26/2009 9:01 AM:

I agree with AH here. The so-called gap between history and science is an old and rotten chestnut. AH analogies are an excellent example.

But I would go even further. We all can cite examples of the use of so-called science by historians, and I presume some who read these pages have even used some of these techniques. These even include system dynamics modeling,which happens to be a personal interest of mine.

Where the gap exists is with the public and press. The Times would not have published such a story about a scientific or medical article. History, however, was fair game.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/26/2009 2:05 PM:

All I can say is that I think people need to reread their Peter Novick. I too thought history was a science until I read that book. Earth-shattering, it was. Now I view history as an art form where the raw materials are documents. Falsification is still a crime, but the truth resides in whose collage is most convincing, not in "proof" of any sort.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/26/2009 7:55 PM:

I never said that history was a science; I said that history is like a science in that it deals with verifiable data and explanatory models.

If you're going to go full-bore postmodern on us, it's going to get ugly around here. It's a nihilistic dead end, friend. You might want to follow that up with a Abbleby/Hunt/Jacob chaser.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/26/2009 11:05 PM:

Not sure we're disagreeing. My position is summed up by Jean-Jules Jusserand, who wrote: "History is not simply an art, nor simply a science; it participates in the nature of both." To me, that means the facts are to be respected, but that many possible models can fit the facts, and that the most persuasive ones are the ones we should adopt, instead of seeking to "falsify" all but one of them as you would with a scientific model.

 

Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 2/27/2009 12:06 AM:

As someone married to a research scientist, it seems there is a grave misunderstanding about what science does. Again, I agree with AH here. Any scientific researcher will tell you there is a great deal of art in science, if art is defined as an imaginative projection of reality.

But the point is not to go down the rather well-worn rabbit hole of history and science, but that the controversy would have never occurred had the popular media treated historical research with the same respect they do scientific research. The media--and much of the general public I am afraid--tend to think of historical research as "soft" as opposed to "hard" scientific research.

As the son of political refugees, I know first hand that when history is treated as "soft" then it can be bent to whims of those who would destroy it. If we do not stand up for the integrity of what it is we do, then integrity is lost and history becomes whatever who is in power says it is.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/27/2009 12:32 AM:

Actually, Ralph, part of our problem is the overwhelming tendency of people to see History as a "just the facts" field: they oversimplify causation and don't understand that there's some value in theory. The other part, as you say, is the tendency to treat history as storytelling and infinitely fungible.

Jeremy, you're backtracking. Novick is a hard-core postmodern textualist; your second position is a weak restatement of my position, which is hardly postmodern at all (weak because you're limiting model preferences to "convincing" rather than admitting that "convincing" should mean "fits the data and our understanding of the human context best." You can falsify models in a historical context, too, by accumulating data which shows them to be a poor fit.) because it admits to "facts" outside of texts.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/27/2009 1:54 AM:

All right, fine, I'm backtracking. :) Perhaps it's I who need to reread my Novick. I read the book several years ago, and was most impressed by its condemnation of historical positivism, a philosophy I subscribed to at the time. Novick's stunning demonstration that those scholars who were the most certain of a unitary historical "truth" were driven by their very positivism to pervert the evidence when it disagreed with their political views really shattered my illusions about the reach of the "facts." But that doesn't amount to a rejection of the idea of "fact," so I'll backpedal on that -- even though I'd still argue that historical "fact" isn't as solid as scientific fact, purely because it's not as repeatedly falsifiable (it's easier to ask questions we can't answer in history than it is in science).

However, I think the difference between my "weak restatement" and your statement gets at where our real disagreement is. Particularly in overstudied subfields of history (like, ahem, my subfield), it's possible to find multiple interpretations and models that fit the available evidence. For instance, taking the Progressives as an example -- some scholars argue that the Progressives were conservative moralists, others that they were radical reformers; some argue that they wanted to transform society on class grounds, others that their main goals were international; some see them as supporters of modernity, others as opponents; and so on. The thing is, the Progressives were all of these things, and many of them at the same time. Each model fits the facts, but each leaves something out, and each leads to its own radically different conclusion.

When this happens in science, scientists get together and decide which model is best (per Kuhn's paradigm shifts), and reject the others; in history I don't think we need to do that. It's possible for multiple historical models to coexist and do work even as they contradict one another, so long as they all fit the facts to a certain extent. That's the wiggle room that history gives us to weave our own lessons out of the fabric, because we can pick and choose among those successful models.

 

Blogger mark on 2/27/2009 11:35 AM:

History is a craft. We use evidence, even scientific evidence where it is relevant to proof but as most events are derived from multiple causation it's always going to be an interpretive enterprise. How any event is weighed will have normative as well as logical aspects.

Good historians are aware of and upfront with their readers about their normative perspective.