Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Historians Against Trump" vs. Dart-Throwing Monkeys

[Reposted from July 24.  Since the usual suspects are at it again post-November 8, so too the rebuttal.]

“The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being of course determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.”--E. H. Carr

You may have heard from our friend John Fea about a group of academics calling themselves "Historians Against Trump."  Philosopher Stanley Fish took to The New York Times to question the validity of such an enterprise in an essay called "Professors, Stop Opining About Trump." and I think historian/historiographer E.C. Carr would quite agree.

From the liner notes: 

Historiography consists partly of the study of historians and partly of the study of historical method, the study of the study of history. Many eminent historians have turned their hand to it, reflecting on the nature of the work they undertake and its relationship both to the reader and to the past. Carr was a well-known authority on the history of Soviet Russia, with which he was in ideological sympathy. Invited to deliver the 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, Carr chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study. At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity.

He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future.

In short, historians are entitled to their opinion, but it's not necessarily any better than normal people's. And although some individuals are quite brilliant in forecasting the future, social psychologist Phillip Tetlock's famous study proved that when grouped together [say, as "Historians Against Trump"], experts' predictions were worse than those of dart-throwing monkeys!

In the end, there's really no difference between a consensus and a mob; the wise individual speaks only for himself.


Art Deco said...

The substantive points made by the letter were pretty worthless as well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's the thing. Once partisan animus is introduced, the professional expertise goes out the window.

There is also the question of the fact-value distinction, that no matter how much the social sciences claim to be value-free [and therefore purely factual and "scientific"], their values inevitably creep in.

But their values are not inherently any more worthy than the Average Joe's.

Art Deco said...

If I'm not mistaken, Max Weber offered that social research cannot justify a value. Why something is of interest to study incorporates a value judgment. (Although it does seem to me that if a value judgement is contingent on a factual determination, social research is of aid in making a normative argument of a sort, presupposing some underlying agreement on norms between parties arguing).

There's not much wrong with John Fea (or Arthur Schlesinger) having values. There is something wrong with people pretending sociological judgments are historical ones, or pretending that sociological judgments which rely on rough analogical judgments are any more reliable when history professors are making them than when accountants are making them. While we're at it, even a meticulous sociological inquiry is fairly unreliable as an aid to prediction.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Because of their own biases and narratives, when history is being made, historians are among the last to know.