What Happens When People Who Don't Know Historical Methods Spout Off About Historical MethodsRoundup
tags: historiography, economics, popular history, Disciplinarity, Punditry
Bret Devereaux is an ancient & military historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.
I generally try to avoid having Twitter disputes spill on to the blog. Generally what happens on Twitter is best left on Twitter and in some cases not even that. However this past week I was pulled into a Twitter debate with Noah Smith about the validity of the way that historians offer our knowledge into the public debate who then opted to continue that debate in a long-form blog post tackling my work in particular, which in turn seemed like it demanded a long-form response rather than something in 280 characters or less.
Noah’s initial tweet declared:
Carlos Morel responded with some confusion, noting that historians tend to be quite wary of what he termed ‘theorizing’ and perhaps foolishly I waded in because I felt Morel had made a valid point somewhat confused by the fact that Smith seemed unaware that the word ‘theory’ is used differently in different fields.1 And so to compress quite a few tweets into a short statement, I offered that in fact this was a real difference: historians do not generally aim to construct laws of general applicability (quite unlike social scientists, who do), but instead to study and furnish relevant exemplars as tools (but not predictions) for thinking about current problems.
To which Smith responded that he’d be putting together a post where my public writings would “form the core” showing how contra to what I said that “academic historians make strong theoretical claims that cannot be evaluated empirically.” And here I want to ask you to please put a pin in the word ’empirically’ now used twice because we’re going to come back to it.
In any event he did write that post and it is here and you can read it; unfortunately I cannot recommend it. We’re going to talk about why but it is going to end up being rather involved because to explain why a shallow critique of a discipline’s methods is shallow, you have to explain how that discipline functions and why it does so. But before we get to the complicated stuff we should deal with:
The Bad Faith Complaints
We can start with the conceit of the section titled “Historical analogies are theories” (mark that word ‘theories’ again because we’re coming back to it) which is where my work is focused on. For the most part I just want to get most of this out of the way before I get to the real meat of Smith’s complaint. There are a few problems with his reading of the essays in question which seems to speak either to bad faith or a failure in comprehension. Let’s take this paragraph of his:
Which is building off of this paragraph of mine:
Now perhaps this is unfair of me coming as a specialist trained in the reading of texts but it sure does seem to me like Smith has stripped out quite a lot of qualifiers here to fundamentally misrepresent a paragraph that is in fact a giant caveat, instead presenting it as claim of general statistical predictability. Phrases like “stretch the scientific metaphor” before “laboratories of democracy” fairly clearly indicate that, no, I am well aware these are not actual laboratories; the double-quote marks around “data set” do the same, acknowledging that this is analogous to a data set but not an actual data set.2 Moreover I am leading the paragraph with the idea that there is fundamental uncertainty, indeed “always risks” in “drawing comparisons across vast chasms of time and culture” before introducing the idea that there may well be other examples which might offer different lessons. Rather than “asserting that ancient Greece is an appropriate analogy for our modern politics,” as Smith has it, I have explicitly opened the door to the idea that it might not be. As we’ll see, this sort of stress on context and contingency over rules of general applicability is a key difference between the methods historians use and the social sciences.