Bad history and the historian

I’ve been reflecting on what Ahistoricality said in the Carnival of Bad History

…Yes, I’m complaining: the number of independent submissions from the historical blogosphere was pitiful, in spite of the publicity I got from some of the best-read bloggers in the ‘sphere. Given the educational potential, political abuses and cultural damage of bad history, I would have thought that they’d be lining up to host and flooding the inbox with submissions. Nope.

I think that [part of] the trouble is that if you’re an even half-way decent blogging historian, you don’t feel that you can just dash off a quick post about the latest spot of Bad History you encountered. You have to go do research: if you’re having a go at someone else’s use of evidence, yours has to be watertight. Mostly you don’t start. Or you write a paragraph and then decide you need to go to the library to check something out (just to be sure), so it sits in your drafts folder for the next six months.

Because you just don’t have the time.

5 thoughts on “Bad history and the historian”

  1. Yeah, I know that feeling, too. But in my field the errors are so often blatant rather than subtle — take Gavin Menzies, for example — I think it’s easier.

    I do think we could do a better job popularizing and discussing more recent research, though: I don’t know why there isn’t more discussion of journal articles, for example, or re-reviewing old books in the light of more recent scholarship (does X stand the test of time? sort of thing)

  2. That sounds very plausible to me, Sharon. One difficulty with a category like ‘bad history’ is that, in some ways at least, good history is so hard: it’s so easy to make mistakes if you’re not careful that professional historians (who know the pitfalls even better than layfolk or merely quasi-historians like historians of philosophy) seem cautious about being too severe about the mistakes of others. That’s a blade that can quickly turn on you, if you aren’t well-prepared to prevent it from doing so.

    Plus, I wonder how much of it is simple pragmatism. Yes, it might be nice if everyone got the precise details right, but, honestly, except on certain subjects where it’s easy to find standard research works, who other than a professional historian usually has the time to do the research to get everything right — or, at least, solidly well-supported. And even there, as you note, historians have other things to do. They have to choose their battles.

    I wonder if perhaps a partial solution might be to focus not on correcting bad history (except in obvious cases) but on making clear, without necessarily being judgmental about it, just how much more complicated issues are than people think. A lot of things that might be called bad history aren’t bad in the sense of being perverse or just plainly and obviously wrong (in fact, probably only very few things are like that); they’re bad in the much weaker and gentler sense of being naive, or simplistic, or insufficiently critical about sources, or too confident about things that are doubtful. A Carnival of Bad History of some sort is a good idea; but perhaps the name and the way it has been proposed has been putting the emphasis in a problematic place: criticism, rather than the refinement of review.

    If more historians did the sort of thing Jonathan Dresner suggests in the above comment that would be awesome.

  3. There are a few other points. One is that it’s usually not fun. I’d rather talk about something brilliant which says that I need to go back and rethink my basic assumptions about the past than point out the flaws in someone else’s work.

    Another is that I often feel like I’m personally picking on someone when I tackle errors. The reason I’m fairly happy talking about over interpretation of the Nebra disc is because the team at Halle seem like a really sharp and imaginative bunch of guys rather than dull or ill-read chancers. If you try and debunk the obvious junk then you’ll find there’s no shortage of atrocious stuff out there and really there’s not enough hours in the day to tackle it all.

    Then there’s self-interest. I’ll need a job soon. Is it really a good idea for me to demonstrate where the extremely eminent historian Prof X. went wrong using data in a way which wouldn’t be tolerated if it was done by a 12 year old on a science course?

    I think both Jonathan and Brandon make excellent points. But I also think kudos are due to Ahistoricality too. Irving was obviously going to be a big story and a series of posts saying “The Holocaust did happen actually…” would have been both accurate and very dull reading. I think focussing on the issue of how you interact with people like Irving was a far more stimulating and intelligent approach. Putting that issue right at the front of the carnival made it much more interesting than “Here’s a bunch of nutters, what are they on?”, which has been my approach when I’m busy or just in a bad mood.

    I think the aims of the Carnival of Bad History are laudable, but I think if you’re going to have an ongoing carnival that does more that publicise some awful work then a rethink of approach is in order.

    If you can get access to it, Cornelius Holtorf’s paper “Beyond crusades: how (not) to engage with alternative archaeologies” in World Archaeology is thought-provoking.

  4. Jonathan makes some good points about approaching ‘bad histories.’ The line between good and bad historied crosses the hazy fields of academic and popular histories. History belongs more to the ‘people’ than, say, sociology and psychology. Although an expert, an historian adressing ‘bad’ history enters into an arena in which people have made their own historical analyses and believe firmly in their conclusions. Attacking the fallacies might be satisfying, but it would be a small victory in comparison to teaching a broader public how to see history like an historian.

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