Mar 3, 2008

What do historians owe to their audiences?

Having written the Jan. 2 and Jan. 10, 2008 posts as preliminary steps, I can now answer the title question in a straight-forward manner: Historians owe their audiences whatever their contracts require them to provide--and nothing more. If there is no contract, a historian owes his audience nothing. He is free to provide as much information as he chooses to offer.

1. OBJECTION: Doesn't a historian owe his listeners a complete proof of whatever assertions he makes?

No writer or speaker can provide a complete proof. The best that any historical writer or speaker can do is point the way and sketch the major steps of a proof. A complete proof of a complex assertion--e.g., the most fundamental cause of the U. S. Civil War was a radical and mutual opposition in the worldviews of the two sides--could require years of effort and its exact path would differ from one individual to the next according to their differences in knowledge of the subject matter.

2. OBJECTION: Doesn't every historian owe his audience some kind of substantiation for every conclusion he reaches?

No, unless his contract requires him to do so. Take an obvious example first: An editor of a magazine interviews 10 historians and asks them for their conclusions about the role of Aristotle's works on logic in advancing medieval culture toward the Renaissance. Each historian complies--by providing his conclusions and nothing more. The editor then collects the 10 conclusions and publishes them in an article on the diversity of views among historians. Some readers might be left with wanting more. Too bad. If they want more, and are willing to pay for it, in one way or another, then they should do so without complaining that the participating historians were being elitists of the Ivory Tower who won't address their audience on an equal level.

Take another example: An online forum consults a history professor as an (unpaid) expert on the religiosity of John Locke. The professor responds with a very brief answer. His unstated, private purpose is simply to keep his name visible among individuals who might buy his books or attend his for-fee lectures. He promises nothing more. He adjusts the length of his answer to fit his purposes, not the generally unknowable individual purposes of an anonymous audience.

3. OBJECTION: Isn't a historian being arrogant or even arbitrary if all he provides is a terse answer to a question, a question that the asker wants to discuss further or even debate?

This is an issue that comes up especially in formal lectures. For example, listen to the Q&A periods for the first few lectures in Dr. Leonard Peikoff's 2007 discussion of "The DIM Hypothesis" (available through the Ayn Rand Bookstore). In each case, Dr. Peikoff finishes a session (which was typically a walkthrough* of his upcoming book, rather than a formal, self-contained lecture) and then calls for questions.

A few of the questioners do not merely ask a question. Instead, after Dr. Peikoff's answer, they persist in trying to discuss or even debate his answer. The error here is an instance of context-dropping. In particular it is dropping the law of identity as applied to the Q&A sessions. A question-and-answer period is a question-and-answer period. A question-and-answer period is not a discussion period. A question-and-answer period is not a debate forum. Dr. Peikoff rightly refuses to allow individuals in the audience to draw him into either discussion or debate.

If an advertisement for a lecture promises a Q&A session, but makes no other specification, the lecturer is not obligated to turn questions (even if they are pertinent and properly worded) into discussions or debates. If an audience member pays to hear an expert, and the expert speaks, then the audience has heard him. If audience members think the answers are wrong or insufficient for their needs, then the audience members can in the future take their business elsewhere--or, better yet, they can offer a superior product of their own.

In summary, I would say that, in the absence of any contractual requirements to the contrary, no historian has an obligation to provide any particular amount of elaboration or proof of his assertions.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

* A "walkthrough" is a form of communication I witnessed in the electronics industry several decades ago. It was a form used by designers of electronic instrumentation, especially the sofware and firmware aspects. A software designer, for example, would address a small group of other designers, as well as manufacturing and marketing engineers. He would "walk through" his partially completed design, describing its intended functions step by step. In some steps, he could display code that he had written. In other steps, he could show only a block-diagram of what he intended the operation of the software to be when finished. His purpose was to present enough information that his audience could (1) have a general idea of what the design is; and (2) offer informed criticism (that is, pointing out possible errors and offering superior alternatives).

In Dr. Peikoff's 2004 DIM Hypothesis sessions, which are no longer available, he was fully engaged in a walkthrough. He explained the provisional nature of his hypothesis at that time; and he invited criticism. By contrast, Dr. Peikoff's 2007 walkthroughs are, I infer, much more oriented toward presenting his conclusions as a test of his ability to present them and his audience's ability to understand them, as presented, than of their correctness.


Burgess Laughlin said...

[The following--with some editing to make it clearer, more concise, and in conformance with MP etiquette--comes from someone who chose not to follow MP's rules of etiquette. He left no contact information, so I had to reject the original comment without notice.]

I agree that in the context of a historian teaching and his audience learning from what he teaches, that a historian cannot, in any given lecture, essay, or book, offer a proof down to the level of sense-perception. Because of limits of time and space, and because he is attempting to make a delimited point for a certain kind of audience, a historian must rely on shared context and merely sketch his proof on essential points assuming that shared context.

I still have a problem when historians impart a 'fact' that has little or no concrete evidence to support it (no matter what background texts make up their "shared context"). If the texts and sources that make up "shared context" are full of miss-information or miss-interpretations then what is the point?

There are countless examples but the Shakespeare authorship debate is an easy one. This 200 year old debate doubts for very good reasons that the actor/businessman known as Shakespeare of Stratford was also responsible for the body of literary works that bear his name yet this lack of objectivity has not stopped main stream history from absorbing and imparting his authorship as fact.

I believe that history as a body of knowledge is rife this type of error in that many historians have failed to look objectively at the evidence for an accurate picture of the past. Too much is taken at face value. How much of what we consider "shared historical context" is based on the texts and interpretations of 'propagandist' and 'dogmatic' Christian historians and the aristocracy that paid them?

Burgess Laughlin said...

1. COMPLAINTS ABOUT THE QUALITY OF HISTORIANS' WORK. The purpose of the article is to explore a historian's obligations, if any, to his audience. The purpose of the article is not to defend lack of objectivity in the writings of some historians.

Are inaccuracy in results and lack of objectivity in method rife in the field of history? I don't know. I have not conducted the sort of specialized, long-term study that would be required to reach such a conclusion--and no studies have been cited here to prove such a position.

If anyone believes the field of history is rife with error and a lack of objectivity, the solution is obvious: teach by example. Write a book that is both objective in method and accurate in its conclusions. Hold it up as an example for others to follow.

2. HISTORIANS' USE OF FLAWED SOURCES. Using suspect sources is part of what historians do. No historian can rely only on pristine sources, that is, sources whose writers are completely objective in their methods and accurate in their conclusions.

An objective historian works with the sources he has available. He analyzes them. He evaluates them. He draws conclusions commensurate with the nature of his sources, such as they are.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

Re: your point about audience members engaging in debates instead of asking questions and listening to answers. It's been my experience that 1.) Very few lecturers actually know how to lecture; and 2.) So much of education is treated as a group project/bull session where both the ignorant and the informed feel the equal right to chime in as they wish, many people are simply unskilled in how to ask a proper question and listen to an answer.

Since I've organized many public events where audience members attempt to engage in uninvited debates with the speaker, I now go out of my way to make it very clear that I expect only questions (and why). I also go out of my way to ask proper questions when listening to lecture—and in my experience, doing so is far more rewarding than attempting to engaging in an uninvited debate.

For example, I attended a lecture with Ralph Nader where he laid out his argument that corporations are evil and cause unmitigated suffering and death. As much as I have a different view, I thought that it is more interesting to me to understand why Nader holds as he does. In the Q&A, I asked him question about how he personally reconciled the fact that on one hand corporations produce material goods that serve human needs (and that people are willing to pay for), but on the other hand these corporations are often prevented from doing so under the law, such as the world-wide ban on DDT that has led to millions of preventable deaths.

At first Nader gave a glancing answer, so I politely asked a follow up that clarified my question. I got the sense that he appreciated this because he did endeavor to outline his views in-depth (and which were ultimately revealed to be contradictory). Neither he nor anyone else in the audience was aware that I was an advocate for capitalism; the lecture wasn't about me and my opposition to his opinion, it was about *his views* and why he held them. When I operated within those confines, I actually got a more useful answer then if I engaged Nader in uninvited debate.

If I had engaged Nadir in debate, the audience, which consisted primarily of his supporters, would have simply blocked me out as another raving loon unjustly attacking their hero. Instead, I asked a polite and thoughtful question and got exactly the answer I expected—and so did the audience.

Soh Fan said...

So how do historians present their knowledge?

Burgess Laughlin said...

The question is: How do historians present their knowledge?

Historians present their knowledge in articles, books, and lectures, generally. Those are the media.

If the historians are objective in their methods of communication, they motivate their audiences (if necessary), they present facts, and they present abstractions (e.g., as a theme) that integrate those facts.

For the principles of objective communication, on any subject, see the "Objective Communication" lectures by Leonard Peikoff at the Ayn Rand Bookstore:

For the meaning of the concept "objectivity," see The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

How should historians present their knowledge? Objectively.

For an excellent discussion of methods historians should use, read: Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 2nd ed., 1995.

Andrew Miner said...

An important point which wasn't addressed in the article is that people aren't obliged to believe what a historian says if he chooses to make a very short or incomplete argument. Naturally, the more complete a case the historian makes, the more likely his audience is to see his points and agree with them.

In Burgess's example of the historian who provides a brief answer to entice people to purchase his other works, the historian will have to balance his desire to keep the free portion brief with the need to provide enough substance that people actually believe he has something worth purchasing.

Naturally, it's up to the individual historian to walk that line based upon what he wishes to accomplish.