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.