Back in 2011, the field of psychology went into crisis. Some of the most famous and widely-cited experimental results could not be replicated by others. These were findings published in the field’s most prestigious academic journals, and going back for decades. Since then, more and more scientific fields have turned out to have been the victims of replication crises. But what is the problem even worse in history?
Bulstrode’s story was too good not to be true.
"What I simply cannot fathom, now that I’ve read her sources thanks to Jelf’s transcriptions, is how Bulstrode arrived at her narrative at all." She probably started with the narrative and then fit the facts.
History is often distorted by honest mistakes like the one about the canning competition and these mistakes are very hard to spot due to their random nature. Your proposals would do wonders against this type of mistakes.
History has always also been subjected to deliberate distortions and falsehoods made to push various narratives that serve political goals. Everyone interested in history should aim to become savvy in spotting the most spread narratives and be ready to dismiss papers that fit a narrative really well. I'm afraid that for certain politicized historical topics the usual academic safeguards are not strong enough to ensure probity.
"Just as in the sciences it is considered good practice to make one’s data available, in history it should perhaps be a requirement to upload to some public repository the photographs or transcriptions of any cited archival sources that are not otherwise freely accessible online." I believe what you're proposing here is an 'Open History' initiative Anton, much like many funders and fields in science are now committed to 'Open Science' eg
Not only would this help correct the historical record, it would be a potential treasure trove for other historians and writers...
I have been reading this book entitled “writing Gaia : the scientific correspondence of James lovelock and Lynn margulis” in one letter to Lynn margulis lovelock writes “geology in all its aspects is an expertise and you cannot argue with experts on their own ground. Also it is not very sensible to try to prove a man is alive by examining his grandfather’s bones. The best arguments in the favor of Gaia come from the contemporary scene and it is on these I am concentrating. HISTORY IS A MESS at least to me it is. I prefer systems which can be prodded probed and tested here and now.” Makes sense to me. Does it make sense to you?
Very interesting points raised.
Sadly, the spoils (and the narrative) go to the victors. I find history fascinating, yet extracting the truth is squishy business.
Fact - Rome fell
Why - Thousands of pages written by Gibbon and others with multiple theories, fifty plus plausible causes, yet a definitive answer is inconclusive.
It appears from this article that modern history writers have "crossed the Rubicon" from citing facts to embellishing faction for the sake of a desired narrative. That certainly seems the case with "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story."
This reminds me of something Dom Cummings said in his podcast with Steve Hsu. Talking about Bismarck, he said that many sources got timings and dates wrong, and therefore, misattributed causality to events where none existed, because they happened before!
Thanks Anton. I read Oliver's paper and it is quite a rebuttal, but when I tried to find out more about him on the internet there were no great leads. His ORCID profile has no information on him. He has quoted your previous piece on this and I guess you know him? Can you enlighten us more please.
I remember being taught the story of Galileo of Galileo asserting, "and yet, it still moves," which is quite likely another myth. It was conveyed as an example of the dawning of reason, but my takeaway was to wonder what we are being taught today that is untrue. Sadly, it appears quite a bit.
Great post, Anton... You may have come across the book "A new history of management" by Cummings et al. Does a great job investigating the history of many mythologies in the field of management science to understand what actually happened and in the process debunks many taken for granted assumptions
"This lack of effective institutions or incentives was really brought home to me recently by the publication of a paper in the prestigious journal History & Technology by Jenny Bulstrode of UCL, in which she claimed that the inventor Henry Cort had stolen his famous 1783 iron-rolling process from Reeder’s iron mill in Jamaica, where it had been developed by 76 black metallurgists by passing iron through grooved sugar rollers. It was a widely-publicised paper, receiving 22,756 views — eleven times as many views as the journal’s next most most read paper, and frankly unheard of for most academic papers — along with a huge amount of press coverage."
There are papers with random mistakes, but this is not one of them. We are in an environment filled with what Bryan Caplan calls "social desirability bias." Get a result that appeals to progressive politics, and your paper will be easily published and the popular press will amplify it. Go in the other direction, and your paper will get denounced and retraction demanded, if it gets published at all.
You could also include 'Elizabeth I expelled black people from England' which turns out to be a highly involved story about official signing off of someone's mad get-rich-quick scheme http://www.mirandakaufmann.com/blog/elizabeth-i-and-the-blackamoors-the-deportation-that-never-was
This book seems relevant to the point - it was a shocking read, it seems like progressives (probably people in general, but especially progressive academics) are happy to just make stuff up, especially when they think no one will read the footnotes.
This is also an issue with idioms/phrase origins - I had a college professor tell me the old saw about the "rule of thumb" coming from a (never specified) law that let men beat women with rods as thick as their thumb. Never happened, but makes for a great story about the perfidy of the wicked past!
"I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone systematically looking at the same sources as another historian and seeing if they’d reach the same conclusions."
Here is a review of the middle volume of Nigel Hamilton's FDR trilogy that shows Hamilton systematically misrepresented his sources:
"This work contains numerous examples of poor scholarship. Hamilton repeatedly misrepresents his sources. He fails to quote sources fully, leaving out words that entirely change the meaning of the quoted sentence. He quotes selectively, including sentences from his sources that support his case but ignoring other important sentences that contradict his case. He brackets his own conjectures between quotes from his sources, leaving the false impression that the source supports his conjectures. He invents conversations and emotional reactions for the historical figures in the book. Finally, he fails to provide any source at all for some of his major arguments."
Great piece! I love your idea about requiring primary sources being digitized and posted to internet. Transparency is a very powerful tool to stop bad behavior, plus it helps future research.
Some other commenters mentioned it, but ideological bias is probably more of a problem than fraud or honest mistakes. In general, if a new historical “fact” suddenly pops up that closely fits an ideological narrative, one should be very skeptical. A few historians that are willing to dig into the primary sources to validate those claims may provide just the negative publicity needed to stop historians rewriting history to fit an ideological narrative.