I was quite overwhelmed by the response to my last piece, on whether history has a reproducibility crisis — all the more overwhelmed because I posted it just before moving house. But I’ve been sent so many interesting things as a result of it, that I’d like to share a few of them that stood out. And to make a public commitment.
Very sensible. I'd say that the multiplier effect of deliberate error in popular history is culturally toxic. Just look at the BBC's latest horrible history lies.
Definitely worth a mention is the Early English Books Online project which has digitised every English book from 1400-1700, IIRC. Quite a source.
Perhaps worthwhile to mention the important role of authors of historical fiction too.
See this guest post by literary fiction author Karen Jennings: https://open.substack.com/pub/johanfourie/p/tonypandy-and-truth
It doesn’t actually sound like Wellington, either. Gleig’s memoir, which I read recently, gives a sense of the man. Obviously that’s not definitive but rather it should be a cue to do further digging.
And for some of us 20th century historians, copyright and permissions can be a problem. Furthermore, some of those wonderful databases of digitized documents are only accessible to researchers with the “right” affiliation or credentials.
I am a historian who has always shared archival documents (because I want colleagues to write more accurate history) but I’m aware that in some fields this is not done for fear of being “scooped” (which I think is nuts, we can write different things about the same materials).
So while I love your ideas here, I think there are many fronts in this battle. 🤓
"Open History" is a great concept. As others have already mentioned, there is a lot to learn from the open science and open data movements. In essence, the ideas of transparency, provenance, and error-checking are essential when it comes to "openness," at least from a scholarly perspective. FAIR (https://www.go-fair.org/fair-principles/) and CARE (https://www.gida-global.org/care) principles are also important to consult.
However, from a broader perspective that considers the public good, things can get a bit tricky. I believe this applies to history as well. There's a great piece from Open Future called "The Paradox of Open," (https://paradox.openfuture.eu/) which discusses how the concept of openness, once seen as a tool for equity and democracy, has now become an enabler of power concentrations. This transformation has occurred because the digital environment has allowed a small number of information intermediaries, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, to amass enormous amounts of data and power. And also reminder me of this quote, probably from the soviet era (but we should check): "The Future Is Certain; It’s the Past Which Is Unpredictable".
I think that more openess in source attribution, reviews and digitisation of books / manuscripts etc will definitely speed up the process of ensuring correction of the narratives, however, as a student of human fraility I feel that there will always be errors - wilful and wishful.
We humans are very tribal in our conduct, this tribalism impacts the core of our perception of the world and it's issues. Hence, we willingly and selectively put forward viewpoints in support of the ideology that we adhere to.
Till such time this aspect remains central, the dogma driven narratives will thrive.
This is how victors have erased the history of the vanquished and how the weak have kept the fires of identity alive.
Amusingly, in the xkcd citation, it's Munroe, not Mundroe.
Back in the dark ages of blogging, we had blog carnivals including one devoted to bad history, misuse, misquotations etc: http://badhistory.blogspot.com/?m=0
Well Eric Hobsbawm wrote a book called 'Interesting Times', named for the supposed 'Chinese curse' "may you live in interesting times". As someone who has spent too much of my life learning Chinese proverbs, and has the internet will tell you, there is no such saying.
I fell victim to this as well. In the discussion surrounding prizes vs patents, advocates of prizes often cite the Longitude Prize where an award of 20,000 pounds was offered by Parliament for the first inventor who could find a precise way of measuring longitude on the ocean.
This is cited as an example of how prizes are better than patents. BUT….as I noted here: https://www.lianeon.org/p/patents-or-prizes
"Ironically, the Longitude Prize example also demonstrates some of the problems with them as an incentive mechanism. Anything that is government-directed will potentially be loaded with preconceived notions as to what the innovation “should” look like. Indeed, administrators refused to award Harrison for his invention, arguing that the solution needed to be based on celestial navigation, not timekeeping. Harrison spent decades lobbying for his prize money; he never received the full award and was never formally declared the winner."
Sometimes, information gets lost in the game of telephone that is history.
Hi Anton. I’ve liked both these last posts and the engagement has been really wonderful. Great to see. Have you looked at the debate between EH Carr (1961) What is History? and GR Elton (1967) The Practice of History from the 1960s? It was standard fare for us trained in history in the 1970s.
Carr took aim at British empiricism while Elton defended it (especially against what he saw as Marxist distortions). My copies are in boxes from when I decamped my office last year on retirement, so I cannot check stuff now. I think Carr remarked that something becomes a “fact” in history after it’s been cited three times. First time it is an anecdote, then second ???, and the third ‘a fact’. Elton, if memory serves, argued that ‘facts are sacred, and the rest is interpretation’.
In a 1974 historiography seminar at Monash University I argued the case for an explicit theorization in history. The centerpiece of my argument was built on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that the act of observation changed what was observed in a quantum mechanics world, unlike that of Newtonian mechanics, where eg velocity is the simple measure of the time elapsed for a object to move between two known points. We historians assumed a Newton fixity in our so-called facts. More specifically, we as historians see what we see in documents (artifacts) according to our peculiar intellectual baggage and the issues of the present in which we write history, write it anew, as every generation of historians do. We need to be cognizant of those constraints on our cognitive processes as practical historians. A ‘fact’ is an ‘historical fact’ because we privilege it through citation in our historical narratives.
Our seminar tutor Prof AM McBriar (author of Fabian Socialism) tut-tutted: ‘jolly interesting, Stephen, but does it help us write history?’ He was unconvinced. I have remained committed to the idea that however untarnished we might think our view of any particular evidence from the past, this view is inevitably shaped by our past experience and thinking as well as the present in which we as historical actors too, look anew at the past in constructing a narrative that makes sense in our present, and in turn fashion an imagined (in our mind) but unknowable historical future.
Great post! Do you think it would make sense to somehow store the truest interpretation of current events on the blockchain? That way, it can survive the test of time and even if the interpretations change, historians will always be able to analyze the changes.
A great plan, to make your sources available online. I'll try to do something like this too. A couple of notes: the book that was withdrawn by the publisher, Designs Against Charleston, is still available at 542 libraries according to my Interlibrary Loan request screen. And regarding popular historians, since many of them were originally (old school) journalists, I've found them very diligent in applying the rules you're concerned about.
Here's a punishing recent example. Ouch, it is brutal.
This essay takes a close look at Maura Dykstra's monograph Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine (Harvard Asia Center, 2022). It analyzes the book's multitude of problems, such as its flawed conception, numerous factual blunders, failure to engage existing scholarship, problematic choice of primary sources, and dubious citation practices. Most significantly, this essay aims to provide ample evidence to demonstrate how the book systematically misrepresents the majority of its primary sources to support an untenable thesis. It argues that the book's central claims are ungrounded in evidence.
Maura Dykstra's book Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine is an ambitious foray into the Qing Empire's information management and the making of Qing state archives. Unfortunately, as a historical monograph, the book fails to meet basic academic standards. Failing to engage most of the relevant historiography and filled with misinformation, the book demonstrates a poor command of its subject matter. The author bases her arguments on questionably chosen primary sources without critiquing them or explaining her strategies in using them, and she exacerbates this problem with a citation method that makes tracking her sources unnecessarily difficult. There are at least a dozen places where the citations do not match the content of the book.Footnote1 As a result, the book is conceptually, methodologically, and factually unsound.
Moreover, the author systematically misrepresents her primary sources by mistranslating texts, exaggerating them, taking them out of context, and embellishing them with non-existent information and details. The majority of primary sources in this book are misinterpreted such that they support the author's untenable claims, while evidence undercutting these claims is ignored. The author also makes many claims throughout the book that are not supported by any sources. Remarkably, the book contains hundreds of errors.Footnote2 We all make mistakes, and any single error in this book, in isolation, would be embarrassing but excusable. Yet the scale and seriousness of the problems here far exceed those of any other academic monograph that I have read, necessitating a close look at many cited sources.
This review unfolds in four parts. First, I introduce the book's thesis and its major claims. Second, I provide a detailed assessment of the book's problems, including its primary conceptual flaw, significant factual errors, failure to engage relevant scholarship, problematic choice of primary sources, and dubious citation practices. Third, I focus on the author's systematic misrepresentation of primary sources. Fourth, I dissect Chapter 3—the book's central chapter—to demonstrate the extent and depth of its problems and why the book's claims are unsound. I end with an overall appraisal of the book.