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Why the Politicization of History Is So Disturbing

Summary:
As a field, history seems to have gotten worse. It seems to have become more political and ideological, and less concerned with the truth. Prominent historians often come across as warriors for a cause rather than academics.For instance, consider the responses to Edward Baptist or Nancy MacLean, both of whom regularly engage in quotation alteration, by inserting words that aren’t there or removing words that are to change the meaning. This practice is considered a serious form of intellectual dishonesty in serious fields—it’s the kind of thing that would get you expelled from a graduate program or even make you lose your tenured job. But when confronted about these problems, they and they defenders respond that economists and others simply don’t understand proper historical

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As a field, history seems to have gotten worse. It seems to have become more political and ideological, and less concerned with the truth. Prominent historians often come across as warriors for a cause rather than academics.

For instance, consider the responses to Edward Baptist or Nancy MacLean, both of whom regularly engage in quotation alteration, by inserting words that aren’t there or removing words that are to change the meaning. This practice is considered a serious form of intellectual dishonesty in serious fields—it’s the kind of thing that would get you expelled from a graduate program or even make you lose your tenured job. But when confronted about these problems, they and they defenders respond that economists and others simply don’t understand proper historical methods. False. Lying is not a valid method in any field.

The reason why this is especially bad for history is that the facts are all history has. Let’s be blunt. Historians are not social scientists. With a few exceptions here and there, they do not learn how to collect and analyze data. They do not learn how to construct models or test them rigorously. They do not learn how to identify and test natural experiments, let alone laboratory experiments. They do not learn econometrics, or how to use difference-in-differences methods to find causation. All they really can do is uncover and collect facts, and try to arrange them in a way that tells a story. In some cases, they may succeed in showing causation because no special model is needed. However, historians rarely can generalize from one story to another and rarely discover laws.

That’s not say history as a field inherently lacks value. On the contrary, dealing in facts is a big deal. Consider, for instance, how 1491 demolishes Western prejudices about the pre-Columbian Americas.

But when history no longer cares about the facts–when instead they think they have the right and the duty to fabricate or alter quotes, to state connections where they are none, to disparage rather than confront critics honestly, to misrepresent what others say in the hopes that no one will read the original sources, and to serve an ideology rather than the truth, then the field has lost the one thing it could contribute better than other fields.

Perhaps the appearance of an illusion. Perhaps it’s just the most public faces of the field, and regular historians are still doing good work. It’s hard to say. From the outside, it sure looks like the field is rallying around the dishonest rather than disparaging them.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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