On Experts & Anti-Intellectualism

July 5, 2016 § 5 Comments

Nancy Isenberg‘s new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, is attracting a lot of attention.  No doubt this is, in part, due to the catchy title.  White trash is a derogatory and insulting term, usually applied to poor white people in the South, the descendants of the Scots-Irish who settled down here prior to the Civil War, the men who picked up their guns and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  (Oddly, the term is not really applied all that often to poor white people in the North).

I am also deeply suspicious of books that promise to tell me the “untold” or “true” story of anything.  And certainly, if you asked American historians if class was an “untold story”, they’d laugh you right out of their office.  But no doubt the title is due to Viking’s marketing department, not Isenbeg.

Nonetheless, I bought the book, but as I was doing so, I read some of the reviews on Amazon.The negative ones caught my eye. Most of the negative reviews were either misogynistic or anti-Semitic.  But, one, by someone calling themselves Ralphe Wiggins, caught my eye:

This book purports to be a history of white trash in America. It is not. It is a series of recounting of what others have said about the lower white classes over the past 400 years. In most cases the author’s summarizations are a simple assertions of her opinion.

The book is 55% text, 35% references and 10% index. The “Epilog” is a mishmash of generalizations of Isenberg’s earlier generalizations.

Let us now parse Wiggins’ commentary.  First, Wiggins complains that Isenberg simply summarizes “her opinion” and then generalizes her generalizations.  Clearly, Wiggins does not understand how historians go about their craft.  Sure, we have opinions and politics. But we are also meticulous researchers, and skilled in the art of critical thinking.  The argument Isenberg makes in White Trash are not simply her “opinion,” they’re based on years of research and critical thinking.

Second, Wiggins complains that the book is 35% references and 10% index.  Of course it is, it’s an academic work.  The arguments Isenberg makes are based on her readings of primary and secondary sources, which are then noted in her references so the interested reader can go read these sources themselves to see what  they make of them.  Revealing our sources is also part of the openness of scholarship.

Wiggins’ review reminds me of Reza Aslan’s famous turn on FoxNews, where he was accused by the host of not being able to write a history of Jesus because he’s a Muslim.  Aslan patiently explained to her over and over again that he was a trained academic, and had spent twenty years researching and pondering the life and times of Jesus.  That was what made him qualified to write Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

But all of this, Wiggins’ review, Aslan’s turn on FoxNews is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the turning away from expertise. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the satirical news site “News Thump” announced that all experts would be replaced by Simon Kettering, a local at the neighbourhood pub:

Williams knows absolutely everything about any subject and is unafraid to hold forth against the received wisdom of 400 years of the scientific method, especially after four pints of Strongbow.

Amongst his many accomplishments Simon is remarkably well-informed about optimal football formations, the effects of political events on international capital and bond markets, and the best way to pleasure a woman – possibly his favourite subject.

His breadth of knowledge is all the more impressive as he doesn’t even need to bother spending ten seconds fact-checking on Google before issuing a firm statement.

As my good friend, Michael Innes, noted in response:

Yep. Personally, I’m looking forward to all the medical and public health experts at my local surgery being fired and replaced with Simon. Not to mention the car mechanics at my local garage. I’m sure with a little creative thinking (no research!!!) we can dig deeper and weed out yet more of the rot, too.

See, experts can be useful now and then.  And Nancy Isenberg is certainly one, given that she is T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University.

 

 

The Historian’s Job

July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

Three times in the past three days I’ve been reminded of what it is that we historians do.  And let me be clear, by “historian,” I mean academically-trained holders of advanced degrees who study the past.  Yeah, call me pretentious or whatever.  I don’t care.  The first reminder I got was the now notorious interview of Reza Aslan by FoxNews concerning his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the interview, Aslan had to continuously remind the FoxNews host that he was a trained historian, not just some Muslim dude writing about the founder of Christianity.  Jesus Christ isn’t usually a topic I find interesting, but after hearing the NPR interview wherein Aslan actually got to discuss the book, I almost want to read it.  Almost.

The second reminder of what it is that an historian does came yesterday.  Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a conspiracy theorist.  I should’ve tuned out when he told me that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom many (including me) consider Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, was a communist.  Trudeau, you see, made Canada communist.  But, wait, there’s more!  The communist path was paved for Trudeau by his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, who was PM from 1963-8.  Pearson, this guy claimed, had been named by a Soviet spy before US Congress as having passed on secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War.  I have, believe it or not, seen this claim before, I have a vague recollection of having read something of it in connection to the Gouzenko Affair.  The author of whatever this piece was addressed the Pearson claim in a footnote and gave his sources.  As an historian does.  My interlocutor, however, did not consider this enough.  He dismissed this academic article as a MSM source (mainstream media) and biased, blah blah blah.  I found myself thinking of Aslan repeating ever-so-patiently noting what it is that makes him qualified to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ.  I thought, well, let’s see, I’ve read somewhere around 5,000 books and articles over the course of my career.  Maybe more, maybe a little less.  I am trained to critically assess an argument, its logic and its evidence.  As are all the rest of us academic, professional historians.  My interlocutor had offered up a Google search as his “proof” that Pearson and Trudeau were dirty commies.  But he dismissed my evidence as “nothing.”  Ah, wonderful, anti-intellectualiam.  Carry on then, good sir, and good luck with your alternate reality.

The third time I was reminded of the historians’ path came today when reading The Times Literary Supplement.  I allowed my subscription to lapse last fall.  I regret that.  I just renewed, and the first new issue came yesterday (note geek excitement here).  In it comes a review of Brian Levack’s new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern Worldby Peter Marshall.  I thought several things of this book and its review.  The first was it appears to have been a colossal miss in terms of Public History.  Levack is bedeviled (pun intended) by the fact that it is well nigh impossible to rationally explain possessions.  And yet, people continued to believe they happened.  I’m more interested in that cognitive dissonance, I must say.  Anyway.  Towards the end of the review, Marshall opines that “The folie de grandeur of historians is that we are conditioned to believe we can explain anything.”  Huh.  Not sure I agree with that.  Certainly, the rational, positivist bent of our training is given over to such pursuits.  And we tend to take on rational topics, things we can explain. Certainly, anything I’ve tackled in a research project from undergrad to now fits into this category. But there are some things that are harder to explain.  Like, for example, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Or a belief (or unbelief) in God.  Or, possessions, demons, and exorcisms.  Here, the historian is left with this cognitive dissonance, of attempting to conduct a rational discussion (and argument) about something that may not actually be rational.  Herein lies my interest in exactly that dissonance.  What is it that makes people persist in their beliefs? Even in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary (as in the case of, say, possessions)?  The very fact that the subject of discussion is not explainable is exactly what makes it so interesting.  So, in a sense, then, Marshall is incorrect, historians cannot explain anything.  Nor should we wish to.

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