Quality control of historians

I touched on one issue in my last post on public intellectuals that is a particular issue for historians. How come so many historians with theoretically decent academic credentials write such bad history? I have just read an article in May’s History Today magazine (not yet on their website). This is Anthony Pagden, ‘Perpetual enmity: the 2,500-year struggle between East and West’, History Today, 58 (5), 14-21. The article is exactly the stupid pile of junk that its title implies. Pagden argues for a millennia long clash between ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ (never defined) that goes from the Persian-Greek wars via Muhammad, the Ottoman Turks to Islamist terrorists, and includes such gems as: ‘For all their power, the peoples of Asia had never learned, as the scattered peoples of the West had, how to change.’ It’s as if Edward Said had never existed. If a first-year university student gave me an essay like that he or she would get a 2:2 equivalent grade for generalised and stereotyped argument unsupported by the evidence.

It would be easy to say: ‘Oh, History Today just had an off-day.’ But Anthony Pagden is apparently Distinguished Professor of Political Science and History at UCLA (which prompts me to wonder how bad an Undistinguished Professor of UCLA is). His book (on which this article is based): ‘Worlds at War: The 2,500 Struggle Between East and West’ has been published by OUP. In other words, a (presumably) respected professor is churning out this kind of tripe and being thought of as a serious intellect.

I don’t want to make this an issue about US academic standards, because there are some very good US academics and some British authors who do equally poor-quality stuff. And it also can’t just be blamed on post-modernism or ‘political correctness’: there are offenders from all historiographical and political backgrounds. I want to ask a more awkward question: is the historical profession (as it is currently constituted) capable of effective quality control? Or is it simply prepared to tolerate considerable amounts of shoddy history?

The problem isn’t just confined to political polemic disguised as history. Despite peer-review, it’s fairly common to read mainstream historical articles and books with basic methodological flaws. For example, some authors simply ignore evidence which doesn’t support their case. The author has a theory he or she is wedded to and isn’t going to let anything stand in the way of it, such as counter-examples. (I would make a distinction here between downplaying/discounting the evidence against your argument, which I think is legitimate, and simply not mentioning it). This silent evasion is one of the hardest things for a non-expert in the field to pick up (how do they know what’s not there?) but it invalidates an awful lot of arguments. And yet post-publication book reviewers rarely comment on such issues and articles which make glaring errors of this kind may never get corrected.

Historians will inevitably sometimes get it wrong or make hypotheses that don’t stand up on further scrutiny. The problem is that there isn’t much in the way of a self-regulating mechanism (in contrast to some academic disciplines). Every historian, if they’re honest, can point to some people in their field who have produced persistently poor quality work and yet received academic acclaim. Does this matter? If historians are just a closed group, then maybe it doesn’t. After all, everyone who knows about a field realises that Professor X’s work is internally self-consistent, but bears no relation to early medieval reality or that Dr Y’s main aim is to force evidence into a one-size fits all social model.

But if we want to appeal to a wider audience, whether of students or of the general public, it is a problem if there are a number of poor quality historians. How can we convincingly argue against pseudo-historians if some academics themselves think that historical argument means no more than cherry-picking data? If this kind of poor technique doesn’t matter, are we as historians doing any more than giving our own opinions with a few intellectual trappings? I don’t know an answer to this one, but it’s hard to argue that historians aren’t listened to enough when too many of them are not worth hearing.


6 thoughts on “Quality control of historians

  1. What professions that don’t deal mainly with numbers do a better job?

    Serious question.

    History is not a new discipline but a millenia-long pursuit. That makes it hard.


  2. It is, nonetheless, hard to be struggling for jobs when you think your work is important and innovative, but keep getting it turned down, when equally reputable publishers put stuff like this out. I don’t know of a better alternative to peer review, but it’s rather like Churchill’s democracy, the least worst solution.

    Sorry, today is being a bitter day all round.


  3. Few reactions here:

    1) Tony Pagden is a tremendous scholar, who seems to (though I haven’t read the article or book you’re referring to) have written a “problematic” book (I cringe at the very title). His work on the transatlantic world is tremendous. Look at _The Fall of Natural Man_.

    2) In the US, we have different academic rankings. A “Distinguished” Professor is the highest academic rank you can achieve. We start as Assitant Professors here, then go to Associate Professor, then Professor. Endowed professorships are rare and highly coveted.

    3) None of this has ANYTHING to do with US vs. European/ British academic standards. Let’s just leave it at that.

    4) Now, as to the “problem” of peer review, I like Jonathan’s “least worst solution.” That being said, I don’t think this is anything to get too exicted about overall. Every profession/ discipline/ whatever has people that do poor work and somehow managed to get rewarded for it. “The Office” is genius because it points out the obvious. That said, you’re right that it is people’s duty to point out crap when they see it. There are plenty of highly critical book reviews out there that do just that. Sometimes – more often than it should, certainly – stuff slips through. What do we do about that, I don’t know. Soldier on…


  4. Thanks to everyone for your comments. You are probably right that peer review is the best hope we have, although sometimes such jaw-dropping errors are made (see e.g. Jonathan on Yitzak Hen’s ‘Charlemagne’s Jihad) that you wonder about the system. (I disagree with Jonathan on one point: I don’t think *any* of Hen’s argument holds up).

    Matt, thanks for the background on Pagden. I hadn’t come across him before, but I take your word that he’s a justly respected scholar. His article in History Today, however, is Muslim-bashing with a historical veneer. For example, he spends an entire paragraph on Muhammed sending a messenger to Heraclius and the Persian King telling them to convert or be destroyed. And then he blithely says: ‘The story is probably a fiction’ and moves on. That isn’t honest history and I can’t believe that the book (which I haven’t read) can be much better.

    So maybe my question should be reworded as Why do Good Historians write Bad Books? Not bad as in slapdash, just rehashing old work or not being up to date with research on a particular topic, which is the kind of thing that sometimes even brilliant historians are guilty of (there’s at least one fairly awful book by Georges Duby, for example). I mean Bad as in abandoning basic standards of historical accuracy and honest argument. For example, I have on my bookshelves (courtesy of a kind but historically undiscriminating relative) Andrew Roberts’ ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900’. I have not been able to force myself to read the whole thing, but the title itself tells you almost all you need to know. (Though I suppose the more accurate title ‘History of Areas where the British Committed Genocide’ may have been a bit of a downer). (And yes, I know the concept was Churchill’s originally, but he was not a professional historian and he helped win World War Two, neither of which Roberts has in his favour).

    I don’t mind people writing political polemic or even historians writing political polemic. I do mind historians abandoning their academic principles and writing ‘history’ that is really disguised polemic with no sound historical basis. I may be being naive here, but I don’t think that most scientists, for example, would write even pot-boiling science books that abandoned all attempts at scientific accuracy. And similarly, as far as I know, someone like Noam Chomsky has never tried to adapt his ideas on linguistics to fit his political purposes. Why are some historians so willing to sell out their professional standards and why is this apparently regarded as unremarkable? And, to circle back to my previous post, is part of the problem that historians are too keen to be public intellectuals (not necessarily for their personal advancement, Pagden may well be a true believer in the GWOT), and as a result are willing to abandon their disciplinary standards to attain this?


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