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 Mays 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. Its 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 dont 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 cant 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 isnt just confined to political polemic disguised as history. Despite peer-review, its fairly common to read mainstream historical articles and books with basic methodological flaws. For example, some authors simply ignore evidence which doesnt support their case. The author has a theory he or she is wedded to and isnt 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 whats 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 dont stand up on further scrutiny. The problem is that there isnt much in the way of a self-regulating mechanism (in contrast to some academic disciplines). Every historian, if theyre 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 doesnt. After all, everyone who knows about a field realises that Professor Xs work is internally self-consistent, but bears no relation to early medieval reality or that Dr Ys 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 doesnt matter, are we as historians doing any more than giving our own opinions with a few intellectual trappings? I dont know an answer to this one, but its hard to argue that historians arent listened to enough when too many of them are not worth hearing.