Physicists and immunologists are perhaps more effectively inoculated against hubris by the frequency of paradigm shifts and lesser revisionisms in their fields. Most professionals can likely recall more than one occasion on which they discovered that they were “wrong” about some received theory.
The percentage of those who interpret history without benefit of a degree or extensive study is considerably higher and their platforms (even before the 21C media circus) have been more widespread and well-known. Indeed, the insight that journalists write the “first draft of history” captures a significant portion of this phenomenon. (Professional) historians who claim the mantle of “public intellectual” comprise a closely-related group. Perhaps it is the limelight, or the heat of public intellectual battle or the melodramatic tone of modern media that leads them to forget (or at least elide) some necessary humility and to omit a degree of self-scrutiny about the theories they propound.
Both sides in the recent debates about the NYT’s 1619 Project provide examples of historical interpretations that overreach and, therefore, undermine the public benefit they seek to advance. Claims that racism is the US’ “original sin” require a fair amount of theological foundation, even if the evilness of racism is easily understood. By defining US history in this way, rather than merely characterizing racism as an important aspect of US history for 400 years, the 1619 authors oversimplify the story; they make it seem as if they are telling “the truth,” rather than engaging in an important illumination of our history.
On the other hand, critics of 1619 lazily attack it for overstating the story and readily fall into a narrative of exoneration and excuse. Indeed, the ‘whitewashing’ of US history for the past two hundred years—in which Blacks were all but absent and Whites were avatars of national triumphalism—is at least as problematic.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is another site of such behavior, as are the characterizations of Japanese behavior in China and Korea in the early 20C. Where history is hotly contested, where there is no consensus on the likely “truth,” claims are more strident, as if rhetoric and table-pounding would lead to a resolution.
Much of the time, this type of “history” is signaled by the use of the definite article “the” rather than the indefinite “a”: “the truth about …” vs. “a truth about…” Sometimes, it is coded in narratives. Sometimes it is rationalized away with claims to social justice or patriotism. Sometimes, it overloads the proposed theory with far too much explanatory power. The idea of “race, for instance, in the 17C was quite different than how it was understood in the 20C. Similarly, claims that the “Founding Fathers” were supporters of democracy (i.e. universal voting and equally-distributed power) are as unfounded.
As an alternative, I suggest historians (and wannabe’s) be mindful of the nature of their enterprise. Charles Beard’s “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” (1913) was, in some ways a forerunner of 1619. It was extremely controversial and resonated with Marxist worldviews common in that era. It remained an important part of American historiography for much of the 20C. Beard claimed that the design of the US government in 1787 was driven by economic interests, rather than the hallowed political/liberty narrative embedded in our national culture. Importantly, however, he characterized his work as an “interpretation” and rooted it in the on-going debate on the nature of the country and its history.
We (historians who address the public) might do better to remind ourselves that we are engaged in a process of searching after the truth and that we try to figure out if we can learn something new by devising new questions and interpretations of the past. We know all too well that most historical events/developments have multiple causes and that there is no simple mechanism to assign relative weights. Even in the “hard” sciences, there are few ‘Eureka!’ moments; fewer still in History.
The modern discipline of History arose in the 19C in response to the increased awareness of the pace of social change over the previous few centuries and the increasingly apparent inadequacy of Scripture-based narratives of the past. Wider public awareness of science was (more-or-less) simultaneous and, while History is sometimes described as a “science,” its task is far more complex and its answers are necessarily more tentative and disputable.
The underlying question which few historians (public or otherwise) raise or respond to is: “what is the benefit or insight resulting from this new interpretation?” There are generically, several answers to this question; including 1) giving voice to those silenced, 2) putting a new theory into the mix, 3) reading old sources in new ways, or even 4) just getting published. If historians would write more detailed (and self-reflective) Prefaces to their works, both they and we could better understand their purposes. We would also get better History as a result.
Yes, we’re all searching for the “truth,” but it takes no little chutzpah to claim to have found it.