History is Bad for You. Science Told Me So

When — as Alex Rosenberg did in Salon the other day — you publish a piece with the title “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong”, and subtitle it “Even the best histories fail to identify the real causal forces that drive events. Science explains why”, you create certain expectations in a reader. To wit:

  1. You will show that most narrative history is wrong;
  2. You will show why it is wrong;
  3. You will do so using Science.

That may seem like a tall order, and we may be tempted to blame an editor for pumping a modest argument with a brash headline for the sake of clicks. Enter the author:

It’s almost universally accepted that learning the history of something — the true story of how it came about — is one way to understand it. It’s almost as widely accepted that learning its history is sometimes the best way to understand something. Indeed, in many cases, it’s supposed that the only way to understand some things is by learning their history.

All three of these suppositions are wrong. Cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, and, most of all, neuroscience are in the process of showing us at least three things about history: (1) our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long evolutionary pedigree and a genetic basis; (2) exactly what it is about the human brain that makes almost all the explanations history has ever offered us wrong; and (3) how our evolution shaped a useful tool for survival into a defective theory of human nature.

Given this, we should if anything revise our expectations upward. Science doesn’t just cast doubt on the explanations of “even the best histories”. Cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, and neuroscience are now showing that all the explanations history has ever offered are wrong. Get ready, historians, your minds are about to be blown!

Spoiler alert: I’m still here, mind unblown. The article, excerpted from Rosenberg’s new book, is so horrendous a muddle that I had to start tackling it paragraph by paragraph — at times sentence by sentence — in a Twitter thread that became as interminable as the article itself — just to keep Rosenberg’s shifting claims and multiplying promissory notes straight. All I want to do here is to make a few basic points about Rosenberg’s argument, such as it is.

First, “history”. Rosenberg opens by making the claim that we are “hardwired” to love history, to need it, to have confidence in it, to see the world through its lens. But what does this mean? Histories have not been produced in cognate forms by all human societies. Even within specific societies, the methods, norms, goals, and forms of historical investigation have changed quite dramatically in living memory, to say nothing of the longer term. History-writing is a culturally specific endeavour; it has, that is to say, a history that is not remotely reducible to “evolution”.

In fact, Rosenberg announces, when he says “history”, what he means is “true stories”. (What this means is itself unclear, since he has declared at the outset that the stories in question are in fact categorically false; if so, how are we to distinguish between “true stories” and “stories” generally? But let that pass.) His point seems to be to distinguish “history” as he uses the term from “academic history”, which is, we now learn, not false:

Just to be clear, historians are perfectly capable of establishing actual, accurate, true chronologies and other facts about what happened in the past. They aren’t wrong about feudalism coming before the Reformation or whether Italy and Japan were on the Allies’ side in World War One. Moreover, historians working in archives, for example, retrieve documentary evidence for important events in human history that have disappeared from collective memory or were never even noticed. More important, many written histories, especially those produced in the academic departments of universities, are more than just accurate chronicles. The approaches to the past that many professors of history employ can provide powerful new and better explanations of well-known historical events and processes, often by identifying causes previously unknown or ignored…. Academic history is more than, and usually different from, true stories.

So, as it turns out, history that uses archival sources and established chronologies and “other facts” — including quite complicated “facts” such as the unfolding of complex political events and entire social structures — is fine. Why is this?

The history that professors write these days has been deeply influenced by the sciences — social, behavioral, even natural — and it rarely seeks to explain individual achievements or even lives, singly or taken together. Academic history often makes use of stories — records, letters, diaries, chronicles that people write down — as evidence for its explanations. But it is not much given to explaining by telling these (true) stories.

Academic history is OK, that is, because it has been influenced by science; because it does not seek to explain individuals; and because it uses stories as evidence rather than as explanations. This first of these claims is arguable, depending on the field of history in question. The second is simply nonsense: academic historians routinely produce studies of individuals. The third is confusingly articulated, since it equates “stories” with “sources” in the first clause, and with “storytelling” as a purported mode of explanation or interpretation in the second. But inasmuch as it implies that academic historians don’t write narratives, it’s also simply wrong.

What this means is that when Rosenberg finally identifies his real target — “Narrative history” that offers “an explanation of what happened in terms of the motives and the perspectives of… human agents” — he has already spent paragraphs talking about “history” as false, and has set up distinctions between academic history and narrative history that fall apart at the slightest touch. The distinction between academic and non-academic historians does not map in any neat way either onto the distinction between historians who use narrative and those who don’t or onto the distinction between historians who use archival sources and those who don’t. Good histories, narrative or otherwise, and academic or otherwise, rest on the analysis of primary sources. Narrative is rarely offered as an “explanation” unto itself, whether it structures a history or not. And stories (historical narratives) generally rest upon sources and arguments, not the other way around.

So when Rosenberg announces that “history… is almost always wrong”, though he has exempted academic historians from his attack, he has offered no compelling reason for doing so. If historical narratives are inherently false, there is no reason why academic historical narratives should be less so. Conversely, if the methodical use of sources makes histories reliable, there is no reason why it should do so only when non-narrative methods of presentation are employed — or when academic historians are writing. Rosenberg predicts that academics will defend themselves by arguing that they don’t write stories. This is true of many of them, of course. But he fails to see that any methodological defence of academic history relating to the use of sources works just as well for narratives that use sources responsibly, and for narrative historians, academic or not. He does not appear to know much about how any historians do their work.

What about the science? Over the course of an overlong and repetitive piece, Rosenberg promises many times that “we’ll see” the scientific evidence of how false narratives are. But the horizon is ever receding, and the science never comes. Instead, we are told again and again how ubiquitous are claims for the value of narrative history, how hardwired into us, etc, etc. At length Rosenberg offers his own reasons for deep concern about the uselessness of history, or even the positive harm that it does.

For one thing, when it comes to physics, geology, and the other natural sciences, the specialists don’t care about history much at all. Read the textbooks, scientific journals, attend the seminars and colloquia where they present their results to one another. The histories of their disciplines — how they got to where they are today, don’t come into it.

Well, why should we expect otherwise? Does anyone claim that history is the best way of actually doing physics or geology? Rosenberg implies this, but never offers the slightest evidence of such a ludicrous straw-man.

A second thing we need to consider about history that should make us skeptical is the unending disagreement among historians over the same events. Gibbon was hardly the last word on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Nor Newton on astronomy, from what I understand. Sources, methods, theories, interpretations, and questions — but especially questions — all change over time. If this is not a problem for science, it is hard to see why it should be seen as one for history. Rosenberg does, it must be admitted, address this parallel by distinguishing historical knowledge from scientific, to the latter’s advantage:

Two important reasons to think that the [scientific] explanations that survive the winnowing process are better than the ones that don’t are their predictive success and their technological applications. By contrast, historians’ successive explanations for the same historical events — historical revisionism — don’t show the same kind of convergence. Instead, these explanations for the same events… differ radically from one another. Indeed, the pattern of their succession all too often cycles and repeats itself before spinning off into an entirely new direction. Although narrative historians may be able to offer cogent explanations for their revisionism, the succession of these explanations and their lack of convergence, in stark contrast to explanations in the natural sciences, should give us pause for thought.

Indeed it should; sadly, that doesn’t happen here. If it did, Rosenberg might consider the possibility that history, not being a predictive science, can’t meaningfully be judged by the failure of its practitioners to converge on common predictions. He might even consider the possibility that the model of scientific winnowing he assumes here does not apply to history because the kinds of knowledge in play are different. If you assume science as the only legitimate model for creating knowledge, it is to be expected that science will come out on top in any comparison you choose to make.

More insidious, but no more “scientific”, is Rosenberg’s third reason:

And there’s a third thing we need to consider about history, one that should make us worry whether history is indispensable or even useful…. Take the current conflict in the Middle East. All we really need to understand this conflict is what participants believe and want now, not what their parents, ancestors, and founding patriarchs believed…. But popular historians and common sense tell us it’s only through history that we can figure out what motivates people now. …

But this rationale for studying histories and biographies should be troubling — if for no other reason than they don’t tell us what actually happened in the past, only what people think happened in the past. It’s people’s beliefs about history that motivate, not the actual historical events. So, even if we get the facts right, that may be irrelevant to understanding people’s present or their future, for that matter. If we want to understand the present and the future, we better figure out what people now believe about history instead of what actually happened in it. But even that premise is not one we should accept without demur.

There’s a lot going on here. I’ll just say two things: 1. If people’s beliefs matter, especially if those beliefs are historical in nature, then exploring both their history and the “real” events they distort matters more, not less. 2. The idea that all that is at issue in present-day conflicts is “narrative” rather than real events is frankly bizarre. It wasn’t a narrative that planted empires or gassed millions. The fact that there are narratives about these things does not magic away real harms, nor does it absorb them; and nor will forgetting the narratives (as opposed, perhaps, to reconciling or revising them — or acknowledging them) make the “facts” they partially reflect or respond to go away. If I punch you in the face and take your wallet there’s more between us than a “narrative”, even if a narrative is, after the bruises heal, all the evidence you retain.

Earlier, Rosenberg writes that “The wars of nationalism, religion, imperialism, colonialism — and anticolonialism, for that matter—begin and persist because of grievances often fueled by historical narratives.” And that “The xenophobia, racism, and patriarchy that ruled long before the advent of the nation-state were already clothed in histories of who did what to whom.” And even, weirdly, that “The nation-state, when it arrived, was just a more efficient means to raise the death toll of narratives.” At no point does he show any awareness that these claims — the central claims of his argument — are all, to the extent that they are intelligible, inescapably historical claims. The message is that the only thing to be done with the past — for most people, the kind of people subject to the influence of racism, nationalism, and so on — is not to better understand but to forget it. Rosenberg’s is ultimately a counsel not of scientific knowledge but of historical ignorance. As such, it is despicable.

What of the science? What of the proof that narratives are hardwired into us, and hardwired to be wrong? That we are “saddled” with a false model of human nature and a faulty lens on our past? In the end, it boils down to this:

Contemporary social and behavioral sciences certainly don’t vindicate the notion that people’s beliefs about history — whether accurate or mistaken — are indispensable to understanding their affairs. Take economics, for example. There’s almost no narrative history in most of the influential economic models of human behavior….

There you have it. A string of grand claims about the falsehood of history and the delusions of historians, the vanity of narrative and the hopelessness of historical explanation, the impending triumph of Science and the sciences — culminating in a prolonged, hollow, scientistic fart.

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