I primarily see my blog as a space to test ideas. Often what readers find here is not the finished product, but rather my thought process as I work through aspects of my research. Occasionally I stray into general interest subjects that have grabbed my attention. Recently, I wrote a post about historians and bias, which touched on their credentials. As a result of an interesting exchange that I had with Jason Warren of the University of Kentucky on twitter, I invited him to contribute a guest post that further explores the work of the historian and the issues of bias and credibility. Happily, he agreed. Thanks, Jason, for a thought-provoking post.
I wish to extend my thanks to Ciara Meehan who offered me the opportunity to present some thoughts in response to her insightful essay.
Bias in historical writing is, quite understandably, an uncomfortable subject to approach. Unfortunately, it is also almost impossible to ignore. The question of how a historian is supposed to reconcile the idealization of academic study with his or her own insights on a particular topic makes the task seem almost impossible. Edward H. Carr described history as “a process of interaction, a dialogue between the historian in the present and the facts of the past.” This dialogue is always present, and in many ways necessary, to the work of a historian because the process is what transforms a series of facts into a narrative that becomes relevant to the audience.
This does not mean that historical writing is fiction or that the historian is nothing more than a storyteller. Instead, historical writing is the result of a necessary process by which the historian has evaluated data and offered some conclusions. There are often disagreements, however, about what the data reveals about a particular topic and this is where historiography becomes essential.
Simply put, historiography is the history of history. As history is written, there are a series of academic debates that play out over time where conclusions are challenged and new ideas are presented. These new ideas and conclusions may be adopted and replace older paradigms or they may be found lacking and be rejected. But, once again, it is the process that is important. Bias is essential to these conversations because, without it, there would be no disagreement and therefore no debate.
For these reasons, bias is essential to the process of history and no historian should feel as though they can or should transcend it. But there is another subject that always seems to creep into the conversation when we begin to address bias in historical writing, and that is the concept of academic credibility. Can a historian be biased – especially if it is unavoidable – and still be credible?
Ciara pointed out the fiasco this summer between a Fox News anchor and Reza Aslan which subsequently blew up all over the internet. There is no need to review the entire war here but there are plenty of examples where Aslan was defended and criticized. There are also links to Storify archives of tweets and a Reddit AMA with the author. Whether or not Aslan is determined to be credible, the intriguing aspect of the incident is the debate which followed. The book may hold up to scrutiny over time or it may not but the fact that so many people, academics and non-academics alike, have engaged in a debate about the work suggests that it is worthy of discussion. This, in and of itself gives the author some degree of credibility regardless of what degrees and position he currently holds. What is also interesting to note is that, had the Fox News anchor questioned the author’s credentials instead of his bias, the larger debate which followed might never have happened and Aslan’s sales figures may very well have been different.
Credibility and bias are certainly linked but the latter does not negate the former. R. G. Collingwood proposed that “All history is the history of thought.” If this is true then the job of the historian is to present his or her thoughts to a larger audience and to let them decide the merit of the work. Poorly researched or written history is very easy to find but it rarely stands the test of time. History that is well researched and articulated, on the other hand, often remains in academic conversations even after its conclusions are challenged or proven to be outdated by newer information. Many of these older books are still studied so that historians can trace the trajectory of those ideas. They become snapshots of the time in which they were written and, even if they are challenged by newer scholarship, their credibility holds up in the context of their own time.
In her essay, Ciara asks if “historians should ‘declare themselves’ in the introduction to their books.” I believe that this is entirely up to the historian but that it is rarely needed. Time usually reveals any predispositions held by an author even if it is not evident to him or her as the work is produced. The continuing process of history ensures that any significant bias will be revealed and that credibility will be assigned appropriately. Such is the nature of history.