The Sciences

With the Tea Party, Historians and Scientists Are in the Same Boat

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJun 3, 2011 5:25 PM

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by Jon Winsor Over at the US Intellectual History blog (a great blog, BTW), historian David Sehat reflects on Thomas Frank's recent piece in Harper's on the Tea Partiers' claims to historical authority:

Frank spends a bit of space in the article showing the historical inaccuracy and general absurdity of the Tea Partiers' quotations of the Founders. Many of the quotes are made up. A few could not have possibly been said by the Founders, because they contain vocabulary and concepts that were not yet in circulation during the Founders' lifetimes. His article is, as these exercises usually are, pretty much shooting fish in a barrel, though still entertaining...

He's entertained, but also exasperated:

I wonder, what is the best response from historians in the face of rampant historical inaccuracy that is often combined with fervent worship of a false past? Is our task to keep pointing out error, knowing that we will not be heeded? I'm afraid that it might be. But I am still not ready to give up the effort.

His colleague Mike O'Connor responds in the comments:

It seems like the logical thrust of your argument leads not to historians endlessly noting factual misconceptions about the past, but to them endlessly pointing out that these beliefs are not fundamentally historical. In a similar vein, the argument that creation science is wrong is not nearly as compelling as the argument that it is not really science. Engaging in the tit-for-tat cedes the most important issue: that the competing ideas are on some sort of level epistemological playing field. Once that has been (implicitly) established, in the battle between Frank's member of the "populist right" and his "liberal college professor," the liberal has already lost. ...The real issue here, with climate change or Franklin's quote, is not who is right about the particular fact at issue. Those who challenge scientists by saying that they disagree among themselves and that "evolution is only a theory," are, of course, correct. What's really important is that such flat-earthers do not subject their claims to falsifiability; peer-review; or the tests of predictive accuracy. Scientists themselves, using these procedures, have achieved a strong consensus that evolution does in fact occur, and that the world was created before 4004 B.C.E. By claiming that they believe in science and the expertise of scientists themselves, rather than that they themselves possess knowledge that conservatives don't, liberals are making a claim that they can support: that their understanding of the scientific method and their belief in the integrity of its practitioners leads them to accept its results... In this conception of the debate, the role of the real-live scientists is to buttress this understanding of science and, if people seriously want the evidence (which most don't), to point them to their actual work. By way of parallel, historians would do better to educate the public about the nature of history itself...

This is still not ideal, as the attacks by populist conservative denialists tend to be on institutions themselves, in a kind of sustained ad hominem attack. This poses difficulties to non-scientists declaring simply, "I believe in science." As the normally staid journal Nature quoted Rush Limbaugh, “The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” This kind of talk, although absurd, has been persistent, and has doubtless created a certain amount of FUD in sections of the US public. But Professor O'Connor's suggestion that historians and scientists should publicly and straightforwardly discuss the work they do, seems helpful.

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