By: Jonathan Harris
“This pill is guaranteed to cure what’s ailing you!” or so the sales pitch goes from the half-baked sweat drenched racketeer of quackery and pioneer of snake oil preaching at the county fair. What’s to make a young clean shaved fresh out of college urban sophisticate part with a few Thomas Jeffersons on the flimsy notion that he may, after all, get sick one day? Every marketer worth their salt knows the answer: “Don’t take my word for it!” and in streams the testimonials and scientific studies all delivered by a lab coat housing the body of a healthy specimen of an alleged medical expert.
To the more skeptical among us this scenario raises eyebrows. How should we know that the smiling doctor on television is really telling the truth? How can we verify that the testimonies before us are not the performances of paid actors? Where can we go to find the cold hard truth straight from the mouth of the proverbial horse? Fears are somewhat dispensed when a trusted source, such as a close friend or a family doctor, tells us that the product worked for them. Subjective experience, therefore, does hold a place in the quest for verification. Anxieties may also decrease when it’s confirmed that a prominent university is willing to stake its reputation on the product on the basis of clinical studies. Objective scientific processes, it can thus be surmised, also hold a place in verification. Still, there are some who may find their faith in a product boosted when the mechanism behind the product’s success is logically explained to them.
In each of the cases above faith is being displayed in some form. Trusting a snake-oil salesman may be more akin to a blind leap, but it is just as much a faith commitment as purchasing a product on the basis of consensus, expert authority, or sensory perception. The latter are perhaps more reasonable, but they are not less faith driven. It is easier to trust our eyes than it is a complete stranger mainly because we have previous experience with our eyes that we do not have with a stranger. Of course, even this assumes the principle of induction which in and of itself must be justified epistemologically.
Now, for the sake of argument, pretend we are trying to verify the effectiveness of a medication existing one hundred years ago with a recipe that has since been lost in a natural disaster. There are no living witnesses. There are no experts. There is no scientific data. All that exists are written testimonials. Perhaps without the missing additional verifiers it would be tempting to eliminate the whole concept of the medication all together. Why not sink into complete skepticism about the product? Maybe the testimonies are mere forgeries? Whose to say?
Consider that this is the way in which the vast majority of historical facts come to us. Perhaps there are artifacts and corroborating evidence, but why should one hundred pieces of evidence be any more reliable than one? With no one alive capable of stretching their memory back into the past far enough perhaps the whole discipline of history is a fruitless effort?
Facts, as it turns out, are not self interpreting. They are particulars in search of universals. They must be assumed to exist first, and then they must be categorized. For example, if one were to find a saber from an area in which pirates were known to traverse three hundred years ago, and if such a saber matched other known sabers from pirate vessels, it may be a safe assumption that the saber is in fact a pirate saber. Because this reality cannot be totally verified should not bother anyone. What is verified is the methodology used to ascribe the category of “pirate saber” to the piece of medal found on the beach.
The next logical question is, “Upon what basis can this methodology be justified?” Carl Trueman believes that it is upon social convention:
“My conclusion is that, while there is no such thing as neutrality in the telling of history, there is such a thing as objectivity, and that varied interpretations of historical evidence are yet susceptible to generally agreed upon procedures of verification that allow us to challenge each others’ readings of the evidence.” (Trueman, Histories and Fallacies, 21)
Whether it be the nature of an ancient artifact, or a much more complicated proposition such as “King George III violated the English constitution,” objectivity, according to Trueman, resides in “generally agreed upon procedures.” Trueman goes on in Histories and Fallacies to further define what he means by “procedures,” but he never defends his assumption that such procedures are granted validity by being “generally agreed upon.” It’s more than a little interesting that in a wonderful work that even includes a chapter on logical fallacies, the whole basis for trusting any of the methodology being discussed is likewise an “ad populum” fallacy.
My suggestion is that one can appreciate, in general, the tools that traditional historians use to refute revisionists without hinging their entire toolbox on a cliff of expert testimony, majority vote, or prejudicial conjecture which will only serve to place any system of interpretation two steps behind a complete collapse into postmodernism itself. An easy case and point would be the majority of experts in Soviet Russia who reduced the entire history of religion to a manifestation of ignorance and superstition. Their fatal flaw was assuming dialectic materialism. Philosophy undergirds historiography. Fortunately, despite their materialism, Soviet historians were not wrong in every area just because they were wrong in one. They would have, with equal vigor and rigor, argued against holocaust deniers just as any American historians today would. But, the important point is this: Their “rightness” or “wrongness” was not determined by their agreement. Something other than their consensus made them right about some things, and the denial of this “something” made them wrong about other things.
When determining if a salesman is being honest, potential customers are justified in employing methods of verification, but not because they are autonomous self-justifying creatures. Rather, it is because they themselves are “justified.” Here’s an analogy. Suppose a microscope is being used. In order to utilize it properly the device must be calibrated, otherwise it will not focus on the petri dish. A microscope cannot focus itself. Nor can a convention of microscopes assemble and focus themselves together. They rely on outside authentication. A human must calibrate them according to a pre-assigned criteria. Even if were the case that every microscope in the world were unfocused, it would not follow that the new standard for microscopes is that they ought to be unfocused. A criteria from the maker of the microscope still exists. It could be that the contents in a petri dish are not identifiable, but this does not invoke relativism. Objectivity makes its way to the microscope from the top down, not the bottom up. It is outside the system, not within it. It is in the calibration that truth is brought into focus, not through a “brute” self interpreting fact.
It is the same with both testing medication or engaging in historical research. Human beings are finite but calibrated by their maker to ascertain truth. They rely on a divine entity that must by nature be immaterial, absolute, and unchanging in order to justify induction, the immaterial laws of logic, and sensory perception. Some kind of unified plurality must be presupposed and grounded in order to solve the problem of unity in diversity thus creating the categories necessary for relating objects to one another. In addition, there must be an ethical code of some kind that ensures lying about facts is impermissible. Of course now I will be accused of religious language. But, to be sure, it will be by some modern prophet whose mouth inescapably drips the same kind of language.
The reason some customers are duped by snake oil salesman is the same reason historians are duped into pseudo-history. They have adopted a paradigm that does not adequately account for all the facts available. They declare “clear” what in reality is “fuzzy.” Sometimes evidence is ignored or misread due to improper calibration. An example would be the materialists previously described. Their whole foundation for critical analysis, perhaps unrealized by them, is based upon immaterial absolutes. Yet, they undercut their own foundational belief by also holding to materialism simultaneously. Throwing out all facts that would suggest immaterial realities leads to paradigms that do not make sense of all the evidence. Human nature is reduced to biological categories. Thus, historical realities are interpreted according to material needs. Another reason historical error takes place is that not enough facts exist to create a paradigm capable of fitting the facts that do exist. The methodology may be superb, but the lack of evidence must lead to an educated guess. Archaeologists are constantly coming up with theories about incomplete evidence. Sometimes their theories are later proven to be wrong based on new evidence.
It is important in this historical endeavor to maintain an attitude of humble absolutism. Humans are finite creatures utilizing infinite principles. Historians deal in evidence, not brute facts. Just as a diamond has many facets, so do historical realities. Events in particular can be seen from many different angles. Reconstructing something as sophisticated as a crime scene requires a willingness to be corrected. However, this willingness is never to be confused with postmodernism, relativism, or revisionism, all of which do away with universals and any kind of binding methodology.
In closing, let me name some names. There is a curious strain of supposed objectivity among the priests of modern academia when it comes to the cause of the War Between the States. Gary W. Gallagher maintains that “If Southerners did not fight to preserve slavery, neither did they wage a rebellion against the United States.” (Gallagher, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, 207). Well, I suppose the second claim is as equally disputable as the first. Edward H. Bonekemper III says that “[The war] had everything to do with it (i.e. slavery)” (Bonekemper, The Myth of the Lost Cause, xi). In both cases, it is claimed that the “truth” squarely contradicts the “Lost Cause Myth.” Gallagher writes, “I am more concerned with its historicity. Thus I will catalogue the assertions of the Lost Cause and compare them to the history of the Civil War experience. The goal is to correct the national memory by refuting the Lost Cause legend and reestablishing the war as history” (Gallagher, 14).
All this may sound well and good to the casual reader, but what is actually being lost in these studies is any semblance of actual objectivity. The reason for this is that methodology has been sacrificed by ideology. If it assumed at the outset that Southerners were as a group involved in historical amnesia about the reasons they engaged in war, of course the conclusion will also assert that Southerners were liars. It is as if the scientific process is commenced with a smudge on the screen of the microscope.
In a failure to recognize their own biases, both Gallagher and Bonekemper conveniently leave out or offer absurd explanations for facts that do not seem to fit their paradigm. Gallagher asserts that Gettysburg could not have been the turning point of the war since there were two years of fighting after the battle. What are historians then to make of the battle of Midway during the second world war? Hampton’s support of black suffrage after the war as a self-realized ploy to paint the war in a more noble light while efforts to suppress black suffrage are equally features of the Lost Cause. Jubal Early is credited with creating the myth of Lee to the exclusion of Grant at a time when Northerners had an insurmountable advantage in book purchasing power. The more one reads, the more conspiratorial things become. Similarly, Bonekemper commits the error of reification by attributing personal attributes to the Lost Cause such as its ability to convince Douglas Southall Freeman to paint Lee in a favorable light in his famous biography of the general. The burning of Columbia by Sherman’s army is attributed to Wade Hampton despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that is never discussed. The Confederate Constitution is thoroughly cherry picked, but never actually understood in any intelligent fashion.
The reason for this is clear. To purveyors of politics history is a weapon. The pursuit of understanding takes a back seat to the impulse of destroying ones political foes. There is no real objectivity because the tools of the historian are not the primary tools being utilized. They are only called upon on the off chance that they can be harnessed to seemingly validate a political point. This is why Gallagher and Bonekemper’s historical paradigm falls apart. They allow their faulty metaphysical and ethical assumptions to influence their epistemological method.
Why talk about any of this? Just like the actor playing a doctor in a television commercial is able to sell snake oil, so too is the political priest playing the historian. Most are aware of the first kind of charlatan but fooled by the second. Unfortunately, listening to him will cause more than just a belly ache. Like a house built upon a poor foundation is a historical paradigm built upon faulty assumptions. Always examine the presuppositions of any alleged expert. It may be that they handle their tools with skill and precision, but if they start their process upon a faulty basis or an ill conceived philosophy, the whole house will come crashing down. Both act as if they are neutral because of their unbiased and objective “expert” status. They alone are capable of separating myth from fact. They want us to put our faith in the facts, when in reality it is not “the facts” we are putting our faith in at all, but rather their own philosophical musings.
Davy Crockett is said to have made the statement, “Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead.” Historians would do well to be sure that their historiography is in order and only then go ahead with using the tools of a historian. Don’t be fooled. Finding faith in facts is just a farce.