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Monday, 9 February 2009

Can History be Objective? A Conversation with Heather Vallance

“...conspiracy theorists are the ignorant and bored amusing themselves in areas they are least qualified to speak” – Dr Heather Vallance

We all need our teachers. I have always felt a great desire to honour and remember all of mine. I dedicated my first book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” to my first teacher, the person who helped set me on the path of telling, reading and listening to stories. Years later I got bitten by the history bug, and became equally interested in investigating so-called “true” stories. During my time writing and researching “Salt and Sauce”, which is an historical investigation, I was put into contact with a brilliant historian from Canada who specialized in researching hard to find data and, in particular, primary source material. Dr Heather Vallance is a writer whose work is inspirational in the way it tries to quite literally bring history to life. In addition to recording and fighting to preserve historical data with a relentless passion, she is not frightened to use different mediums to convey her ideas. This has ranged from homemade documentaries to an actual historical novel, “The Tumbleweed Wars”. It is this combination of fact-sticking self-discipline and relentless imaginative energy that inspires me to regularly consult Heather, as a teacher, regarding most writing matters and particularly those concerning historical research.

In recent years I have taken the approach of the sceptic, after the fashion of the scientific sceptical community. It was a long “soul” searching decision that gradually progressed from a desire to establish facts and to filter out irrationality. It is now a philosophical approach that affects all parts of my life from my approach to teaching martial arts to the way I approach history. My book, “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” was all about filtering out myths and distortions of facts to establish the closest account of the truth I could find. However, I have noticed that the scientific community takes the lion’s share of sceptical analysis and debunking. They certainly have a lot to fight, but so do historians and, like science, history is also a discipline that is concerned with establishing hard facts. Just as there is pseudoscience baffling the ignorant, naïve and ill-informed there is pseudo-history fuelling paranoia and distorting our understanding of past events. It was this subject I broached with Heather and I learned a lot.
For me, the worst example of the pseudo-historian is a group of people we have ended up describing as the “conspiracy theorists”. Conspiracies, of course, do exist and have existed, but they rarely operate in the manner described by those who believe that the moon landings were faked, Princess Diana was assassinated, the Freemasons were behind the Jack the Ripper murders, the US government engineered the 9/11 tragedy or that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK. People lie and secrets are kept, but there has yet to be a truly plausible account given of how a conspiracy orchestrated any of these events, and often it is the approach taken by conspiracy theorists that goes against rational and sober historical investigation. They operate on confirmation biases, counting anything that supports their theory and disregarding anything that opposes it, often the point of nitpicking small inconsistencies that always turn up in anecdotal evidence. At best such approaches bring history into disrepute at worst they fuel paranoia, unfairly hurt the relatives and descendents of those involved in the period of history being reported and draw attention away from thorough historical research. The conspiracy theorist is to historians what the lowest of the sensationalist gutter press is to responsible journalism.

So I took my attitude towards pseudo-history to Heather. She had just completed writing the third of her trilogy of books on Anglo-American history between the two Boer Wars, “Golden Nemesis”. No stranger to “misinformation and disinformation” in history, Heather had done a lot of debunking with the life of US solider John Young Filmore Blake in her first book of the trilogy “An Unconventional Soldier”. Her email responses to me, as always, were frank and informative for which I am very grateful:

“There is no such thing as objectivity or truth but there is a space in all research where we can try to see things as they are and not as we want them to be. Strangely, skepticism can get in the way of reaching that space as much as the inability to face what lies there.
“What is essential in seeking lived experience is that we build checks and balances on ourselves and our own responses rather than do what is believed to be the correct thing and that is place checks and balances on external things. By monitoring ourselves scientifically we automatically apply principles of internal integrity onto our subject of study.

“History as a discipline alone is too steeped in 'tradition' and mainstream to explore lived experience using just its principles. That is why I encourage people to go into parallel philosophies such as phenomenology for inspiration”.

On the subject of conspiracy theories, Heather described to me the difference between a conspiracy, and the methods used by conspiracy theorists, and something she calls “networks of intention”, which have solid historical validity:

“If you can plot the interaction between people it is not a conspiracy. If researchers think in conspiracies they can never unearth the truth about things. It becomes an intellectual game rather than a plotted lived experience. This type of thinking is as much a fantasy as is the rigidly adhered to traditional history.

“There are reports and congressional documents which show that Cecil Rhodes was in talks with John Hay and other Americans about bringing down German commercial power by 1920. That is not a conspiracy that is business advantage. If you do not plan and project in business you fail.

“Now, if the conspiracy theorists get going then the truth of that experience is lost in silliness. I often say that conspiracy theorists are the ignorant and bored amusing themselves in areas they are least qualified to speak. Unfortunately, conspiracy theory has become a fad and is 'taught' in history classes. Which perhaps just goes to prove my point.

“Anyhow, conspiracy theory is a game not an actual research method and its proponents either have to go around in circles or grow out of it and become thinking analysts. And, as we both know, some people just don't grow up.

“I don't cater for that type of individual as a writer, researcher, and historian. From seeing your work and how you process you findings I doubt that you do and will. The aim in primary source research is to build patterns of interaction over time and across space and let them speak for themselves. Questioning and curious minds who can accept that life is not what we try to pretend it is will always be drawn to you and your work.

“From my part, and this is not related to your own comment at all, I am maddened by individuals who refuse to accept that networks of intention do exist and have existed and treat these as 'conspiracy' thereby undermining our understanding of human interaction over time.

“The case in point is in [Golden] Nemesis which is a chaos of interwoven relationships of self-interest that eventually explode and shatter lives and countries.

“The story which is chronologically logged step by step is a chess board of greed, power, and money enveloping not just the so-called terrorist organizations and idealists but respected historical figures such as Rhodes and Barnato. They used systems of aggression to underpin their own aims and ambitions. There is nothing conspiratorial about this. The same thing goes on today. Sometimes, you have to live the chaos to identify it, and often those who sit around debating conspiracy theory come from very closed and protected homes and societies where everything can appear cut and dry.

“Hence the power of perception in writing history and my statement about objectifying our own responses rather than the data”.

This returned us to our discussion regarding objectivity and the area of confirmation biases, which brought up a very interesting discussion regarding personal preferences, fact-finding and the right attitude a historian needs to take:

“I think researchers in any sphere of interest who say that they do not hope for a set of results when they begin their projects are liars. We all engage in projects because we have specific beliefs, hopes, and hypotheses. The test is to separate the impetus for a study from the data as it reveals itself during the study.

“For example, I do believe that John Young Filmore Blake was an honorable man and an idealist who adhered to a set of morals which made him different from many others in his day. There is a substantial body of data to support this belief and to challenge the characteristics assigned to him by those who did not wish him well either during or after his life time. I also know from the data that he was a man who saw no problem with using physical violence against his perceived enemies - as long as there were no civilian casualties, a self-delusion suffered by many activists because there are always civilian casualties in guerrilla warfare.

“I am also a pacifist who believes that war is never an answer to anything if we as a species wish to remain civilized and/or to continue reaching our potential as a species. I had to temporarily overcome my aversion to war and violence in order to research and record a narrative largely about acts of violence and amoral behaviour which eventually implode on the perpetrators and bystanders alike.

“If as a researcher you want to reach into a muddle of lived experience through primary sources or any other means then you have to learn how to disassociate yourself and your personal beliefs from those of the actors of the time and their narrative. But you also have to saturate yourself in their world to understand something of what they saw and experienced.

“I cannot pass judgment on men like Blake because I have never experienced the horror of their lives and the lives of their families, nor should I become so empathetic that I endorse actions that do not adhere to the Geneva Convention. For instance, a group of fighters who joined Blake in Africa during the Anglo Boer War did so wearing the Red Cross, an inexcusable misuse of a neutral symbol. However, had they not done so they would not have reached the battle lines. There is no way an historian can weigh the two sides of the coin morally, but practically, as a method of attainment of a goal at the time these men lived and planned their engagement in the war, there can be no judgment passed on the plan they used to attain that goal.

“Cecil John Rhodes, equally, has been portrayed as a higher being or at worst a flawed god, even by historians I admire. In truth, he was an amoral megalomaniac who cast aside lives as Nancy Hammond said, like trees shed leaves. I respect Rhodes in many ways, but I think that we also need to understand that the underlying narrative of men like Rhodes is that even treason has a place in the world, and all things are expendable. Rhodes became the role model for many front runners of the early 20th century, and that to me is scary.

“We talk about blood diamonds today without any association of the meaning to our own present and past.

“I know I am about to bring down the wrath of the gods for this, - but the Rhodes scholarship funds are comprised of the interest garnered off the sale of blood diamonds in the past. That blood did not belong exclusively to traditional African men and women. The original 'mineral' blood was shed by Irish, American, Native American, South American, European, and even English men, women and children. In essence, what this means is that many students have gained knowledge off the backs and blood of men and women who are their own ancestors.
“Heather the person sees this as a form of unconscious cannibalism. Heather the historian sees it as a fact to be recorded, as a facet of what made the Anglo American 20th century at once both good and bad, strong and weak. Admirable and frightening”.

Her closing remarks in connection with her latest work, “Golden Nemesis”, are a reflection of the type of historian I aspire to be. Like “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” Heather’s book is not intended to be an absolute, but rather a platform for future historical researchers. I am happy to be in contact with more and more people who are secure enough in themselves and passionate enough in the interests of furthering history that they can accept their work is never a closed book:

“What I am trying to do with Nemesis is not formulate a definitive narrative but show through a progression of interaction composed of the relics of the lived experience that we have limited the story to what we want to remember instead of exploring all its angles and themes. It is my hope that others can add to the narrative or tweak bits that are not up to speed, using additional primary sources which I do not have access to. I think of it in terms of a 3D panorama which grows as each new, individual and independent photo is added”.

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Dr Mils Hills said...

I like your observations very much.
The problem is that 'good' history and 'bad' history are essentially in a competitive relationship.
And they shouldn't be! Obviously.
But, the well-crafted (or not) rantings of conspiracy theorists seem to key into all sorts of popular appetites.
And those who are good students of history find it difficult to compete.
Holocaust denial is probably a good example. Despite absolutely unquestionable, irrefutable evidence (documentary, eyewitness, classified intelligence, etc.) - so many seem to find it credible that the entire awfulness is made up.
I'm sure there's no easy answer: but many people are out there, picking away at easy beliefs in stupid things.
As a friend of mine puts it, it's all about understanding and challenging those mistaken about what "makes the truth true".
Your work is no doubt part of this!
V best wishes,

Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks for the comment Mils. I couldn't agree with you more regarding the attractiveness of con-theos, myths and pseudo-history versus dry fact. I am as guilty as the next person for reading "pulp non-fiction" as can be seen in my article on here, "Myths, Faction and Pulp Non-Fiction". We need more historical debunkers. Just as sceptical scientists are trying to "break the science barrier" with the lay person, historians need to be explaining what is and what is not "good" historical method.

Jamie Clubb said...

Link to "Myths, Faction and Pulp Non-Fiction"

mils said...

Yep - absolutely.
Thanks for the link: I've just read your piece.
Do you follow Ben Goldacre of 'Bad Science'?
He's very smart at dismantling crap science.
I think he had a role in uncovering the precise scientific credentials of Gillian McKeith.
I tend to think (just a bit idealistically!) that the solution (as such) is to equip people with the intellectual tools to question the version of events that they are presented with: whether those facts come from friends, family, influential voices, mass media ...

Jamie Clubb said...

Hi Mils,

I guess we all have to work towards an ideal so long as we don't get wrapped up in ideology. If that makes any sense! All my work these days is overtly influenced by sceptical thinking. This even includes my self defence/martial arts coaching

However, again I agree. It is not what people think that is the problem it how they think. I am very aware of Ben Oldacre's work. I have also recently bought a copy of "Bad Astronomy", which is good for debunking other wordly imaginings. Michael Shermer, I feel, is the closest these days for explaining how thinking goes wrong and I think it is a fascinating area of psychology. Before him I was influenced by the hugely entertaining criminal historian Martin Fido. It turned out that some of his work was far from infallible, but he was great for debunking JFK con-theos etc. and he first alerted me to "bad history" ideas. He explained, as Shermer would do, that even people with a more information on a particular historical event can be dismissed as wrong if their method is flawed i.e. they play "the game" that Heather describes.


penandspindle said...

Thanks for this Jamie. Hope you are all dug out from the snow.

Wade G. Burck said...

Brilliant, brilliant thread. The insight/thoughts offered by Dr. Vallance in regards to not passing judgment for the wearing of the neutral Red Cross as a mean's of getting to and aiding Blake in the Anglo Boer War, and the facts of the Rhodes Scholarship source, and the statement of what a "blood diamond" truly is are priceless examples to embrace for any historical author.
In regards to pulp, do you not think their importance/value to us changed as we matured? What we would read as a child, such as the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic's would lead us into an imaginary world, where we controlled the outcome. Those fantasies were our childhood realities. As we grew up, the stories were just as enjoyable/entertaining, only the adult mind now accepts them for what they are, fantasy with no basis of reality.
As we have discussed in relation to facts/jackpots in "this thing of ours" often the aficionado/fan is that child who wants the fantasy of pulp with out the reality of fact. The Circus Historian has to be a strong dedicated realist/researcher. Maintain the standard you have set, as an example for others.
Wade Burck

Jamie Clubb said...

THANK YOU Heather for providing such informative and well-reasoned responses. I hope we can do this again sometime in the near future.

Jamie Clubb said...

Sorry, Wade, didn't see your comment! I partially agree with your statement and sentiment regarding "growing up" with "pulp non-fiction". I would love to say that all serious historians have dismissed certain myths and ideas, but this is not always the case. We can identify, dare I say, "wrong thinkers" (sounds a little Orwellian I know!) like con-theos, religious fundamentalists, unintentional faction writers (see the Peter Haining's "Sweeney Todd") and those with an obvious political axe to grind, but unfortunately sometimes original and verifiable evidence is found and first reproduced by those who also add in the fiction. The mafia pulp non-fiction is a prime example of this. The first historical books on the mafia were brought out in the 1950s (in the wake of Estes Kefauver's led US Senate committee on organized crime) and then in the 1960s after the Valachi Hearings, but they were written like crime novels, reproducing information as fact a mixture of evidence taken from official documentation, anecdotal evidence and then speculating what mafioso said to each other and even thought. This was then reproduced by other historians who considered them to all be facts.

In the world of martial arts we often have "traditionalists" desperately using the logical fallacy of "appeal to antiquity" to justify their art's validity. This include reproducing myths and outright fiction, often written around the turn of the 20th century, to back up their claims.

In circus it is the "tribal custom", if you like, of handing down stories word of mouth or jumping to conclusions without seeking evidence. For example, and my cousin Jim Stockley cites this one, we have a Chipperfield listed on the many stalls during the Thames frost fair of 1684. He is apparently a bear trainer, although their is another story about him selling roasted ox meat. We have no verified lineage from this individual. I agree it sounds very coincidental that he would be a showman and years later my family (from my mother's side) would go on to become famous animal trainers and showmen, but until that line is established we have to take the position of doubt. Likewise we have yet to find a verifiable source that claims we originated from a traveller who came over from the Pyranees. Although, I still like to say that I am/was an "eighth generation" performer, but that just the English snob in me.

Returning to the point. If a myth is said enough times it becomes a fact - and I have regularly discovered people who I hold in very high respect committing such cardinal sins. No doubt, there is the odd piece of evidence in "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" that I have written down as fact when its position is ambiguous. I know that I am still receiving extra information, the odd date correction and, joy of joys, confirmations on certain facts I have reproduced.

However, recently I have been investigating the origins of Boxing for my third book and was excited to see that some historians mentioned there being evidence that boxing was being taught/practiced in Africa long before the Sumarian. Sadly all I keep finding is the same reproduced line "archeological evidence" with no footnotes and no source material.


penandspindle said...

Jamie, I like the use of the term 'tribal custom' because it applies not just to circus but to all historical factions, that is groups of individuals who agree tacitly, usually, to support belief systems with which they grew up, or into which they are socialized, in whatever way even if that means bending the lived experience over time. Debunking tribal customs is hard because you are essentially debunking the foundation of a culture.

Jamie Clubb said...

I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head there, Heather. Mils can probably correct me here, but I believe humans naturally seek order and patterns, and once those things are threatened so to are a tribal member's sense of identity. For me to say that a "13 generation" circus family's lineage are in question is to undermine a person's parent's, grandparent's etc. perceived wisdom and therefore the moral and principled foundations that person was brought up in.

On a larger scale we could think of what dear 200 old yesterday Chaz Darwin (always had a perverse desire to call him that, perhaps the tabloid streak in me) was suggesting to those who felt his theory undermined the very structure of their existance. Despite the often overlooked fact that many evangelists supported Darwin's theory, there were many religious fundamentalists (and moderates for that matter) then - as there are now - who felt that his ideas were dangerous because they challenged an ingrained and agreed "tribal custom of man", if you will. He was not the first, of course, and by far not the most ill-treated by the established order. Galileo had to work under tremendous pressure and restriction. The paradigm shift he was proposing seemed to undermine the very order of the universe. It would, of course, happen again. Einstein had to face these problems from his fellow scientists across the pond. His ideas, put across around the time of First World War, were seen not only as a challenge to Christian beliefs about order, but also to the English laws of physics lain down centuries before by Newton.

I think we are naturally clannish as a species. This can be traced back to our hunter/gatherer and agricultural heritage or further back to the altruistic genes seen in our primate ancestors. However, I think we best operate and are most comfortable in small tribes. The organization of these groups feeds and provides our sense of order, anything challenging that is often recognized as a threat to that very order. This is why we get logical fallacies like "appeals to antiquity" to support an old idea this suddenly found wanting.

No revelation I am sure, but still interesting, nonetheless, and worth remembering whenever we reveal new factual evidence to the mainstream.

penandspindle said...

Into this you can fit secret societies, conspiracy theory huddles, and many more 'cultures' whose hackles are immediately tickled into action by even the slightest meddling on their turf. It is like a circular saw which continually cuts at the same fabric if not consciously redirected.

Jamie Clubb said...

...and yet the con-theos are pretty much parasites on the back of established knowledge, so they have some nerve in this sense ;) I have come to the conclusion that con-theos are very much like a cultish religion. When challenged on their data because they rely only nitpicking rather than a solid base of historical or scientific evidence, they become very defensive and aggressive, often going for the ad hominin style of argument rather than defending/backing up their position. Another interesting comparison with fundamentalism is the "everything is a conspiracy" argument. In other words, you pull apart their actual argument, so they just say that there is an even bigger organization behind it all. If I had a penny for every time I hear that bloody "Matrix" cliche, I'd be able to bail the UK out of its current economic problem.

Wade G. Burck said...

Wonderful discussion, and I think I may be able to elaborate on "warts and all", and possibly offer Dr's Hills and Vallance a clearer understanding of the point I was attempting to address in reference to a circus historian's must be very open minded, with no preconceived or biased notions which is difficult if not impossible given their background.
A bit of background for Dr. Hills and Dr. Vallance may help. I grew up in North and South Dakota, and had a solid education on Indian/Tribal life. In all the works on the subject there are basically four historical viewpoints/perspectives of "tribal life." That of the Indian warrior, that of the "white man" who chose and embraced the life, the "captive", who was kidnapped and had no option, and the "dime novelist" who sat atop the hill and recorded it from "outside the tepee, looking in." Works by these four people's will be very different. Possibly more anecdote then historical.
Jamie is a Cochise , a "lifer", a warrior born into the tribe with family tradition.
I am a Jeremiah Johnson, a "towner", a fur trapper who embraced the tribe with no family history. A number of years ago when I was doing an interview, in response to the question of what is the circus like, I equated it to a Tribe/culture with a set of rules/beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation. The remarks were met with some of hard feeling from a number of the 3rd/4th generation circus folks because of their bias/prejudices. Tribe to them were naked Africans living in the jungle, Pygmy's shrinking heads, Gypsy's robbing villagers, etc. Jamie's acknowledgment of "tribal customs", initially stunned me. It show's a brilliant "open mindedness" which a "true" historian must have if it is going to indeed be "warts and all", an accurate account or one sided bias. Does the Warrior in writing of "tribal life/culture not pen the historic custom of scalping, mutilating dead enemy, etc. because it may portray his people/ancestry in a poor light? If it is to be truly "history" it behooves him to write about it, WITH an explanation as to the "why" or belief behind it. Not as a means of justifying but as a means for understanding. Not condoning, and not avoiding. That is a Historians mission.
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Dr. Vallance,
"whose hackles are immediately tickled into action by even the slightest meddling on their turf." No more brilliantly do you see this "phenomena" illustrated then in the animal welfare issues, and the reactions to them. No other animal industry took it as "personal" as did the circus. No other animal industry had the "secret society/Tribal culture of the circus. "Conspiracy theory" has now become the catch word "soft target" in a sense.

The Euro should be all right for the moment, but we are in a heck of a jam over here in the Colonies. If you get enough pennies quick enough mate, we could sure use a bail out.

Dennis Thompson said...

Hi Jamie,

thought it time to leave my pennorth, I have always perceived you to be a greater sceptic than myself with regards to exposing truths for what they are, then you kindly reminded me we work in different fields.

As you know I am an 'out there' sceptic but hopefully not fundamenlist or nazi as has often been levelled at me.

Using the scientific approach I remind people it is the best tool we currently have for finding the 'current truth', however coming up against Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) again and again I have came to realize how very valuable historians are for exposing myths ad out right lies which are believed by the masses.

Please keep up the good work of solid evidence based scepticism, there aren't enough scientists fighting the tide of mis information and irrationality and certainly not enough Historians rolling up sleeves and digging in.

Also thankyou Pen and Spindle for excellent work,



Ian G said...

Hi there,

I am intrigued by the discussion of historical objectivity and thank the author of this blog for raising this all-too neglected subject. If i may be so bold, i'd like to offer a brief, yet rather different perspective on the matter. Whilst not uninteresting, the comparison between 'conspiracy theory' and properly researched 'history' is a bit of a false dichotomy. Of course, I agree that people are seduced by the idea of some grand conspiracy whether it be masonic, UFO, illuminati or whatever. And we would be right to deny such views any credence. But by and large these outlandish claims are treated with the distain they deserve in the mainstream - no one takes them seriously in intellectual circles. However, the point i'd like to raise is about the assumption that history can provide us with access to the 'truth'. I think this a misguided notion, not least because history can only be but a partial representation of the past. Furthermore, no historical debates (so far as i'm aware) have been fundamentally resolved and the truth ascertained for all time. Admittedly, this is a highly contentious issue - in and out of academe - but i'd like to bring it up because i think there is a much more fruitful and enlightening debate to be had about how we can go about representing the past. I'd be interested in engaging in further discussion or elaborating on points if anyone so wished. Thanks again.

with respect,


Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks for your comments, Ian, and input. It's great to have you on board.

As Heather remarked, "truth" is a dodgy subject. History, like science, does not deal in absolutes. However, also like science, it is in the business of establishing facts - temporary conclusions supported by the largest amount of data and accepted by the mainstream. If I may make another science/history comparison: scientists argue over evolution, but not in the same fashion that creationists and scientists do. Mainstream science accepts that evolution by natural selection is a fact as well as a theory. The arguments are about details. Likewise serious historians may argue passionately over certain details relating to the pyramids, but not whether or not they were actually built by aliens!

You are correct, there are far more fruitful debates to be had over the objectivity of historical research. However, it is equally important to remember that although mainstream serious historians dismiss the most popular conspiracy theories - JFK, Jack the Ripper, Moon Landing Hoax, 9/11, Masons, New World Order, the Matrix, Roswell, Princess Diana, etc. - the general public don't. I try hard to make sure my circle of influence contains positive and progressive-minded people, but I have been shocked recently to see that at least one heavily debunked conspiracy theory from that list is believed as fact. I have been further shocked to see better educated and more intelligent individuals than me have bought into weird thinking, often governed and warped by an unshakeable confirmation bias. I feel it is our duty to help educate and not by just supplying the evidence, knowledge and information, but to explain the right process for establishing facts. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is actually show what is flawed in "bad history".