Should Historians Talk Politics?

The question is not whether or not historians should get into politics. The proper question is whether or not historians should get into history. In case you missed it, journalist Andrew Ferguson just antagonized historians by mocking their attempts to weigh in on impeachment. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, sometimes the intellectual “sloppiness” Ferguson condemns is right on the money.

president supervillain

Should cartoonists weigh in on cartoons? Should Red Skull weigh in on villainy? [Side note: If you’re not following President Supervillain (@PresVillain) on Twitter, you’re missing the best part of today’s politics.]

Full disclosure: I signed. Ferguson was fluffed about the petition signed by over 2,000 historians in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal. And, no doubt intentionally, Ferguson used provocative language to condemn activist historians, calling them merely “obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts.”

Beyond my hurt feelings, I think it’s fair to wonder if Ferguson’s accusations have any merit. The basis of his complaint is that historians are calling for impeachment based only on an argument from authority. As he puts it,

It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick.

In this case, though, Ferguson misses the central point. Historians are not merely weighing in as credentialed experts who have a certain political belief. Rather, in an age of fractured truth, historians are weighing in on an historical issue, as credentialed experts who have earned their expertise at great cost and toil. They are signaling to a bewildered public that not all forms of history have equal merit. All historical claims are tentative, but some are far more wildly bogus than others.

Trump letter pelosi

It is no longer self-evident that all historical arguments are not born equal.

The disagreement in this case is not merely whether or not historians as individuals think Trump is a dangerous lout. More specifically, the impeachment case hinges on the nature of American history itself. In his self-defense, for example, Trump has made all sorts of claims based on his reality-TV-level understanding of history. As he wrote in his recent letter to Speaker Pelosi,

You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme—yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.

In other words, Trump is leaning on history to make his case against impeachment. Trump is not only defending his “perfect” phone call, but insisting that his actions are in line with the intentions of America’s founders centuries ago. The fight here is not only about today’s politics, but yesterday’s. To say that historians should not weigh in on events of the past seems more than a little silly. As Princeton’s Kevin Kruse put it,

The GOP invoked “history” repeatedly in their defense of the president — making claims about the Constitution, Franklin, Hamilton, past precedents of impeachment, etc. Don’t get angry when actual historians respond to those claims to point out they’re wrong.

Right on. In this case, historians are not merely voicing their views about politics based on their PhDs and institutional authority. They are speaking to the public on issues in which they have reasonable claims to expert authority.

Consider a parallel from another field of fractured truth. As science historian Adam Shapiro noted, telling historians not to speak politically is similar to the ways scientists have been told to stay in their labs. And it is just as meaningless.

Back in 1968, for example, SCOTUS was considering the constitutionality of a bunch of 1920s anti-evolution laws. As SCOTUS considered, scientists weighed in. The scientific case was clear. Leading biologists, 179 of them, signed a brief informing the justices that “scientists and other reasonable persons” no longer doubted the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. The justices eventually agreed.

These days, too, mainstream scientists happily lend their authority to the prestige of mainstream evolutionary theory. As the National Center for Science Education playfully demonstrated with its Project Steve, the number of scientists who support evolution—JUST NAMED STEVE—stretches to over a thousand.

Are these arguments from authority? In a way, but what Ferguson misses is that in an age of fractured truth, when politicians and preachers make outlandish claims about history and science, the authority of historians and scientists has real value. To a public confronted with bogus ideas about the past or about DNA, arguments based on the number of experts who attest to the truth of the matter is not only acceptable, but absolutely vital.

Copy-editing Out Evolution

In our continuing creation/evolution culture wars, copy-editing out evolution is the oldest trick not in the book. Historian Adam Shapiro has showed us how textbook publishers have always done it. Today we see a spanking new example of this old trick from Arizona.

Trying Biology

Leave evolution in, take “evolution” out…

As Professor Shapiro noted, back in the 1920s publishers made big promises about cutting evolution out of their textbooks. In many cases, though, they left the content the same and merely took the word “evolution” out of their indexes. Sometimes they changed the word “evolution” to “development” in the text itself.

Usually, this wasn’t due to any ardent love or hate for science or creationism. Rather, publishers just wanted to sell books. If buyers wanted evolution out, so be it. But changing text was expensive, so publishers tended to make the smallest changes they could get away with.

We see today similar edits in Arizona. This time around, though, it looks as if standard-makers really do want to water down the teaching of evolution.

AZ evol edits 2018

Change over time…

Here’s what we know: The latest science standards up for adoption in Arizona have made a bunch of changes. Time after time, the Department of Education has revised out evolution. Here are a few examples (you can see the whole thing here with changes marked in green):

4 The theory of evolution seeks to make clear the unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution organisms.

43           Life Sciences: Students develop an understanding of patterns and how genetic information is passed from generation to generation. They also develop the understanding of adaptations contribute to the process of biological evolution how traits within populations change over time. [sic]

69           Gather, evaluate, and communicate multiple lines of empirical evidence to explain the mechanisms of biological evolution change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations.

Will this sort of editing make any difference? Will science teachers in Arizona change what they are doing based on these cosmetic changes? Does it matter if creationists believe in “change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations,” but refuse to accept the evidence for “biological evolution”?

What If Stories, Part III: Schools, Scopes, and the War

What if World War I had never happened?  How would the history of creation/evolution controversies have changed?  That’s the question the folks at the National Center for Science Education blog are asking these days.  In today’s third post of the series, historian Adam Shapiro makes his case for a vastly different story without the Great War to stir the pot in 1914-1918.

Shapiro’s the right person to ask.  His recent book Trying Biology offered a smart new argument about the importance of textbook publishing in the history of creationism in the United States.

So how does Shapiro think World War I changed things in the world of American creationism?  You’ll have to read his NCSE blog post to find out.