Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Dave at The Glittering Eye has an excellent post up on determining the credibility of sources . The nature of one's sources is a key question in the field of history and in theory at least, a budding historian should expect that their footnotes on any work they publish will receive merciless scrutiny from their peers. In practice of course, the checking is spotty to nonexistent as the embarrassing case of Michael Bellesiles proved.

Historians mostly use the honor system regarding sources and only really dig in to the footnotes when some biting yet veiled remark from another historian drives them into a mad-dog fury and they go on an academic jihad to destroy their critic's credibility by impeaching their sources. Sometimes these bizarre historiographic grudge matches will play out in front of a live audience at conferences to the great amusement of onlookers ( My own mentor for some reason had a longstanding feud going with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose name he usually prefaced with " the wicked"). Or online, as I have seen a number of scholars, some of them well-regarded, end up being banned by H-Diplo or simply found that the moderators stop accepting their posts without extensive time-consuming redacting and editorial changes.

The stakes, seemingly so low, are actually high. Credibility once lost...is lost. You become known as a crackpot and are either ignored entirely or become something of a laughingstock. Like historians, for bloggers credibility is a quality not unlike honor - it is a coin paid out that buys you the reader's respect.

Without credibility you might as well hang up your keyboard.
It is largely the same for scientific publications. My guess is many reviewers skim over the names of journals being cited (are they the 'legit' journals?), and don't actually pull out specific articles to check. It is very much an honor thing for authors...
You know I really loved your turns of phrase in this one.

like some biting yet veiled remark from another historian drives them into a mad-dog fury and they go on an academic jihad to destroy their critic's credibility by impeaching their sources. And Sometimes these bizarre historiographic grudge matches will play out in front of a live audience at conferences to the great amusement of onlookers

Actually there is nothing I like more than grudge matches and the like. Must be my personality.

On the other hand the cited story looks a bit ugly.

That aside, it all makes a great deal of economic sense. There is little added value in constantly checking every citation on someone. Checking only when 'the market' (i.e. the active readership, scholars, whomever consumes whatever) sees a red flag is an entirely rational and economic strategy. A bit ugly and imperfect, but anything else is entirely unrealstic.

Reputational capital, I may add, is well understood in business (well at least in theory although people do the most stunningly stupid things....) as being hard to win, immensely valuable for lowering your transaction costs and far too easy to lose.

Rather wish the US Gov had kept that in mind in regards to Iraq, rather than pissing away the same with really stupid agitprop of the lowest quality.

Re the Glittering Eye post, well, you recall my little "jihad" with that Pundita character, who I regard with contempt, over her transparently stupid remarks re the Ikhouane and Nazi party connexions. That was clearly a case where she (once again it appears) was unequipped to sift through sourcing and understand spin and agendas.

Well, to your collective taste.
Hi Col-

The cited story also " reads wrong" in English.

Not that I speak Chinese, but translated documents of Communist Party bigwig chatter, Russian or Chinese, has a certain consistent character to the dialogue that isn't right with this story. It reads like something written from scratch with a subset of Western readers in mind.

I agree that makes good economic sense, especially since most scholars try hard to get their citations right. Most errors are honest and minor typographical ones.

Michael Bellesiles should have raised red flags immediately though. His thesis was counterintuitive which requires a higher standard of skepticism and resting his claim primarily on probate records was simply weird.

If you are looking at what were representative chattel possessions for the American colonial era you look at account books, not probate records. In a cash-poor " household" economy most everyone who was lettered kept detailed account books while a far smaller slice of the population would find their estates inventoried for probate court( and then not with the same meticulous detail).

As it turned out, the reason was that Bellesiles was inventing much of his data yet he swept past his department, his editors and the Bancroft prize committee. Mostly in my view because his thesis gave then a warm glow inside.

Yes, your war with Pundita was something else - caused my email box to runneth over for a few days. No harm done though, that's what blogging is about
Really now? And you were a mere bystander. Well, I am sure I set off a number of people.

Well, when people say stupid things.....

That aside the lesson is as Glittering Eye had it, critical reading of sources and the like.

And knowing the sources.
It's weird but I get a lot of flak sometimes for whom I link to/who comments here. It's episodic but my delete key is a constant.

I'd be on the blogroll of one popular conservative blog except for the fact that I occasionally have nice things to say about Juan Cole. Moreover, although I'm certainly well on the right, my independent thinking has gone over poorly with one leading right-wing activist. Say la vie.

On the flip side, a few correspondents from the Left can be relied upon to go bonkers when I link to Don Surber or some other avowed GOP partisan.
I like your blog, please list it on my favourite Blog Directory.

It has lots of links to blog search google blogs

William MacDonald
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