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Opinion and Accuracy II

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I posted the entire article along with my commentary to the Anthroposophy Tomorrow Yahoo group. Peter Staudenmaier (a so-called historian and self-professed expert on Anthroposophy) objected:

This is very, very naive. Anyone who opens up a history book looking for analysis-free facts, devoid of explanations and personal thoughts, is being extraordinarily foolish.

I responded:
Peter, you are polarizing the issue to create a false dichotomy. The issue in history, as in journalism, is not simply whether or not there is any interpretation or opinion mixed in the presentation of facts. Both history and journalism have some interpretation and opinion mixed in. Several authors have demonstrated that this is in fact an inevitability in all writing. Rather than viewing the question in a polarizing either-or light, I suggest that philosophy of history (and of journalism) can see the prejudices of the author as falling on a continuum between the poles of the admittedly impossible "objectivity" and what I would term "absolute bias". All authors are more or less objective, and more or less biased, in their work, and all to varying degrees. It is not an either-or proposition. I suggest that fundamentally, efforts towards objectivity tend to land closer to truth than efforts to "prove" a point (like that Steiner was a racist, for example). What did Steiner really think about the relationship of the individual to society?

Peter, I must say, I find you incredibly weak-minded for someone as apparently clever as you are. I have written at great length on philosophy of history [on the Anthroposophy Tomorrow list during the time Peter was subscribed], and all you can get from it is that I "apparently" stand for antiquarianism, a position I have already addressed at length. If you can't grasp my rather simple presentation on philosophy of history, I am not at all surprised that you fall flat on your face when you open a Steiner book.

The naive view is the one that paints a false polarity over a complex phenomenon.

Opinion and accuracy

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I read something interesting in the New York times recently. The piece was called The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

I find this an interesting piece on the relationship of fact to opinion in the practice of journalism. It should have some relationship to discussions of how historians operate, and the difference between historians and polemicists. I see the historian much like the journalist, and the polemicist like the opinion columnist. Some of the salient points:

"But who is to say what is factually accurate? Or whether a quotation is misrepresented? Or whether facts are used or misused in such a fashion as to render a columnist's opinion unfair? Or even whether fairness has anything to do with opinion in the first place?"

"The opinion writer chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold. He can paint individuals he likes as paragons, and those he disdains as scoundrels. The more scurrilous practitioners rely on indirection and innuendo, nestling together in a bed of lush sophistry. I sometimes think opinion columns ought to carry a warning: "The following is solely the opinion of the author, supported by data I alone have chosen to include. Live with it." Opinion is inherently unfair."

Objectivity in History

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I think that the problem with objectivity in history is similar to the problem of objectivity in journalism. Everyone agrees that objectivity is the aim, but it has also been shown that objectivity is not technically possible. So what do we do with this paradox? One response is to celebrate the inability to be fully objective by not even trying. If we can't achieve the goal, then why make the effort? The other response is to say, well, we may never be perfect, but that won't stop us from trying! What we would desire from our journalists is that they strive for objectivity, in full knowledge of the fact that it is technically impossible to ever be fully objective. I would argue that the same effort makes a good historian.

Bias is not directly the opposite of objectivity. But a bias is a hindrance to objectivity. If it is a known bias, then it is good to acknowledge it up front. If it is an unconscious bias, well, then you'll have to wait for your readers to point it out to you. But to indulge your biases to their fullest is to abandon any pretense of writing history (or journalism). Instead, you are simply writing polemic (or a polemical editorial, if you are a journalist). It may be historical polemic, but it remains polemic. Yellow journalism was deplorable, and "yellow" historicism would be equally so.

So no, I don't believe that a bias is a good thing for a historian to have. It may be inevitable, but it is not good. Affecting a posture of neutrality is no more desirable (emphasis on the word affecting).

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