Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claims 9 & 10

At this point, Chapter 8 in Daughter of Time, Grant and his researcher Brent begin to debate what actually happened when Edward IV died and Richard III took over. Was it a planned coup? Was Richard, as regent, as surprised as everyone else when Edward IV's sons, including the next king, were declared illegitimate? 

I am not qualified to debate these points. It would entail far more research--likely at the British Museum, like Brent, if anyone wants to pay my way--than I have time for. In any case, my posts address Tey's claims about research. I am not totally invested in Tey being right about Richard (partly because I'm not sure that she is).

What I am qualified to discuss are Brent's claims:

Claim 9: Taught history can be wrong/ misleading.

Although this smacks of the cynicism that I deplore, Brent has a point. He uses the Boston Massacre as an example:
The total casualties were four. I was brought up on the Boston Massacre, Mr. Grant. My twenty-eight inch chest used to swell at the very memory of it. My good red spinach-laden blood used to seethe at the thought of helpless civilians mowed down by the fire of British troops. You can't imagine what a shock it was to find that all it added up to in actual fact was a brawl that wouldn't get more than local reporting in a clash between police and strikers in any American lock-out . . . That's partly why I like to research so much.
Brent is being a trifle dismissive. The point of the Boston Massacre is that it offered a great rallying point for disenchanted colonists. What I've always found far more fascinating than the numbers is that the soldiers involved were defended, in part, by colonial lawyers! John Adams and Josiah Quincy II helped acquit 6 out of the 8 British soldiers. That degree of objectivity (John Adams was already a declared Patriot) impresses me no end.

The important aspect of Brent's self-revelation re: the Boston Massacre is that it leads him to Claim 10: Truth isn't in accounts but in account books.
 "A neat phrase," Grant said, complimentary. "Does it mean anything?"
 "It means everything. The real history is written in forms not meant as history. In Wardrobe accounts, in Privy Purse expenses, in personal letters, in estate books. If someone, say, insists that Lady Whoosit never had a child, and you find in the account book the entry: 'For the son born to my lady on Michaelmas eve: five yards of blue ribbon, fourpence halfpenny' it's a reasonably fair deduction that my lady had a son on Michaelmas eve."
Brent is discussing primary research. He makes a mistake (common to students) in that he assumes that primary research doesn't lie; on my semester research test, I ask, "Is a primary source automatically more credible than a secondary source?" Over half my students get the question wrong by answering, "Yes." But a drunk as eyewitness is far less credible than the CSU investigators who came in after the fact.

Richard Evans
HOWEVER, Brent has hit on the fundamental reality of all good research: if you want to know the truth, you have to check the sources. In the David Irving libel trial (libel suit brought by Irving), the vastly irritated Richard Evans was able to damningly show that Irving consistently misused original source material in defense of German Nazism. Evans was able to do this because he is an expert in these same materials, because he read all of Irving's works, because he could show that Irving spoke and read German exceedingly well (it wasn't a "mistake" that Irving misused the material) but mostly because Evans and his grad students actually checked Irving's footnotes, something that other reviewers of Irving had often failed to do.

Judith Rich Harris
The fact is, scholars usually fail to check footnotes since it is incredibly time-consuming. Those who do are rarely thanked for the effort. In No Two Alike, Judith Rich Harris writes about how an amateur historian challenged popular sociologist Sulloway on his theories about birth order (oldest children support the status quo; youngest children are rebels, etc.). Sulloway was completely offended that an amateur would point out the flaws in his arguments (a detailed description of the controversy, including Sulloway's petulant reaction to being challenged, can be found here: "Science, Sulloway and Birth Order: An Ordeal and an Assessment.")  But all the amateur historian did was actually check Sulloway's research. Sulloway made the elementary mistake of reasoning backwards: since I've decided that all oldest children support the status quo and all youngest children are rebels, this figure from history must have been . . . One of my students writing on birth order made the same mistake and got a number of basic facts about the birth order of major historical figures, including Hitler, wrong.

The fact is, birth order theorizing, while not quite as bad as astrology, is not all that dependable since so many things affect how children behave (a youngest child who has an early growth spurt will often assume a leadership role on the playground, which will ultimately have greater effect on the child than the home environment, etc.). As Judith Rich Harris states, " Getting research mentioned in a newspaper or magazine article is far more difficult than getting it accepted by a journal. I'll bet you've never seen a newspaper article with the headline STUDY FINDS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FIRSTBORNS AND LATERBORNS. And yet there have no doubt been thousands of such studies."

In other words, sometimes following things back to their original source will prove nothing. As Brain Games points out, we are conditioned to make comparisons and find differences even when there are none.

Which is why both Brent and Grant are very brave to take on primary research. It is a daunting task! 


Joe said...

I agree with your points about the Boston Massacre, though would add that all the British soldiers should have been acquitted since the mob was, well, a mob and trying to cause an event. In short, if you throw rocks at people with guns, don't be surprised or offended if you get shot.

Child order is a good example of a way to understand behavior and given specific behavior by an individual, may be useful in predicting future behavior. However, to state "middle children make good marriages" may be accurate in a strictly statistical sense, but is utterly useless for any given couple without first understanding their behavior (and even then is arguably more interesting than useful.)

In a related vein, while I am fundamentally introverted, I've long realized than some, if not much, of my actual response to situations is due to other factors, which my introverted nature exacerbates. In other words, my reluctance to trust people has a far bigger impact on my social relationships than being an introvert. However, the latter lets me isolate myself without excessive mental anguish. (Lacking the impulse to socialize with people I distrust is, to me, a good thing in many ways.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think birth order theory does make interesting observations. In general, however, between the nature v. nurture positions, I tend to side with nature, simply because the nurture arguers have made such egregious and problematic claims (schizophrenia is caused by a bad mother; gender identity is entirely constructed).

However, even the nature arguments begin to pall after awhile. Judith Rich Harris claims that statistically speaking, a large chunk (not terribly statistical but I can't remember the actual number) of personality is unaccounted-for. Nobody knows exactly why conjoined twins born with the same genes and reared in exactly the same environment turn out so differently. My personal feeling is that the social scientists can't answer this one. It really is in the hands of the theologians and philosophers (and storytellers).

From a scientific point of view, the entire universe is built on basic laws (gravity) underscored by controlled chaos (quantum mechanics). I think that pretty much describes the human condition.