The Ethical Historian

Dr. Suzannah Lipscholbm

Dr. Suzannah Lipscholmb

As many of you know, I am a history buff, I am not a historian. When you read here, you know that you are getting my opinions and analysis, not documented history, although I do take reasonable care to try to be accurate. I do read a lot of history. Much of what I read troubles me greatly, it reeks of personal prejudice much more than it shows an honest deployment of the facts.

If we look, for example, at the execrable output of Howard Zinn, we see an outlook wherein the English-speaking people, especially the Americans, never did a good thing in the last four hundred years. This in a world that owes almost all of its freedom, including the freedom to publish this tripe, to those same people.

Seems sort of trivial doesn’t it? But the thing is, if we don’t use the past, and its lessons, to guide us in the future, what do we use? Politics? Prejudice? The short-term good of the party, or our buddies? Pretty much the only long-term guide to the way forward that we have is the past, and if that is distorted, it will distort our view of the future.

I’ve long since outgrown being a fan of many public personages, but there some people who you may have heard of, because of their work, that I have found to be a reliable guide, especially in their specialties.

One of these is Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb. I first ran across her work through British friends, she’s a Tudor specialist, and an outstanding one I think. She also thinks quite deeply about her profession. Do I always agree with her? No, but I always respect her opinion.

And in this article, I agree with her completely, for the reasons I spoke of above, and for many others, including personal integrity. Here (excerpted) is what she has to say about professional ethics in historians.

Historians should adhere to a rigorous code of professional practice if they are to avoid the kinds of careless mistakes that bring their professional integrity into question

[…]

Some were errors that historians had picked up from each other without checking the primary evidence. For example, a crop of Tudor historians from Elton onwards have noted that in the month of December 1546 Henry VIII’s Privy Council met at the London home of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, sometimes given as ‘Somerset House’ (though Hertford wasn’t yet Duke of Somerset). The reason this is important is because it is claimed that this indicates that Hertford, as the leader of a reformist faction at court, was consolidating his power. This misinformation derives from the Holy Roman ambassador, François Van der Delft, but a quick look at the minutes of the Privy Council shows that between December 8th, 1546 and January 2nd, 1547 the Privy Council met at Ely Place in Holborn, the town house of Thomas Wriothesley, Lord Chancellor and not one of the leaders of the supposed reformist faction. Such an unchecked error makes a crucial difference to a reading of the last months of Henry VIII.

[…]

Even more invidious than simple error was the way that evidence was, at times, misused: cited out of context in a way that distorted the reading; used to confirm pre-existing biases; or treated with increasing certainty without additional corroboration. ]…]

Historians are humans; we make mistakes. But some of these instances are just bad history and we need practices that safeguard against human error. I thought I would presumptuously suggest a Code of Conduct for how historians should use evidence:

  • Use evidence to support your interpretation and seek to understand that evidence correctly.
  • Do not wilfully present evidence out of context, especially not in such a way that the lack of context will render the meaning of the evidence different, unclear or manipulable.
  • Do not cite evidence from sources that you elsewhere discount.
    At best, do not waste a reader’s time on unsubstantiated sources.
    At least flag up evidence that is drawn from such sources; do not use it silently.
  • Triangulate; search ardently for evidence that might undermine, as well as corroborate, your hypothesis.
  • Avoid assumption creep: do not allow assertions to move from ‘possibly’ to ‘probably’ to ‘definitely’; do not build more elaborate layers of interpretation on a foundation that is rocky.
  • Do not rely on the secondary assertions of other historians; ad fontes! Go back to the original sources.
  • Guard against confirmation bias; interrogate the ‘facts’ anew and bring a fresh analysis to them; do not mould the facts to your interpretation.
  • Root out and resolve any internal inconsistencies in your argument.
    Cite sources so that they can be traced, with page numbers, archival call numbers and publication details.
  • Our professional integrity as historians relies on our adherence to standards such as these.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Convenor for History and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities.

As is usually the case, in excerpting this, much of the supporting evidence disappeared, so I highly recommend reading the entire article at A Code of Conduct for Historians | History Today.

The article also lists some her recent work, I liked them all, you may as well.

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About NEO
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22 Responses to The Ethical Historian

  1. Interesting! Of course in my time coming along, Arnold Toynbee had to by read! And of course for him religion was always central. Btw in 1936 I believe, Toynbee actually met Adolf Hitler, somewhat at Hitler’s request, and Toynbee got snowed by Hitler (as so many at the time).

    This piece is interesting also, note Hugh Trevor-Roper’s take on Toynbee… http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/toynbee-the-historian-as-false-propheta-failure-of-conscience/

    Like

    • Btw note, Toynbee is hardly being read today! And in part, this is rather sad, for loosing the general historian’s of our times and time, is a lose itself! Though I am myself critical of Toynbee too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • NEO says:

        Yep, I’m not exactly a fan of Toynbee but, haven’t read him for years.

        Like

        • This piece is well worth the read, (from the commentary magazine, quoted)…

          “Toynbee finds self-centeredness the greatest vice of man, calls it our Original Sin, and believes that the historian can help men become less self-centered. With this last point I could not agree more. Surely, a study of history may shatter our parochial prejudices by. acquainting us with people and ideas quite remote from our own environment. We need not accept completely the modest but faintly ironic alternative which the great 19th-century historian, Ranke, posed in the preface to his first great work: “To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show how things actually happened.” By doing just that, and no more, the historian can perform a crucial moral function and quite change our valuations.”

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Btw, my new pic (of me), is obviously an old one, and one my wife put up. I guess to her I am always this late 20’s man? lol Though we had not met until my mid 30’s, married at 38. Wow life does fly by!

    Like

    • Btw NEO, knowing you somewhat… I just bet part of your “like” of Ms Lipscholmb, is her looks! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • NEO says:

        They don’t hurt, but much of my liking is that she is a friend and colleague of a close friend. 🙂

        Like

        • Yes, I was somewhat kidding! She is rather young however, and I can’t help but wonder if she has read a line of old Toynbee? Again he is long gone in this historical culture today!

          Like

        • NEO says:

          I obviously don’t have that answer, but what I hear is that, while she is young, she is also a solid historian, which her CV bears out. Bit of a star, in fact, and I suspect that is not hurt by being a TV presenter.

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        • Of course I was not attacking, just wondering? And I do come from another generation. My oldest son (in the UK) is a college-teacher of military history, and we have had some interesting debates therein! 😉

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        • NEO says:

          I’ll bet. She doesn’t need me to defend her, she does pretty well, all on her own. 🙂

          Like

    • the unit says:

      Fr. Robert, come on now. That’s a pic of Troy Donohue!
      I use a hydrangea flower now, ’cause I now look like…well take your choice.
      https://www.google.com/search?q=Picture+of+old+toothless+man&biw=1093&bih=498&tbm=isch&imgil=j3g8wJ6ws9af3M%253A%253B6ykuUGlY2YB0oM%253Bhttps%25253A%25252F%25252Fbwinwnbwi2.wordpress.com%25252F2012%25252F01%25252F30%25252Ftobacco-stains-on-the-old-mans-toothless-lower-jaw%25252F&source=iu&pf=m&fir=j3g8wJ6ws9af3M%253A%252C6ykuUGlY2YB0oM%252C_&usg=__itsc6wi2dKOSvgkKtpwmQViImA0%3D&ved=0CDkQyjc&ei=8rqRVJfHN8OXNtP8grgN#facrc=&imgdii=&imgrc=j3g8wJ6ws9af3M%253A%3B6ykuUGlY2YB0oM%3Bhttps%253A%252F%252Fbwinwnbwi2.files.wordpress.com%252F2012%252F01%252Ftoothless2bold2bman2bpic.jpeg%3Bhttps%253A%252F%252Fbwinwnbwi2.wordpress.com%252F2012%252F01%252F30%252Ftobacco-stains-on-the-old-mans-toothless-lower-jaw%252F%3B213%3B237

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aye that’s a real pic of me, on the beach in France somewhere as I remember? My late 20’s. My wife really did put that up too! She has access to my computer and all my stuff, no secrets! Btw, when I was younger I was asked to do some male model shoots and stuff, but that was just not in me!

        Troy Donohue was married way back when to Suzanne Pleshette. And I think Donohue is dead?

        Like

        • And btw too, that’s as tan as this old Irish boy ever was! And as I have told me wife, but I had a German girlfriend in those days also.

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          Dead? So is my younger look alike Rhett Butler. But it was my fungal toenail disability that killed my swan song early before I got to sing. 🙂 Laughing with you.

          Like

        • Note, I changed the pic my wife put up, to this present pic of me! 🙂

          Like

        • And btw, I would not know how to photo so-called shop! Its the old mid 60’s “Robert” (Irishanglican) for sure!

          Like

  3. the unit says:

    Tongue in cheek. 🙂
    Yeah, she is too pretty to be on MSNBC.
    Admittedly I’ve not read A. Toynbee. Just ‘Mad Magazine’, history books in the ’50’s required at school, comics i.e. Blackhawk, then in the 60’s I read of the ‘Living Constitution’. About age 50ish read ‘Federalist Papers’.
    Looking up Toynbee I read of Howe and Strauss. Guess I “generational” being a “Silent Generation” guy (last year “42)…artistic (adaptive). That’s me. Done my own hair cuts since about ’97 when my daughter gave me electric shears for Christmas.
    It is getting harder though with my cervical foraminal stenosis and shoulder and arm pain that comes with it.
    I’ve read that when one is dead one’s hair and nails keep growing. I will take my gift and nail clippers with me. Saved money not needing a barber over the years, won’t need to take money with me when then comes. I seem to be needing to do that a lot more these days. 🙂

    Like

    • NEO says:

      Much! She’d stand out on Fox. 🙂

      I’m much the same, although not so much pain, except my hand and their rheumatism. We’ll get by, I think, Tough old birds we are. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • the unit says:

        As I like to quote you…”Yeppers.” Eternity…”There’ll be time enough for countin’,
        when the dealin’s done.” ‘Til then…call me surely or Shirley, but my country want call me Lucille. The calloused hands that protected me before me are to big and strong to give up now.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          To quote us both, “Yeppers”!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. the unit says:

    Forget when you heading East for Christmas…so if early here I wish you a Merry Christmas…

    Like

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