And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 31. juli 2022

The historian's balancing act


As mentioned in two previous blogposts, for some time this month I have been preoccupied with preparations for a talk in my home village, in which I provided some facts and some interpretations about its now-lost medieval church. This is not the first talk I have given on this subject, and it is unlikely to be the last. As always happens when I give a presentation to an audience of non-historians – and perhaps especially when I do so in my home village – I am reminded of one of the many under-communicated aspects of being a historian, namely the balancing act that goes into disseminating knowledge to a non-expert audience. This balancing act is something that most experts in most fields either know well or come across sooner or later in their careers, and what I put down in this short blogpost is not new. However, because this balancing act is such a fixture in the work of historians, I have put down a reflection of my own, prompted by an encounter the day before I gave the presentation.         

When I talk about the historian’s balancing act, what I mean is simply this: Since non-experts have some more or less well-defined ideas about history, they are equipped with expectations and preconceptions that influence how they react to the words of experts. How these expectations and preconceptions are put together, and how they influence the non-expert in their encounter with the expert depend entirely on the personality of the individual. Because the result of these pre-existing conditions – for want of a better word – differs so widely from person to person, I do not phrase this description in a derogatory way. Rather, it is simply unavoidable that on any given subject where there exists some knowledge or some information available to the public, there is also bound to be preconceptions. The same goes for any other field, and I myself have plenty of preconceptions about fields beyond my own expertise. These preconceptions, however, are something we as experts communicating to non-experts need to take into account when interacting with our audience, and this is where the balancing act comes in.      

Since history is one of those fields that have a wide mass appeal, it is easy enough to get people interested in topics from that field. However, since history is also generally poorly understood as a scientific discipline, a lot of non-experts tend to be convinced that they themselves can know as much, perhaps even more, than experts. Typically, this belief is founded on a lack of understanding about how we discern between knowledge and information, or how we distinguish between fact and hypothesis. Moreover, there is a widely held idea that when there are gaps in our knowledge, any odd theory or explanation can be offered, as it has not been disproved, and cannot be disproved. The idea that there are degrees of certainty or probability is not nearly as accepted as it should be. Finally, history is often seen as a knowledge about dates and events rather than the interpretation of narrative and sources.      

When describing the non-experts as I do here, I must again emphasise that this is not done out of disrespect or arrogance. My description here is simply based on how non-experts frequently approach the subject of history, and this approach is aided by a misconception of how history is done by experts, a misconception fed by popular culture, alternative culture and lazy journalism.

It should be noted, of course, that a lot of non-experts have a very intelligent and knowledgeable approach to history, and a lot of them do provide interesting insights, interpretations and input that can help the expert to move the research front – to use a Norwegian expression – a few inches further, which is exactly the kind of progress history makes as a discipline. Others are more entrenched in error, and display a kind of pride mixed with scepticism towards experts – a notion currently highly favoured by a number of populist individuals and outlets and thus very wide-reaching – which makes it very difficult, often impossible, to veer them away from their wrong ideas.      

In the course of my public outreach – which, granted, is not extensive – I have met a wide variety of such non-experts, and this is where the balancing act becomes important. In some cases, people have been wrong but in an understandable way, and it can then be very arrogant to simply dismiss their ideas. For instance, a few years ago after I had given a presentation about the lost medieval village church, an elderly neighbour suggested I might find additional information in the papal archives. It is not impossible that this might be the case, but it is highly unlikely. However, as I did not want to simply dismiss the idea but rather nourish his enthusiasm about the possibility of future discoveries – because that enthusiasm appeared to mean a lot to him – I suggested instead that there might be something in Danish archives instead. Personally, I do not believe there is a great chance of such discoveries, but the possibility is absolutely there, since Norway was in a union with Denmark from 1389 to 1521, and later as a puppet state belonging to the Danish king from 1537 to 1660. During the Reformation of Denmark-Norway in 1536-37, the archives and papers of Norwegian churches were confiscated and recycled for their parchment in the Danish-Norwegian administration, meaning that information about Norwegian parish churches could conceivably be found in Danish archives. My point here, however, was to steer a non-expert away from an unrealistic expectation towards a more realistic one, because I think it is important to meet an intelligent suggestion with decency and respect, and also to nourish enthusiasm for the discipline.           

In other cases, however, expertise is met with a kind of strange defiance which can come from a variety of sources, but very often a dislike of experts that itself might have different points of origin, sometimes including an inferiority complex. The day before my presentation I was met with one type of this defiance – and I have not yet been able to assess which type – when one of my fellow villagers walked up to me and declared that he would be attending my talk, and that he had read up on the subject. This declaration was given in a strange kind of defiance which immediately ruffled my feathers, and I suspect that I did not manage to maintain my balancing act as well as I should have. But I was reminded in the aftermath of this very undramatic event that such individuals make the historian’s balancing act very difficult to achieve. The temptation to refer to my own expertise was overwhelming, using my education and degree to browbeat and ridicule an attempt at domineering behaviour. I rarely consider such a response to be useful, however, even though it sometimes has its function. In most cases, such a response only cements the defiance of the non-expert and confirms their deeply-rooted conviction that experts are cliquey and deaf to suggestions from outside their ivory tower – a conviction that, to be fair, is not always incorrect, depending on the expert in question. (And sometimes such browbeating is necessary, such as when someone abuses history for the furtherance of their own harmful views and the spreading of hate.)         

I am not entirely sure how my response was received, and how it should be characterised. Looking back, I suspect it was a form of poorly suppressed irritation bordering on the discourteous, but I am also sure it could have been much worse. I do believe I failed the balancing act to some extent, but the incident did remind me how important it is to try to achieve such a balance between receptive and instructive, and how the balance has to be calibrated afresh for every new situation, and every new individual. As I hope to have many years of public outreach ahead of me, I hope this incident will enable me to improve my balancing skills. 

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