Monday, November 16, 2009

Mea Culpa

Lisa Clark Diller

While attending the North American Conference on British Studies last weekend, I was pretty sure I heard one of the most unexpected phrases to be uttered in such settings: “I was wrong about that.” In this case, the historian in question appeared to be attempting to end a long-term feud regarding the importance of religion in the Glorious Revolution. He explained that he had changed his mind about his characterization of the events of 1688/9 as a continuation of the Protestant Reformation.

This got me thinking: To what extent do we make it possible for historians to say they were wrong? Part of the pain of publishing is setting ideas down in print with something one might later change one’s mind about. We all know that with more research we might have to revise our ideas. But sometimes we build our reputations by making very strong claims—even creating a binary within the field, which allows scholars to join one “side” or another. Young scholars decide which side of the historiographical debate they want to be part of. These binaries make it especially hard to admit when one has been wrong.

Nuance and carefully hedged assertions don’t sell books or recruit graduate students. They also don’t play as well in the classroom. But they are often more honest. In order to build our standing within our sub-fields, do we unnecessarily go further than we should? And where and how do we admit we are wrong? Later work may demonstrate that an author has changed her mind, but in few places can she admit it in black and white. Is this just part of the temperament of those who become scholars or do the structures of the academy prevent us from undermining the edifices of our academic status?

I found Tony Claydon’s words to be the most interesting part of the NACBS last week. On the “other side” of his earlier position I, of course, welcome him to what I might humbly call the more “enlightened” view of the role of religion in 1688. But I began to think about what it might take to change my own mind in the face of the evidence. My beginning assumptions, the respect for other scholars’ whose work is similar to my own, and my ideological commitments, may often keep me from admitting that my framework for a particular problem is mistaken or slightly distorted.

What does it take to change one’s mind on that scale? How much evidence is required? I’m curious about the experience of readers. Have you had to change your mind regarding the fundamental framework of the problems in your field? Would you have to look at all the primary evidence yourself or would a compelling piece of scholarship push you in another direction? Does the personality or reputation of scholars on either side of a debate affect you at all? What are the most “famous” examples of scholars changing their minds? Do we have space for those of us who are not superstars to admit our mistakes and still be taken seriously as scholars? What should we do in these situations?


Randall said...

Great post.

I thought right off the bat about the secularism debate from the 1960s. Peter Berger made a public about face on that.

Chris Beneke said...

This is a very important question, and speaks to the general problem of persuasion in a democratic culture. And yes, graduate mentors are too often obstacles to the reasoned use of evidence. Nice work, Lisa!