Tuesday, April 24, 2007

History and Ufology - The need to avoid ahistorical analysis

One of the most common things you'll see in ufology is ahistorical "reasoning". Some of it has popped up in the comments to the MJ-12 / Landry post a few days ago. Folks who make this error usually mean well, but what they're doing is taking historical events out of their proper context and trying to fit them into their own view of how the world works today.

An example would be something like:

"Well, George Bush did X, which means that a president fifty years before must have or probably also did X." Or words / meaning to that effect.

Or this (one of ufology's favourites):

"Our intel and military services act like X today, which means that they must have acted like X in 1947."

And so forth.

History students are taught from day one to avoid this kind of "reasoning", but even there it rears its head more than you might think (I marked enough undergrad history papers to know whereof I speak - indeed, I've been guilty of it in the past myself).

Ahistorical analysis can be difficult to detect sometimes, particularly when the time periods are relatively close to each other, as is usually the case when the conversation is about UFOs (the difference between 1947 and today, which spans the modern UFO era, is a drop in the temporal bucket).

But try it this way:

"Our intel and military services act like X today, which means that they must have acted like X in the Revolutionary War."

That doesn't make much sense, does it?

This does not mean that there are not common threads that run through history. But these are patterns / conclusions that are drawn from common facts, not the other way around.

When examining historical events, we always have to remember to view them in their proper context, and not view them through the prism of our own time and experiences. In other words, we should stick to the facts as they were, not as we would like them to be, or think they were, and draw our conclusions from that. We can still be wrong (facts often support more than one reasonable interpretation), but at least we'll have gone about the process in the proper fashion, which always decreases the chances for error.

Paul Kimball


Doc Conjure said...

All Due Respect (Seriously, I enjoy debating you. :)),

Are you forgetting that historians are primarily preservers of history, with the passion for interpreting history on the side.

There is only one history, with an infinite number of interpretations and/or revisions.

Might I suggest you focus on the facts recorded by history instead of the interpretations of such facts?


Paul Kimball said...


Without the interpretation, and conclusions, history is just a bunch of dates and numbers. It has to mean something. Of course, everyone can form an opinion based on the information, but some opinions are more informed than others. And if this sounds arrogant, then fine, but mine is more informed than most, especially when it comes to the discipline of historiography, i.e. how to interpret that data and information (more or less).

Not all opinions are equal.


Paul Kimball said...

Addendum #1: The facts usually leave room for interpretation. That's why historians exist!

For example - was WWII Hitler's fault? We more or less know how it went down, in general terms, but there will always be argument about that. It requires interpretation, and viewing it all as part of the big picture. AJP Taylor, for example, had a radically different idea than Hugh Trevor-Roper.

In the case of UFOs, that requires people to understand historical context. For example, one of the most egregious ahistorical errors people make is assuming that the CIA of the late 1940s was as all-powerful as the CIA we know and love today, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Addendum #2: My post was not addressed to you specifically. Generally speaking, I respect your point of view. I just think you're wrong this time (and won't admit it, which, oddly, is what you've accused me of), but you're far from the worst example. :-)


Paul Kimball said...

Addendum #3:

You're not talking about historians when you refer to preserving the past - you're talking about archivists, and curators. There's a difference. They may be the same in individual cases, but they represent different functions.