Response to Cormac Shine

October 9, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on Response to Cormac Shine

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In Cormac Shine’s “Our world is changing. It’s time for historians to explain why”, Shine argues that historians should be more involved in contemporary debates about politics and society if they are to remain relevant in the public discourse. Although he points out that some historians do engage with the public, he makes it seem as if majority of historians are reluctant or refusing to engage with the public when this is not the case. Historians are actively engaging with the public online through various means whether it is through social media, online newspapers, forums, etc. Not all historians engage with the public to the same extent, which is not necessarily a bad thing, contrary to what Shine is suggesting. Historians engaging with the public can increase public discourse on a variety of topics that was not possible before the era of the internet and social media. Historians will be able to reach a larger platform of people and educate them and/or have meaningful discussions on topics of their choice, not just contemporary affairs. This allows people access to conversations with historians, which would have otherwise not been available to them outside the classroom environment in the pre-internet era.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Even though historians and the public benefit from engaging in discourse, there are also valid reasons why historians may choose to not engage with the public, which Shine does not address in his article. Shine stated that historians believe that engaging in the public means compromising the integrity of the discipline and argued that engaging with the public does not necessarily mean compromising the integrity of the discipline. Shine is overlooking the possible negative implications that comes with engaging with the public, especially when the public pushes back against historians rather than engage in productive and meaningful discourse. It is not realistic to expect historians to constantly engage with the public because history as a discipline is broad and complex where historians specialize in different eras in history across the world. In order to have a proper discourse that involves both the historian and the public, it is best that a historian who specializes in the field of discussion engages in the conversation since they are better versed in the topic than a historian who has little experience in the area of discussion.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Although engaging with the public provides the average person with greater access to resources and information on a topic of their choice, engaging with the public also has its drawbacks. Historians are right to be concerned about compromising the integrity of the discipline because the discipline itself is subjective. If you look at more “objective” disciplines such as the sciences and medicine, people have questioned and tried to prove these professionals wrong with their own “research”, which often has its own flaws. Academics and the public do not have the same level of skills when it comes to researching information or trying to identify problematic and/or biased sources to support their arguments. With the widespread availability of information on the internet, people must be able to dig through the sources they find and pick out those that are credible, reliable, reputable, and relevant to the topic at hand. If one lacks the ability to distinguish “good” sources from the “bad” sources, it undermines the argument one is trying to make because the person used flawed sources in their argument.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Before the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, people have questioned the validity of the information they were being provided by experts in their fields despite being given evidence to support their claims in the areas of medicine and science. The fields of science and medicine are considered objective since both fields rely on the collection of data and the replication of experiments to prove or disprove a hypothesis, yet people question the data, evidence, and conclusions they were given because it does not support their beliefs. Despite doctors and scientists interacting and engaging with the public about the issues that concern the public, the public put into question the integrity of these two disciplines not because the methods used in these fields are flawed, but because people choose to ignore the facts and evidence presented to them.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One example of how the public has challenged and questioned the integrity of a field is the controversy regarding whether vaccines cause autism. Although the public has been presented with sufficient evidence to prove that there is no link between vaccines and autism, people continue to believe that vaccines cause autism. This belief originated from a faulty scientific study that was subsequently retracted by the journal that published it and the author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license for unethical behavior, misconduct, and fraud, people continue to believe that vaccines cause autism. People continue to site this discredited study as evidence and justification for their actions and beliefs, ignoring subsequent studies that disproved the Wakefield study. As a result, parents refuse to vaccinate their children, which has created a public health crisis in the United States and in Europe because diseases that were once considered eradicated two decades ago are now making a comeback since significant portions of the population is not vaccinated.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 One area that historians have encountered a similar problem with the public is with conspiracy theories. Although historians may present credible and reputable primary and secondary sources as evidence for disproving a conspiracy theory, it does very little in debunking the conspiracy theory. People claim that the evidence presented by professionals is part of the conspiracy theory itself to discredit any evidence a historian or researcher may present to disprove the conspiracy theory. People bring up evidence that is questionable at best and use it as irrefutable evidence to prove the conspiracy theory even though there is more credible evidence that says otherwise. People who are not skilled in distinguishing the difference between good and bad evidence or sources give a flawed and weak claim the same weight as a claim that is backed up with sufficient credible and reliable sources and evidence.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 There are countless of other instances where the public has questioned or tried to discredit facts despite the evidence saying otherwise. When you have the members of the public trying to discredit work that is credible and reputable, it creates a hostile environment where professional may choose to not interact with the public because they are unwilling to deal with the hostile environment that internet trolls create. Considering that the field of history is more subjective than medicine and science, it makes historians bigger targets for internet trolls who are looking to discredit or challenge historians. That does not mean that people should not question their interpretations of history, but hostile online interactions with others on the internet is a legitimate reason why some people choose to not engage with the public.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Shine overlooks the fact that although a historian may try to be as objective as possible in their research, there is always going to be a bias in their interpretations of history no matter how much research and evidence is incorporated into the historian’s work. People may feel that their opinion has the same validity and credibility as an argument presented by a historian because at the surface, they are both similar. How do historians deal with the issues that come with engaging with the public while maintaining the integrity of the discipline? Historians must keep in mind that the general public is less likely to do the same level of research because they are either not able to do the same quality of research as a historian or they choose not to. If either is true, then where does the job of the historian start or end?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Cormac Shine argued that historians can help widen the reference points for policymakers when making important decisions. He referenced the 2008 financial crisis as an important time where historians should have had a role in policy since historians can reference past financial crises and try to make the determination which course of action is best based on previous outcomes. In this case, a historical perspective was important because policymakers could look back at previous attempts to mitigate a financial crisis and use what worked and discard what did not work. Some policymakers did attempt to look back in history and try to implement policies that worked in the past.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 However, as it is evident in today’s political atmosphere, if the current members of Congress disregards expert analysis, irrefutable evidence or deny that certain phenomena exists when it comes to science and medicine, it should be expected that they can and will do the same to historians. Historians only have as much influence in public policy as they are allowed to have by the policymakers. Historians can and should try to insert themselves in public discourse on current political affairs, but it does not mean that they will be taken seriously unless they say something that fits the arguments that the policymakers are making. Current members of Congress are known for picking and choosing information that best fits their narrative, regardless if the information is accurate or not. How can one expect historians to maintain objectivity and engage with the public when the current political climate is so divided and polarized? In this instance, involving historians in partisan affairs and battles would only discredit the discipline because historians would be seen as biased, which is not necessarily what historians would want to be.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The rise of technology has allowed people all over the world to interact with one another in ways never seen before in human history. Historians as well as other academics have been using the internet’s resources not only to further their own studies and research, but to interact with other people outside their field through social networks, blogs, forums, and other forms of social media. Although Cormac Shine makes a valid argument as to why historians should engage with the public and become more visible to the general population, it is important to also take into account the potential risks in doing so.


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