A Code of Conduct for Historians

From my friend Richard Raiswell, an interesting article by Suzannah Lipscomb in History Today. This is her proposed code of conduct for historians:

  • 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  • Do not cite evidence from sources that you elsewhere discount.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.

The biggest historical scandal in recent years has been the book Arming America by Michael Bellesiles, which got a lot of attention as it touched on a hot-button cultural issue. (I haven’t read it, but I understand that he claims that American gun culture was the creation of arms manufacturers for the purpose of selling off their surplus stock after the Civil War, and that prior to this time guns were simply not important to your average American civilian.) For his overturning of received wisdom (and, let us admit, in a direction that liberal academics really wanted to believe), he received the prestigious Bancroft Prize. To the NRA, his book was a challenge they could not afford to ignore, and they went after him personally and professionally. Unfortunately, it turns out that he really did make quite a lot of stuff up – he claimed to have consulted archives that disappeared in the San Francisco earthquake, for instance – and then kept making up excuses about why he could not produce his notes. For his blatant and systematic fraud, he lost his job at Emory. I once met someone from the department there who claimed that the only possible excuse for his behavior was some form of mental illness. Fine, but one wonders how many other violations of Lipscomb’s code are out there – fraud that is not as blatant, or does not provoke the scrutiny of interested parties. Who has the time to comb through every footnote?

This is obvious, but bears repeating: if we demand respect for our professional credentials, then we must practice with integrity.

UPDATE: From an Atlantic article by Benjamin Schwartz. Don’t be like “the sycophantic courtier [Arthur] Schlesinger [Jr.], whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.”