I had an idea for a crazy science fiction story set on a strange fantasy world in which the most powerful nation is taken over by a tangerine coloured moron with the emotional maturity of a spoilt four-year old who, alas, imagines himself to be the smartest individual that ever existed. Chaos and hilarity ensues.
I never wrote it. I mean, the idea’s so obviously far-fetched that I’d have trouble suspending disbelief for readers. Even fantasy has to have some grounding in plausible reality and this scenario – well, it wouldn’t ever happen in the real world.
The point about a certifiable idiot thinking they are the most intelligent person around, though, is not just plausible but well known. The logic runs like this: genuinely intelligent people are aware of their limitations. Stupid people are not. It was on this basis that Dunning and Kruger came up with the proposal that some people are so blind to their own limitations that they imagine themselves experts in whatever field they have adopted as their own.
I see that one happening all the time in history. It’s one of a number of fields where it superficially appears dead easy – merely an act of copying data out of archives – where anybody can do that, assign themselves the label ‘an Historian’, and be taken seriously as such. I can cite plenty of examples where people qualified in other areas – accountancy, for instance – have sailed on with their self-assigned career as ‘an Historian’, utterly oblivious to the relentless interpretative gaffes and outright contextual mistakes they make. They also judge others, including professionally qualified historians, on their ability to repeat data. I mean, history’s merely about copying data out of archives, isn’t it, and your worth is a person is measured on how accurately you can copy the material and the ‘knowledge’ you have of isolated factoids. No skill really needed – how hard can it be?
Never mind that sources frequently vary between themselves, meaning that even empirical data has to be understood and evaluated for its quality, and that there are necessary techniques for doing so. Just to venture back into the realms of implausible fantasy, imagine some politician, a total doofus, who gate-crashes his way around world diplomatic circles, drops gaffes and makes a complete dolt of himself, all the while proclaiming how intelligent and amazing he is. Centuries later, historians are confronted by a whole pile of contradictory material: some of it declaring how intelligent this doofus was, some condemning him for being a moron.
Which one is correct? Professional historians have an analytical toolkit and methodologies for being able to work all this out. But you wouldn’t know if you thought history was about copying raw data and being able to ‘know’ the same – oh, and bagging anybody as worthless who hadn’t copied it correctly.
You can see where this is going – multiple ‘an Historians’ screaming and tearing at each other like deranged psychopaths, because they have opposite ‘facts’ about the same thing and each treats anything different to their own ‘facts’ as proof of the incompetence of the other ‘an Historian. Or they go about bagging professional historians the same way because they have no concept of the nature of analytical process, and regard the professional conclusions as ‘opinion’.
The reality is that history is always going to be a discussion. One, hopefully, civil – but alas, so often not. And that’s quite apart from the other problem of loose-cannon doofuses who imagine they are capable. Thoughts?
Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2019