In an earlier post, I talked about whether it is appropriate to judge historical people using today’s standards. I was surprised that commenters were so opinionated on an issue of arguably little importance.
On the “anti” side, multiple people argued that to truly understand history, you shouldn’t be so judgmental about it. But the thing is, I am not a historian, so why should I act like one? I do not perform any original historical research. The only way I might ever teach history is by sharing stuff I learned from Wikipedia or news articles. If I were to withhold judgment on historical people, I would not learn more about history, I would learn less because I would be less engaged.
Let’s switch to talking about my area of expertise, physics. I am a professional physicist, and most of my readers merely have an amateur interest in it. We have different attitudes towards physics, as well we should.
Here the important difference is that physicists are more cautious. On the surface, this might not appear to be the case, since everywhere you can find physicists who will happily pronounce their opinions on physics, whereas most non-physicists don’t have anything to say about the matter. Indeed, I am not saying that physicists are less opinionated, I’m saying that physicists have a higher standard of evidence before they form opinions.
To see this, you simply need to ask physicists about a modern physics problem outside their expertise. For instance, ask me about string theory. I have little opinion on string theory. Ask me about cosmology. I have little opinion on whether the universe began with the Big Bang or began sooner. Now, you can find plenty of amateurs who have much stronger opinions on string theory or cosmology, but I’m quite sure that I actually understand the issues better than they do!
To a large extent, this is just an example of “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” As a professional, I know something about physics, and something about how much work is required to make an informed judgment. In the fields of cosmology and high energy physics, I am highly aware that I have not done the necessary work.
An amateur might read this, and decide that it’s best that they never have any views on physics at all. I would argue that this is incorrect. No, keep your opinions, please! It’s true that your opinions really have no value in the realm of academic discourse, but that does not mean they have no value period. The value comes from your engagement with the topic. If you have no opinions on physics whatsoever, that doesn’t make you more of a professional, it just means you don’t care.
There are, of course, a few ways in which lay people can have opinions that go beyond what is appropriate. For example, something has gone wrong when non-scientists have decided that the consensus is just bogus and the whole field should be defunded (a perpetual danger in climate science). We also get lots of cranks who clearly read a lot of popular physics, and have developed such strong opinions on the matter that they e-mail every physics grad student they can find to tell us about it. Cranks basically suffer from an excess of engagement.
Let’s bring it back to history. In grade school, I was the victim of a thoroughly depoliticized historical education. I found history to be the most boring subject and retained very little of it. Now could you imagine if we had some class discussions about whether the California missions were a good or bad thing? Now that might have held my interest and I might even remember what the things were.
It was much later that I learned how political history can be, and that’s when I actually began to retain some of it. It is precisely my ability to judge history that made the topic interesting to me. Taking away that judgment wouldn’t make me into a more objective historian, it would just kill my interest.
Plenty of readers may find that something else about history engages them. If so, good for you. I’m delighted when closer examination reveals which personal experiences are behind our differences of opinion.