History, Not Theory: Bret Devereaux Threauxs Down
September 2, 2022 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Bret has entered the Beef Zone with Noah Smith. Bret Devereaux—a thousand previouslies—waded into the debate lately sweeping Twitter about the nature and value of history.

This whole argument was ostensibly kicked off by the reaction to American Historical Association President James Sweet's (bad, objectively incorrect) criticisms of the 1619 Project. Then there was a wave piggybacking on Sweet's original critique arguing that we were experiencing "too much history," which is a dumb thing to say. At some point, though, it seems to have become a war between social scientists with pretensions of actual science (pah!) criticizing historians for their lack of rigor. The latest entrant in that war was Noah Smith of the Noahpinion Twitter handle and Substack, first in a tweet thread and then in this post (which links the thread) which focuses exclusively on the work of Bret Devereaux.

Bret responded here, in a reply that Smith called "a little nastier and more personal than I’d like." It's only personal in the sense that it's talking about Smith and it's not nasty at all, although it might have felt that way to Smith as Devereaux took his terrible post apart point by point.

I dunno if it shows but I've got a historical background and a bias and any social scientist with pretensions of science needs to read some Arendt.

"Under these circumstances, there are, indeed, few things that are more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government during the last decades. The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough to “think the unthinkable,” but that they do not think. Instead of indulging in such an old-fashioned, uncomputerizable activity, they reckon with the consequences of certain hypothetically assumed constellations without, however, being able to test their hypotheses against actual circumstances.

The logical flaw in these hypothetical constructions of future events is always the same: what first appears as a hypothesis—with or without implied alternatives, according to the level of sophistication—turns immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a “fact,” which then gives birth to a whole string of similar non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten. Needless to say, this is not science but pseudo-science, “the desperate attempt of the social and behavioral sciences, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “to imitate the surface features that really have significant intellectual content.”"

Crises of the Republic, "On Violence."
posted by TheProfessor (31 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
what first appears as a hypothesis—with or without implied alternatives, according to the level of sophistication—turns immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a “fact,” which then gives birth to a whole string of similar non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten.

Not coincidentally, this is the basic framework of a conspiracy theory. If you’ve read “holy blood holy grail” and it’s lesser derivatives like the DaVinci code nonsense, you’ll recognize it immediately.

I recommend taking emergency doses of Foucault’s Pendulum as early as possible and often as necessary.
posted by mhoye at 11:13 AM on September 2, 2022 [24 favorites]

"a little nastier and more personal than I’d like."

that is a funny way to pronounce 'uncle'
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 11:27 AM on September 2, 2022 [12 favorites]

Oh, this post is going to be delicious.

I think I've mentioned it on here before, but my one interaction with Noah Smith was him making a completely factually incorrect claim about a contentious topic on Twitter, me being one of I think four people in the thread with direct experience of the thing he was talking about telling him he was wrong, and him silently deleting all his tweets in the thread with no apology or retraction.
posted by wesleyac at 11:29 AM on September 2, 2022 [19 favorites]

This was an interesting read - I am interested in history and its methods but never thought to look into it from this angle. Like Noah Smith, apparently! Also reminded me that there's like 8 posts by Bret that I want to read all stacked up in my backlog.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:57 AM on September 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

Noah Smith is an economics buffoon who believes in physically impossible things like infinite growth on a finite planet.. wrote some ridiculous reply to Tom Murphy way back.

Around neo-classical economists being incompetent, it's worth listening to Steve Keen obliterate Nordhaus' Nobel prize work: 15 min, 1 hour, paper.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:42 PM on September 2, 2022 [7 favorites]

Really interesting, well-argued essay.

An interesting point, among the many, was this one:
Though I’ve already offered several examples where Smith critiques historical methodologies without actually bothering to understand them, I want to add one more, which is Smith’s apparent lack of awareness of the different uses of the word ‘theory,’ which came up in the debates that led to his essay. Smith uses ‘theory’ to mean ‘hypothesis’ or ‘predictive theory’ but within the discipline of history ‘theory’ as a term refers to the broad intellectual framework into which evidence is interpreted; that ought to make sense given that history is by and large a discipline of source criticism rather than one engaged in hypothesis testing (though we do a bit of that too).
I thought this was interesting, because in the natural sciences, the term "theory" also generally means "intellectual framework," rather than "hypothesis." One of the things that I've found that's interesting is that if you ask most scientists how they define "theory" they often give a definition closer to what one might learn in grade school about the "scientific method," which is that a theory is a well-tested and verified hypothesis, but if you look at how scientists actually use the term in practice, that isn't how it's used at all. In fact, I suspect that if it is indeed true that social sciences like economics use the term "theory" to mean "hypothesis," that's the exception among most disciplines. In fact, in general when I encounter scientists who casually conflate hypotheses, predictions, and theories, it's usually a sign that they haven't thought much about (and probably aren't very interested in) the epistemology of their own work.
posted by biogeo at 1:24 PM on September 2, 2022 [14 favorites]

I saw the initial Smith/Devereaux kerfuffle on twitter in real time. (My entry point being a self-effacing comment by Devereaux wondering why, if he's going to be the face of academic history, he doesn't have tenure.)

Smith's point was at the level of some internet rando tossing out "citation needed," the kind who thinks he's being the hard-headed Smartest Guy in the Room but has actually revealed the conversation is way over his head*. He was so bad I found the response kind of boring.

I dunno if it shows but I've got a historical background and a bias and any social scientist with pretensions of science needs to read some Arendt.

As a "hard scientist" who used to sneer at the social scientists as posers and had to train myself out of that: Meh. This sort of attitude was really common back then--Feynman would make the same argument anytime you let him. I'm not sure it ever would have applied to the whole fields, but it's especially out of touch fifty years later.

IMHO there's a definite similarity this sweeping statement and Smith's generalizations, in that neither require (nor show) any particular knowledge of the work actually being done.

* And I've probably been more tolerant of Smith as a whole than many MeFites, even if I think he's been heavily infected by contrarian disease for a while now.
posted by mark k at 1:30 PM on September 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

Yes, I also think historians eagerly apply whatever harder science fits, witness ideas like more of the world's deserts being partially caused by humans, but regardless historians' criticism methodology is ultimately fact-based with stronger facts carrying more weight.

Neo-classical economists otoh are mostly just cultists who just make up whatever fits their growth religion. And ignore any inconvenient facts. It's not really that close to a social science..
posted by jeffburdges at 2:28 PM on September 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

Minor hot take:

When pundits write "A, but B" they usually intend you to reject A for B (exciting). When historians write "A, but B" they usually intend you to believe A but allow for B (cautious).


Smith has been punditing so long he can’t even recognize the cautious framework.
posted by clew at 2:56 PM on September 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

It's almost funny the degree to which economists and hangers-on love to accuse every other non-hard science field of being insufficiently rigorous and biased, while their own field has a truly abysmal record of making empirical predictions coupled with widespread motivated reasoning. It's nothing but projection.

I've found it's a good heuristic to assume anyone who loudly proclaims how rational they are is nothing of the sort.
posted by ssg at 3:54 PM on September 2, 2022 [16 favorites]

'Historical data is not a kitten but a saber-toothed tiger.'
'History by numbers'

"Margo Anderson put it in 2007. Economic history is mostly written in economics departments, where it is considered self-evident to reconstruct estimates of gross domestic product for periods when there were no official statistics and, in fact, no nation-states"
posted by clavdivs at 5:12 PM on September 2, 2022 [11 favorites]

I had a couple of thoughts while reading Devereaux's response:

1) Wow. If Smith thinks this is nasty and personal, he should come spend time at some philosophy conferences. We'll toughen him up. I mean, if Smith is right, then I owe several people apologies for quite a large number of comments in my dissertation.

2) When you read an intro like this, you know someone's work is about to get absolutely destroyed
"We’re going to talk about why but it is going to end up being rather involved because to explain why a shallow critique of a discipline’s methods is shallow, you have to explain how that discipline functions and why it does so. But before we get to the complicated stuff we should deal with:"
The Bad Faith Complaints

More seriously, I think Devereaux does a pretty good job of explaining the faults in Smith's arguments.
posted by oddman at 5:37 PM on September 2, 2022 [15 favorites]

Just because economics is a hot garbage discipline doesn't mean that all disciplines are hot garbage. But I enjoyed learning about history as a discipline in the last links. Thanks!
posted by eustatic at 7:17 PM on September 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think where the LessWrongists go wrong is in their belief that a purely mechanical system for knowledge production is possible (typically: Bayesian inference), divorced from the messiness of human judgement. And this leads them into all kinds of absurdities like longtermism and Pascalian wagers re: Basilisks torturing them for 3↑↑many simulated years. So of course they're particularly frustrated by historians who focus on one-time events and contingency and refusal to reduce everything to feedstock for equations. The kernel of disagreement is that the Noah Smith types of the world believe everyone is secretly assigning probabilities to everything all the time, because ultimately Bayesian inference is the only system of reasoning, and that historians are simply being evasive by refusing to publicly commit to their probabilities.
posted by Pyry at 7:52 PM on September 2, 2022 [10 favorites]

Its probably telling that the one prominent teleological mode of history was invented by an economist
posted by Ultracrepidarian at 8:19 PM on September 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

I've been a regular reader of Bret's, so like, I can compare his tone in this piece to previous pieces, and it's the same tone he always writes in. Like, blunt and sharp at the same time. That's his technique for achieving clarity. It's not any more mean or personal than what he writes about anything else.

Amusingly, Matt Yglesias was also involved in some Twitter exchange, and he made a small response on his Substack in a mailbag question-answer.
EC-2021: Bret Devereaux responded to the recent Noah Smith/Matt history dialogue here: Does any of that effect your thoughts/position on those issues?

I hope Noah will write a reply. For myself, this has mostly served as a reminder of how thin-skinned academics are! All disciplines and professions have their foibles, and I both genuinely think historians are wrong in their attitude toward explicit counterfactuals and also don’t mean that as a nuclear-strength diss of the field.

I said above that I don’t like the journalistic habit of doing oral quotes from experts, I think the conventional wisdom among economists about inflation targeting is wrong, and I think practitioners of the U.S. politics subfield of political science unduly neglect comparative issues. But I don’t think journalism, economics, or political science are worthless as disciplines, and I don’t think that about history either. Let’s all move on.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 8:40 PM on September 2, 2022

Even though I couldn't care less about whatever twitter drama sparked this piece, I really really enjoyed it as an introduction to how history as a discipline functions. It's totally possible to skim over the intro (that is responding to Smith directly) then dive into the Epistemiologies / How History Works sections that stand well on their own.
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:19 PM on September 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

Now that I've actually read the Noah Smith substack piece, though, there's like. He quotes someone who actually has a point. Jay Caspian Kang, in a subscribers-locked NY Times opinion, writes:
Over the past decade or so, history has become the lingua franca of online political conversation. This is a relatively new phenomenon…[T]he shift has something to do with the centrality of Twitter over the past decade (historical documents and photos make for great screenshots) and, more important, the changes in the country itself. Once Donald Trump became president, it was harder to write about “Breaking Bad” and Taylor Swift in such self-serious tones…

Twitter has also allowed historians to assume a place in the public discourse that would’ve only been available to a select few before the advent of social media…As a result, history does seem to have an unusual amount of weight in the public discourse.
This has been on my mind a lot too. In addition to how history is at the center of so many American discussions, it was also at the center of the war in Ukraine. Like Putin literally dropped a historical essay to accompany the bombs. That's weird. And one consequence is that historian Timothy Snyder got nonstop media bookings to explain Ukrainian history to Americans.

The Twitter effect helps explain it, if you connect it to trends in the field of history.

But also ....... I think in any revolutionary moment, when politics turn revolutionary, history always becomes much more important. The Founding Fathers of this country were thinking about the English Civil War a hundred years before. Bernie Sanders' Political Revolution involves him talking about FDR and LBJ. The Bolsheviks were fucking obsessed with the French Revolution. Abolishing the filibuster involves talking about why it's in place and why it's bad. Nationalists always get zealous about long-lost battles. The Case for Reparations means talking about redlining. The BLM moment is in some ways a call for re-doing Reconstruction. Trump says MAGA. Nationalists are obsessed with the shared history that defines a nation.

And I'm in the audience for these arguments (I'm not an activist) and I'm thinking about if they got a point or not. And like, knowing about why Black people are in the condition they're in, and understanding it as a moral crime that my country did, SHOULD matter to how I feel about my country in the PRESENT. If their argument is correct, then I SHOULD pay attention to that. It is CORRECT for me as a citizen to think about and explore this question.

That has really complicated implications for the historians who do the research that supplies the material for these arguments!! But, it just ... makes sense. It isn't even wrong.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 9:59 PM on September 2, 2022 [12 favorites]

I generally like Devereaux's ACOUP but can't help but feel he's using words in a not-quite-forthright manner in his reply. For one, he seems to equate empiricism with experimentation, and yeah, there's a lot of overlap, but you don't need repeated tests to verify that you saw, e.g., a black swan. Seeing a single black swan is sufficient to disprove the hypothesis that all swans are white. Reducing empirical approaches for generating knowledge to only include phenomena that can be repeated in a controlled fashion is a strawman.

He also appears to limit empiricism to 'direct' evidence - his example is that you can't empirically prove the existence of Socrates because there're no Socrates artifacts that we know of... if you can't directly observe Socrates (or his stuff he left lying around) then you can't empirically prove his existence. This seems like a pretty limited notion of what kind evidence counts for empiricism. Indirect evidence absolutely fits in the empirical framework. No one has ever directly observed an atom - being able to 'see' one depends on indirect evidence from, e.g., scanning tunneling microscopes. The images one sees of an atom are reconstructions based on the instrument's recordings, not the actual atom itself.

He disavows 'prediction' as a goal of the historian and replaces it with 'possibility.' This is a pretty clear misunderstanding of how the term prediction is used by working scientists, although it's an understandable misunderstanding. The idea is that if you can make a good guess about the value of variable Y given that you only know what the value of variable X is, then X can be said to 'predict' Y. It's not a great use of the term, but it doesn't imply, as Devereaux would have it, that you have to wait around to find out if the prediction holds up sometime in the future.

A better term might be something like 'association,' and he explicitly endorses this as something historians do - in the blog's example, if historical tyrants have made repeated efforts to seize power, then there is the 'possibility' that a modern tyrant will do the same. Given there're an infinite number of 'possibilities', specifically identifying one outcome as a possibility is according it a higher likelihood than other possibilities, even if you can't assign a probability to it. Devereaux seems to distinguish between 'prediction' and 'possibility' based on the first having a numerical value and the other being the historian's soberly considered opinion.

And I think that is basically his point, which is not about empiricism per se, but about the illusion of rigour that comes with assigning numerical values to things that cannot necessarily be assigned numerical values with any degree of certainty, an attitude I can endorse with both thumbs. The blog post would have been better if it had focused on that instead of misrepresenting empiricism so comprehensively.
posted by logicpunk at 10:07 PM on September 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

I think in any revolutionary moment, when politics turn revolutionary, history always becomes much more important.

Bolshevism referring or obsessing over the French Revolution implies your thesis about revolutionary moment (s) of political change that history can or have influenced the participants. For example, the education of Robespierre and how it influenced his decisions. The outcome is fairly known but to the writing of that revolution, perhaps the most complex in modern history, "The first major work on the Revolution by a French historian was published between 1823 and 1827 by Adolphe Thiers. .... Written during the Restoration, when the tricolor flag and singing the Marseillaise were forbidden, the book praised the principles, leaders and accomplishments of the 1789 Revolution; the clear heroes were Mirabeau, Lafayette, and other moderate leaders. It condemned Marat, Robespierre and the other radical leaders, and also condemned the monarchy, aristocracy and clergy for their inability to change. The book played a notable role in undermining the legitimacy of the Bourbon regime of Charles X, and bringing about the July Revolution of 1830. Thiers went on to become a Deputy, twice Prime Minister, and the first president of the Third French Republic"

Mirabeau, really? Monsieur Devereaux is right about the tenacity of footnotes.

IMO, Bolsheviks had a point.
posted by clavdivs at 10:50 PM on September 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yes, precisely - the concepts we have about the past shape our thoughts, feelings and actions in the present. This is something fundamental about human nature. Not about history as an academic discipline.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:12 PM on September 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think Smith's probably got the wrong end of the stick here, in asserting that historical explanations of what happened are necessarily predictors of what will happen. Empirical models of history are, as Devereaux argues, much more likely to not stand up to the scrutiny of current events! I do this Devereaux is naïve to state historical training around not building predictive models based on history is how history works - it might be true as an academic, but the incentives to start making predictions based on history are strong - it's embedded into the profession from the beginning, as Devereaux admits - and you can go a very profitable ten years tarnishing your academic reputation in order to provide the Just So Stories for which there are so very many buyers.

Noah Smith is an economics buffoon who believes in physically impossible things like infinite growth on a finite planet.. wrote some ridiculous reply to Tom Murphy way back.

Many sensible economists do also believe this, and I don't know if their position can be so easily dismissed: to somewhat mangle the argument, it's obviously true that you can't derive growth from physical resources forever, but human ingenuity has no known limit, and that kind of growth makes up the majority of our modern economies. It is entirely expected that economic growth would continue while the natural resources we consume to do so would decrease, and economists have lots of concepts to describe the processes by which this occurs.
posted by Merus at 2:49 AM on September 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

"Let's begin by assuming I am correct and then reify that" is what I almost hear when popular economists talk.

"WTF is going on? I am not sure but this is what I think and why" is what I hear from unpopular economists.
posted by srboisvert at 4:44 AM on September 3, 2022 [3 favorites]

Those economists are cultists telling themselves fairy tails, and in no way sensible, Merus.

We humans are cleaver yes but we mostly just solve problems by throwing more energy at them. All our modern fertilizers are quite energy intensive to create. We need a GWh to train a GPT-3 model, so those few rich people who upload themselves, or even just live 90% in a spectacular video game, shall suck up the energy required to feed thousands.

As Tom Murphy said, the waste heat alone from 2% growth in energy usage raises the earth's surface temperature to 100°C in merely 400 years. You cannot "solve" waste heat, although all that useful energy causes much worse problems much sooner.

We know plants & solar decouple energy from CO2 emissions, yes. Yet, we also know GWP tracks energy use incredibly closely. We have zero reason to believe energy use decouples from economic indicators like GWP. As Joe Tainter says, we've never really witnessed any political system voluntarily constrain energy use, only tribal warfare limits us really.

We're headed for +3°C by 2100, or more likely +4°C with mild tipping points. At this level nobody serious thinks the earth can support more than 1 billion people, so any economic metric you like looks doomed.

We'll achieve incredibly things with less energy intensive tech like agrivoltaics, regenerative agriculture, localizing production, ending international trade, etc, but these achievements shall take the form of hundreds of millions surviving, retaining an educational system, avoiding mass cannibalism, etc.

Island bound animals adapt to their resource constraints by becoming less fecund, less consumptive, etc. but they are fundamentally making do with less energy & resources.

“No civilization can possibly survive to an interstellar spacefaring phase unless it limits its numbers” (and consumption)
― Carl Sagan
posted by jeffburdges at 5:38 AM on September 3, 2022 [5 favorites]

I think practitioners of the U.S. politics subfield of political science unduly neglect comparative issues.

"That's right," the state politics subfield intones in unison. "Jooooooiiiiinnn uuuuuussssss."
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:51 AM on September 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

"The logical flaw in these hypothetical constructions..."

In other words, "twitter is 90% someone imagining a guy, tricking themselves into believing that guy exists and then getting mad about it"
posted by AlSweigart at 6:37 AM on September 3, 2022 [5 favorites]

"Indirect evidence absolutely fits in the empirical framework. No one has ever directly observed an atom - being able to 'see' one depends on indirect evidence from, e.g., scanning tunneling microscopes. "

Indirect physical evidence fits the empirical framework. That wes Devereaux's point. We have no physical evidence of Socrates. We have a reasonably good amount of biographical evidence, and that's good enough unless you insist on direct observation of physical things (or their effects) being a requirement for all knowledge.
posted by oddman at 8:12 AM on September 3, 2022 [3 favorites]

I hope Noah will write a reply. For myself, this has mostly served as a reminder of how thin-skinned academics are!

This, from Matt Yglesias (himself a world class moron and takemongering clown) and the smug, "Oh I shouldn't pick on this guy too much" tone of Smith's piece are both so insufferable. On the one hand, you have Devereaux, a brilliant guy making himself the face of an academic discipline and still not getting tenure. On the other, you have these self-satisfied idiots looking down their noses at him on the basis of what? A history of poorly conceived thinkpieces and some of the dumbest stuff anyone's ever paid to publish (anyone remember Matty's "What if America had a billion people" book).

Our whole public discourse just full up with chumps like these two.
posted by TheProfessor at 10:01 AM on September 3, 2022 [14 favorites]

Devereaux seems to distinguish between 'prediction' and 'possibility' based on the first having a numerical value and the other being the historian's soberly considered opinion.

And I think this is very important to do! Coming at it from the other side of the fence - a PhD in physics working numerical computational models, I think it is very important to keep in mind that what you have in your numbers are models of reality, not reality itself.

Probability distributions do not actually exist in a physical sense. You will never have infinite repetitions of a similar events to draw from. Now if you are dealing with many, many things, then the numbers you get will look very, very much like a probability distribution. But you never truly get infinity of anything.

And once you get down to singular things that depend on a combination of events that aren't going to happen come together again in quite the same way, i.e. most of history, all statistics tells you is that it can tell you nothing. Once you get down to the messy, complicated parts of reality, it's not that there are some hidden numbers you can't access, it's that numerical probability fundamentally does not have existence or meaning. Remember, probability is just a model, and a model that cannot predict anything loses all meaning - the numbers never really existed. They were just sometimes useful. Until you start moving towards a sample size of one.

With tinier and tinier samples, it's not just that the error bars are getting bigger. It's that "error bars" as a concept that has meaning is fundamentally ceasing to exist.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:18 PM on September 3, 2022 [10 favorites]

What a delightful set of readings, especially Bret Deveraux's takedown of Smith. I'm biased; I did history in grad school and took a terminal MA after burnout; I would have loved to stay in and go on but it's a narrow narrow funnel and the great medieval history boom of the 90s did not pan out for any of us.

I'm going to be pondering Kang's & Sweet's objection about too much public history being done by professional historians for a while. But this is hardly an internet age problem. Off the top of my head, we had Strauss and Howe doing predictive generational history back in the 1990s. But I have to admit that my first thought, as a person raised in post-Jim Crow Texas, was "who would you rather have doing public history? because leaving public history to people like the United Daughters of the Confederacy sure didn't work out too well!".
posted by gentlyepigrams at 6:28 PM on September 4, 2022 [4 favorites]

I don't twitter enough to have seen the original thread but spent way too much time slogging through The Pedant's post last week. I had maybe heard of Smith before that but this is the first time I'd paid him any attention.

And wow, is he really not worth it. He seems to have no actual expertise about anything other than how to get paid for contrarian takes that somehow always reinforce the standing of the owner class. He is a pure gadfly, and has no understanding of the words "theory" and "prediction" as they apply to the scientific enterprise, while also being too dumb to understand that historians pursue a different way of knowing altogether.

It is a symptom of something or other that anybody pays any attention at all to Noah Smith.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:42 AM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

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