Friday, February 28, 2014

Historical Objectivity and Machines


Since the war and still persistent today, the Southern historian has been considered incapable of objectivity unless "he accepts and proclaims the Northern (i.e., "national") interpretation of Southern things."

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission

"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"

"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"

Historical Objectivity and Machines

"Once, years ago, a Southern historian beckoned me aside and led me to a room . . . "Look," he said.  An enormous machine occupied about half the room, and a graduate assistant was feeding punch cards into it.  With inhuman noise and precision, the machine was sorting the cards.

The historian closed the door upon the noise and, with a kind of Stonewall Jackson glint in his eye, explained.  Documentation, he said – mere documentation – would never convince the North.  Mere argument was futile.

But if he could say, in a footnote to his forthcoming publication, that the figures in his statistical tables had been achieved by the assistance of a card-sorting machine (he would carefully cite the machine's name and model), then the Yankees might hearken to both his documentation and his argument.

The machine, a guarantee of his "objectivity," would remove his work from the area of suspicion that a study originating in the South would normally occupy."

(Still Rebels, Still Yankees, and Other Essays, Donald Davidson, LSU Press, 1957, pp. 180-181)