Monday, August 31, 2009
Method Thinking or How not to Play Sports
I was never particular good at sports. The only thing I that I did even somewhat well was playing defense in street hockey. That is a position that does not require much in the way of skill but a willingness to throw your body around, put yourself in the way of people and the ball, take a hit and hit back. I never had much in the way of talent, to this day I have remarkably poor hand and eye coordination, but I always played with a lot of heart and did my best. As such I took it as a personal offense to see kids who were not trying and who even just sat there staring off into space with their hands in their pockets. In sports there are no guarantees to win. There is certainly no way to always stop your opponent from scoring. Your opponent will score and will win games. A team that can win two thirds of their games over a season is an elite team. That being said there are ways to maximize the chances of winning. It does not take any great sports wisdom to understand that to succeed, whether at soccer or at other sports, one needs to play with all of one’s heart, do one’s utmost to get in the way of the opposition and stop them from scoring and on the flip side to go after the ball and try to score for oneself. This may not be enough to win, but it is better than the alternative of staring off into space with one’s hands pocketed. Staring off into space with one’s hands pocketed is not an “alternative” style of playing, it is not playing at all, not even if you come up with clever philosophical arguments to prove that your opponent’s goals are nothing artificial intellectual constructs.
As a historian I engage in method thinking. I know that I do not have a sure path to being right. In fact I will be wrong quite often. That being said I know that the historical method allows one to maximize the chances of being right about past historical events and that it is far superior to any of the alternatives to such an extent that the alternatives cannot be seen as playing the game at all. As a historian I know to rely on written documents, particularly internal documents such as private letters and diaries. I know to be suspicious of the memory of individuals and to show no faith in oral traditions. Either you have written texts or you go home. I know how to critically interrogate texts, to look for contradictions, biases and narrative constructions. This allows me not only to spot a falsehood but also to form hypotheses that are remarkably close to the truth. Cherry picking sources to find things that one wants to hear or employing radical skepticism to throw out all source readings, leaving one to believe whatever one wants, does not. Such a method may sometimes get things right, even some things that the historical method gets wrong. In the long run, though, it cannot compete. Furthermore even when the historical method makes a “mistake” it still has the internal mechanism to eventually correct itself. The “alternatives” have no such mechanism.
As a follower of the historical method I am not afraid to be wrong and accept that I will quite often be wrong. I am not omniscient; the study of history often forces me to make guesses based on incomplete evidence to almost no evidence. As a person I have my biases and will misread sources. While I may be biased and flawed and the sources I work with are certainly that, the historical method has no such weaknesses. I will therefore rely wholeheartedly on the historical method, win or lose. I would rather be wrong following the historical method than be right following an “alternative.”