Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Strange bias in a "Big History" textbook

A publisher's rep put a strange textbook into my mailbox the other day. I gave it a quick look and
found some very strange errors. Or maybe they aren't errors, just lapses of scholarly judgment. Or perhaps they show deliberate anti-scholarly biases. It's not clear to me. The textbook is:

Christian, David, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin
    2014    Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. McGraw-Hill, New York.

"Big History" is an unusual approach to "history." Here is how the gushing article in Wikipedia begins:

Big History is an emerging academic discipline which examines history scientifically from the Big Bang to the present. It examines long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach based on combining numerous disciplines from science and the humanities, and explores human existence in the context of this bigger picture. It integrates studies of the cosmos, Earth, life and humanity using empirical evidence to explore cause-and-effect relations,  and is taught at universities and secondary schools often using web-based interactive presentations. It is an academic movement spearheaded by historian David Christian of Australia's Macquarie University, who coined the term Big History, and is made of an "unusual coalition of scholars".

I guess if Bill Gates funds it, it must be good, no? I will set aside my views of this endeavor for now (Although do check out the subtitle of the textbook, which a skeptic might interpret as meaning that if "big history" includes "everything," then it illuminates "nothing").

So, I decided to give a quick look to the topics I know well. I found the coverage of Mesoamerica and the Aztecs rather boring and non-problem-oriented. That is, they give a bunch of unconnected facts, one after another, that do not build an integrated view of the topic. While it is okay to be boring in a textbook, it is not okay to be factually in error. But are these things really errors? Or are they something more insidious?

I quickly located two passages which present old and discredited fringe interpretations, followed by statement that they are minority viewpoints. The first example is Olmec heads. On page 144, students are told, "many faces have wide lips and flat noses, leading an Africanist historian like Ivan Van Sertima to claim the Olmecs were visited by Africans or originated in Africa, views not widely held. Probably the heads represent rulers or shaman-rulers; no one knows." This passage is factually accurate: Van Sertima has made this claim, and his views are "not widely held." But in fact his interpretation has been completely discredited by scholars, and no reputable archaeologist or historian accepts them (see citations below).

This is not a case where reasonable scholars may disagree about the evidence; there is no credible evidence at all that the Olmec people had any direct contact with African people. This idea is interpreted by many as a racist slur against Native Americans (see sources below). So why would a textbook set up this idea, and then note that it is not a common view? This reminds me of the law-trial trick where a lawyer asks the witness a question that is out of bounds, fully expecting to have the opposition object successfully. But after the question is objected to, and the objection sustained, the jury has nevertheless heard the question and will think about it.

Here is the second case where incorrect and thoroughly discredited views are legitimized by this textbook. There is a big discussion of Aztec human sacrifice (hardly surprising). On page 200 the text states:

"In the 1970s the anthropologist Michael Harner put forth the hypothesis that the scale of Aztec human sacrifice might lie in their need for protein, that perhaps eating human flesh was done not simply ritually but also to satisfy protein deficiencies. This hypothesis attracted much attention but is now out of favor; closer examinations of the Aztec food supply have shown no apparent protein insufficiency."

Again, this is factually accurate: Harner did make the claim, and the idea is now "out of favor." The reason it is out of favor is that it is contradicted by considerable evidence. See the citations below.

Frankly, these passages baffle me. Do they represent poor scholarly judgment by the textbook authors? Shouldn't professional historians be able to tell biased, discredited fringe views (that have been discredited in the journals) from accepted interpretations? No, the authors must recognize that these are poor ideas, since they say these claims are not widely accepted today. So then why include them in a textbook? With only 300 pages to cover everything from the origin of the universe to the present, one would think there are more important things to cover in a textbook than discredited screwey ideas. Could there be ideological biases at work. Could one of the authors a closet Afro-centrist? Or perhaps someone has hidden anti-Native American views? I have no reason to believe that either of these is the case. I am just frustrated in trying to figure out these strange passages.

ENDNOTE: Did you note a certain bias in this post? Did it occur to you that I was using innuendo to create an atmosphere of doubt about this textbook? I am merely doing what this textbook does. These two passages create an aura of uncertainty about the ability of archaeologists and historians to create reliable knowledge about the past. This is the implication of suggesting that maybe the fringe views of Van Sertima and Harner could be correct; they must be sufficiently valuable (according to the authors) to include in the textbook. But if Van Sertima and Harner are worth mentioning, then archaeology must not be a reliable and rigorous discipline. I kind of expected to see a section von Danniken's views about ancient astronauts, followed by a note that it is not a common idea today. Van Sertima and Harner are only one step above von Danniken, and their works do not belong in a history textbook.

For Van Sertima, see:

van Sertima, Ivan  (1976)  They Came Before Columbus. Random House, New York.
van Sertima, Ivan  (1998)  Early America Revisited. Transaction, New York.

The main critiques of Van Sertima:

Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Warren Barbour  (1997)  Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs. Current Anthropology 38:419-441.

Lefkowitz, Mary R.  (1996)  Not Out of Africa. Basic Books, New York.

Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R., Gabriel Haslip-Viera and Warren Barbour  (1997)  They Were NOT Here Before Columbus: Afrocentric Hyperdiffusionism in the 1990s. Ethnohistory 44:199-234.

Harner's views of Aztec sacrifice:

Harner, Michael  (1977)  The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice. American Ethnologist 4:117-135.

Harris, Marvin  (1977)  The Cannibal Kingdom. In Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures, edited by Marvin Harris, pp. 145-166. Vintage, New York.

Critiques of Harner's view:

Furst, Peter T.  (1978)  Spirulina. Human Nature 1:60-65.

Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R.  (1978)  Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity? Science 200:611-617.

Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R.  (1990)  Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.


Marcus said...

Maybe there's a more simple explanation for such things to pop up: the lack of a comprehensive framework for explanation in 'big history'. Despite what the wikipedia page says, I see very little in the way of credible causal explanation. Indeed, how could one do that for all the phenomena they want to cover?

So what emerges is more like a heap of facts, or in this case factoids, which, given the need to cover everything will almost automatically seem random or biased (unless the authors are superhumans that read everything critically).

That said, I welcome a more broader historical perspective like this for secondary schools especially.

Michael E. Smith said...

My reading of a few short passages did suggest the "heap of facts" approach, but I'm not anxious to characterize the whole book or the approach like that without reading further. In some ways "big history" looks like complexity science but without models or theories.

Anonymous said...

I was a bit surprised to read this post because to me the concept of "Big History" is associated with North American archaeologists such as Timothy Pauketat, Stephen Lekson, and Peter Peregrine, and is used to discuss "large-scale processes" operating on a regional or continental level. For example, Timothy Pauketat and John Robb just published an edited volume on "Big Histories" which doesn't cite any of the historians mentioned in the Wikipedia article you linked. Likewise, I doubt the authors of the text book you got in the mail are very well versed in recent archaeological theory.

Michael E. Smith said...

One could do a historiographic study and see who was using the term first, but the David Christian "Big History" crowd clearly won out in terms of publicity and funding (Bill Gates is a big supporter).

Archaeologists are very good at creating terms and concepts that are already in use in other disciplines, but giving them idiosyncratic archaeological definitions. Binford did this a lot (e.g., "Middle-range theory," and the term "normative" - I discuss both of these in my Urban Theory paper,

We archaeologists like to use idiosyncratic concepts and terms to isolate ourselves from other disciplines, something I am always railing about. See:

Anonymous said...

What should a student do if they are assigned a clearly biased textbook?

I'm attending a community college, and my current History textbook is full of gems like "Was the compiler of Gilgamesh trying to depict Babylonians as more than greedy, venal, boorish oppressors?"

Is there some way to appeal to have a textbook removed from the curriculum? And if so, how do I do it?

Michael E. Smith said...

If there are problems with a textbook, the first thing to do is talk with the instructor. They may be unaware of such problems (sometimes we skim textbooks, and may miss problems). In some programs, the individual instructor does not choose the textbook; if that is the case your professor should be able to tell you who to talk to.

Anonymous said...

How much more nonsense will be created merely to attract funding and fame? As a trained historian, I am actually appalled by the usage of the term 'History' in 'Big History'. 'History' is a science with a specific methodology, that studies events for which written sources exist, and relies on a specific type of sources about the past. It is not a simple record of fact, from the bing bang to today. They seem to completely confuse history with a medieval chronicle approach.

wagersmith1 said...

Perhaps the authors were trying to address explanations the readers might spontaneously wonder about during the reading. For example, if someone read about the human sacrifices and wondered if people canibalize because of protein deficiency, the author is quick to point out that the protein theory had been tested and refuted.