The Professional Sceptic
*A version of this article first appeared on Stumbling Through the Past.
The historian is two things above all else: a sceptic and an explainer.
Whatever the subject, the ultimate goal is explaining what happened, how it happened and why it happened. But reaching that goal requires enormous scepticism: suspiciously examining the sources, which will deceive in every imaginable way, and suspiciously examining the explanations other historians have offered.
This latter requirement of the historian—professional scepticism of fellow historians—is something seldom emphasised to the layperson or student. If it is in a book, especially one written by a credentialed scholar, then it is history, it happened. It can be added to, maybe interpreted through another lens, but the core stuff—when, what, where, how and why—is established. It doesn’t need to be raked over.
That is the misconception, sometimes willingly gilded by our profession. Now here is the unadorned truth of the matter: historians make a surprising number of errors, mostly small, occasionally monumental. The trick is not to be surprised, but to expect error, seek error and to celebrate it when found, even when it is your own work that has been set ablaze.
The warmth of that fire—of his and her and my hard work turning to ash—means understanding has been advanced. After all, that is the goal, for history is not like mathematics with its proofs, chiselled out on stone tablets. It is like science, with its method centred on falsifiability and incremental gains in knowledge.
It goes something like this: the historian makes a claim they believe is true or might be true and corroborates the claim with all the evidence and argument they can muster. Then they wait for someone to further corroborate their work, or to point to a piece of evidence or argument that brings the whole edifice tumbling down. A new theory/argument/interpretation is advanced; the cycle repeats.
Hence, at the core of all this is one thing: sources—original sources.
My own experience must have been echoed by countless others. When I was a new PhD candidate and very naive about what historians did and how the practice of history worked, I wanted to tell the story of the imagined Australian Inland Sea—the sea that explorers like Charles Sturt figured existed in the Australian interior.
I realised that, first, I needed even earlier background information about what Europeans expected from southern hemispheric lands they might encounter. Hence, I read widely on the history of Terra Australis Incognita, the mythical continent imagined for the southern hemisphere. An obvious question came to the fore: how had the idea of Antipodes arisen?
Numerous books told me the answers, so I thought I knew. I’ve dug out my earliest notes from that initial research, a tad cringe-worthy, but early ideas set in writing often are:
The ancient geographical theory of Ptolemy of the second century A.D. … lent itself to deceptively scientific ideas about the globe being like any gravity-governed body: stability of the earth’s rotation on its axis was dependant on balance, and therefore the distribution of land mass above and below the equator was assumed to be equable. Hence, the southern continent could be expected to be a reflection of the Eurasian land mass, located behind the mirror of the equator.
Ptolemy, symmetry, continental balance: I had lapped up what other authors had written and figured it for erudition. But I remember the unease I eventually came to feel, a sick sort of feeling, because the scholar deep inside me was sceptical. Why? Because none of these books cited original sources. Because not one of my own conclusions cited original sources.
I was taking everything and everyone on the basis of authority. And supposing everyone before me had likewise taken it purely on authority, I wondered what might be at the bottom of it all—tortoises all the way down, perhaps?
In a perfect world, a historian would check the original sources for everything. If you have not checked the original source, don’t put it in your history, because you just don’t know.
But historians do not have infinite time, resources or sanity, so the second-best option is to rely only on other authorities who have checked the original sources and demonstrate rigour. Even historians citing their evidence sometimes make errors of interpretation, translation and context, and something so seemingly minor as a misplaced word can have major ramifications. Small errors can compound into significant misunderstandings, major mistakes or even lead to the creation of full-blown myths that sweep a discourse.
In the third-best option, you are willing to rely on those who cite nothing original and—well, neither they nor you are really historians at that point. You are writers, possibly of fiction. I realised all those years ago that that was me—writing a story, not a history.
So, driven by a healthy dose of self-loathing for how lazy I had been, I went to the original sources (to the extent that was possible). What I found was this: not Plato, not Aristotle, not Ptolemy nor any other of the dozens of ancient scholars I was able to read mentions symmetry or the need for the hemispheres to contain equal quantities of land to provide the earth with its poise—a concept I refer to as equipoisure.
The popular understandings about symmetry and balance are unadulterated myths. It really was tortoises all the way down!
As for the many modern writers and historians who state that the ancients did believe in Antipodes because of symmetry or a theory of balance—not one cites a jot of evidence. They don’t because there is no evidence (I say this to the best of my imperfect knowledge—this is one of my core claims awaiting corroboration or falsification; ego prefers corroboration, but both options get the job done).
This was a major revelation, for me if not broader humanity. The implications are huge. Take away the old chestnuts about symmetry and balance, and one of those fundamental questions historians are compelled to ask has never been fully answered—the why question.
That is, why did people in the past construct the idea of a massive southern continent and then choose to passionately believe in something that didn’t exist?
To answer that required evidence. I buried myself in treatises of natural philosophy, journals of explorers, old geography texts, proposals and memorials, letters, histories and maps—lots of maps. Luckily, researchers both amateur and professional have done a superb job of digging up innumerable artefacts that tell us something about the imaginary southern continent.
Though I am sceptical by nature and by trade, there is no denying the incredible work of these historians who precede me—and I fully acknowledge that my own work rests entirely on theirs. But…
I check their sources whenever I can, just to make sure. Sometimes—more often than most historians let on—something doesn’t quite add up. Perhaps a misinterpretation, perhaps an omission, perhaps a mistake. Sometimes it is mere minutiae, and sometimes it changes everything.
The result of my research is Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent (available from Monash University Publishing and select book stores). I chart the European idea of a mythical southern continent, an idea so potent in the minds of its fanciers that it helped shape early modern history. I ask a lot of why questions, and provide a few answers. Some of them may turn out to be right.