Will Thomas on what historians shouldn’t moan about

The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of History to Policy

William Thomas, Senior Historian at History Associates, Inc.

Historians have a great deal to contribute to policy discussions. But, before discussing how they might contribute most effectively, I’d like to begin on a note of sobriety.

Historians may be tempted to believe that, in collaborating with policymakers, executives, and policy analysts, they could make immediate and cogent contributions. After all, public rhetoric is usually very banal, and it often makes questionable references to historical events. It would be easy for historians to believe that consumption of respectable journalism, a penchant for critical reflection, and access to a modest library of historical case examples would put them in a good position to be of real service.

That would be wishful thinking. Rhetoric is a superficial feature of political life. Politicians and executives use rhetorical gestures to signal their general governing philosophy and emphases, and to rally and maintain coalitions of the interest groups that make policy possible. If they refer to history, the accuracy of their historical reference is more or less immaterial to whatever their policy positions are likely to be, and whether they will result in good or ill.

As an example, we might look at President Barack Obama’s announcement during his recent State of the Union address of a new “moonshot” in cancer research. Many commentators, mostly non-historians, have rushed to criticize the historical references and resonances of the announcement. Most obviously, the original Apollo lunar landing program bears little resemblance to cancer research in terms of the goals, methods, and scale of the institutions involved. Moreover, while the popular connotation of the Apollo program is that it was an inspiring success, critics, including many historians, would point out that it was an extraordinary investment of resources in something that offered little practical return even as America confronted deep social problems.

The other clear parallel is with President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on cancer” in 1971, echoing President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 declaration of a “war on poverty.”  The war analogy, like the moonshot analogy, implies the ability to accomplish a discrete goal through the concentration of effort.  And, in fact, unlike the Apollo program, not only did the war on cancer not accomplish its declared goal—curing cancer—researchers have faced a long and difficult road to develop scientific understanding and more effective therapies, despite high levels of funding.

But what lessons do we hope to draw from revisiting these histories? If we concentrate on the rhetoric, we could of course note that Obama’s aspirational goal—“Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all”—is unlikely to be met by a “moonshot” program. Fine. But this judgment wouldn’t really engage with the underlying program proposal, which is the most important thing. As reported by science journalists, this involves reasonably generous funding approaching $1 billion as well as institutional reforms intended to create a more collaborative research environment.  Whatever its disconnect with Obama’s rhetoric, what we would really like to know is: is this specific proposal a good idea or a bad idea?

That’s something that’s actually not very easy to say, particularly absent further details. Nor are historians necessarily well positioned to lend much insight. A billion dollars would surely do some good even if it won’t result in a cure. But, setting aside the important “marginal utility” question—what would be the best possible use of an additional billion dollars in research funding—we still need to ask what exactly this funding would accomplish.

The historical difficulty in making progress against cancer is certainly relevant (and well known), but the key question is, if only $1 billion were available, could current research projects make significant breakthroughs in understanding, or could current therapy development projects make significant strides in efficacy? On the question of institutional organization, what exactly does it presently look like, and is there reason to believe that integrating laboratories, or creating new liaison channels among them, would yield significant benefits? Or are we just saying that because More Collaboration sounds like a Good Thing?

The people best positioned to answer such questions are people working in cancer research, as well as people in related fields who have good knowledge of current conditions in cancer research but can speak with less bias. However, this is not to say that historians have nothing to contribute.

Rather, I am reminded of what the legendary British science adviser Henry Tizard said to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee lobbying group in 1942 about the need to integrate researchers’ viewpoints into the setting of research and development priorities: “The safest way of reaching the right decision is to have scientists working side by side in the closest collaboration with those who have the administrative and executive responsibility. And the first thing that the scientist learns when he has the benefit and privilege of such collaboration is that he has a lot to learn.”

***

Frankly, it would be surprising if historians, having mainly conversed with each other, did have much to say that could genuinely help policymakers, executives, and policy analysts in their work. Many historians, like many generically intelligent people, might be able to ferret out some kinds of sloppy thinking. But, in general, I have never seen that historians, qua historians, routinely ask the kinds of questions, or produce the kinds of knowledge, that can materially contribute to the design of effective programs and the making of sound decisions.

With inside exposure to actual problems of policy, though, I believe that historians can (and in a few cases do) contribute a great deal where others might not be able.  Let’s start with what historians might get from an exposure to actual policy discussions, highlighting three things:

  1. A) A good sense of exactly who comprises the current community of decision makers, their advisers, specialist journalists, and stakeholders. Whenever possible, historians should try to be as specific as possible, preferably to the point of thinking in terms of proper names. This allows historians to engage with the thinking of actual experts, rather than stray ideas they may have encountered, in the media for instance.
  1. B) A knowledge of what concrete changes to existing policies and institutional structures are feasible and under serious discussion. This helps historians to address the actual questions that policymakers must answer, and to avoid speaking in unhelpful generalities.
  1. C) A knowledge of what the most developed arguments surrounding different proposals actually are. This prevents historians from attacking straw men, and from simply making points that others are already making.

On the basis of that knowledge, historians would be in a good position to provide useful information, much of which may require dedicated research. Here are some notions:

1) Individuals’ arguments in policy debates derive in large part from their past experience. A historian could lend insight into how these individuals’ personal history—training, work, personal contacts, and so forth—might inform their perspectives, and from what traditions they appear to derive their ideas. This in turn can tell us about their particular concerns, emphases, and argumentative strategies, permitting us to make more reasoned decisions about how to engage them or what we can most productively take from their contributions to policy debates.

2) Current situations are necessarily constrained by past decisions leading up to them, but they are not necessarily irrevocably bound by them. Historical research can reveal how once-broad landscapes of possibilities may have been closed off by choices made by predecessors, or how constraints that once limited the choices available to predecessors may have disappeared. We may not be able to transplant past possibilities wholesale into the present, but they may furnish us with notions we might not otherwise have entertained.

3) Similarly, we usually do not have a good sense of whether we are more or less intelligent or wise than predecessors, because we do not fully understand the rationales underlying the policy choices that they made. Recovering those rationales from history in their full depth allows us to benefit from past wisdom, but also to question its soundness and to forge policies free of an unwarranted respect for past actions.

4) Understanding the full rationales originally underlying our current policies also encourages us to understand the circumstances that allowed those rationales to make sense (if indeed they did). Historical research can help determine whether those circumstances still prevail, or if changed circumstances demand adjustments or even complete overhaul.

5) In making arguments today, we may suppose we are making fresh and cutting insights.  In fact, those arguments may be stale retreads of arguments that have been made for years or even decades. Rather than assuming that entrenched interests simply have not been listening—which is a possibility—understanding our arguments’ heritage may encourage us take our arguments to a higher level (possibly borrowing advanced arguments from past iterations of the debate). Or it may, if we’re honest, encourage us to question whether our thinking is actually as cogent as we imagine.

6) Many current debates make use of readily available data sets. However, historical research can supply additional relevant information. Such historical data may not be complete or “clean.” Even still, we may be able to use heterogeneous historical data to corroborate, question, supplement, or to help us interpret data in its more standard forms.

7) A lot of policy thought proceeds by drawing comparisons between proposed actions and experience of other recent decisions. Piecemeal historical examples may be of some use, but a thorough and systematic charting of past policies, distilled into an easily accessible and navigable resource, could provide a very rich basis for comparison. Ideally, we would like to link past policy decisions with their outcomes. But, given the difficulties of drawing unambiguous links, it may be enough to begin with simply to build up our vocabulary of past decisions and programs. The most relevant comparisons will probably come from recent history, but the more distant past should be explored as well. For economists, one of the lessons of the post-2008 economy is that to understand how the economy works in liquidity trap conditions, we must go all the way back to the 1930s (or to Japan since the 1990s) to draw our comparisons.

***

What I am proposing would require hard, disciplined, coordinated work from historians—it cannot be done simply by “parachuting in.” However, I believe that the effort would be worth it, creating a sustained, valued place for historical research and analysis in policy work and executive decision making. If it is to happen, it must begin with little steps and a willingness to collaborate and learn.

Views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of History Associates.


6 thoughts on “Will Thomas on what historians shouldn’t moan about

  1. Hey Will, this is something I have also been thinking about, and so completely agree with the general thrust of your post (essentially that historians can make a contribution to policy, but that doing so will require perhaps some different working practices – though I have to say, for someone worried about straw men your caricatured ‘arm chair’ policy historian at the top of your post, is, well, not very fair. But then I guess you were using rhetoric and I should be looking past that…unless your rhetoric is being used to disguise a more fundamental problem, in which case I think challenging it makes perfect policy and political sense…).

    While there is much good advice in here, I also think a couple of your statements are dead wrong. I’ll get to them in a second, but first I’d like to propose a diagnosis: While you have a very good understanding of what the historical job of work is (obvs), I think you have forgotten that historians are always more than ‘historians’. Just as an expert in one area of policy is always more than just that.

    All that access that you talk of (with regard to having historians in the room) we simply do not get habitually, though very similar looking colleagues (for instance in the social sciences) increasingly do. A historian is one species of policy collaborator, that is all, though currently not one who typically receives policy orientated training. As one species of policy collaborator, just like any other, they are composed of a range of functions, some of which are only loosely connected to their area of historical expertise. So where their particular historical knowledge drops off, their historical training kicks in, and where their historical training drops off, their appreciation of attending to the particulars of a context kicks in, and so on. This will be the same for anyone from any academic background attempting to collaborate around policy.

    So – to the reasons I just bothered saying that!

    “The historical difficulty in making progress against cancer is certainly relevant (and well known), but the key question is, if only $1 billion were available, could current research projects make significant breakthroughs in understanding, or could current therapy development projects make significant strides in efficacy? On the question of institutional organization, what exactly does it presently look like, and is there reason to believe that integrating laboratories, or creating new liaison channels among them, would yield significant benefits? Or are we just saying that because More Collaboration sounds like a Good Thing?

    The people best positioned to answer such questions are people working in cancer research, as well as people in related fields who have good knowledge of current conditions in cancer research but can speak with less bias. However, this is not to say that historians have nothing to contribute.”

    “The people best positioned to answer such questions are people working in cancer research” – nope. Dead wrong. And in this particular case, you are perhaps forgetting that precisely such people will have very likely been involved in lobbying for these recent proposals, regardless of whether or not they think the proposals are any good or not. I’m not trying to invoke conspiracy or anything, but to treat the problem of ‘how do we decide if these proposals are good or not’ as though it is something we should rely solely on scientists to answer, is pretty weird! Perhaps it’s not what you meant, so my confusion can turn into an opportunity for greater clarity.

    Second thing:
    “B) A knowledge of what concrete changes to existing policies and institutional structures are feasible and under serious discussion. This helps historians to address the actual questions that policymakers must answer, and to avoid speaking in unhelpful generalities.”

    Yes. But also, No no no. Feasibility matters, but the limits of feasibility are often precisely what is the subject of political debate. Besides, you might (as a historian) think that the questions policymakers are trying to answer are dumb, or that there are better ones available for discussion. Again, perhaps I am miss-reading you.

    Lastly, if what you are saying is that attempting to involve oneself in the process of policy change demands close and persistent work on behalf of historians, then I’m all for it. But I also think there is more than one way to contribute to policy discussions as a historian. Glib tweets, or writing blog posts in response to policy documents or reports, these are all excellent ways to contribute to policy and political discourse as far as I am concerned. Crikey, if we only measure ourselves in terms of ‘influence over actual policy change’ then I think everyone will come out look very small indeed. Including people who have dedicated their entire lives to a particular change.

    Here’s hoping I’ve not just appended a litany of misunderstandings to your post!

    1. Dominic, good to hear from you, and thanks very much for the reply. Just to address your last point first, I wouldn’t want to be accused of holding an unduly narrow and dogmatic view about what the worth of history is. Rather, I regard the “public intellectual” mode of expression to be well established among historians and in little need of defense or advocacy. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who followed that path. As you point out, though, it is rare to have historians directly involved in policy discussions, and I myself share the goals of the Historians in Residence program of trying a) to establish that as a viable alternative channel of work and influence, and b) to do it not simply as another analyst but to make history itself into a valuable tool.

      In advocating for such a channel, I did want to be very explicit in drawing a distinction between what a public intellectual and what a policy analyst might do. In their public intellectual role, historians are trained to play the stranger, to explode paradigms, to question rhetorical clichés, and what not, but usually within the safe confines of a think piece. They are not accustomed to receiving pushback on their own ideas from the people they are criticizing. I do regard it as at least a danger worth mentioning that historians would be apt to step in to play the outsider, to try to challenge the whole basis of a discussion, and to not find things as simple as all that, leading the whole exercise to end in frustration.

      On to the specific points you make: I do of course note that the views of cancer researchers would be subject to a conflict of interest, which is why I go on in the next sentence to include researchers with no direct interest in the outcome as well. Having a mix of interested parties and independent outsiders is typical of policymaking boards. The common denominator is that everyone evaluating a policy option should have a good working knowledge the current conditions bearing on the wisdom of the option. History cannot tell us what to do, but historians who share in that knowledge of current conditions can bring history to bear in the ways I describe.

      Second, on feasibility, historians should be prepared to accede that they have no power to expand on the options on the table, that their role as a participant is to help decide between those options. For those who participate in policy that often is simply the reality they have to work with. That said, I don’t want to be dogmatic on that point, which is exactly why my notion (2) leaves room for the historian to use knowledge of the past to bring back options that may have been closed off.

  2. Will,

    Very interesting, as always. Another key issue for historians working in policy is adapting to the speed of much policy making – issues appear in the morning and a solution is needed by lunchtime.

    It can be depressing to see how apparently poor work/thinking gets adopted, but this happens because it is timely and addresses the immediate needs of the policy maker. Historians tend not to be so quick on the draw.

    It makes senses to do on going ‘policy research’, whether historical or not, in order to develop a pool of potentially useful knowledge. But the trick is to pull the rabbit out of the hat when needed, and to not despair at the loss of all the nuance carefully built up over years.

    The best advice I can offer to deal with this, based on personal experience, is to know where a good pub is. Drowning your sorrows is part of being a historian dabbling in policy!

    1. That’s an excellent point, Mike. I’ve long thought that, for their own purposes, as well as for interacting with others, historians should develop better means of consolidating, organizing, and presenting historical knowledge. One reason to do so is to make sure you can find what you need to know reasonably quickly without having to know exactly where to go in a vast library to find it, or without knowing exactly who would know where or to go. My off-hand mention of an “easily accessible and navigable resource” in (7) is a nod to that idea.

      1. Will,

        I’ve seen you mention such things on your own blog too (EWP post on ‘The Empiricst Potential’), in particular:

        “How do we aggregate, annotate, and analyze empirical information in such a way that it can be navigated and used productively by novices and experts alike? How can such platforms facilitate collaboration within communities of scholars, or even between scholars and enthusiasts? How do we ask, debate, and keep track of vast arrays of questions surrounding large bodies of empirical information? That these problems don’t have answers represents an exciting opportunity for technical and methodological innovation.”

        We are currently putting together a network of people (mainly CHoSTM diaspora) to build on a project that does just this that has been running for a few months. It has a policy focus, but much wider use. I am sure you have plenty to do – I also have a 3 yr old and a 1yr old and write way less than you do – but if you want to get involved let me know.

  3. Useful blog, Will. In an ideal world, though, surely, a cadre of well-trained, well-resourced civil servants would provide the best policy analysis, whatever the special skills of academic historians? The pertinent problem I guess is that parts of UK government have been gutted of expert civil servants due to austerity – & are historians and other academics capable of filling the gap?
    Your blog reminded me of the book ‘Thinking In Time: The Uses Of History For Decision Makers’

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