Today will be my last post explicitly discussing Lang’s text. Monday and Tuesday’s posts also focused on his essay ‘What is bias?’. If you would like to read more about Lang, I found a talk he gave, where he riffs on the state of history education in England. He is also on Twitter.
In the essay, Lang points out that bias and distortion are not identical concepts. To distort the past, is to make assertions that can be demonstrated false. Does bias sometimes contribute to distortions of the past? Yes, but not always.
Students, Lang argues, often appear to use these terms interchangeably, so that accusations of bias are really just accusations of distorting the past. Typically, students do not have enough source material at their disposal for them to make credible judgments about the extent to which a source can be judged reliable: just because your brother writes a review of your latest book doesn’t mean that the content of the review can immediately be discarded. Though, given the relation of the reviewer to the reviewed, the review may legitimately be viewed with heightened skepticism.
Reflecting on this essay, I am exploring some visuals, or simple models, that might capture some of Lang’s main points.
Notice that bias and point of view are used synonymously. Also, I encircled the author with bias since all authors possess it. As we know and can clearly see, pointing out that a source is biased is not a meaningful insight. Articulating the kinds of biases and linking them to other points is the historian’s task.
You will also see that I put an account of the past in the center. And I placed an arrow with the words traces of the past going from the account back toward the author. We learn more about the author’s biases through her account of the past (there is more to explore here). On the far right I included the words extent to which account overlaps with other accounts. In my mind, this is where the concept of distorting the past applies. To what extent does this author’s account corroborate or contradict other accounts of the past? This is the only way that judgments about a source’s accuracy can be made. As you can see, linking tightly the terms bias and distortion does not make sense, as they are presented in Lang's text and in my model.