Not Agreeing to Disagree
Updated: Oct 30, 2019
I have always had an instinctive problem with the concept of people agreeing to disagree. As such, I was delighted to discover Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, which proposes that no two perfectly rational agents can agree to disagree. From this theorem follows that if two people disagree with each other, at least one of them must be doing something wrong, or have limited data on the subject.
Coincidentally, this theorem started from Robert Aumann’s 1976 (1976!) discovery that a sufficiently respected game theorist can get anything into a peer-reviewed journal. Considering the origins of the theorem and how long it has been around, you would think that we would have fixed this issue. Yet many of you probably remember the Grievance Studies affair of 2017-18, where three authors (James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose) created bogus academic papers and submitted them to academic journals in the areas of cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies. Their motive was to expose poor science in these categories of study. From Wikipedia: ‘By the time of the reveal, four of their 20 papers had been published, three had been accepted but not yet published, six had been rejected, and seven were still under review. One of the published papers had won special recognition.’
It seems that for the editors that accepted the articles, as long as the articles seemed to be taking a social constructionist point of view, it did not matter what was written because all interpretations coming from this angle can be valid. The disciplines targeted in the Grievance Studies affair are particularly vulnerable to this, as they are very theory-heavy subjects and are structured around social constructivism. However, historians and history as a field of study are not immune to this either.
From my own observations, I would say that historians walk too much on eggshells when it comes to other people’s interpretations, especially if they personally know them. Nobody wants to tell another person that their work was for naught and their ideas silly – unless of course their conclusions imply this about one’s own research. The social constructivist and post-modern views of deconstructing ideas and interpreting anew from a fresh perspective have created an environment where any explanation goes if the person can explain themselves sufficiently enough given the restraints of their theoretical framework. The problem with this is that the theoretical frameworks themselves are usually based on nothing at all but constructivist ideas. This situation of course presupposes that the methodology and handling of the sources is sound by the historian in question, since otherwise historians as a community luckily do not seem to have trouble in sinking their teeth into any of the gaps in a given study. But when source work has been diligent enough and there exists a theoretical framework that is aligned with the interpretations, we become muted and start nodding our heads at theories we don’t quite agree with, and interpretations which we do not quite understand.
This topic ties into why I begun this blog by writing about what I think truth should mean to historians, and how we should at least be able to acknowledge that there are truths (That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality) and not just truths (A fact or belief that is accepted as true). Even though historians can only ever aspire to the latter kind of truth, I believe that our discipline is still about truth-seeking, the making of maps that are our best estimates of the territory, and as such it becomes frustrating when differences in interpretation of the same sources are so readily accepted without attempts through discussion to find a synthesis. The trend is social constructivism, and if you can paint a picture according to the rules of this ‘style’, then the actual contents of the picture seem to become somewhat proofed from criticism.
I do not think all interpretations are equal, and when I come across a disagreement before historians, I automatically think one of them is either wrong or ignorant of some relevant source material. At least what comes to myself, I would take someone challenging all my presumptions and interpretations about a given topic rather than nodding vacantly despite not quite understanding where I am coming from. I would hope that other historians could find this bit of fight in themselves as well, and leave tolerance to some other playing field.