Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Great Historian Having a Bad Day

Writing about analogies recently and going back to David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies (1970) allowed me to rediscover a few howlers.

This one, by the great historian of popular movements and Revolutionary France, George Rudé, shows what happens when vigilance slackens and we lose control of language. His intended point might have been a good one, but the carelessness of the wording and logic undercut it and cause us to question the soundness of the analysis itself:
Thus, beheaded, the sans culotte movement died a sudden death; and having, like the cactus, burst into full bloom at the very point of its extinction, it never rose again.
Ouch. Perhaps not fatal, but painfully embarrassing.

David Hackett Fischer observes, "This statement combines three disparate analogies. It is objectionable on both stylistic and substantive grounds.  As a mixed metaphor, it is a literary monstrosity.  As a multiple analogy, it is a logical absurdity."

Moral: Even great historians have bad days. As the blurb on the back cover from Robin Winks in the New York Times Book Review says, "Scarcely a major historian escapes unscathed.  Ten thousand members of the American Historical Association will rush to the index and breathe a little easier to find their names absent."  (hmm, working on the quantitative reasoning and logic of that one, too.)

Lesson:  Watch out. (but be charitable)

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