Why the Historian Doubts the Numerical

“The obsessive monism which affirms that whatever exists can be measured achieves its goal by taking the historical evidence an denaturing it into a featureless product. As in Mercator’s projection map, the earth is flattened out on a piece of paper and marked off in squares. The device is useful for navigation; it can only mislead where the sole aim is to reconstruct reality. That is why the historian who has not lost the sense of the actual—the sense that led him to history in the first place—doubts the numerical.

“When ‘violence’ is hypostatized into a thing, the historian wants to know the circumstances of each violent incident: was this one maliciously reported to the prefect as political when it was only a drunken brawl? Did the local authorities, for their own reasons, exaggerate the number? Doesn’t this report come from a government-subsidized newspaper? Did slovenly bureaucratic methods count some incidents twice? The quanto-historian was doubtless aware of these diversities and sifted out the comparable, but in the statistics that are produced with much labor and read with little pleasure, the leap from evidence to tabulation comes early and is not the difficult feat that it ought to be. The upshot, when certain studies achieve and fame, is that two or three generations live under the sway of ‘scientific’ findings destined for overthrow by the same statistical means.” (Jacques Barzun, 1972, Clio and the Doctors)


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