So I always thought that history was simply what happened. And if it was history that happened to me or near me or around me then my version of history was going to be accurate…‘I know because I was there’.
If that belief is true, then I would say that it is most accurate at that very moment. When I was there and when I was describing what was happening…then that moment would be my pinnacle of accuracy.
At time after that moment when I or anyone else describes or remembers what happened – or even more so if anyone not there at that moment seeks to interpret what was happening or why. Then that is a revision of my original history.
I thought about history last week, when I managed to conjure a few days when I was with my wife and both my children visiting towns with particular and varied history. My wife’s first degree was history. My daughter continued to read history through her first year at University and my son is studying for a degree in American History.
I am a scientist, but I have learned a lot about history from the three of them. And of course revisionist history is a well-known phenomenon. Everyone interprets history in their own way – often to support a view or opinion that we have or want to believe. I know I do.
Sometimes this revision is very positive – I often revise my own history based on new evidence I see or improved understanding of motivations and decisions – whether they be my own or those of other participants.
Sometimes not so much. Probably more so when I adopt revisionist history over events in which I played no part. By definition all of my ‘history’ is second hand – I wasn’t there so I don’t know. And therefore any revision is almost certain to be flawed at best or biased at worst.
But that is OK. We all do this all the time. The key is to accept this as being the case. To accept that any interpretation or opinion is at best revisionist and at worst is just a theory that turns out not to be right. We run into problems if we assume we are always right and worse still if we then act based on those false assumptions.
So apart from loving being with my family, and being incredibly impressed by all of them and their education, why was I even thinking of this? Because revisionist history matters to science and industry and business. Every time we carry out an experiment or run a study we generate data. Our report – complete with the metadata – is our account of that history.
Same applies to all our other data – sales data, people data, efficacy, revenue, toleration, profit, exposure…our history. And the more complete and accurate those data are the better and more helpful the history will be.
Sure we know that others will interpret and even re-interpret what we do, what we say and the conclusion we draw. But the facts of what happened – or didn’t – are still facts. Conclusions and interpretations are good and are high value.
Better yet, revisionist conclusions and interpretations can be better. Much better. Different or better insights frequently help me work out what happened or didn’t happen dispute my best efforts.
Better understanding and better learning should always lead to better outcomes next time. In history or in science.
We can’t change what we did or what happened…last time. But we can and should revise and learn – by ourselves and with others – to make sure that the outcome is always better….