February 4, 2006

"Welcome to the new age of impressionistic history."

Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time and chief executive of CNN, reviews James Risen's "State of War" for the NYT:
[Risen's] Page 1 articles in The New York Times exposed, for better or worse, the government's national security wiretapping program. And now he has produced an ''All the President's Men'' inside narrative based on anonymous sources....

So what are we to believe in a book that relies heavily on leaks from disgruntled sources? We are in an age where the consumer of information has to make an educated guess about what percentage of assertions in books like this are true. My own guess is that Risen has earnest sources for everything he reports but that they don't all know the full story, thus resulting in a book that smells like it's 80 percent true. If that sounds deeply flawed, let me add that if he had relied on no anonymous sources and reported instead only the on-the-record line from official spinners, the result would very likely have been only half as true.

In fact, the new way we consume information provides a good argument for the role of an independent press that relies on leakers. Other journalists will and should build on, or debunk, the allegations reported by Risen. This will prompt many of the players to publish their own version of the facts. L. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq after the invasion, has just come out with his book pointing fingers at the C.I.A. for giving him flawed intelligence and at Donald Rumsfeld for not giving him the troops he actually wanted. And Tenet, one hopes, will someday cash in on a hefty book contract by clamping cigar in mouth and pen in hand to give evidence that he was not the buffoonish toady Rumsfeld's aides portray him to be. Besides being fun to watch, this process is a boon for future historians.

So welcome to the new age of impressionistic history. Like an Impressionist painting, it relies on dots of varying hues and intensity. Some come from leakers like those who spoke to Risen. Other dots come from the memoirs and comments of the players. Eventually, a picture emerges, slowly getting clearer. It's up to us to connect the dots and find our own meanings in this landscape.
I've elided the part of the review about revealing government secrets, not because I think that's unimportant, but in order to focus on the "impressionistic history" theory -- a theory that bloggers, in particular, might to feel attracted to. Is that a laughably lame excuse for writing a book based on disgruntled anonymities? Or has he got something there?


Pete said...

It's a laughably lame excuse.

SippicanCottage said...
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Jake said...

The government will prosecute the leakers described in Risen's book. So we shall see just who Risen's informants are. We will also see how much of that book Risen made up. My feeling is that many of his sources do not exist.

Ronald Reagan said...


Jacques Cuze said...

Hegel, Heisenberg, Einstein, Dali, H.S. Thompson all understood that all of history must by the basic axioms of the universe be "impressionistic history". Lawyers know that in the courtroom, truth is murky and best obtained by having two antagonistic arguments played out in parallel.

This should not be news to journalists, or Walter Isaacson, but instead modern journalists claim much like Supreme Court justices, that they have taken a pledge of Objectivity, and that this pledge alone is a magical token that reveals the truth to them and lets them impart that truth to their readers.

The rest of us know and understand that everyone is biased, and that consciously or unconsciously, their biases act to cause error in their measurements and error in their reports of those measurements. This is not a good thing or a bad thing, it just is.

Biases must not be hidden or denied. They must be discussed.

There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in 'cargo cult science'... It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards... For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it... Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. -- Richard Feynman

Is Isaacson saying that Risen has not found two sources for every claim? (It is not clear from the article that Isaacson is saying that Risen has done anything that is not a legitimate journalistic technique.)

Is Isaacson saying that in his experience, whistleblowers tend not to be disgruntled or having their own agenda?

We are in an age where the consumer of information has to make an educated guess about what percentage of assertions in books like this are true. When did this age start? In 2005, in 1776, in 1450 with the printing press? Josephus? The Gospels? When Moses came down from the Mountain? When the Monolith first spoke to our ancesotors?

Professor Althouse, I am certain you will agree that Isaacson has written a non-argument.

XWL said...

impressionistic history=truthiness

SippicanCottage said...
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HaloJonesFan said...

Hunter Thompson was a druggie who realized that he'd become a living joke and shot himself in the head. He was a good writer once, but he bought into his own hype and it destroyed him.

The column: Interesting, but it's really nothing new. Of course we build up information from discrete units--everything comes to us in discrete units! And the idea of attacking the provenance of a source isn't new, but it's also a fallacy; Poisoning The Well, to be exact. Actually, I'm changing my mind: the column isn't so much pointing out the obvious as it is massively wrong. It is, in effect, saying that modern wells are pre-poisoned for your convenience.

Jacques Cuze said...

Mr. MosquitoHouse,

With Einstein, I am referring mainly to the EPR thought experiment, aka quantum mechanical action at a distance. But I am also referring to this quote, Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.

Bonus physics joke:
How many Physicists does it take to change a light bulb?" "Only one, and all the Physicist has to do is observe the light bulb and they change it."

I am not sure what you mean by "seer of bias" or the rest. But I will tell you that I have a air pressure gauge that was dropped on the floor. It's needle bent.

Looking at the gauge and then at my tire, and I can tell the gauge is completely inaccurate.

Looking at the gauge and then at my tire repeatedly overtime reveals its bias, and the gauge becomes precise as well as accurate.

Friends and I knew that if Roger liked a movie but Gene said it was too complex, there was little better indication that the movie was worth viewing. With all respect to Gene, we viewed him as a biased measuring device and we were able to determine his bias and correct accordingly.

SippicanCottage said...
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SippicanCottage said...
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Aspasia M. said...

hmmm..interesting conversation. I've always loved the shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods quote. My two cents:

One of the major differences between journalists and historians, is that the historian must footnote sources that can be checked by her peers.

Of course, I am not talking about certain ancient historians (Herodotus!) who included some fantastical stories in his histories.

But consider the sources that historians must depend upon: newspapers, letters, oral histories, autobiographies.) All of these sources are problematic in different ways.

Certainly newspapers are biased. James Frey is a fabulous example of why one ought to be suspicious of memoirs as the ultimate "truth."

Consider the census, which at first thought ought to be "objective." Not everyone is counted in the census. Furthermore, in doing some research, I found that the census taker listed the race of a subject as white, mulatto, and black. So historians cannot even uncritically accept the census as an "objective" source of the truth.

My best advice about writing history is to be critical of your sources and put your evidence in historical context. Try to verify evidence by other means and collect multiple sources.

wildaboutharrie said...

Gene was always right.

Why the hoo-ha over "impressionistic" history? What other kind is there? Anonymous sourcing is a different issue, but I wonder how the reviewer learned that they were merely "disgruntled"?

Hearings start tomorrow. Good.

SippicanCottage said...
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PatCA said...

I'd say impressionistic history is a fancy way of saying speculation. An occasional leaker I can buy, but not a whole narrative constructed by anonymous sources. A friend defended by BDS with the LAT article based entirely on anonymous sources from the German government. He didn't even understand why that was important. He didn't even see it. He is too far gone.

I vote for "laughably lame excuse."