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Windschuttle and truth

December 19th, 2002

I’ve read most of Windschuttle’s books, though not The Fabrication of Aboriginal History as well as a number of articles he’s written recently. I wanted to begin with my reaction to The Killing of History. Responding to this book, Brad DeLong observed

As I read the book, I found myself changing sides.

and my reaction was much the same. It was obvious that Windschuttle had moved to the right politically since he wrote Unemployment in the 1970s, but that didn’t bother me too much.

My problem was that, in methodological terms, Windschuttle threw out the modern baby with the postmodern bathwater. Not content with attacking the likes of Foucault and Derrida he denounced Thomas Kuhn and even Karl Popper (the most prescriptive writer on scientific methodology of modern times) as mushy relativists. His implied viewpoint, based on the work of David Stove, seems to be one in which historical truth can be directly apprehended from documentary evidence – a claim which I would have thought was discredited in the Middle Ages when the famous “Donation of Constantine” was found to be a fake. Of course, even Windschuttle admits that some documents are untrustworthy (for example, the writings of his opponents), but apparently right-thinking people such as himself are gifted with a special insight that enables him to dispense with the fallibilism of ‘irrationalists” like Popper, and to go straight to the truth.

An obvious corollary, which Windschuttle has expounded repeatedly, is that, if it isn’t documented it didn’t happen. His big objection to Henry Reynolds is that Reynolds took figures on the numbers of whites killed by Aborigines, added some limited evidence on relative casualty rates and estimated that ten times as many Aborigines were killed by whites. This kind of estimate would not raise any eyebrows among economists (in the absence of better evidence) but is taboo for Windschuttle. I find this about as sensible as the scientists who object to climate models on the basis that the only valid path to truth is through experimental testing.

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