History – Lies My Teacher Told Me

James W. Loewen, a professor of history, has been one of the most untiring critics of how history is taught and practiced in the United States. A large part of his criticism derives from the overt politicization of the teaching of history, especially the heavy hand of school boards and textbook committees in their selection of “appropriate textbooks” for high school students. See James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (2007). The disgraceful “conservative” sanitizing of United States highschoolers’ history textbooks is almost equal to the heavy-handed Marxist bent of some University professors. The politicization of history may be unavoidable, but we should be alert to the intellectual depredations from the right and the left.

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I recently saw the self-styled social history of silicosis, Deadly Dust, by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, cited in a trial court brief. The cite was to the original edition, but it led me to read the “new and expanded” edition[1], published in 2006. Expanded, but not exactly super-sized, and with the same empty calories as before. The authors’ Preface to the second edition relays an air of excitement about recent (at the time of publication) media suggestions that silicosis may be the “new asbestosis.[2]” Of course, the authors were excited because the uptick in silicosis litigation around 2003, based almost exclusively upon fraudulent filings, brought them engagements as compensated expert witnesses for plaintiffs’ counsel.

The Preface also confesses that before their initial edition, the authors were ignorant about silicosis. And because they are so well read they assumed that their not having heard of silicosis meant that silicosis must have disappeared from the literature. Id. at xiii. This fallacious confusion between absence of evidence and evidence of absence pervades the entire book. Their first edition was written with this confirmation bias dominating their narrative:

“The book we wrote tells the story of a condition that dominated public health, medical, labor, and popular discourse on disease in the 1930s but that virtually vanished from popular and professional consciousness after World War II. How, we asked, could a chronic disease that took decades to develop and that was assumed to affect hundreds of thousands of American workers disappear from the literature and public notice in less than a decade? This question is the basis for Deadly Dust, and we believe that we answered it, providing a cultural, medical, and political model of how we, as a society, decide to recognize or forget about illness.”

Deadly Dust at xiv (emphasis added). The second edition is more of the same biased narrative.

Also clear from their Preface is the authors’ messianic complex. I now know why they have repeatedly attacked me for having criticized them: It is important for them to be seen as having been resistant victims of industry, indeed, especially if they are triumphant victims:

“We are particularly proud that lawyers for various industries have sought to get judges to exclude our book from court cases.”

Id. at xvi. Of course, from the lawyers’ perspective, a book such as Deadly Dust has many layers of evidentiary problems, running from authentication of documents, to multiple layers of hearsay, legal and logical relevancy, and rampant, subjective opinion spread throughout the narrative.

The “virtually vanished” phrase caused me to revisit[3] my previous quantitative assessment of discussions of silicosis in the popular and medical literature. The National Library of Medicine PubMed database is expanding back into the past, adding old journals and their articles to the database. Here is the most recent tally, by decade of articles with keyword “silicosis”:

Date Range                    Number of Articles from Keyword Search

1940 – 1949                      119

1950 – 1959                    1,436

1960 – 1969                    1,868

1970 – 1979                    1,176

1980 – 1989                       940

1990 – 1999                       883

2000 – 2009                      860

2010 — present                  498

The Rosner/Markowitz claim about silicosis “virtually vanishing” from professional discourse after World War II, is an assertion that is completely belied by the evidence. Google’s Ngram function further confirms the incorrectness of the fundamental premise of Deadly Dust:

Silicosis Ngram 1920 - 2010

Silicosis Ngram 1920 – 2010

The Google chart shows that although there was a peak around 1940, the level of referencing silicosis remained at or above the level for the mid-1930s until 1960, and never retreated to levels as low as for 1930-32.

This false premise, that silicosis vanished, or virtually vanished, from the medical literature, is the starting point for Rosner and Markowitz’ faux conspiracy charge against industry for suppressing discussion, when the reality was exactly the opposite. What follows from the false premise is a false set of conclusions.


[1] David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the On-Going Struggle to Protect Workers’ Health (Ann Arbor 2006).

[2] citing Jonathan Glater, “Suits on Silica Being Compared to Asbestos Cases,” New York Times (Sept. 6, 2003), C-1 (quoting one defense lawyer as saying that “I actually thought that we had made the world safe for sand.”).

[3] See Schachtman, “Conspiracy Theories: Historians, In and Out of Court” (April 17, 2013).

 

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