Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Plucking Learning From the WikiDeluge

• October 21, 2010 • 10:12 AM

After journalists swept over the trove of WikiLeaked documents from the Afghan war with a broad-toothed comb, historians and social scientists consider what might be of more lasting value there.

The Pentagon has been bracing all week for the next big release of WikiLeaks secrets, a haul expected to contain as many as 400,000 classified documents from the Iraq conflict that would dwarf this summer’s Afghan “war logs.” The Pentagon has a 120-person damage-control team at the ready, and it has already begun begging news outlets not to publish the material. (WikiLeaks, which runs better interference than the Pentagon itself, maintains on its Wikileaks Twitter feed that it has no idea why everyone thinks these files are about Iraq.)

Whenever they are released — and whatever is released — the latest documents will undoubtedly be followed by the same media handwringing and contradictory government pronouncements that ensued over the summer. Then, some government officials chided the whistleblower site for endangering lives, even as others insisted there was nothing new to see here. The three media outlets coordinating with WikiLeaks on the Afghan material played up their significance, while everyone not in on the secret moaned that the files were a waste of time.

If there is a more lasting public value in any of these records — be they from Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere — we would likely expect that context to be unearthed by a group with neither deadline nor agenda: historians. So what do they make of all this? Are the WikiLeaks documents a trove of historic insight, or a landmine of unsubstantiated sources?

“Historians tend to want to collect everything and then go through it slowly,” said Adrian Lewis, a military historian at the University of Kansas. “So the question of would they be interested in collecting this stuff — yes, they would. And later on, they can always go back and verify certain pieces of it.”

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] Lewis has already downloaded the first set of WikiLeaks war diaries to consider in updating his second edition of The American Culture of War, a history that runs from World War II through the Iraq invasion. He expects that when the next set is published, he will collect that too. As a historian, he said he will approach the material much differently from how it has been vetted by journalists.

“Journalists tend to use the ‘I-got-you approach,’ they’re looking for something that’s startling, they’re looking for something they can get a headline out of, they’re looking for something spectacular,” he said. “What I’m looking for — I already have a thesis in my mind about the war, why we’re doing what we’re doing, how the enemy is doing, why they’re doing what they’re doing — and this will either confirm or challenge my thesis.”

Brian Linn, a military historian at Texas A&M and the president of the Society for Military History, takes a much wearier view of WikiLeaks.

“When someone comes to me saying, ‘There’s 20,000 documents on the Afghan war,’ I’ll say, ‘Great, if I live another 50 years, I’ll get to that,'” he said. “Right now, I’m 57, and I’m booked up ’til I’m 60.”

Historians typically leave the first cut of history to journalists, participants and those authors with an angle (Gen. Tommy Franks, for one, inked his book deal in the first year of the Iraq War). Linn said historians then don’t tend to roll up their sleeves until much later — and for that reason, he doesn’t expect many of them to go dashing onto WikiLeaks.

“I think it’s somewhat valuable,” he said. “But that is going to be brutally and bluntly the reaction of most scholars to this. That’s why the journalists are the first ones to go in, and the agenda people. And then, maybe right now, at this time some 25-year-old grad student is saying ‘This is what I want to make my life’s work.’ And that’s going to be the person in 10 years who does this.”

The documents may help provide a sense of the color of the moment — the way soldiers speak, their more mundane daily concerns and routines at war. But for the big-picture details, Linn expects that historians simply won’t be able to shake suspicion over the documents’ origins. The very protections WikiLeaks uses to obscure the identity of its sources, in other words, may make it harder for researchers to use the material.

“The problem with WikiLeaks is you don’t know where it came form; it’s like Glenn Beck,” Linn said. “Is this a legitimate document, or is it a forgery? Because it’s very easy to forge things now.”

Historians of all people ought to be able to tell the difference, though, right?

“How could you?” Linn asked. “Historians are really aware of this. Teddy Roosevelt used to write letters that he would never mail. He would put them in his files, and historians would go back in and say, ‘Oh look, Teddy’s taking on big corporations!’ But he never actually sent them.”

Lewis, however, disagrees. The WikiLeaks files are living documents in one very literal sense — the people who can verify or disavow them are still living, and that’s a luxury historians don’t have with many primary-source documents. (In insisting that the leaks are irresponsible, the Pentagon may also be inadvertently acknowledging their legitimacy.)

“Keep in mind, you have a great deal of people who were there, who are now back here,” Lewis said. “And they are in places like the Army War College, or the Navy War College.”

Lewis and Linn agree that historians should have no ethical qualms about using documents that were illegally obtained. The stolen Pentagon Papers, for example, have frequently been studied as one view of the history of Vietnam. Similarly, once the WikiLeaks documents are out in the open, Lewis said, they’re fair game for researchers.

Julian Assange, the site’s founder, has repeatedly maintained that he doesn’t just want to unload secrets into cyberspace — he wants people to actually do something with them, to curate them and disseminate the findings for maximum impact.

In the long run, historians may be the best equipped to do that. But from his point of view, Linn cautioned that a massive data dump is not necessarily a valuable one.

“We tend to be somewhat skeptical about big collections of data that are coming in from hundreds of different places,” he said of historians. “How do you get any context on that?”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.