Professors’ Lives: Writing History or Doing Social Science?

My mother-in-law, Dr. Roslyn Herst, lent me the recent autobiography of Michael Bliss, her fellow member of the Toronto Medical History Club. Bliss has had a stellar career as a Canadian and medical historian and political commentator. The autobiography makes clear the secrets of his success: a powerful work ethic, a strong entrepreneurial streak that allowed him to connect with both the Canadian business and publishing communities, and a real talent for story-telling.

While my contact with Bliss is now mediated by one degree of separation, there were a number of occasions in the past when we were in direct contact and several causes we had in common. I’ll mention four: Claude Bissell’s Canadian history course at Harvard, distance running through Toronto’s streets and ravines, the political career of Joe Clark, and the University of Toronto’s so-called ethics review process.

Bliss was one of Bissell’s two teaching assistants and I was a freshman taking the course. I’ve come to know Harvard well enough over the years that I wasn’t surprised at Bliss’s recounting of how, in its snobbishness and self-centredness, it ignored Bissell. I agree with Bliss’s retrospective assessment that Bissell did a competent job telling Canada’s story. The course wasn’t nearly as intellectually exciting as many others I might have taken. But I took it during 1967-68, a crucial time in both Canadian and American history – though for different reasons –and it kept me in touch with the sea-change that brought Pierre Trudeau to power.

Bliss became a runner to reshape and reenergize. I always had a runner’s build, but I was attempting to overcome the debilitation of asthma. We both succeeded in our quests, and crossed paths at several 10k runs over the years. I’m still at it, albeit with reduced distances and slower speeds, as I have the good fortune that my legs have held up. It’s also helped to minimize the damage by combining it with swimming, cycling, and skiing.

I was one of the group that helped Joe Clark win the Conservative leadership in 1976. Bliss was one of those who tried unsuccessfully to keep the party from overthrowing him in 1983. I think we were both attracted by Clark’s thoughtfulness, essential decency, and attempt to formulate a conservatism that transcended rather than repudiated Trudeau’s statism. But we both came to realize that Clark lacked the cunning necessary for political survival. While some of his political achievements, for example slowing Trudeau’s constitutional train long enough for nine of the provinces to come on board, will merit footnotes in history, he will primarily be remembered – here’s the trivia question – as one of the three late twentieth century “summer job” prime ministers.

Research ethics offices at most universities still seem to operate on the medical research model, which ill fits the sort of “elite interviewing” both Bliss and I have done. Our interviews are, in effect, conversations between consenting adults. The interviewees have been interviewed many times before and know why we are interviewing them. The conventions of this type of interviewing – for example, on-the-record, off-the-record, or a mixture of both – are well known. Research ethics offices, by demanding that we produce a standard interview protocol despite the fact that each interview is unique, and by requiring that interviewees be presented with consent forms, are complicating our work without adding any value. We’ve both come to recognize that the best thing to do is provide the appearance of compliance and get on with the work.

While discussing his graduate studies at U of T, Bliss remarked en passant that “I always felt that political science was a misnamed pseudo-discipline – the idea of a science of politics defies comment – and mostly fraudulent.” (p. 108). While I’m not a political scientist, as a product of Harvard’s undergraduate Social Studies program and its doctoral program in economics, and a management scholar who focuses on the public sector, I am certainly a social scientist, and therefore must take issue with Bliss’s diss-missing of a social science. Social scientists construct models and test hypotheses about individual and group behavior using as their data surveys, experiments, and historical records. History is thus of value to us as an important point of departure. Why, then, does Bliss devalue our work?

Yes, some social science produces findings that win ig-Nobel prizes or that belong to what my wife describes as the “no shit, Sherlock” school of research. But other studies can be both surprising and useful.

Concerning political science, Bliss’s bête noire: two extremely important streams of quantitative research involve electoral studies explaining why people vote the way they do, and attempts (from Borda and Condorcet to Arrow and Fishkin) to design systems of collective decision-making that induce participants to reveal their true preferences rather than vote strategically.

Turning to Bliss’s own research, his methodology includes extensive gathering and close reading of relevant documents, interviewing of participants and witnesses, and a skepticism of people’s motives, particularly when attempting to influence or make public policy, that owes a perhaps unacknowledged debt to public choice theory in economics. All these are appropriate, but I wonder if he found leadership studies, particularly those involving the American presidency, relevant to his book on Canadian prime ministers or if he found Erik Erikson’s sequential model of ego development relevant to his biographies. I certainly would have.

I think it would be worth their while for historians to embrace social scientific methodologies just as much as some social scientists appropriate historical data.

Looking at Bliss’s most renowned work, his book on the discovery of insulin and his biography of Frederick Banting, from the narratological perspective that I’ve developed, I compliment Bliss on the wise decision he made to divide the project into two books. The book on insulin is a heroic fable, in which he focused on insulin’s value to society by telling the stories of individuals who benefited from it soon after its discovery. Bliss’s timing was opportune, because there were still people living who remembered the diabetic’s grim sentence to a short and painful life before insulin. Those who remembered created the book’s constituency.

The biography of Banting focuses on the tensions among Banting and his codiscoverers. This is a classic entrepreneurial story, rich in conflict and irony. It is strongly reminiscent of the recent Fincher-Sorkin film The Social Network. Heroic and ironic stories are compelling, but in different ways, and sometimes are best separated.

A final comment. In his discussion of the history of the University of Toronto, Bliss rues the decision to end the distinction between the three year General Arts degree and the four year honours degree. He remarks that, at the time of their establishment, Claude Bissell hoped that the Scarborough and Erindale campuses would both “offer good General Arts degrees to large numbers of students, while the downtown, or St. George campus, evolved into a home for honours undergraduates and a flourishing graduate school” (p. 130).

Over time, the university decided that faculty based at UTSC and UTM, as they are now called, would be held to the same standards of performance in teaching and scholarship as those based at St. George. The logic of this decision ultimately contradicts the differentiation in academic status Bissell and others intended. There are now some unique programs based at the suburban campuses and others that surpass their St. George counterparts. The issue of equal compensation for suburban faculty who meet the same standards as their colleagues downtown remains contested to this day.

To conclude: Bliss’s book was enjoyable and thought-provoking, even when it touched upon the U of T’s inside baseball, and a rewarding way to spend some of my holiday.

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