The Churchill Problem

Why do I distrust the social sciences? Stuff like this:

By 2090 future generations will no longer recognise Winston Churchill, new research revealed today.

It seems hard to believe amid the current political storm, but research commissioned by the Royal Mint found that, in 80 years’ time, people will not recognise the former Prime Minister.

As part of the survey, carried out to mark this week’s 70th anniversary of Churchill’s prime ministerial tenure, more than 1,136 people were asked to identify three prominent 20th century PMs including Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

One in five (19%) adults failed to name Churchill, with the figure rising to 32% of 25 to 34-year-olds and 44% of those aged 16 to 24.

Following the pattern, researchers projected the rough date when the leaders would no longer be recognised, with Churchill’s demise predicted in 80 years’ time.

Two reasons this study is likely garbage:

1) They asked people to identify Churchill from photos. Historical figures are remembered as names, not images. There are many many historical figures I know very well that I wouldn’t recognize in a police line-up.

2) There is a screaming problem here — age. It’s like that the higher knowledge of adults represents more life experience, more learning and more attention to history. Almost all of the history I have learned — from American History to that of the Roman Empire to my recent efforts in Chinese History — has come long after I turned 24. When I was young, I might have been able to tell you who Mao was. Now, I know precisely who he was and how many millions he murdered. And there are entire historical figures — Septimus Severus, William Tyndale, Cyrus the Great — who I wouldn’t have even known about after I graduated from an expensive liberal arts college.

Historical knowledge is tricky to track. Much trickier than this kind of survey.