Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Dangers of Retrospective diagnosis

When I was writing about the activities of British sailors abroad, in discussing the use of prostitutes I examined the rates of venereal diseases amongst crews. I made a graph of the contraction rates of syphilis and gonorrhoea hoping to see the effects of various measures taken by the Admiralty. What emerged, however, made no logical sense at all. There appeared to be no pattern, and sometimes rates would shoot up in one year, with no obvious cause. Stumped, I contacted an expert in the subject, and he confirmed my suspicion, misdiagnosis. Rates were not accurate because syphilis and gonorrhoea were often diagnosed as each other. Whilst we have descriptions from surgeons (and my goodness I only made the mistake of googling one of the medical terms once) we cannot say for sure how accurate what is written is. We cannot be sure that the surgeon is not just confirming his own hunches.

This, in a rather convoluted way, brings me to today’s news story that asks ‘Did Henry VIII suffer same brain injury as some NFL players?’ ( The answer is that we will never know. But does that mean we shouldn’t answer the question? I would argue that extreme caution should be taken. In a public lecture, I heard a speaker argue that the same happened to Nelson. It was argued that historians had ‘underestimated’ Nelson’s injuries, and that a blow to the head led to his open affair with Emma Hamilton and his poor treatment of his wife. Now, I couldn’t tell you if it did or not, no one can. The fact it goes against conventional studies sets off alarm bells in itself. Yet the major worry is not that we might wrongly attribute an illness or injury that is inaccurate, but the consequences of this. By suggesting head injuries in both cases, we are removing the agency from both Nelson and Henry VIII. It suggests that they had no control over their actions. It also means that their human instincts are not taken into account. To what extent, by doing so, are we being caught up in the cult of the hero, curtailing our critical instincts? Are we so desperate to see the powerful king or the national hero that we ignore and excuse any blemish? By retrospective diagnosis in these instances, are we not removing the very nuances and contradictions of character that makes history so complex and interesting?