Published: Oct. 22, 2020


We are living in a nation that is chronically unsettled and agitated by the proliferation of the darned things, and I think we should have more of them?

Well, yes.

But first we have to restore meaning and power to that key word: theory.

A real theory is a proposition that will not go anywhere until it is tested and supported—or disproved—by evidence. A “doubtful assertion, made with certainty,” is another creature entirely.

But let’s say I had an actual theory alleging conspiracy. In fact, I do!  

I sometimes wonder if there is a plot by Western American historians to publish more and more very good books in order to torment me, since they know I will never have time to read them all.

If I proposed that theory and you found it of interest, you would have your work cut out for you. You would have to sit down with the book advertisements that the Western History Association assembles, and you would then compile a list of these recently published, very good books. Then you would have to send out a barrage of emails to authors and ask them why they wrote these books.

If a good number of them admitted that they wrote their books to torment Patty Limerick by making it clear to her that she would never catch up with the research in her field, we could then rechristen my theory as an evidence-supported fact, and I could assert it with a degree of certainty. But if your inquiry elicited only denials that any scheme had been under way, you could still go on a search for evidence that might reveal that their denials were unconvincing. But while you conducted this search, my suspicion would have to remain a theory since it could not be definitely proven or disproven. Eventually, my theory could be set loose to fade away from its own ridiculousness.

And yet, as doubtful as my own conspiracy theory may be, when I look at the proliferation of very good books about Western history that I own and do not have time to read, I cannot help thinking there is actually a plot at work here.

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