Discover more from Leeway
Not Quite Sure
“You know, Frank Bama once said the best navigators aren’t quite sure where they are until they get there—and then they’re still not sure.” –Jimmy Buffett
Navigation is the art and science of guessing where you are as best you can. Certainty has nothing to do with it, except as a source of potentially grave danger; someone who is certain he knows exactly where he is, based on whatever navigating he has done to get there, is far more likely to come to grief than one who has an accurate grasp of the degree of uncertainty present in his best estimate.
Today, we have electronic devices that communicate with satellites and, when all is working properly, can tell us where we are on the surface of the Earth with an accuracy of a few meters—perhaps even a few feet, in the right conditions. Still, archaeologists will tell you that for mapping human-made objects in the field, these are frequently not accurate enough. They employ additional means to check, and correct, GPS.
That is what navigators have always done; we all know, of course, that humans accomplished every imaginable feat of Earth-bound navigation long before such devices were possible. Some of the greatest of those accomplishments have left us only fragments and traces to try to piece together; the wakes of those navigators disappeared behind them. The history of navigation, like the history of the design and building of watercraft, relies on what remains in old cultures as much as it does on using modern contrivances to access tangible objects.
Regardless of who, where, or when they were, though, good navigators always used every clue at hand to estimate their position. Polynesians didn’t use the stars, or birds, or clouds, or currents, or smells, or winds. They used all of them together. A modern sailor does not stare fixedly at the chart plotter, oblivious to the wind, the current, the water’s surface, the clouds and the birds—except at her own peril, and that of her boat. If something doesn’t seem right—if something doesn’t agree with another something—best pay attention to that.
The history of navigation offers so much to its students, though it requires a degree of technical mastery most scholars will never attempt. It is, to a deep extent, a history of a people’s “science”—or, to use an older term, their “natural history.” It is a history of their relationship to the sea, or a big lake, or a river system, or a desert. It is, in many cases, a history of their cosmology.
To any historian, though, in any field, at any level, it can teach the most important lesson a historian must learn: that there is no certainty. That the best effort of the smartest researcher with the best sources and the most time to digest them will result in, at best, an excellent guess at the truth. The last thing that should mean is that the effort isn’t worth it. As I said, humans accomplished every imaginable feat of navigation long before modern electronics and satellites. The navigator does not throw up her hands and say “I don’t know.” She takes all the sources of information at hand, uses her trained judgment to weigh them against each other, and marks a position that represents the best guess based on all of it. That’s how we do good history. It’s the only way to do it. Someone else might come to a somewhat different conclusion. That is no reason not to attempt our own best effort. The goal is not to be right; it’s to get as close as possible to the truth. Good historians hope that future historians will improve on our work—that they will find the sources and make the intellectual connections that get new people closer to the truth than we could in our day.
Stubborn, blinkered insistence on having found certainty—the absolute, complete truth—is the most dangerous fallacy a human being can fall into. History is full of more dire examples of its consequences than I care to think about. I know of a captain who was so sure his estimated position was right that he refused to listen to those who pointed out to him several signs of clear and present danger—because to acknowledge those signs would be to acknowledge his error. The ship went on the rocks.
Making our best effort with what we have to work with and using clear judgment about how close—or how far—the results of our work have gotten us toward our destination are skills about as important as any I can think of. Navigation can teach us how to do better humanistic inquiry. Better humanistic inquiry makes us better at this short life, and better at teaching our young ones how to have better lives too.
James William Buffett
the son of a son of a sailor
Christmas Day 1946—Labor Day Weekend 2023