Sometimes the simple explanation is the right explanation. But when it comes to historical scholarship we better hope it’s not. Because if it is, cutting-edge research is destined to take us further and further away from the truth.

If the truth is simple, and the right interpretation is half a page long, you can’t publish it. But if you “problematise” the question and bring in an assortment of irrelevant material, chances are that you can put together twenty pages of subtleties and footnotes. And you can certainly publish that, because everybody knows that’s what scholarship is supposed to look like.

Repeat this for a few generations and the papers with the erroneous view have now become forty pages apiece since they have to include baroque analyses of each other in addition to the misconceived primary evidence the mistaken view was based on in the first place.

The further this goes on, the more naive you will look if you speak the simple truth. “But there’s an enormous literature on that!” people will exclaim with indignation. Experts upon experts have piled on the footnotes and devoted entire careers to the issue. Surely so many eminent scholars cannot be wrong. Meanwhile, the simplistic view you espouse has not been expressed by anyone with the proper titles and credentials since practically the age of the dinosaurs (i.e., more than half a century ago).

But the fact that a certain view dominates the latest papers in the latest journals doesn’t mean it has won the day by merit, only that academic evolution is bound to produce organisms that thrive on the excrement of another. The law of the academic jungle is not survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the most publishable.

It is only natural that bottom feeders become more hostile to outsiders with every passing generation. The more established they become, the greater their stake in insisting that quantity of footnotes is a proxy for expertise. Then those pesky people who speak the simple truth are simpletons by definition, and no one needs to face the unpleasant prospect that they’ve been living in the wrong ditch for generations.

These forces make it natural and predictable that historical research will take us further and further from the truth. In time, as academics invest more and more in their erroneous interpretations and build entire schools upon them, they even develop an instinctive hostility toward the truth, since, at that point, accepting the truth is tantamount to challenging the territorial hegemony and survival of their entire tribe.