Did ChatGPT-4 attend my lecture?

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Henry Trimen a.png

Henry Trimen, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Ceylon 1880-1896

Jim Clifford

In the lead-up to my take-home exam last April, I was trying to think of questions ChatGPT could not answer. I hoped that by focusing on details from my lectures that are not available on Wikipedia and other similar online sources, the large language model would fail to provide a strong answer. I was dead wrong:

Question: Why was Henry Trimen critical of J. E. Howard and his involvement in Britain’s efforts to introduce cinchona to Ceylon?

ChatGPT: Henry Trimen, a British botanist, was critical of J.E. Howard and his involvement in Britain’s efforts to introduce cinchona to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) because he believed Howard’s approach was not based on sound scientific principles. [This is correct.]

Cinchona is a genus of trees and shrubs native to South America that produces quinine, an essential ingredient in the treatment of malaria. In the 19th century, the British wanted to establish a reliable source of quinine in their colonies, especially in malaria-prone regions like Ceylon. [This is correct, but not too surprising given you could find a Wikipedia article on the general topic of Britain’s attempt to introduce cinchona in South Asia.]

J.E. Howard was an English businessman and amateur botanist who took an interest in cinchona and its cultivation. He supplied seeds and plants to various British colonies, including Ceylon, with the aim of establishing cinchona plantations. However, Howard’s enthusiasm and ambition were not always matched by his botanical expertise. [This is spot on, and to my knowledge not a topic discussed in any online secondary source or peer-reviewed histories.]

Henry Trimen, who later became the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya, Ceylon, criticized Howard’s approach for a few key reasons [The criticism came in Trimen’s first report after becoming director.] :

  1. Lack of proper identification and classification: Howard did not always correctly identify and classify the cinchona species he was dealing with, which led to the introduction of less productive varieties. [This was more focused on Trimen’s predecessor in Ceylon, but was a part of his concern with the whole cinchona project in the colony, which relied on Howard’s expertise.]
  2. Insufficient focus on local adaptation: Trimen believed that Howard didn’t pay enough attention to the importance of selecting cinchona varieties that were best suited to the local environment in Ceylon. This oversight led to the planting of species that were not well adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions. [This is a little off the mark as Trimen was mostly critical of their obsession with finding the right species instead just testing the bark of young trees.]
  3. Inadequate attention to scientific research: Trimen felt that Howard’s approach was driven more by entrepreneurial ambition than by a genuine commitment to scientific research and understanding. This lack of rigorous investigation and experimentation may have limited the success of cinchona plantations in Ceylon. [I don’t know if he made this particular argument, but he had no respect for Howard’s scientific ability.]

Trimen’s criticisms reflect a broader debate during the 19th century about the role of science and scientific expertise in the colonial enterprise. While Howard’s efforts did help establish cinchona cultivation in various British colonies, his methods were eventually refined and improved upon by botanists like Trimen, who applied more rigorous scientific principles to the task. [Trimen actually shut down the cinchona project and helped the planters transition to tea. The Dutch succeeded by employing a chemist who tested the bark of year-old trees in Java and only planted trees with high cinchona concentrations on their plantations.]

This answer is not perfect, but it is surprisingly good for a topic that has little or no published historical analysis to my knowledge. I think it was close enough to get an excellent grade. I should note I’ve asked it the same and similar questions multiple times, and it does not always get it as close as the example above. In some cases, it hallucinates and makes up details about Howard working for the government directly, while other times, it focuses on Trimen’s concern with preserving Ceylon’s natural environment.

Where did ChatGPT find this answer? We are well beyond simple autocomplete generalizations here. Jim Webb wrote a chapter on cinchona in his environmental history of Ceylon plantations and he discusses Trimen’s efforts to salvage the cinchona project when he arrived in Ceylon and how he then “drew the cinchona experiment at Hakala itself to a close” in three short paragraphs, but does not mention Howard. Webb’s book is only available in snippet view on Google Books, so I doubt ChatGPT processed it. I’ve written about this in a draft of a chapter in a book that is years away from being published, but until now, it wasn’t posted online:

Dr Henry Trimen arrived in Ceylon as the new director of the botanical gardens in the early 1880s, at a time when the planters were struggling with the collapse of the coffee economy after the spread of rust and were starting to realize the cinchona they planted to replace it was bound to fail as well. He noted in his first report on cinchona that it was “to be regretted that circumstances should have thrown this very difficult genus into to hands” of people like Howard and Markham “who have had so little of the requisite training and experience in systematic, botany for dealing with it effectively”. Trimen went on to conclude “that however eminent a writer may be as a quinologist, a traveller, or a gardener, if he can see important botanical characters in the height of a tree, the chemical constitution of its bark, or the colour if its leaves, he is ipso facto disqualified to pronounce on questions of classification” (Trimen’s report is in the Kew Garden Archives).

GPT4 is a large language model created using a neural network, and it does not “know” the correct answer. Instead, the phrases “Henry Tremen”, “J.E. Howard”, “cinchona” and “Ceylon” were sufficient for it to find material in its training data that allowed it to produce a reasonably accurate answer some of the time. It has processed a lot of late nineteenth-century journals and other texts related to Ceylon, cinchona, economic botany and the botanical gardens from the Internet Archive’s Biodiversity Heritage Library and similar repositories, allowing it to formulate this answer from the primary sources. Perhaps this makes it more capable with nineteenth-century topics that are less hampered by paywalls (Ed Dunsworth’s examples make it very clear ChatGPT has not processed much recent scholarship and often defaults to bland, generic answers when probed about more recent topics).

Where does it leave historians? Clearly, we need to follow Mark Humphries’s advice on how to adapt our teaching to avoid assignments and exams it can master. I shifted gears last April and asked the students, “According to what we learned in this class, what three decades were the most important in the history of British industrialization? Justify your answer with references to readings and lectures”. At this point, ChatGPT has not taken my class or done the readings and can only provide a dull and predictable guess to answer this question. But its success makes me think it has the potential to become a powerful research assistant for historians, particularly if we can feed a large language model our curated collections of PDFs and archival notes. Thankfully, that is one of the many problems the open-source AI community is working on: https://www.llamaindex.ai/. Currently, these tools are focused on helping enterprises harness LLMs to process their data and I don’t think anyone is going to prioritize helping humanities scholars unless we engage with the technology and learn to use it ourselves. Thankfully, ChatGPT 4.0 is an excellent programming research assistant and can help us write Python code to link the Llama Index tools to our data. More on that in a future post.

Fake painting of failed cinchona plantations in Ceylon created with DALL-E.

Jim Clifford is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. He researches the urban environmental history of industrialization in Britain and its links with global environmental change in the nineteenth-century British world. He is a member of the ActiveHistory.ca editorial collective.

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Critical Reflections on Histories of Residential Schools

By Karen Froman, Leah Kuragano, Aileen Friesen, Cathy Mattes, Mary Jane Logan McCallum

On Sept 25, 2023, the University of Winnipeg’s History Department Indigenization Committee presented a panel engaging with the Interim Report of the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, entitled Sacred Responsibility: Searching for the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, here: https://osi-bis.ca/osi-resources/reports/ released by Interlocutor Kimberley Murray in June 2023.

L-R Karlee Sapoznik Evans (Deputy Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth), Chair; Sarah Delaronde, Univeristy of Winnipeg Indigenous Engagement Office; Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Cathy Mattes, Karen Froman, Leah Kuragano, and Aileen Friesen, History Department Indigenization Committee members.

The OSI’s role is to identify measures to ensure the appropriate treatment and protection of unmarked graves and burial sites of children at former residential schools. The interim report points to twelve key findings that included issues of access to, and destruction of records; the importance of affirming Indigenous data sovereignty; facing an Increase in the violence of denialism; a lack of adequate funding and supports; and the importance of accountability and justice in the process. As a committee, we wanted to engage with the report by asking each others questions to illicit a discussion of the issues in the report in the context of being historians in Canada. What follows are several of the questions we asked each other and a summary of our answers. Continue reading

Bored Stiff: A Cranky Historian on ChatGPT

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Edward Dunsworth

Remember, not a game new under the sun
Everything you did has already been done
— Lauryn Hill, interpolating the book of Ecclesiastes

I’m not worried about ChatGPT.

Well, let me be more precise. I’m not worried about ChatGPT sparking a surge in undetectable student cheating, or writing better short stories than Alice Munro, or leading the Roombas and Alexas of the world into a great machine uprising that wipes out the human species.

These possibilities, all of which have been extensively gushed or fretted over, depending on one’s standpoint, are frankly preposterous. In order to get past the fairytales, I found it extremely helpful to develop a baseline understanding of what exactly ChatGPT is and how it works. I’m no software engineer, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t all that difficult to grasp the basics. Here’s my layperson’s attempt to describe how ChatGPT works in one sentence: using mountains upon mountains of text, ChatGPT produces answers to prompts by spitting out one word at a time, each individual word chosen simply because it was deemed by an algorithm to be the most logical word to follow in the sequence.

Don’t take my word for it. Take this guy’s:

ChatGPT is derivative. It’s a copycat, a cheat, a confidence man. It’s a biter, not a writer. Everything it does has already been done.

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ChatGPT and the History of Government Refugee Policies

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Ausma Levalds Rowberry arriving at Pier 21. The government of Canada announced Ausma as the 50,000th displaced person to arrive in Canada after the Second World War.Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [2013.1912.24].

Laura Madokoro

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Chat GPT when it first started making news headlines earlier this year. I was therefore intrigued when the Active History Collective decided to experiment a little by asking it to comment on our areas of expertise. I jumped right in with a quick question. In hindsight though, I completely underestimated what the program was capable of. Had I had more faith, I would have asked a better historical question.

The question I asked was “Is Canada a welcoming country for refugees?”

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Home and Homecoming: My Mother’s Return as a Ugandan Asian Refugee after 50 years of Forced Displacement


Our family of 5 standing underneath the Welcome to Mbarara sign before we entered the city. Photo courtesy of the author.

Shezan Muhammedi

This year mark’s the fiftieth anniversary year of the Ugandan Asian refugee resettlement in Canada. It was the first major resettlement of a non-European refugee community in Canada during the post-war period, following the official de-racialization of Canadian immigration policy in 1962. My mom and her family are part of the nearly 8,000 Ugandan Asian refugees who were resettled in Canada between 1972 and 1974. Her experience served as the foundation for my doctoral thesis and subsequent publication of Gifts From Amin: Ugandan Asian Refugees in Canada which includes in-depth archival research and oral histories with over 50 members of the refugee community. Oral histories, archival documents, artefacts and more from this resettlement are also being collected by Carleton University and showcased in their Uganda Collection. This post explores our family’s trip to East Africa and my mother’s reflections on her returning to her homeland.

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The Asianadian – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

In this episode of What’s Old is News, I talk with Angie Wong, author of Laughing Back at Empire: The Grassroots Activism of The Asianadian Magazine, 1978-1985. We talk about the magazine’s origins, its regular features, and how it built community across the country. We also discuss how it was funded, how it fit within the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, and its legacy nearly 40 years after its final edition.

Historical Headline of the Week

Winston Ma, “I Was Ashamed of Being Chinese Until I Learned About my Ancestors’ First Years in Canada,” CBC, May 30, 2023

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“Out of the Frying Pan”: The Economist on peasants and climate change”

Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, a Tz’utuhil-Maya from San Pedro la Laguna. Used with permission from him and Artemaya.

Jim Handy

As summer winds down I have been slowly catching up on reading avoided while happily engaged elsewhere. This includes back copies of The Economist. As always reading The Economist prompts an appreciation for their insightful reporting on some issues and their tone-deaf, ahistorical and simply wrong accounts on others.

The July 1st, 2023 edition had a briefing entitled “Out of the Frying Pan” filed from Cairo, Chattogram (Bangladesh), and Niamey (Niger). In this story the author (anonymous as is the practice in the paper) appropriately warned that peasants in some of the poorest areas of the world are likely to suffer the worst consequences from climate change. As global warming intensifies and their lands and livelihoods suffer, they will make up a significant portion of the millions of climate refugees. Already, The Economist notes, rural livelihoods have been made more precarious by conflicts created or exaggerated by climate change.[1]

But it is exactly here that the author finds a silver lining. The author suggests, “Climate change may jolt some into making a decision (to migrate) that would long have been in their interest anyway.” If climate change accelerates rural to urban migration and induces more peasants and small farmers to give up their land more quickly, the paper predicts, “they will probably find better work, health care and schools. They may also start having smaller families.” The task of feeding the world, including new migrants to urban areas, will need to “rely on bigger, more capital-intensive farms.”

In making such an argument, the paper is at least reliably consistent. Since its birth in 1843, the paper has unfailingly championed large, capital-intensive farming and counselled that small farmers and peasants be forced to abandon the countryside and flee to the cities as the natural (and beneficial) consequence. In the second edition of the paper in September 1843 the paper celebrated the fact that the “science of agriculture” was replacing the “art of husbandry” in the English countryside and in the process modern farmers employing capital were “breaking up the hard clods of ignorance, sloth and indifference.” [2] From that point, the paper steadfastly argued that the most pressing problem in English agriculture was “how can capital be attracted to the soil?”[3] Continue reading

‘Rather Absurd’: Christian Nationalism and the Dominion of Canada

Reproduced from J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics (Toronto: Grip, 1886), 2:225; originally published in Grip (8 August 1881). This cartoon depicts Conservative politicians Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley attempting to counteract the politicking of prominent Liberal Edward Blake, alluding to their past professions: Tupper as a medical doctor and Tilley as a pharmacist.

Daniel R. Meister

In July 2023, former adherents of a religious movement went public with concerns that Christian conservatives in New Brunswick were “more radical than they seem.” The specific context was a political controversy surrounding Policy 713 on LGBTQ+ students in public schools.

In its coverage of Policy 713 and the conservative Christian reaction to it, the CBC reported that some of the primary figures had been involved in an earlier incident in Charlottetown. As a historian, my interest was piqued. In 2019, the Canadian Prophetic Council recreated the iconic image of the “Fathers of Confederation” on the steps of Government House in Charlottetown. According to former members of the broader religious movement with which this group is affiliated, the staged photograph was more than a “cheeky homage” but rather was a “prophetic act”: the group was announcing its intention to “reestablish the Dominion of Canada as something that honours God.”[1]

That Canada was originally called a “dominion” is particularly significant for adherents of this movement who have played with history in order to suggest a different destiny for the country.

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“No Historical Significance Found”: Clashing with ChatGPT

In this series, Active History editors are asking ChatGPT about their own areas of expertise and commenting on the process and answers. 

Sara Wilmshurst

A black-and-white photograph of seven men and two women sitting around a conference table that is covered with papers and magazines. At the head of the table sits an older white man with a moustache.

Health League of Canada Meeting ca. 1947-1948. Library and Archives Canada, MG28 I 223, Box number: 1B DAP-10A-1. Copyright: Expired.

Unlike most of Active History’s editorial team, I’m currently neither a student nor an educator. I haven’t had to resist the temptation of assigning my work to artificial intelligence or had to bust students for succumbing to that temptation. I hadn’t interacted with ChatGPT at all.

So, when some of the Active History editors decided to ask ChatGPT questions about our areas of expertise, I steeled myself for an immediate spiral of doubt when the program spat out a competent response. However, my experience was unexpected. Continue reading