“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.

In 2018, I published a book with Catherine Carstairs and Bethany Philpott. Be Wise! Be Healthy! Morality and Citizenship in Canadian Public Health Campaigns traced the Health League of Canada’s activities from its foundation in 1919 into the 1970s. Dr. Gordon Bates had an astonishingly long career at the organization’s helm. He initially founded the organization to combat sexually transmitted infection, after observing its high incidence in the Canadian military during World War One. Over the decades the Health League worked to promote (often-controversial) preventive health measures like vaccination, water fluoridation, and milk pasteurization. They published a magazine, Health, on and off for decades. The Health League joined, fought with, and left the federated fundraising movement in Toronto. As Canadian causes of death dramatically shifted over the 20th century, Dr. Bates watched his League be displaced by charities like the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Diabetes Association, and Canadian Cancer Society. The League was a victim of its own success; preventive public health measures, along with sanitation and antibiotics, and rendered the League largely obsolete.

What I’m trying to say is that the League was implicated in many important shifts in Canadian public health. I am so certain of this I, as noted above, co-wrote a book about it.

The Health League also still exists as a registered charity, albeit an inactive one. Their Canadian Revenue Agency filings attribute the hiatus to COVID-19 restrictions, and show they were active as recently as 2020. Their program of late is limited to “PREVENTION OF DISEASE BY LIFE STYLE STANDARDS SUCH AS ENTERING OUR COUNTRIES BY AIRLINE TRAVELLERS.”

With all this in mind, I expected ChatGPT to produce a bland but capable blurb when I asked it to “Please explain the Health League of Canada’s historical significance, with citations included, in 500 words.”

It responded:

I’m sorry, but as of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, there is no organization called the “Health League of Canada” that holds significant historical significance. It’s possible that the organization was established after my knowledge cutoff or that it is not widely recognized or documented. However, I can provide you with general information about the healthcare system in Canada, which may be relevant. Please let me know if you would like me to proceed with that information.

It is unusual to feel wildly triumphant and completely crushed at the same time. I am not obsolete! I have not been replaced by a machine! However, it’s because my major accomplishments are meaningless?

I rallied and allowed that “historical significance” can mean different things to different people/programs, so perhaps my phrasing was the problem here. I asked, “Who was Dr. Gordon Bates?” (Notice didn’t say “please” this time. I may regret this when the machines take over.)

It responded:

I’m sorry, but as of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, I couldn’t find any specific information about a person named Dr. Gordon Bates. It’s possible that he may be a relatively unknown individual or someone who hasn’t gained significant public recognition up until that point. It’s also possible that he may be a fictional character or a person who gained prominence after September 2021. Without further context or details, it’s challenging for me to provide more accurate information.

As a last-ditch effort, I asked, “What is the Health League of Canada?” (huffing “they have a CanadaHelps profile for chrissake”).

It responded:

As of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, there doesn’t appear to be an organization known as the “Health League of Canada.” It’s possible that the organization you’re referring to may have been established or gained prominence after that time. Additionally, it’s possible that the organization goes by a different name or has a slightly different spelling. Without more specific information, it is challenging for me to provide accurate details about the Health League of Canada.

I made a strangled noise and wandered away from my laptop for a minute.

I don’t think I should encourage historians to strive for maximum obscurity to protect themselves from our robot overlords. Maybe this was a lesson in humility; I will admit I kind of wanted ChatGPT to cite me and it backfired into teachable moment about the pitfalls of seeking validation from artificial intelligence. Overall, I think I take away one key point. There are questions machines can’t answer; that’s what humans are for.

Sara Wilmshurst is a member of the Active History editorial collective and is an Historian at Know History Inc.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.