I've been fascinated for a long time by the question of how we know what we know, or what makes us believe that we know something with any degree of certainty. I think it started by reading my dad's NYRB when I was a kid. I would see a book review, then the author's response, and the reviewer's response to that. How do we decide who is right?
With the Maura Dykstra book on Chinese bureaucracy, I do not know for a fact that she is full of s***. I don't read Chinese. The two book reviews make the same kind of argument with the same kind of evidence. If they are truly independent of each other, then it is likely that they are correct. The idea of a "revolution" that was unnoticed at the time and also invisible to historians until now seems implausible.
I am also interested in whether people sincerely hold the beliefs they claim, and in various forms of cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance. For example, I know that Nebraska is to the North of Kansas. If you claimed I was wrong, but still drove North, not South, to get to Nebraska to Kansas, your behavior would bely your claim.
A theological belief would seem to be different from a belief in the relative positions of two states on a map. People do not "testify" (or ritually repeat a belief) unless it is a questionable one. We do not send a message about our moral goodness by stating facts.
This obsession of mine arise long before the replication crisis in the social sciences.
A reading of Wittgenstein's On Certainty helped me to define my own positions. He points out that we cannot question everything. There is a bedrock. We assume the truth of propositions like humans have been living on earth for thousands of years.
As a humanist, I have two sorts of things that I can do. I can work empirically, trying to establish facts. And I can tell quasi-fictional stories about literary history, plausible to other people who share a knowledge of the context of this history.
Dykstra's story is a kind of novel: a vast bureaucracy for tracking provincial malfeasance accumulated so much paperwork that it led to a loss of self-confidence in that very same bureaucracy, producing paralysis and failure. It's a clever idea, but according to those two reviews, unsupported by primary or secondary sources.