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How do you know when you are right?

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  • #16
    Originally posted by Andy H View Post
    Hi Phebe

    Are you satisfied because it answers all your questions? or are you satisfied because it supports or reinforces you viewpoint?

    Hi, Andy -- Another good question(s).

    I am not particularly prejudiced against information bias: there has to be SOME reason to choose a narrative among so many competing narratives that historical writers offer, and one's own biases may sometimes be as good as any. The War of 1812, for instance: I don't study it, so far, but I am not open to silly British ideas about how they really won, somehow, despite how unlikely that looks. Perhaps if I do study it systematically, I will conclude they won ( a pig's eye....), but at this time, I am satisfied to rest on my biases.

    Biases are usually not good enough if I'm seriously studying an era, however, and I like your mention of questions. Don't a lot of us go into historical study to answer a burning question? What HAPPENED that the whole French Revolution was so twisted out of true, twice? What caused World War I to blow up out of nowhere? It can be a quite limited question, even, but still burn. Why, oh why, did Henry VIII decide to arrest Cardinal Wolsey the very eve of his entry into his archbishopric in York in November 1530?? They'd gotten rid of him! He'd be stuck in York! What was the problem? I once read a 2 3/4-inch book trying to find that out, and I measured the width in frustration at the large center part detailing Wolsey's decades of dry legal decisions and maneuvers. At long last the book DID give some speculations on this matter (there is not much source material on it because it was hushed up after Wolsey died en route by mule back to London, presumably of stroke -- he was very overweight and extremely upset and they were carefully watching him against attempted suicide) and I find I am satisfied with those speculations.

    I was thinking about this issue yesterday -- I don't like revisionism whether it's to sell books by novelty or to promote the author's agenda. Neither are history. Here's a case: When Robespierre went to the guillotine, his jaw was badly broken by gunshot, to the point that it gaped open several inches to hang on his chest, and someone had bound it up for him with one of those long neckcloths they wore. Such cloths (neck or otherwise) were stripped off by the executioner so they didn't interfere with the blade, and the executioner did this. Robespierre let out a terrible, loud howl: everyone agrees on this.

    But Jacob Isaacs, the author of the otherwise excellent "Revolutionary Ideas," which I much recommend as a good and thorough survey of the Revolution, is pleased to say that he "howled in fury."

    Okay, nooooooobody else says that, and I've seen several accounts of this scene. It doesn't even make sense: Robespierre was terribly injured and could hardly move; he was essentially moribund, by eyewitness accounts. Everyone else says that he howled in pain, and who wouldn't? He may have howled in fear, too: they left him till late in the series.

    Isaacs says he howled in fury, suggesting that Robespierre was expressing frustration at not being able to continue his murderous course of killing thousands and thousands of people. Isaacs despises Robespierre, a totalitarian tyrant, and he makes an excellent case that Robespierre was despicable, but to pretend to get inside his head in the last minute of his life and report a state of mind different from what anyone else proposes and not very plausible from the physical realities of the situation --- that's getting too symbolic and poetic. That's not history. That's propaganda.

    So it's fine with me if historians differ from the mainstream: but they need to make a good case for taking a road less traveled by. If they don't, I don't believe them. I'll go with the mainstream (which may be totally wrong, I know!!) unless somebody gives me a good reason to change course.


    • #17
      Well yes, but -

      Any normal human being operates on the assumption that they know what they are doing while the rest of the world is somewhat suspect.

      Cognitive Bias
      Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

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      • #18
        Getting it right probably depends mostly on the author’s critical judgment. My quick guide for critical judgment is the exercise of the following eight elements:

        1)Identify the sources of information. Determine which sources are primary and secondary. Who is the author for each source and determine the author’s experience and credentials as well as experience. When was the text written.
        2)Establish the bona fides (good faith, honest intentions, genuine) of the work. Does the author have a blatant bias or agenda? Look at how the author documents his assertions in footnotes/end notes. Look at the bibliography and references for completeness—to do this one has to have a command of the subject and under state the issues, perspectives or points of argument. A key aspect in history is to see if the author has any new source material in comparison to the standard works, or is the author using the conventional sources but has a different interpretation. New information or reinterpretation of existing information may contradict or disagree with the conventional wisdom, and you will have to judge its efficacy.
        3)You need a catholic (general) range of knowledge to place you subject in a greater context. Your research will expose you to the great range.
        4)You must possess a trained perspective and ability to hold a number of different perspectives (yours and others)
        5)You will use a sense of discernment for clarity in understanding differences, make fine distinctions roles, word choice, and meanings.
        6)You must apply a certain skill of synthesis. This is important in our sound-byte society. You will mass a great deal of information in you research of the subject, and you will have to trim it to a meaning and direct presentation for clarity in your points and observations. You see other author’s perspectives and biases by what they leave out. Awareness of these choices is key to critical judgment. You see this in the nightly news.
        7)Having a passing acquaintance with the uses of language. Beware of value-laden words, terms and expression.
        8)And last, one must have an educated imagination for different times, situations. Imagination allows you to see a problem differently, appreciate perspectives, different roles. The values and perspectives of kings is quite different from peasants—the same is true in modern society.

        In the end, there is no absolute truth, but you will have written in good faith and open to the critic's perspective. And, you will be able to judge the efficacy of their argument. Remember when you write, the critic will have the last word.
        Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


        • #19
          Someone with a similar problem.

          While we may not like to openly admit it, the credentials of who is talking and consensus of those we know or trust (possibly due in part to their credentials), factor in to how we personally evaluate scientific claims. I don't have the biology chops to understand all the details of retroviruses, nor the ability (or desire) to run experiments on them myself, so when it comes to AIDS denialism the best I can do is apply the basics of logic to what I read and ultimately trust the research data from experts. ...
          more -
          Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

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          • #20
            The Relativity of Wrong By Isaac Asimov

            Another way of looking at it.

            My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
            Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

            Questions about our site? See the FAQ.


            • #21
              How do you know when you're right? You suddenly develop breasts.
              If you can't set a good example, be a glaring warning.


              • #22
                How about a book review?

                Can the study of history take lessons from the sciences?

                Six Things I Learned From the Book "Ignorance"
                Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

                Questions about our site? See the FAQ.


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