On Historical Facts and Why We Should Believe Them

in History by

The beautiful, humbling, and unlikely discoveries of past worlds and the people that created them are being bludgeoned by heavy-handed accusations. The latest trend in our obsessively empirical world is to resurrect the empty complaints of the post-modernists in order to eschew history as not a factual practice, diminishing it to the level of glorified literature and trivializing all that it has given to our culture and progress since its conception in fifth century B.C. Greece by Herodotus. Historians rarely address the philosophical grounds upon which they write and educate, but the more they are challenged the more they must begin to. We are obliged to stop ignoring the difficult questions that face our academic riches because it is these that make us doubt that which we rely on to tell us of the past and teach us how to approach the future.

The crime of which the discipline stands accused is untruth. The argument follows that historical facts are deeply subject to doubt. Of all the sources that exist, very few of them will survive to the modern day. Of those that do many will be in the wrong language, incomprehensible, or biased beyond use. Historians pick through deeply limited texts and artifacts using their own ideology to decipher what the nuance of language and the rhythms of intention have done to words written in an era entirely alien to them. How can we expect people with their own experiences, theories and priorities to create anything like fact under these conditions?

This case, however, is flawed on two levels. It neglects the reality of what a fact is, and how history is conducted. Natural sciences are held up as the example of what truth is, proven ideas derived from information about the world that makes predictions about the future. Superficially, it seems history fulfills none of these criteria. However, with relatively little scrutiny one can unpack exactly what makes us ‘believe’ scientific facts. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity has been proven by observation after observation. However, there is nothing to say that tomorrow there won’t be an experiment conducted that disproves the whole thing. A point can never be reached where it is established beyond any doubt, but its plausibility has been demonstrated and thus we intuitively take it to be true because on balance of probabilities it is unlikely to be wrong. There are however areas of science, like String Theory, that are deeply questionable and that are far from being adopted into the realms of fact. Evidence is still being gathered to scrutinize them. It is quite possible that enough evidence will never be gathered to make this theory convincing, simply due to the scales of calculation that would have to be conducted in order to bring us to the point of belief. In history, our ‘Theory of Relativity’ would be an accepted fact such as the occurrence of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and our ‘String Theory’ is perhaps the purpose of Stonehenge or something equally contested. In any academic discipline ‘fact’ is not a yes or no dichotomy when we are faced with an idea, but rather a process by which doubt in a concept in diminished as more research is conducted.

This process is carried out in historical questioning. Historians, despite how they are increasingly characterized, do not collect arbitrary pieces of evidence and have a guess at what happened. Due to the nature of history as an international academic practice, a historian must create a convincing proof that will be engaged with by other historians and their theory will be contested if it fails to take into account all the appropriate evidence. For example, it came into question whether or not Henry VIII had written his own will in so far as some factions of his government were excluded from his proposed regency council. Religious reformers were given responsibility -by historians like David Starkey- for getting a blank will signed and filling it in after his death with the names of loyal members of their own faction. This idea was very selective with evidence and ignored the background of those conservatives removed from the will. Each had, recently before the king’s death, angered him or given him some nudge towards favoring the reformists. Furthermore, much of the other evidence, such as the late recording of the signature by dry stamp, has also been explained and dismissed, as more evidence has been uncovered. Susannah Lipscombe championed this counter-theory and it is now widely considered to be true. This is just one example of how growing evidence and the questioning of theories is used in history to bring us ever closer to truth, just as it is in natural science.

Our discipline will lose its purpose, its importance, and its appeal if we let it be reduced by misleading claims. To argue that history always gives you the truth would of course be wrong. But so would such an argument if applied to any other discipline in academia. Whether or not one document is entirely accurate becomes unimportant when you consider factuality as a process, rather than a static identity. Historians dedicate their lives to giving us pictures, characterizations, and a retelling of events that help us understand the origins of our culture and the undercurrents of the modern world. Let’s be clear that when they do this, they do so in the pursuit of fact.

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