Should historians even strive to be objective?

Feb 2011
6,343
#21
I disagree. Clarity of thought is much more important than the ability to cite everything that was ever written by someone in the field. I think the right approach to these things is to make a bold hypothesis, find out it's wrong - then make another bold hypothesis. Succesively your hypotheses will become less bold, but at least it will be clear to yourself and to others what it is you are actually trying to prove. Also you'll have a lot more fun, at least I think so.

"Evidence" is only evidence up to a point. As I said, if you are well read enough you can prove anything using "evidence" by ignoring things that are obviously true - or perhaps even convincing yourself these obvious truths are not so obvious - and instead throwing up an infinite amount of smokescreens to confuse your reader. It's not the quantity of evidence that matters but the quality of it, and the fact that it is essential. No source is much better than a bad or at best semi-relevant source in my opinion. Of course good sources are essential, but history is not a natural science, and the fact that someone wrote something about a subject matter at some point does not constitute "evidence" in and of itself. Evidence of what? In what way? History is very complicated, and there are few things we can really know, especially if you start making narratives and trying to see causality everywhere. Those few things we can know however I think we should stick to very severely, and try to work our way from there. Sometimes deduction can be a powerful method in and of itself, after all the point of history is not studying sources but rather in studying history. A source is a tool, just like archaeology is a tool, or in the future maybe genetic science or environmental science or data science can be a tool...

Sometimes the truth sells, sometimes it doesn't. There is a middleground here, and I find it very interesting that previous generations of historians often found a much easier time getting popular recognition without that hurting their credentials in the academy or among other "professional" historians. Sure, society has changed as well, but I think modern historical academic scholarship has in some ways painted itself into the corner it now is in today.
How you derived at truth is based on the evidence. The truth is obvious because the evidence for it is obvious. without evidence you don't have truth, what you have is conjecture. You're just calling it "truth" to give what you want to believe more weight, but that's still just conjecture, not truth. Of course, truth can't be 100 percent be determined with any amount of evidence, but it can be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt". This is still much better than conjecture without any evidence whatsoever. You can't prove "anything" with evidence, if you could then it wouldn't be evidence, because the contrary evidence would negate each other. Where is the evidence for Santa Claus? You can, however, state any sort of conjecture without the evidence to back it up, such as claiming Santa Claus exists.

You dismiss the importance of evidence because evidence can disapprove "obvious" truths. Well if you believe in an obvious truth, yet all the evidence say otherwise, then your "obvious" truth probably isn't true in the first place, or at the very least you need to start questioning your deeply held beliefs. You're just so emotionally attached to the idea that it just HAS to be true FOR YOU. But without evidence, that doesn't mean it's true, it just means you're emotionally attached to it being true.
 
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Likes: No Bias FTW
Apr 2018
813
Upland, Sweden
#22
How you derived at truth is based on the evidence. The truth is obvious because the evidence for it is obvious. without evidence you don't have truth, what you have is conjecture. You're just calling it "truth" to give what you want to believe more weight, but that's still just conjecture, not truth. Of course, truth can't be 100 percent be determined with any amount of evidence, but it can be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt". This is still much better than conjecture without any evidence whatsoever. You can't prove "anything" with evidence, if you could then it wouldn't be evidence, because the contrary evidence would negate each other. Where is the evidence for Santa Claus? You can, however, state any sort of conjecture without the evidence to back it up, such as claiming Santa Claus exists.
Yes, and my point is that there is very little 100% rock solid evidence in history once you move into the levels of abstraction enabling more interesting forms of analysis (i.e. narrative, correlations and chains of causality). I think we disagree at how best to arrive at this point of "beyond a reasonable doubt" and also perhaps on what constitutes good evidence/ counter evidence. I never said you should have no evidence - no one has "no evidence". What I believe though, is that one should start with the basic things that one can be really sure about, and move upwards to higher levels of abstraction from there.

The alternative to what I describe is I think to try to be 100% empirical, and then one is essentially a chronicler and dismiss narrative and causality. This is theoretically possible (how possible it is in practice is debatable though). I have some respect for those who try to approach history like this, with as little interpretation as posslble - but I couldn't do it - and I have to admit I have problems reading such works.

You dismiss the importance of evidence because evidence can disapprove "obvious" truths. Well if you believe in an obvious truth, yet all the evidence say otherwise, then your "obvious" truth probably isn't true in the first place, or at the very least you need to start questioning your deeply held beliefs. You're just so emotionally attached to the idea that it just HAS to be true FOR YOU. But without evidence, that doesn't mean it's true, it just means you're emotionally attached to it being true.
Primo: I don't "dismiss the importance of evidence". I seem to disagree with you about what makes evidence evidence and also how to try to arrive as close as possible to the historical truth. This is not me "dismissing the importance of evidence".

Secundo: Well, it depends on what you mean by obvious. Yes, if the truth in question is bound to a particular narrative or chain of cauasality (for example I could say that it is obvious Hitler came to power because of German hatred of Jews or something) then yes, that is not obvious, even though it seems to be true many Germans disliked Jews, Hitler hated Jews and a hateful view of Jews was an essential part of National Socialism. It is still not obvious that Hitler came to power for these reasons, and saying so seems potentially misleading.

These are not the kind of things I mean by obvious truths. An obvious truth is rather for example "Germany exists today and has existed for some time". Or "Germany was united in 1871." Or "Germany was united following the Franco-German war." (although the truths got succesively less obvious the closer they got to a forming a narrative, as I'm sure you noticed).

Of course it has to be true for me - how else would I know? What, should I pretend to be someone else? Are you saying you are depending on somebody else's judgement than your own when you read? Yes, of course I could be wrong and this is good to be aware of - as I am. However, I think that the right way to deal with this is to always try to remain skeptical no matter how much you "know". Just because you stack up on a load of sources doesn't necessarily mean you know more than someone who lacks these sources. Who knows - maybe your sources are wrong? Maybe you are fundamentally wrong, about something you don't even know you're wrong about - because you've never read something about that? Maybe someone has never written about the way you are wrong even? Perhaps the entire problem is beyond your frame of reference? I agree that everyone can be wrong, but the things one holds to be true (few things, which should be held strongly if you ask me) one holds to be true precisely because one is convinced by them.

Let's take an interesting example. We have the historian Eric Hobsbawm. He was a Marxist until the day he died, and many people (including some politically completely opposed historians like Niall Ferguson) like his work. I've tried to read some of his work, and he was obviously very erudite and very intelligent. Yet, he was a Marxist until the day he died. If you are not a Marxist (like me), how do you square that circle? I'm sure Hobsbawm knows much more about the 19th and 20th century than I do. Does that mean his view of the world and 19th/ 20th century history is more correct than mine? Has he deduced better, higher truths from history than I have? Not sure about that to be honest. I'm sure I could have a lot to learn from reading him - and I plan to eventually - but I still think he is fundamentally wrong overall even though he might be precisely right in the details. Still clearly a fantastic historian though, and I should obviously read him, probably precisely because I disagree with him.

As soon as you try to start interpreting history you end up in a tricky situation. Then the quality of your interpretation is much more important than the quantity of similar interpretations you have to support you, and the quality of your sources becomes much more important than the quantity. The fact that "Oh, all authorities agree with me", can certainly be an indication that you are right, but it is not necessarily so. I like to think about the finding of Troy back in the 1800s. Basically the entire community of classicists were convinced that "Oh, Troy is just mythical, it is just nonsense" and then Schliemann came onto the scene and more or less found it. An amateur, despised by the good and the beautiful. Who'd have thought?

Why do you study history? What is the point, to you?
 
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Feb 2011
6,343
#23
Yes, and my point is that there is very little 100% rock solid evidence in history once you move into the levels of abstraction enabling more interesting forms of analysis (i.e. narrative, correlations and chains of causality). I think we disagree at how best to arrive at this point of "beyond a reasonable doubt" and also perhaps on what constitutes good evidence/ counter evidence. I never said you should have no evidence - no one has "no evidence". What I believe though, is that one should start with the basic things that one can be really sure about, and move upwards to higher levels of abstraction from there.

The alternative to what I describe is I think to try to be 100% empirical, and then one is essentially a chronicler and dismiss narrative and causality. This is theoretically possible (how possible it is in practice is debatable though). I have some respect for those who try to approach history like this, with as little interpretation as posslble - but I couldn't do it - and I have to admit I have problems reading such works.
There's plenty of people who make arguments with "zero evidence". Or they pull numbers out of thin air and call it "evidence", or straightup lie about what the sources said. People may confuse that with evidence, but it's not evidence, it's just what some people do to abuse 'evidence.' You place importance on 'clarity of thought' as if it's more important than presenting evidence, when in fact they are mutually inclusive. If you make conclusions without any evidence, then that does not paint you as a person with clarity of thought, it paints you as quite the opposite. Those with 'clarity of thought' make conclusions based on the evidence.

Primo: I don't "dismiss the importance of evidence". I seem to disagree with you about what makes evidence evidence and also how to try to arrive as close as possible to the historical truth. This is not me "dismissing the importance of evidence".

Secundo: Well, it depends on what you mean by obvious. Yes, if the truth in question is bound to a particular narrative or chain of cauasality (for example I could say that it is obvious Hitler came to power because of German hatred of Jews or something) then yes, that is not obvious, even though it seems to be true many Germans disliked Jews, Hitler hated Jews and a hateful view of Jews was an essential part of National Socialism. It is still not obvious that Hitler came to power for these reasons, and saying so seems potentially misleading.

These are not the kind of things I mean by obvious truths. An obvious truth is rather for example "Germany exists today and has existed for some time". Or "Germany was united in 1871." Or "Germany was united following the Franco-German war." (although the truths got succesively less obvious the closer they got to a forming a narrative, as I'm sure you noticed).
You downgraded the importance of evidence on the basis that evidence could be used ignore things that are obviously true, and by "obvious truth" you gave the example of "Germany exists today and has existed for some time".
OK, what type of evidence do you have in mind that would allow you to ignore the "obvious truth" that "Germany exists today and has existed for some time."?
Let us hear of the veracity of this evidence, contrary to the other evidences we have.
There's plenty of evidence that Germany exists today and has existed for some time.
We have films of modern Germany existing today, diplomats making deals with the German nation, movies coming out of Germany: That's evidence that Germany exists today.
We have tourists coming from Germany claiming German nationality: That's evidence that Germany exists today.
We have old films and records of Germany existing in the past: That's evidence that Germany has existed for some time.

Ergo, the evidence does NOT ignore the obvious truth, the evidence BACKS UP the obvious truth that "Germany exists today and existed for some time". Whatever evidence you have to the contrary, it pales to the evidence which says Germany exists and had existed. The rest of your examples falls into this line, ergo the reason people can justifiably believe these "obvious truths" is because the evidence for them is obvious in the first place. They should believe it because of the incredible amount of evidence they witnessed, not in spite of it.
 
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Apr 2018
813
Upland, Sweden
#24
There's plenty of people who make arguments with "zero evidence". Or they pull numbers out of thin air and call it "evidence", or straightup lie about what the sources said. People may confuse that with evidence, but it's not evidence, it's just what some people do to abuse 'evidence.' You place importance on 'clarity of thought' as if it's more important than presenting evidence, when in fact they are mutually inclusive. If you make conclusions without any evidence, then that does not paint you as a person with clarity of thought, it paints you as quite the opposite. Those with 'clarity of thought' make conclusions based on the evidence.
There are plenty of people who can never admit to their counterpart having a point, lacks all natural feelings of what is reasonable and what is not, obsesses over needless details, and picks and chooses what constitutes evidence and what doesn't as it suits their argument. Or adds things to their arguments afterwards to include "evidence" they didn't use before (and ergo that they transparently looked up as they went along, and obviously therefore can't have had time to evaluate properly or think about - but what does it matter when it "prooves" them right?), all in a transparent attempt just to throw whoever they are debating off balance, which sometimes succeeds, with results similar to what you describe.

You downgraded the importance of evidence on the basis that evidence could be used ignore things that are obviously true, and by "obvious truth" you gave the example of "Germany exists today and has existed for some time".
OK, what type of evidence do you have in mind that would allow you to ignore the "obvious truth" that "Germany exists today and has existed for some time."?
Let us hear of the veracity of this evidence, contrary to the other evidences we have.
There's plenty of evidence that Germany exists today and has existed for some time.
We have films of modern Germany existing today, diplomats making deals with the German nation, movies coming out of Germany: That's evidence that Germany exists today.
We have tourists coming from Germany claiming German nationality: That's evidence that Germany exists today.
We have old films and records of Germany existing in the past: That's evidence that Germany has existed for some time.

Ergo, the evidence does NOT ignore the obvious truth, the evidence BACKS UP the obvious truth that "Germany exists today and existed for some time". Whatever evidence you have to the contrary, it pales to the evidence which says Germany exists and had existed. The rest of your examples falls into this line, ergo fact the reason people believe these "obvious truths" is because the evidence for them is obvious in the first place. They believe it because of the incredible amount of evidence they witnessed, not in spite of it.
Nope, I'm not going to play your little game. I wrote what I wrote and meant what I meant, in the context I wrote it and meant it. Some of what I wrote and meant overlaps with what you wrote (and presumably meant) some of what I wrote and meant didn't.
 
Feb 2011
6,343
#25
There are plenty of people who can never admit to their counterpart having a point, lacks all natural feelings of what is reasonable and what is not, obsesses over needless details, and picks and chooses what constitutes evidence and what doesn't as it suits their argument. Or adds things to their arguments afterwards to include "evidence" they didn't use before (and ergo that they transparently looked up as they went along, and obviously therefore can't have had time to evaluate properly or think about - but what does it matter when it "prooves" them right?), all in a transparent attempt just to throw whoever they are debating off balance, which sometimes succeeds, with results similar to what you describe.

Nope, I'm not going to play your little game. I wrote what I wrote and meant what I meant, in the context I wrote it and meant it. Some of what I wrote and meant overlaps with what you wrote (and presumably meant) some of what I wrote and meant didn't.
You don't think your two paragraphs are contradictory? You say there are people who "picks and chooses what constitutes evidence and what doesn't as it suits their argument", all in a transparent attempt just to throw whoever they are debating off balance".
Yet when counterevidence is brought to the table you say "I'm not going to play your little game". So what are you doing, if you aren't picking and choosing what constitutes as evidence?
It's OK if people choose which evidence is "better" if they have more evidence to justify their selection. You haven't done that, you only say "not going to play your little game", which is irrelevant, ergo it's just an empty justification for sticking to your line of thinking without admitting that it's an empty justification, hence it's designed to throw whoever they are debating off balance.

In summary:
You dismissed the importance of evidence by saying evidence could be used to ignore "obvious truths" such as the fact that "Germany exists"
I presented the types of evidence which proves "German exists", and implored you to show what type of evidence could be used to ignore the fact that "Germany exists".
You were the one who made the unusual claim, you were the one who defined what "obvious truths" were, and when asked to show just what type of 'evidence' fits the bill, you say you're not going to play this "little game". Sorry, empty statements like "I meant what I meant" adds nothing of value to the table except tossing weight behind what you said without having to justify it, it's like saying "cars are cars". Everybody knows that, but it doesn't justify anything.

Or adds things to their arguments afterwards to include "evidence" they didn't use before (and ergo that they transparently looked up as they went along, and obviously therefore can't have had time to evaluate properly or think about - but what does it matter when it "prooves" them right?), all in a transparent attempt just to throw whoever they are debating off balance
What you are describing is a type of confirmation bias, in which people only look for evidence which confirms what they want to believe. The best academics look for evidence from all sides before making a conclusion. In the most extreme situations, I've seen these occurences where people think the statement they found from unprofessional websites which used no sources, or random internet comments, could somehow trump the evidence presented by academic sourcing/archaeological digs. But how is that worse than presenting your own opinion? Finding some internet comment that agrees with what you're saying and using it as a source, is about as bad as just repeating your own opinion without sourcing. They're both way down near rock-bottom in terms of quality statements.
 
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Nov 2016
554
Germany
#26
There's plenty of evidence that Germany exists today and has existed for some time.
We have films of modern Germany existing today, diplomats making deals with the German nation, movies coming out of Germany: That's evidence that Germany exists today.
We have tourists coming from Germany claiming German nationality: That's evidence that Germany exists today.
We have old films and records of Germany existing in the past: That's evidence that Germany has existed for some time.
And we have my humble self, who has been living in Germany for a long time and can confirm in good conscience that it exists - provided we don't live in the Matrix.

But hypothetically I could lie, as all tourists would only lie, because they are actors, who pretend to be Germans (with forged papers and a "German" language which is as artificial as Klingon), the movies could be faked, all historical documents could be faked, all witnesses could be liars etc. etc. So there is a lot of evidence that Germany exists, but there can be no such thing as an absolutely certain proof for everyone, which is as sure as a mathematical proof.

See also the German discussion about the forged Middle Ages:

Phantom time hypothesis - Wikipedia

See also the German Bielefeld conspiracy theory (a joke, of course):

Bielefeld conspiracy - Wikipedia
 
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Feb 2011
6,343
#27
That's why I said "beyond a reasonable doubt", and that no amount of evidence could prove something 100%, but it could prove something to the point that to doubt it would mean making up a conspiracy theory: All Germans are all lying about being German, old German documents are all lying or fakes, movies from Germany are all fakes, all tourists who came back from Germany are lying, etc, etc..... Unfortunately I've seen people who would rather delve into very similar conspiracy theories just to avoid admitting being wrong.
 
Mar 2012
4,323
#28
I disagree. Clarity of thought is much more important than the ability to cite everything that was ever written by someone in the field. I think the right approach to these things is to make a bold hypothesis, find out it's wrong - then make another bold hypothesis. Succesively your hypotheses will become less bold, but at least it will be clear to yourself and to others what it is you are actually trying to prove. Also you'll have a lot more fun, at least I think so.

"Evidence" is only evidence up to a point. As I said, if you are well read enough you can prove anything using "evidence" by ignoring things that are obviously true - or perhaps even convincing yourself these obvious truths are not so obvious - and instead throwing up an infinite amount of smokescreens to confuse your reader. It's not the quantity of evidence that matters but the quality of it, and the fact that it is essential. No source is much better than a bad or at best semi-relevant source in my opinion. Of course good sources are essential, but history is not a natural science, and the fact that someone wrote something about a subject matter at some point does not constitute "evidence" in and of itself. Evidence of what? In what way? History is very complicated, and there are few things we can really know, especially if you start making narratives and trying to see causality everywhere. Those few things we can know however I think we should stick to very severely, and try to work our way from there. Sometimes deduction can be a powerful method in and of itself, after all the point of history is not studying sources but rather in studying history. A source is a tool, just like archaeology is a tool, or in the future maybe genetic science or environmental science or data science can be a tool...

Sometimes the truth sells, sometimes it doesn't. There is a middleground here, and I find it very interesting that previous generations of historians often found a much easier time getting popular recognition without that hurting their credentials in the academy or among other "professional" historians. Sure, society has changed as well, but I think modern historical academic scholarship has in some ways painted itself into the corner it now is in today.

Clarity is founded upon evidence. It is just a coherent organization of the evidence from the most reliable to the least reliable and a presentation of an argument based on that. Yes, you do not need to cite every single source ever written, but this is not something between evidence and organization of thought, its between mere quantity of sources and the critical analysis of them.
 
Dec 2011
2,115
#29
Historians should just stick with the facts.

Of course, they can be subject to criticism if they ignore certain facts which other historians may deem relevant, but those historians can mention those facts, and tell us why they think they are relevant.
 
Dec 2011
2,115
#30
That's why I said "beyond a reasonable doubt", and that no amount of evidence could prove something 100%, but it could prove something to the point that to doubt it would mean making up a conspiracy theory: All Germans are all lying about being German, old German documents are all lying or fakes, movies from Germany are all fakes, all tourists who came back from Germany are lying, etc, etc..... Unfortunately I've seen people who would rather delve into very similar conspiracy theories just to avoid admitting being wrong.
I fully agree with you, HackneyedScribe, but there can be the difficulty (I am not trying to be nit-picking here) of what exactly is meant by "Germany", and what exactly is a "German". In times past, to be a "true" German you had to have a certain ethnic purity. With the continents we can point to the hard natural facts of land masses with sea between them, but all countries are really in the minds of humans (we can decide that certain features such as rivers are borders, but that is essentially arbitrary). Look at how the shape of Germany has changed over the centuries, and how it wasn't properly formed into a single nation that long ago. Not everyone who inhabits Germany is a German, some there have citizenship, some don't. Some people living outside of Germany are nevertheless Germans. Really, people call themselves Germans because they have been told that they are, by an institution called the government that decides who, and who is not, a German.

Again, I am not being argumentative, just pointing out that it takes great care in deciding what are facts and what are human inventions. For example, were the German-speakers in Danzig in 1930, Germans or not?
 
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