Can we really trust Historians?

Hello! I’ve been thinking about this question for months now, and only now did I realize that I should post my question to the general public.

What are some arguments as to why we CAN trust historians, and some arguments AGAINST trusting historians? If it happens that we cannot trust historians, wouldn’t this then mean that we know nothing for certain about our past?

Thanks! :slight_smile:

We can trust historians because there are many of them and they like catching each other’s errors to show how smart they are.
We can’t trust them because not everything is examined by more than one historian and some ideas not based on actual evidence get repeated enough times to become “truth” and because the whole subject of history is just a giant conspiracy to make us think we have to pay taxes and obey the laws of gravity.

Generally speaking a historian will provide a list of the sources he or she used in their interpretation of the past. Even Herodotus and Thucydides often tell their readers where they’re getting their information from.

That said, you can’t always trust what historians have written down. I read an article written in 1960 about a race riot in Arkansas that occurred in 1919. The author concluded that the riot happened because black agitators from out of state engaged in a conspiracy to murder whites and attacked a bunch of whites near their church for no reason. Who did the author interview? White landowners who were engaged in labor disputes against their mostly black tenants who complained of unfair cotton prices and debt peonage. How many African American tenant farmers or union members did the author interview? None.

we can’t trust them in the sense that we have realize they are inherently culturally biased.

Here in the States, we know how important the US was in winning WWII, but we generally don’t realize how crucial the Russians were. THis is because our history is written by our historians. Russians history is written by the Russians.

Another case would be the Crusades. Westerners generally have a view of the Crusades, without realizing others view it as a bloody invasion to where the concept of a ‘Crusade’ is as offensive as our concept of ‘Holocaust’.

History suffers from being culturally relevant.

In many ways we get the history that suits the present time…

Historians are checked by other historians and sources are cited so it’s rare that facts are wrong. A good historian will also make it clear when he is citing someone’s opinion.

It’s the interpretation of the facts that can be in dispute. But history is self-correcting: if someone makes a bad interpretation, other historians will show where the first went wrong.

This is a good argument for trusting historians as a group. If there’s something that everyone has been getting wrong, some budding young historian could make a name for him/herself by demonstrating that it’s wrong.

It’s another question whether we can really trust any particular presentation of history: school textbooks, museum displays, History Channel documentaries, etc. There, skepticism is warranted. James Loewen has made a career with books like Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong pointing out biases and inaccuracies in what we’re taught about American history.

I lent a historian $20 once. He paid it back the next day. So at least one historian is trustworthy.

Perhaps the question should be “Can we really trust history?”

And the answer is: No, if every bit of it must be accurate. Or: Yes, if we use common sense to determine how accurate any part of history could be.

You’re right, but in my experience your examples contradict your point. When I was in high school in the 70’s, I learned that Russia was crucial for winning WWII (the bigger question was whether Hitler was insane to attack on the Eastern front), and that the Crusades were a bloody invasion, the biggest significance of which was bringing ideas back that led to the Rennaisence.

Nonetheless, there’s a clear cultural bias in history. In addition, the victors tend to write the histories. Good scholars try to not be influenced by the bias, and the bias changes from generation to generation. (E.g., conflicts between the US and the indigenous populations has changed dramatically over the last 50 years.)

High-school history is heavily influenced by politics and public opinion. Hopefully, that’s less true in higher ed.

Bottom line, though: we can’t “trust” any kind of scientist. We can only weigh their arguments and evidence. Non-historical sciences have it a bit easier in that it’s generally easier to test predictions based on hypothses, to help confirm or deny them. With historical sciences, predictions tend to be “we should find x”, which can be confirmed, but rarely denied, unless they can be put “we should find x but not y.” (Evolution is a largely historical science, but abounds with “we should find x but not y” claims, and has been thoroughly confirmed by these kinds of “tests”.)

Unfortunately, with any recondite subject, the evidence is too technical for a layman to evaluate (good example: climate science). So, we have to rely on what a majority of experts believe, and keep in mind that they could be wrong.

ThudlowThanks for the link – looks interesting!

I don’t think they are trustworthy at all. That doesn’t mean we should disregard them, however. We should be aware everyone is culturally biased and history is generally written by the winners, and we should try to read both sides of the story.

For some really great examples, read “Lies My History Teacher Told Me”.

There’s also some truth to the aphorism that History is written by the winners. A good deal of what we’d consider to be documentation of events was erased or dismissed or destroyed or somehow intentionally left out of the record. That leaves historians with incomplete or biased resources on which to build their understandings. Clearly, they do what they can to triangulate and gather multiple viewpoints, but some points are simply no longer there to employ.

Since this is basically a debate, let’s move it over to that forum.

General Questions Moderator

Didn’t you also ask “Do vampires, fairies and werewolves exist?”? What standards of evidence will you accept?

Trust is not an all or nothing proposition in any field of study.

I read the latter book, and found it very interesting. But a bit repetitive. There seems to be a fundamental theme about the lies, or more generally, omissions, at the historic sites he talks about: They whitewash the history of black slavery and discrimination.

Yeah, and if there were just one historian in the world, you’d have a point. Can he be trusted?

If we had just two historians, that would give us more trust in what they say together, because they’d have to be in a conspiracy to intentionally mislead us. But, conspiracies of two can happen.

What we have are tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of historians. While you can’t take what any one of them says as gospel without checking it with the others, for those matters in history where they all pretty much agree, we can be pretty certain, because you just can’t get that many people to be in a conspiracy together.

I’m not sure you got my point. Trust is not an all or nothing matter: historians have biases and history is written by the victors and all those other flaws are noted and they should be kept in mind, but that doesn’t mean historians as a group can’t be trusted and that “we know nothing for certain about our past” as a result. And not all historians are equally trustworthy or untrustworthy. I’m saying these are matters where skepticism has to be applied and we have to judge on a case by case basis. You can’t throw out all of recorded history because historians are imperfect.

This really a question about “elites.” Historians are just people like you and me who have been educated extensively and formally in methods of historical inquiry. Not trusting them in historical matters (and it’s not as if they agree on every issue, any more than you or I do) is like not trusting car mechanics to fix your car. If you want to let any bozo rebuild your engine, good luck.

I work every day with historians, some of whom I think are biased closed-minded imbeciles, but if I need to know something about history, I’ll go to one of them before I’ll trust anyone else’s opinion.

With anyone who is presenting information you should trust but verify as much as possible. Historians are filled with biases, but if you try to train yourself to spot biases it is possible to sift through the bias and find useful information. We may never find the real truth but we can sometimes find a useful approximation.

You really do have to be aware of cultural biases and when historians might have had an axe to grind (consciously or subconsciously).

For example, much of what we “know” about the Middle Ages in Europe is highly distorted. This Listverse list has a good summary of some of the top misconceptions. Many of these misconceptions come from the Renaissance era, when many intellectuals/historians were actively trying to make earlier times look bad.