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GiantEvil
Post  Post subject: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Sun Jan 06, 2013 5:09 am
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The tag line says it all. How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?
This is an honest question as I have yet to form my own thesis concerning the accuracy of "historical" record.
I have placed quotes around the word "historical" to imply that it isn't necessarily true history, nor is it necessarily untrue. There is that old colloquialism that "The victor writes the history". So just how much can we trust "historical" accounts?
For events as recent as WWII there are now only a small handful of actual witnesses and participants alive. Although there is some film and audio recordings from the period. Much before this we must rely on written accounts and much of that not necessarily first person. Before that the historical record must rely on anthropological and archaeological technique.
I suspect that the information gleaned from a site such as Vindolanda has a high degree of accuracy. But what of accounts from sources that might posses an agenda? How accurate is history?

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iNow
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Sun Jan 06, 2013 5:17 am
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My own view is that it depends largely on the nature of the questions being asked. If you are estimating how many airplanes were produced between 1940 and 1950, then I think we can be very accurate. If you were asking who had the better airplanes during that period, the US or Germany... then it gets less accurate and much more subjective.

Likewise, if you ask in what region recordings exist of a visible supernova in the sky around the year 1064 we can be reasonably sure the answer is accurate. However, if you ask who saw it or what responses were of people witnessing it first hand, those answers become more prone to error.

Again, I think it largely depends on what questions are being asked and what specifically you mean when you mention the "historical record."

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tridimity
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Sun Jan 06, 2013 5:48 am

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Imo it's very difficult to tease out truth in History - or rather, to be sure that the result of your analysis reflects historical reality. The best we can do is to scrutinise primary sources, consider all available interpretations and finally reach our own conclusion. Difficulties come with the fact that state curricula almost certainly are tainted by their own political agenda and will aim, where possible, to glorify their own country's historical record and ignore some of the ugly details. Moreover, it is even impossible to be sure of the sincerity/authenticity of primary sources. The individuals concerned will themselves have their own agendas and may have been subject to, if not torture, then the pressures of living in a state where openly maintaining freedom of speech or expression could cost their life. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I pursued Science rather than History/Politics - at least in Science you can see the results with your own eyes and be confident in your findings. Nullius in verba.

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bunbury
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Sun Jan 06, 2013 6:15 pm
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"The victor writes the history"

It is also true that in the age of the internet the victor can re-write the history. The film "The Fog of War" has Robert McNamara stating that he and Curtis LeMay should have been prosecuted as war criminals for the firebombing of Japanese cities. Perhaps we have a better chance of knowing the truth than our ancestors did.


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Futilitist
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 07, 2013 2:36 am
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bunbury wrote:
"The victor writes the history"

It is also true that in the age of the internet the victor can re-write the history. The film "The Fog of War" has Robert McNamara stating that he and Curtis LeMay should have been prosecuted as war criminals for the firebombing of Japanese cities. Perhaps we have a better chance of knowing the truth than our ancestors did.


I agree that history is written by the victors. I think that history is subject to consensus thinking and that tends to make much of it suspect. My observation on this is valid and on topic.

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kojax
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2013 9:47 pm
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My own preference is to place higher value on physical evidence than written evidence. When archaeologists find a site like Gobekli Tepli, and carbon date it to 10,000 BC, I think that supersedes any written histories that might preclude such a site from existing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe

Also, contemporary records of everyday stuff are probably more reliable than official records kept by the king's court for political purposes. I was once writing a report on the American Civil War and found an article on microfilm of the New York times (pretty sure that was the publication) that was published shortly before the outbreak of war. In it, the suggestion that war was necessary was made on the basis that the Southern States had ceased to enforce trade tariffs, and so long as Congress refused to acknowledge their secession, importers would be free to land their goods in Southern ports, and move their goods over land into the North without paying the tariffs. Not exactly the reason you hear in class at school.

An even better example would be the many clay tablets found at Hattusa, which were mostly day to day records of merchant transactions and the like. Among them was found a treaty between Ramesses II and the Hittites - proving they not only existed but were a major force in the ancient world. Although other contemporary historians didn't really even mention them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattusa#Discovery

So basically, yeah. I agree. Don't read official histories without some measure of incredulity. Read official documents, writings such as personal journals or normal correspondence (which usually have no political objectives) - or just use physical evidence.


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marnixR
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Thu Jan 17, 2013 10:03 pm
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agreed that physical evidence carries more weight than witness accounts, especially if the person writing the account stands to gain from the way it's written

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Ophiolite
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 4:15 pm
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bunbury wrote:
"The victor writes the history"

Today, when a historian writes of Athens two centuries B.C., or of the War of the Roses, it is probable that they have no particular stake in the views of either victor or vanquished. The quotation relates only to recent history where it is intertwined with politics - and we know what that means. (Politics as has recently been demonstrated in a few weeks time by a fellow member is, of course, a product of the scapegoat mecahnism.)


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marnixR
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:08 pm
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Ophiolite wrote:
bunbury wrote:
"The victor writes the history"

Today, when a historian writes of Athens two centuries B.C., or of the War of the Roses, it is probable that they have no particular stake in the views of either victor or vanquished.


on the other hand, if you read a "historical" account of what happened, it's likely you're getting the victor's point of view, whereas the archeological record is more likely to give you "real" evidence

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Futilitist
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:24 pm
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Ophiolite wrote:
bunbury wrote:
"The victor writes the history"

Today, when a historian writes of Athens two centuries B.C., or of the War of the Roses, it is probable that they have no particular stake in the views of either victor or vanquished. The quotation relates only to recent history where it is intertwined with politics - and we know what that means. (Politics as has recently been demonstrated in a few weeks time by a fellow member is, of course, a product of the scapegoat mecahnism.)

Thanks for the credit on the discovery. It is a very simple idea, yet the implications are quite profound. Of course it is true that much of what we accept as "truth" is a product of the scapegoat mechanism, but the social structures surrounding us, and even the very wiring of our own brains, force us to believe much of what we are told. We can all, therefore, be forgiven for not noticing something so simple that was staring us all in the face.

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Futilitist
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:33 pm
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marnixR wrote:
Ophiolite wrote:
bunbury wrote:
"The victor writes the history"

Today, when a historian writes of Athens two centuries B.C., or of the War of the Roses, it is probable that they have no particular stake in the views of either victor or vanquished.


on the other hand, if you read a "historical" account of what happened, it's likely you're getting the victor's point of view, whereas the archeological record is more likely to give you "real" evidence

The trouble is that the archeological record tends to be thinner the further back you go.

History is influenced by politics. Archeological evidence does not provide enough detail, and even archeology is influenced by politics. So is science. :shock:

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marnixR
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:37 pm
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Futilitist wrote:
The trouble is that the archeological record tends to be thinner the further back you go.


then again, so does the historical record

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Futilitist
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:57 pm
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marnixR wrote:
Futilitist wrote:
The trouble is that the archeological record tends to be thinner the further back you go.


then again, so does the historical record

Exactly. But the record is not so clear in the present, either. The mainstream media isn't exactly apolitical. How accurate is any record of anything? Speaking as an artist and a musician, I don't think that any copy or recording of anything can ever capture the original thing or event. History is story telling. It is a palatable collective recreation, the catharses of the present written on the past. That is the first step in myth creation.

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gottspieler
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Fri Jul 12, 2013 4:24 am
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How can we have a good idea about what is true concerning the historical record?

I would say that what people with differing viewpoints agree upon is generally what we can accept to be truth when one goes back to a time in which primary sources and empirical evidence are limited. I never trust records which show bias. Also, the archaeological record is quite good at deciphering population densities, warfare and agricultural activities of ancient civilizations.

Broad themes present in several contemporary written works (not contemporary as in "modern", contemporary for their time) can indicate the cultural and political milieu of a time. Hard facts are sometimes hard to come by...we still don't know exactly how many Native Americans died from smallpox after the Conquistadors came along, for example.

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gottspieler
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Fri Jul 12, 2013 4:27 am
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Quote:
I never trust records which show bias.


Well, I mean TOO MUCH bias...lol... sometimes it is unavoidable...in such a case I search for corroborating evidence, either written or archaeological...always make sure something truly happened or you'll embarrass yourself.

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seagypsy
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Sat Jul 13, 2013 4:02 am
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gottspieler wrote:
Quote:
I never trust records which show bias.


Well, I mean TOO MUCH bias...lol... sometimes it is unavoidable...in such a case I search for corroborating evidence, either written or archaeological...always make sure something truly happened or you'll embarrass yourself.


There is also the bias of the person reading the "historical" account. For lack of a better example at the moment, and not intending to classify religious texts as historical documents, we can observe reader bias any time various individuals all claiming to be of the same faith and declaring their religious book as fact. All claiming to cling to the same book will still likely interpret what it says quite differently. Usually confirmation bias will kick in. If they believe a certain version of "reality" is better than another they will find clues in the text to support their bias and dismiss anything that reasonably negates what they believe to be true.

Back to actual historical documents, there is constant debate about what the US constitution protects and forbids. The words do not change but the interpretation varies depending on who is reading it.

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gottspieler
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Sun Jul 14, 2013 7:08 am
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There are sometimes conflicting arguments concerning various aspects of facts but facts remain. For example..the Constitution was written in 1787, this is a fact. The American Revolution occurred and America won her independence=fact. What we argue about are implications of acts, treaties, wars, etc...this is referred to as "politics".

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Ascended
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Thu Jul 18, 2013 10:19 pm
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I would think when it comes to history alot of it has to do with who wrote and why. If we are discussing a historical event from only a few decades ago and using work written by a historian during or just after the event, especially for example a historian without any vested interests or partisan perspective then, we might only need a few other pieces of evidence as corroboration to be fairly confident it's accuracy.

I would also think that if were looking at a record of a well known event we could probrarbly be fairly confident of it's accuracy, the problems tend to occur in we go further back in time and especially where the events in question are occuring well before the account of the record is written.
For such records we need to look much harder for corroboratory evidence, and we also need to take into consideration why the record was written and by whom. If we at least know who wrote them and for what purspose we can then start to account for any potential bias that may distort the facts.
Also depending on why a record actually exists can help to determine the quality of the information, for instance if you are looking a record for particular information that is not the focus of the record it might be less accurate as usually people tend to strive for the highest level of accuracy of the central events.

I also think religious records can prove particularly problematic because the level of potential bias is likely to be extremely high, as they have been manipulated for the purpose of propaganda for centuries, meaning that right from the off there must always be considerable doubt and suspicion over their accuracy.

Though ultimately we can never be entirely 100% sure about the accuracy of any recond, the more corroboratory evidence we can get the more certainty we can have. So it's about finding different sources and ways to confirm evidence that really tells how accurate a record is.

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kojax
Post  Post subject: Re: How do we know how accurate a "historical" record is?  |  Posted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 12:39 am
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The best is when you can find original writings made by people who didn't know they were writing history.

I once did a report for an English class on the American Civil War, and the university library had an amazing amount of good material from the era. I read a journal that had been found on the corpse of a Confederate soldier and then published. They had microfilm copies of the New York Times printed the year the war began.

Aside from that there were of course accounts written by people after the fact, and letters written by major figures like General Lee. I figured that, as long as I stuck with only primary sources, the only bias present would be my own. It's difficult to write biased history if you don't even know you're writing history. You may hold a bias about the events you are witnessing, but you don't have a "big picture" narrative to fit it into. And you certainly don't have hindsight, to know how the things you are saying will look to the readers later on.


For ancient discoveries, a fine example of a good find is the Royal Library that was discovered in the ancient ruins of Hattusa.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattusa#C ... l_archives


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