4 Evaluating Evidence

One of the preeminent guidelines of historical analysis is that all historians evaluate their sources to determine their quality and accuracy. Beyond determining whether a source is primary or secondary, it is imperative that historians use their knowledge to judge the nature of sources and how they should be used. Remember, each primary source carries with it the biases of its author. These biases alter the presentation of information, as many historical sources are written with clear purpose and intention. Take for example a newspaper editorial written in Atlanta during the American Civil War. Before even reading this document, we need to understand that such an editorial is most likely written from a pro-Confederate source and will therefore be presenting the best possible version of current situation in the war. This source is still very useful for revealing the attitudes of pro-Confederate actors, but information within it about Union troop movements or Union soldiers’ attitudes cannot be accepted as fact. The author’s bias and the historical context of the source’s creation should be noted up front by anyone looking to analyze such a document. We call this information “inherent bias” – in the activity below, you will be able to practice your critical thinking skills by finding inherent bias in a particular document/context.

Finding Inherent Bias

With the understanding of what biases are likely to be present comes the realization that some claims by historical actors may not be entirely true; that is, they are not agreed upon, verifiable from multiple points of view. But again, just because they are not , they still offer value to those historians seeking to explain opinions and attitudes of a particular place and time.

Making historical Inferences and avoiding historical fallacies

A key element to the historical analysis process is making . Historians take a collection of facts and then infer larger understandings and conclusions. In order to answer the how and why questions of historical analysis and research, historians need to gather all the possible evidence, vet it for bias and authenticity, understand the larger picture presented by these facts, and then make logical conclusions based on what they have learned.

Historical fallacies come about due to false reasoning on the part of historians. Their arguments may be built upon shaky logic by not considering inherent biases or by using incomplete and corrupted evidence. Fallacies can come about by not considering multiple points of view or perspectives in gathering documetary evidence, or from lack of complexity when analyzing causality, or from imposing modern sensibilities upon actors in the past, or from not considering change over time.  Presented as rational and well supported conclusions, fallacies are incredibly dangerous as they actively spread misinformation and cover up objective historical arguments. Fallacies can be created both intentionally and unintentionally, depending on their authors, the subject matter, and the influence certain arguments can have. One powerful example of a historical fallacy is that the American Civil War was fought over the powers and rights bestowed upon individual states. This argument clouds the immense role that slavery played as the primary cause of the war. Certainly, the causes of the Civil War are complex, but by arguing that it was simply about states’ rights, one is presenting an overly simplistic and incorrect version of history that is damaging in countless ways.

Fallacy is incredibly dangerous in historical work as an established and believed fallacy can impede the proper and well-vetted historical analysis from being accepted, sometimes for generations. These historical fallacies can be weaponized and used for political purposes while always slowing the progress of solid historical work. If historians are constantly working to undo the entrenchment of fallacy, they are slowed in progressing their fields. A powerful historical fallacy can be used to motivate devastating events and have countless times in world history.

In order to avoid historical fallacy, we must be open-minded to proper historical analysis, understand and view multiple perspectives in any event, and focus on determining the difference between facts and biased opinions masquerading as such. By allowing the historical analysis process to take place in full, we as a society can push dangerous fallacy aside and arrive at objectively determined historical conclusions.

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How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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