Do You Think Citing Historians Is A Good Or Bad Habit?

Joined
May 18, 2005
Location
Spring Hill, Tennessee
Some of the information below came from another post which wasn't really relative to the post, so I thought some may find a way to chime in here.

In the course of the conversation it was suggested by someone that a number of incredible books are available that are ground breaking - and probably nothing was better than them. Problem is, many of these works are fifty years old. Ground breaking information does take place every so often, but it is rare that something that old is still considered ground breaking especially when it was researched so long before the information age. So what I stated in the post was:

I'm saying that Connelly's (or whoever's) conclusions of historical events are dated, and may or may not stand up to new information that has surfaced. So, I suppose I'm saying that I wouldn't use Connelly's conclusions as documentation or evidence to support much of anything unless I had more recent materials that have surfaced in primary sources or modern scholarship that concurs in everyway with his conclusions. I'm not saying that he or any other older book is wrong, just that what an author or historian says is not fact.

Simply put, historian's can't cite their own opinions, but their opinions can and will be cited as fact. (Wow, now that's ground breaking!)

That in itself is horrible, but true. Just because a historian says something doesn't mean it is fact, the facts are what the primary sources said, not what the historians chews up and spits out to you. But if someone reads a historian's work, that person can factually say that "Connelly", or whoever they are quoting, wrote it (and that is fact) and it must be fact because they used primary sources in their citations. If I only had a nickel for every citation I have seen used out of context or cherry picked for a piece of relative information for the persons writing their idea of a historical event. Then new information surfaces and nobody can believe it because they suffer from Confirmation bias and Attitude polarization.

It's not about what Connelly or other historians think, it's about the documentation or evidence that they used to come to their conclusions.

I won't take any leap for granted. If a historian says that Private Schmuck said "blah, blah, blah" in quotes, I probably won't take the time to look it up. But if the historian is trying to make a point out of something that Schmuck said that is a leap in itself??? Look out Private Schmuck - I'm coming for your accounts!!

This way we can judge for ourselves what Schmuck says in his entirety - the entire five paragraphs, not just the fraction of a sentence that says "blah, blah, blah" and supports the historian's conception of the historical event.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Absolutely! Citing the conclusions and opinions of credible historians is fine as supporting documentation but it is incredibly important to do one's own research. How many of us have realized that some commonly accepted viewpoint of a professional writer is refutable? Too many of us have looked at the description of an event and realized that something was "screwy"--but then let that uneasiness pass.

And, yes: proofs that are cherry-picked or taken out of context are a problem. Too often they pass because the reader (us) doesn't know enough about the details to say "whoa!". Sometimes there is intellectual dishonesty involved but often it is simply a matter that the poster hears only what s/he want to.

The only point that I'd disagree with is your use of primary source. A "primary source" is nothing more than something that is immediate to an event--something "from the horse's mouth" (so as to speak). Genealogists, who are constantly evaluating sources, can tell you that a primary source can be inaccurate.
 

Coonewah Creek

First Sergeant
Member of the Month
Joined
Jun 1, 2018
Location
Northern Alabama
I think every interpretation of a primary source, either through the lens of the historian doing the original interpretation, or through the discovery of new "ground breaking information" as has been referred to, should involve taking into consideration, or at least an awareness of, the Schrödinger's Cat paradox, which, while it can be quite convoluted, also implies that simply making an "observation" can change the state of the "thing" being observed. OK, enough mixing of quantum physics and historical research, but I hope I made my point (tongue in cheek). :wink:
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
I think every interpretation of a primary source, either through the lens of the historian doing the original interpretation, or through the discovery of new "ground breaking information" as has been referred to, should involve taking into consideration, or at least an awareness of, the Schrödinger's Cat paradox, which, while it can be quite convoluted, also implies that simply making an "observation" can change the state of the "thing" being observed. OK, enough mixing of quantum physics and historical research, but I hope I made my point (tongue in cheek). :wink:
When a genealogist (or any historian) looks at a source, it either is primary or secondary. A primary source is one that was created when the event occurred by someone who was present; a secondary source is one that is second-hand (something repeated or inferred). For example, pension applications are primary because they were created by the veteran himself--however, many pension applications are fraudulent. Many people believe that primary documents are always true while secondary sources are always questionable--but that isn't the case.

To give a silly example: if I state that I am the hereditary monarch of Maine, the statement is primary--regardless of whether I tell you in person, it is repeated in a newspaper interview, or whatever But it is an untrue statement (most assuredly).
 

Coonewah Creek

First Sergeant
Member of the Month
Joined
Jun 1, 2018
Location
Northern Alabama
@Fairfield I agree completely. And although I admit I was trying to add a bit of levity to the discussion, the point I was really trying to make is valid, I believe. Simply "observing" the source material...primary or secondary, true or false...can in fact change the "state" of the observed material. The information gleaned from the material must be interpreted and there is always more than one way to interpret it, regardless of its simplicity or its degree of "matter of factness."
 

dlofting

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Location
Vancouver, BC, Canada
The best thing I've learned from CivilWarTalk is to read critically. Never accept things at face value unless you know for sure that they are correct. Analyze new findings....do they fit with what we already know to be true. If not, some research is in order. If an author is overly biased about a subject or a person, it's time to check a bit deeper. It's very seldom that new historical findings completely change what was already known, so be cautious about those claims....yes, it is possible but not probable. Above all, ask yourself questions....does this fit, does it make sense.
 
Joined
May 18, 2005
Location
Spring Hill, Tennessee
Absolutely! Citing the conclusions and opinions of credible historians is fine as supporting documentation but it is incredibly important to do one's own research. How many of us have realized that some commonly accepted viewpoint of a professional writer is refutable? Too many of us have looked at the description of an event and realized that something was "screwy"--but then let that uneasiness pass.

And, yes: proofs that are cherry-picked or taken out of context are a problem. Too often they pass because the reader (us) doesn't know enough about the details to say "whoa!". Sometimes there is intellectual dishonesty involved but often it is simply a matter that the poster hears only what s/he want to.

The only point that I'd disagree with is your use of primary source. A "primary source" is nothing more than something that is immediate to an event--something "from the horse's mouth" (so as to speak). Genealogists, who are constantly evaluating sources, can tell you that a primary source can be inaccurate.
True about the primary source, but just because someone witnessed something in a different manner than someone else (other primary sources) doesn't make it false. An example might be someone picking someone out of a line-up for committing a crime that they witnessed. They pick the wrong person, but witnessed the event. They are wrong, but what they witnessed was right. So there is truth and (unintentional) untruths in their statement. That's why as many primary sources as can be found have to be used to hash out the truth as well as we can make it. Only corroborating testimony can substantiate a claim.

As one soldier said about the battle of Perryville:

"No one person can describe a battle. One’s own view is very limited at best, and few see more than the movements of their own company, or possibly, their regiment. The sum total of every man’s experience could only give a complete record. I saw the 105th​ in position, and there my view was limited to two or three companies on the left."[1]

The best sources recorded their experiences or recollections immediately following the events. Another good one (but not as good of course) is the primary source that recorded the experiences in months or weeks after the events, and the worst, but still good is the participant that recorded the events long after the fact - decades - and has mixed up much of what was witnessed.

That's definitely when you have to dig DEEP to find corroborating testimony to verify or nullify your theory of an event or action.


[1] “The 105th​ Regiment.” Cleveland Morning Leader (Cleveland, OH) October 27, 1862, p. 2.
 
Joined
May 18, 2005
Location
Spring Hill, Tennessee
I think every interpretation of a primary source, either through the lens of the historian doing the original interpretation, or through the discovery of new "ground breaking information" as has been referred to, should involve taking into consideration, or at least an awareness of, the Schrödinger's Cat paradox, which, while it can be quite convoluted, also implies that simply making an "observation" can change the state of the "thing" being observed. OK, enough mixing of quantum physics and historical research, but I hope I made my point (tongue in cheek). :wink:
Excellent way to look at it!
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
but just because someone witnessed something in a different manner than someone else (other primary sources) doesn't make it false.
You're right. The truth or falseness of an account isn't impacted. As you say, if all witness agreed 100%, I think police work would be easier: we all know about that short, tall, fat, skinny criminal! It is up to the historian (or criminal justice operative) to pick through the various accounts and weigh their credibility. That's why we get paid the Big Bucks, right?
 
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