Posted by: ushistoryfiles | June 8, 2010

History Problems

For my class we are reading an article, “Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation, and Explanation” by C. Behan Mccullagh.  The article appeared in the February 2000 issue of History & Theory.  In it Mccullagh puts forth that there are fours ways that written history can be biased.

The first, is that sometimes we just simply misinterpret the evidence.  Now I had thought about using an example of the weatherman screwing up a weather forecast, but since we are usually more accurate so I don’t think that it is a good analogy.  Truth is that sometimes we just “blow it”.  We thought that events happened a certain way or for a certain reason, but we were completely off base.  Chalk it up to human error.

Second, we can be “unbalanced” in our account.  This is where we talk up the good and ignore the bad.  Talking about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and forgetting to mention that they owned slaves for example.  Now lets think about this: can not the reverse also be true?  Writing all about a person’s vices or the evil side of someone without presenting a balanced picture.

A little more malicious (in my opinion) is our third way; that is when an historian puts forth false facts (wow what alliteration).  This would be an argument or description where an examination of the facts do not support it.  It would seem here the historian is purposefully ignoring evidence.

Last, is a historical explanation that does not cover all the causes.  In my mind this is similar to a survey textbook where the reader gets a small, mostly inaccurate picture because the text by its very nature cannot cover all the angles as it were.  This would seem to be directly related to the size and scope of the work, but an inaccurate picture is painted.

So as we read history let us keep an eye out for these potential issues: both in our personal studies as well as in our written work.

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