20 February 2014
History researchers do not discover facts. We do not record facts. We do not prove facts. There is no way that we can determine the actual facts about past generations and centuries.
EE’s glossary defines fact as “a presumed reality—an event, circumstance, or other detail that is considered to have happened or to be true." The problem with truth, as historian Robert Winks has put it, is that The past was real, but truth is relative.1 It is also intangible and indefinable. Unlike Justice Potter Stewart’s famed definition of obscenity, we cannot say, “I’ll know it when I see it.”2 We won’t. Historical truth is physically pliable. We begin every research project with a vision of that pot of truth awaiting us at the rainbow’s end. When we reach that end, we have only a mound of dough—dough that we will manipulate, stretch, shape, and flavor by our own experience, judgment, and standards.
For all these reasons, the reality is that when we set out to determine a fact or to “prove” the truth of a matter, the best we can do is construct an hypothesis of what seems likeliest to be correct—an hypothesis that we should base on thorough research, quality evidence, and skilled analysis—and then keep an open mind.
By studying case studies such as those in our QuickLesson archive,3 we can learn valuable techniques transferrable to our own struggles to "prove" yesteryear's events, identities, and relationships.
1. Robert Winks, The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1968), 39.
2. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).
3. A starting point might be QuickLesson 16, "Speculation, Hypothesis, Interpretation & Proof" (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-16-speculation-hypothesis-interpretation-proof), although—admittedly—it is more long than quick.