Historians’ Fallacies

Historians’ Fallacies June 12, 2015

My recent columns have concerned methods of academic debate, and the gulf that separates true scholarship from pseudo-scholarship. It’s only fitting here that I should refer to the gold-standard for discussing such issues, namely David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward A Logic Of Historical Thought (originally published by Harper, 1970).

Fischer describes good historical methodology by sketching its evil twin. He outlines and catalogues examples of “fallacies”, that is, errors or bad practice that result in bad or inaccurate history. Every word of his argument applies wholeheartedly to the examples I have been describing, whether we are dealing with silly claims about supposed new insights into Jesus’s life and career, or bizarre conspiracy theories.

Among the fallacies he lists, we find the following:

  • The fallacy of the pseudo-proof: “a verification statement which seems at first sight to be a precise and specific representation of reality but which proves on close inspection to be literally meaningless.”
  • The fallacy of the irrelevant proof.
  • The fallacy of the presumptive proof: “advancing a proposition and shifting the 
burden of proof or disproof to others.”
  • The fallacy of misplaced literalism: misconstructing general or rhetorical statements as if they were literal rather than hyperbolic.
  • The prodigious fallacy: focusing on spectacular and notorious events as if they were representative or indicative of wider conditions.
  • The furtive fallacy: “the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of cause mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise that reality is a sordid secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke filled room, or a perfumed boudoir, or an executive penthouse or somewhere in the inner sanctum of the Vatican, or the Kremlin, or the Reich Chancellery, or the Pentagon”.
  • The antinomian fallacy: the notion that facts which count best, count least—that is, the rejection of ‘mainstream’ historians or attempts at serious quantification.
  • The fallacy of the lonely fact: “the logical extension of a small sample . . . a statistical generalization from a single case”
  • The fallacy of statistical impressionism occurs whenever a historian casts an imprecise impressionistic interpretation into exact numbers. 
The most serious fallacies involve trusting tendentious sources, failing to exercise due care about believing materials produced in the heat of polemic, and so on.

Re-reading Fischer’s work yet again, I can only say: the classics never go out of style.

This is not to under-rate some excellent more recent works, such as David Henige, Historical Evidence and Argument (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). It should not be possible, though, to emerge from graduate school in the humanities or social sciences without having committed Fischer’s Index of Errors firmly to heart.

On a related matter, I also like this from the endlessly quotable Daniel Patrick Moynihan — “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”


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  • MesKalamDug

    The book about fallacies sounds like something I will have to add to my “to read” list. The list is not very helpful without context – I fear I can’t tell what most of them

    It is a book about historical thought but it talks about “proof”. To those of us with
    mathematical training nothing in historical thought approaches “proof”. I imagine “proof” in this context mean “rationale for”. I would define history as an artistic
    reconstruction of what happened in the past that conflicts as little as possible
    with what has come down to us from the past.

    I could elaborate but this is my basic thought.

  • philipjenkins

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if and when you do get to the book.

  • MesKalamDug

    I will try to remember your interest. But it will be a long time, I fear, and perhaps never. I’m old.

  • MesKalamDug

    I was able to read the first chapter of “Historians Fallacies” in Google Books and
    learned something of Fisher’s thought. Clearly I need the whole book to be sure.
    The first chapter is all about “the question”. I think this makes sense only to someone trained in academic history studies. Perhaps it is the historian’s version of the scientific principle – hypotheses that are tested and either falsified or accepted.

    So assuming a historians question corresponds to a scientific hypothesis there is
    one immediate consequence: Historical studies can never be true – they can only be non-false. Biblical example: David was the forefather of the Judean kings. At the moment the falsifications (which exist) are very dubious and it seems best to conclude the idea is non-false. One inscription could falsify it but nothing will ever
    prove it. There is no “truth” (apart from tautology) in physics – why should we expect it in history?

    To a consumer of history the situation can be frustrating if “truth” is the goal. All we have is plausibility. That is, the assured results of history are the more plauisible hypotheses of historians. The factual material of history is usually too
    dull or specialized to interest the average consumer and the historian’s task is
    to pull them together into a meaningful packet. Perhaps the biggest fallacy a historian could fall into is to imagine they know “what really happened”.

  • philipjenkins

    It’s very thoughtful of you to share this! Thanks.

  • Moroni Fielding Kimball

    John Gee’s latest entry into this fray, and its subsequent use by William Hamblim seems a tragedy of errors (or the worse use of analogy by someone who should no better in recent times)…..

    To quote wiser men than myself:

    John Gee wrote:
    Anyone who has actually worked trying to integrate archaeological with historical data can spot the problems with this sort of analysis easily. Some people, however, want to apply a double standard applying different standards to the Book of Mormon than they do to other historical events.

    Symmachus response:

    Interesting phrase.

    Anyone who has actually worked trying to integrate logic with thinking about any data can spot the problems with Gee’s sort of “analysis” easily, but in any case:

    Double standard = two or more otherwise equal phenomena analyzed according to different standards.

    The archaeology of the Council of Nicaea, which occurred over some months in 325, which involved at most a few thousand individuals in various capacities, which occurred in already settled areas, and which would never have been the sort of thing that would show up in an imperial inscription anyway, is a micro-event.

    The civilization of Nephites/Lamanites and the Jaredites are each supposed to have lasted at least 1,000 years, to have involved millions of people, to have involved hundreds of new settlements, and to have involved complex social, religious, and politicial structures along Ancient Near Easter patterns, as well as the sorts of architectural, technological, and agricultural sophistication that have left vast and traceable residue in other in other parts of the world. If the Book of Mormon is a historical “event,” it is a macro-event.

    Micro-event ≠ macro-event ∴ they are not equal phenomena.

    The only double standards here are on the apologist side. Apologists like John Gee and William Hamblin are not willing to apply the same rigor in their Mormon apologetics as they do in their non-Mormon scholarship (but of course they wear the hat of extreme skeptics when it comes to something like “Nahom” coming from the Biblical “Nahum”). And yet Hamblin, at least, still stubbornly, at times viciously, resists any question about the respectability of their Mormon apologetic enterprises. Again, they do not distinguish between phenomena that are unlike. That is either willfully done or unwillingly.

    Given their academic qualifications, I am inclined to think it is willful. It is shameless that they use their academic qualifications as a screen for their crackpot nonsense so that lay Mormons of similarly fundamentalist thinking can look to the academic authority of the apologists and rest assured that they themselves are not crackpots. Just imagine that these guys were medical doctors, holding fast to a theory that vaccines cause autism, actively pursuing this line, no matter how flimsily supported and no matter how much counter-evidence, and then to top it off imagine they were to attack younger researchers’ motives and commitment to medical science whenever those younger researchers called them out for their nonsense. Would anyone doubt for a second that these guys were charlatans?

    Kishkumen comments:
    “Micro-event ≠ macro-event ∴ they are not equal phenomena. ~Symmachus”


    Also, history deals in probabilities. The more firmly established data points you have in a claim, the greater the probability that it is true. So, Constantine and Nicaea, what are the odds?

    Was there a Roman empire?

    Were there Christians in this area of the Roman Empire at this time?

    Was there a Nicaea?

    Was there an emperor Constantine who lived and ruled at the time and place in question?

    Did he mint coins and leave inscriptions and other monuments?

    Are there any contemporary accounts of his life with a strong manuscript tradition?

    Were councils used in Christianity to sort out theological issues?

    Did emperors play a role in these councils?

    OK, now, think of a series of similar questions regarding the Book of Mormon:

    Was there a Tower of Babel?

    Is there evidence of Hebrew peoples in the Americas?

    And so on…

    You do not have the kind of supporting evidence even to begin asking questions about particular events.

    Gee needs to compare apples and oranges in order to bamboozle his reader into thinking the comparison is fair.

    There is no basis to begin asking about the reign of the second Nephite king’s dealings with the Christian Church in America, because one cannot even establish whether there were Nephites in America to begin with.