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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