History Errors


Excerpts from book: Bauer, Susan Wise. The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. NY: W.W. Norton, 1999. Common errors in history:

1. "Misdirection by multiple proposition... explains one proposition and then wrap up with a statement that tosses one or two additiona proposition into the mix (193-4)...

2. "Substituting a question for a statement... a question does not give information; it implies a statement of fact, but if it were turned into a statement, it would often appear exaggerated or obviously untrue (194)...

3. "Drawing a false analogy... An analogy is meant to illustrate one part of an argument; it should never be treated as an exact parallel. A popular eighteenth-century analogy [for instance] the universe is like a clock set into motion by a Clockmaker makes one very specific point about the relationship between God and his creation... the analogy should not then be carried out to imply that the universe will "run down" (194)...

4. "Argument by example: Telling a story is not the same as proving a point... must be demonstrated by a much wider sampling [or it is just anecdotal] (194-5)...

5. "Incorrect sampling... How many examples does the historian use? Is this a significant number? Are they "representative"? ...

6. "Hasty generalizations. Using particulars... it is often tempting to draw a conclusion too quickly. Consider this argument:

- "Women were oppressed in ancient Greece
- "Women were oppressed in ancient Britain
- "Women were oppressed in ancient China
- "Therefore, women were oppressed in every ancient civilization.

"The conclusion seems likely, but the historian can't actually state it with confidence unless she has done an exhaustive survey of every ancient civilization (195)...

7. "Failure to define terms...

8. "Backward reasoning... finds a causal connection where none exists... just a symptom, not a cause. Because two facts are simultaneously true does not mean that one arises from the other (196)...

9. "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc... "after that, therefore because of it"... because one event comes after another in time, the first event caused the second event [NOT] (196)...

10. "Identification of a single cause-effect relationship... a wider fallacy: oversimplification. No historian should hang ANY historical event on a single cause...

11. "Failure to highlight both similarities and differences: whenever a historian draws parallels between events that happen in different cultures, or different times, does he also account for the differences that divide them?" (197).


Colby Glass, MLIS