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). From email from Delancey Place:

from Made in America by Bill Bryson. The missions of Christopher Columbus and most of the other New World explorers we remember were viewed as failures in their day:

"Columbus never found Antilla or anything else he was looking for. His epochal voyage of 1492 was almost the last thing -- indeed almost the only thing -- that went right in his life. Within eight years, he would find himself summarily relieved of his post as Admiral of the Ocean Sea, returned to Spain in chains, and allowed to sink into such profound obscurity that we don't know for sure where he is buried. To achieve such a precipitous fall in less than a decade required an unusual measure of incompetence and arrogance. Columbus had both.

"He spent most of those eight years bouncing around the islands of the Caribbean and coast of South America without ever having any real idea of where he was or what he was doing. He always thought that Cipangu, or Japan, was somewhere nearby and never divined that Cuba was an island. To his dying day he insisted that it was part of the Asian mainland (though there is some indication that he had his own doubts, since he made his men swear under oath that it was Asia or have their tongues cut out). His geographic imprecision is most enduringly preserved in the name he gave to the natives: Indios, which of course has come down to us as Indians. He cost the Spanish crown a fortune and gave in return little but broken promises. And throughout he behaved with the kind of impudence -- demanding to be made hereditary Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as well as viceroy and governor of the lands that he conquered, and to be granted one-tenth of whatever wealth his enterprises generated -- that all but invited his eventual downfall.


Colby Glass, MLIS