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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Friday, June 27, 2003

history in the dock

It has been frequently remarked that the way of practicing History is much like that of practicing Law. The difference is that lawyers demand a higher standard of evidence! Lawyer, Eyler Coates, takes a somewhat unkind view of historians when he writes:

“It is obvious that the way a historian utilizes evidence and the way a lawyer does the same, is quite different. The lawyer, in the ordinary practice of his trade, employs far higher standards of precision than does the historian. The legal system is designed to reach a decision, and to give the benefit of the doubt to the person charged, if the case is insufficient. The historian, on the other hand, uses whatever evidence that is available in trying to construct the story of the past, and is free to employ imagination to fill in the minor gaps. This allows for an enormous amount of subjectivity (read: bias and prejudice)…A historian will frequently set down a description of events on the basis of evidence that would cause a lawyer to be laughed out of a courtroom...

The historian is free to guess, to extrapolate, to use his or her imagination to create an interesting story that probably resembles what actually happened…The historian fits the pieces together and sorts out contradictions based on the evidence itself, its context, and the probabilities realized from an overall view of the historical situation…”

Professor Richard Bernstein notes:
“As a historian with legal training and experience... I am painfully aware of the differences between the historian's enterprise and the lawyer's enterprise. For one thing, were we to apply the lawyer's standard of evidence to what we know of the past, historians would be crippled in any number of explanatory and interpretative enterprises.

Moreover, we must remember that, in the lawyer's enterprise, specifically as it relates to trials and lawsuits, the plaintiff (or prosecutor) puts forward a story, buttressed by evidence and argument. The defendant's task is simply to show that the plaintiff or prosecutor has not met his/her applicable burden of proof. In criminal cases, that standard of course is "beyond a reasonable doubt”…

By contrast, historians of necessity consider and evaluate a range of competing stories about the past and competing explanations, weighing them as having greater or lesser explanatory and probative value.”

Beth Marie Kosir in her work Richard III: A Study in Historigraphical Controversy captures the problem well:

“If historians could place themselves in the role of prosecuting attorneys, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, in their assessment of historical figures, perhaps many those figures would be located, not in the dock, but on the bench."

Noted historian David Hackett should have the last word:
“…historians, like lawyers, must respect the doctrine of reasonable doubt, they must equally be able to recognize an unreasonable doubt when they see one.” Historians' Fallacies, p53.

8:03:00 pm