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A while ago while watching Crash Course World History, John Green mentioned how Alexander the Great died from the flu despite many people from that time claiming that he died in battle (because this is more heroic and fitting for a king). Also, in an archeology textbook, I read about how the popular representation of Neanderthals (depicted as ape-like hairy beasts) is completely wrong because plenty of archaeologists in the early 20th century thought that all “cave men” were unintelligent and savage.

Given that for most of human history, all that we know from our past comes from spoken word or fragments of written records. How can we discern what actually happened from fabrications? Perhaps is it more important to know more about who’s telling the story than the actual story in this case?

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Related questions 1 2 3 et. al. –  Mark C. Wallace May 30 '13 at 19:08
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

The art of history is that of using all the knowledge you have, and making logical conclusions based on primary sources. The only way to accurately determine what happened in the past is to get as many different sources as you can, and put them together like a puzzle. Each piece on its own has some truth in it, so that all the pieces together make the whole truth. When doing this, you have to take into account the bias that a particular source may have.

For example, Emperor Valerian of Rome, is said to have been captured in battle by the Sassanids. The Roman Record says that he had been captured in battle and no one ever paid his ransom. On the other hand, the Persian record states that Valerian was killed in a battle that is not found on the Roman record.

A previous emperor, Decius, also died in battle with the Goths. So you have to think, maybe the Romans were disgraced by losing their second emperor in a very short time, so they used propaganda to cover it up (Mike Duncan, The History of Rome).

When attempting to sift through historical bias, you have to take into account all of the factors that influenced the writers, and then you can get a fairly accurate picture of what happened, maybe with a few puzzle pieces missing. Unfortunately, the only fail proof way to find out the truth would be to go back in time.

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I think you misheard History of Rome. The emperor that supposedly died in a battle with Persia was Alexander Severus. Everyone agrees that Valerian was captured by them. –  Oldcat Jan 10 at 0:23
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My original (for which I'm being burned at stake by the site):

Historians don't? History is said to be written by the victors and you can't very well write up on your achievements if you have already departed the mortal plane.
For example, we will never really know just what kind of king Richard III of England was due to Shakespeare's famous plays (written during Tudor times) distorting our views. While Richard III is not exactly going to come back himself to tell us either.



Lets try again:

'History' that is assessed by historians relates to past events that may have happened a long time ago - too long perhaps to be able to question anyone alive who was present at that time.
If this is the case, historians would have to rely on a variety of primary sources (e.g. original treaty document that ended a war) and secondary sources (e.g. someone not involved in the event describes the event in a book perhaps several decades) that describe that event.
If there are sources that describe both sides / multiple perspectives of the event, then historians can try to piece together an understanding of what really happened.
If sources completely oppose each other then this can be tricky. Case in point - the Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, the treaty document is written both in the Hittite language and in the Egyptian language.
However, both accounts provide opposing details to the outcome (both sides claim victory in the same battle).
Reference: "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian–Hittite_peace_treaty"

In this case, the bias involved in the sources can be dealt with in the sense that we know that at least one or more source(s) is/are not completely trustworthy. However, we do not know the real outcome of the battle - both factions are not going to tell us what really happened.
So, perhaps, in the sense that we cannot piece together the truth, I referred to historians not being able to deal with historical bias. The sole meaning of the last sentence is intended to reflect the fact that the bias cannot be overcome to find the truth.



[can I please get more constructive feedback on this (not just a simple -1, but a real comment like Sardathrion's)]

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-1. Historians do deal with bias all the time. This is just plain wrong speculations. –  Sardathrion Oct 14 '13 at 9:03
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And you can deal with bias even without opposing sources. It's harder, but doable. So historians do deal with bias. Often badly but that's another issue. :-) But I won't give you a -1 I don't want to discourage you from continuing on the site. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 14 '13 at 18:02
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Seconding user2875474's request: if you downvote this (or anything else), leave a comment why. –  Joe Oct 14 '13 at 20:42
    
I haven't downvoted, but I think this answer needs to be seriously condensed. I'm finding it hard to tease out the key points you trying to make. –  LateralFractal Oct 14 '13 at 23:35
    
Dealing with bias is different from being able to get to the truth despite the bias. As I understand it, you are saying, "while a Historian may acknowledge and be aware of an existing bias, an actual truth cannot be arrived at anyway in many cases." If this sums up your point, I'd say the downvote is uncalled for, except that a little editing may add clarity. –  balanced mama Oct 23 '13 at 17:41
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