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What are some common methods to verify historical claims?

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    I vote this for close. I afraid direct asking for sources is offtopic and lack of specification makes it too broad. Historians verify historical events very differently if it happened 50 years ago than 500 or 3000 years ago. I seriously doubt there is one methodology you are looking for. – CsBalazsHungary May 25 '16 at 14:26
  • I suppose they cross-check the claim with contemporary historical sources and if it checks out, well and good. If not, then nopes. Also I don't believe he is asking for resource. He is asking for the historical method which can be answered much like a question about scientific method can be – NSNoob May 25 '16 at 14:27
  • I am just trying to identify a reading material that act as a good starting point. wikipedia for example give relatively old and academic materials. Goodreads and amazon list tons of books without telling which can give you what? – Amr Farouk May 25 '16 at 14:29
  • I'm going to have to agree with @CsBalazsHungary on this. Despite how popular this question is, I can't see how this question can be viewed as "on-topic" when it asks about verification in such a broad sense. Perhaps this is a good question to discuss on Meta... – terminex9 May 27 '16 at 5:31
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is incredibly broad and does not ask about specific historical information. – terminex9 May 27 '16 at 5:32
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Just like Scientific method exists to prove or disprove scientific theories and hypothesis, Historical Method also exists.

Historians of course cross-check certain claims with contemporary sources including archaeological evidence and thus proceed to create their account of the concerned historic event.


Source Criticism

First step to this is called Source Criticism. According to "A guide to Historic Method" by Garraghan, following aspects are checked in this step:

  1. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?
  2. Where was it produced (localization)?
  3. By whom was it produced (authorship)?
  4. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?
  5. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?
  6. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

The first four are known as higher criticism; the fifth, lower criticism; and, together, external criticism. The sixth and final inquiry about a source is called internal criticism. Together, this inquiry is known as source criticism.

Bernheim has however proposed seven inquiries for this step which includes search for contradictory sources.

R.J. Shaffer proposes to take Eye-Witnesses into account as well. Garraghan further expands on it to include indirect-witnesses & oral tradition.


Synthesis: Historical Reasoning

Second step is called Historical Reasoning which involves drawing best possible logical conclusion from results of Source Criticism.

There are three aspects to it:

  1. Argument to Best Explanation
  2. Statistical Inference
  3. Argument from Analogy

C. Behan McCullagh lays down seven conditions for a successful argument to the best explanation:

  1. The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data. (We will henceforth call the first statement 'the hypothesis', and the statements describing observable data, 'observation statements'.)

  2. The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory scope than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must imply a greater variety of observation statements.

  3. The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must make the observation statements it implies more probable than any other.

  4. The hypothesis must be more plausible than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must be implied to some degree by a greater variety of accepted truths than any other, and be implied more strongly than any other; and its probable negation must be implied by fewer beliefs, and implied less strongly than any other.

  5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.

  6. It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements which are believed to be false.

  7. It must exceed other incompatible hypotheses about the same subject by so much, in characteristics 2 to 6, that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects.

McCullagh states Statistical Inference as follows:

  1. There is probability (of the degree p1) that whatever is an A is a B.

  2. It is probable (to the degree p2) that this is an A.

  3. Therefore, (relative to these premises) it is probable (to the degree p1 × p2) that this is a B.

The structure of Argument by Analogy is as follows:

  1. One thing (object, event, or state of affairs) has properties p1 . . . pn and pn + 1.

  2. Another thing has properties p1 . . . pn.

  3. So the latter has property pn + 1.


The book by Garraghan will help you a lot to understand the process. Other than that, this brief PDF paper and its sources will also come handy.

  • Thanks for the comprehensive answer. Thats indeed helpful – Amr Farouk May 25 '16 at 15:34
  • Not for nothing, but wouldn't getting the primary source documents/materials be the first step? And that's not a small or trivial step, in most cases, either, it's usually a significant undertaking. – HopelessN00b May 25 '16 at 17:28
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    @HopelessN00b: prior to a search for primary source material, one must know enough in order to develop a plan: like, what are the important dates/places/people? What are the most important open issues? Where might archived data be found? What other analysis has been performed? At some point you can do a focused search for the missing parts. – Peter Diehr May 25 '16 at 17:44
  • @PeterDiehr Yes, that's true too. Either way, I don't see source criticism as step 1. Just as with the Scientific Method, the first step is not attempting to refute your hypothesis. – HopelessN00b May 25 '16 at 17:48
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    @HopelessN00b: there are many ways to do history, and Source Criticism is a particular tool. Books are written on this: for example, books.google.com/books?id=TG6PXBKwXNMC – Peter Diehr May 25 '16 at 17:55
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The easiest way is to go directly to the person "responsible" for the said "History." So your most primary source are court records of people under oath. Even this can be at quite a variance to the facts as thought to be known...although you'd be surprised at how often criminals will commit a crime then brag about it afterwards.

I began my study of History by studying the History of Law itself...in other words "what are people complaining about and how?" In the "arc" of American History such a study yields a true wealth of objective data not just of the past but more importantly of "History that matters."

In the case of the United States that begins with riparian rights (rights to the flow of water down a river) then moves very quickly into Railroad Law. After that "the Law" becomes rather murky until Nuremberg.

But you do glean objective facts very quickly by such a study.

Then of course there is biography...go directly to the people responsible for some decision or leadership role yourself...in person...and ask them questions. This is especially true if they have or claimed to have authored an "autobiography." You'll be surprised at how often the "official story" is at a variance to the plain objective facts. So after these two come "journalists" or "papers of record" such as newspapers known for their reporting of the facts.

Fourth and most importantly never over think these matters. Nothing says "academic" more than "that town, City, entire Civilization was not entirely destroyed/eliminated." Basically the bulk of academia acts as the first "liar" for humanity...not necessarily a bad thing as the truth usually is quite painful...especially historical truth.

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    I'd downvote if I could, this is terrible. For one thing, ~93% of people are dead. That makes finding them and dragging them into court to testify under oath very difficult. For another thing, most primary source materials do not come from court testimony, but from records of what contemporary participants or observers did, said and/or wrote. And of course, none of that is objective, it is inherently subjective... this is just... so wrong. – HopelessN00b May 25 '16 at 17:53

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