I am not really sure about this as the historical method only provides information on what evidence should not be used (source criticism).

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    It's two sides of the same coin. If there's no reason a source shouldn't be used, then why aren't you using it? I also feel like there's a misunderstanding somewhere; why would historians be trying to agree on this? It's more about building a case from the available evidence. – Semaphore May 24 at 6:02
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    What research have you done so far? – Mark C. Wallace Aug 10 at 8:30

The short answer is that all the available evidence should be examined when we are attempting to write history.

The question then becomes how do we use those sources.


I'm fairly sure I mentioned this on another answer, but it may be worth repeating.

Many years ago*, when I was studying the subject, my tutor suggested seven guidelines to help us evaluate the relative 'value' of historical sources:

  1. If all the sources agree about an event, we can consider the event proved.
  2. However, majority rule does not apply; Even if a majority of sources relate events in one way, that version will not be accepted unless it can pass the test of critical textual analysis.
  3. In general, a source where part of the account can be confirmed by referring to independent authorities, can probably be trusted in its entirety – even if it is impossible to similarly confirm the whole text.
  4. When two sources disagree on a particular point, we generally prefer the source with the most "authority". This will be the source created closest in time to the event in question, by a person with particular expertise, or by an eyewitness.
  5. In general, eyewitnesses are preferred, particularly when they are dealing with events known by most, or at least many, contemporaries.
  6. If two or more independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is reinforced.
  7. When multiple sources disagree, and we have no other means of evaluation which source is "best", then Occam's Razor applies. Good historians choose the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

(Ironically, she never quoted her source for these guidelines!).


Now, obviously, several of these guidelines are highly subjective - especially the last one! It is thus not surprising that interpretations of events based on the same evidence will often vary depending on the personal views or prejudices of particular historians.


*Almost so long ago that Pontius was still in training for his Pilate's licence, and Centurion was a rank and not a tank!

  • I'm going to argue with #1: the sources we have available for an event may all be biased in the same way. For example, the battle between the German armed merchant cruiser Kormoran and the Australian light cruiser Sydney resulted in the loss of both ships, and there were no survivors from the Sydney. The only records of the battle we have are from German survivors, who did have some time to concoct a story. If Kormoran had done something illegal (such as fire a torpedo from a submerged tube without raising its ensign), it's very unlikely that the German survivors would have reported it. – David Thornley Aug 10 at 16:46
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    @DavidThornley History is about the evidence. If all the survivors accounts agree, and unless other evidence is found to contradict them (e.g. from marine archaeology), then that becomes the historical record. Anything else puts us into the realm of hypotheticals, or - even worse - counterfactual history – sempaiscuba Aug 10 at 16:55
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    And, in some cases, we have to admit that there isn't sufficient evidence for a definite conclusion. We have no evidence that the Kormoran incident differed substantially from the latest accounts, but there are possible deviations from that that we can't be confident didn't happen. I'm not saying we don't write what we know, I'm saying that it isn't proven. – David Thornley Aug 10 at 21:27
  • Or, to provide another example are we to consider accounts of alien abduction to be historically proven? We have a good many accounts of that, many of which are fairly similar. In most or all cases, we don't have evidence that the abduction didn't happen. Personally, I think this is a matter of attention-seekers and copycats, despite having unchallenged accounts. – David Thornley Aug 10 at 21:32
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    @DavidThornley For your first example, a history of the incident will record the source as being the survivors' accounts, and that the survivors were all from the Kormoran. Personally, I don't think that speculation beyond that counts as 'history'. For your second example (which I assume is tongue-in-cheek), the answer would be "no", since it would almost certainly fail critical examination under point #2. After all, presumably the laws of physics should also be considered 'evidence' in cases like that? – sempaiscuba Aug 10 at 22:17

Every historical essay has a different topic of inquiry and so will have a different legitimate source basis. Within this, however, an essay into a topic must be capable of supporting its claims with sources adequate for the scope of the claims and adequate to have had discovered refutation of the claims.

Usually this means the major archival holdings for agencies, or the appropriate archival topical search for claims not focused on an agent.

On top of this the essay must demonstrate its theoretical tools or concepts are not perverse, and assay the appropriate historiography and other fields' secondary literature.

In some areas particular kind as of primary source or their uses are considered perverse for certain claims based on source criticism. Repeated passing of laws, for example, generally means the law failed to regulate a social conduct.

The general process for agreement then is to publish and potentially be damned.

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