Hello I am new to this subject on a serious basis, and my first question, or set of questions, isn't actually a history question itself, but more of a question of the protocol for fact checking in the process of studying history.

So firstly, suppose I have read an account of a particular event X from a source Y, in as much as yes they will have referenced this in the way we are all familiar with, this still doesn't give me any assurances that those sources are not also false in a manner congruent to the manner for which the citation I have just read is false, so what infrastructure and or institution is assigned the role of policing and regulating the authenticity of publications online, and if I do need to purchase a hard copy of a text, what assurance that too has entirely factual content?

Secondly, in the cases for which a historical account has particulars that are still not known, what is the protocol for declaring this in something we write in a historical account and or what institution is assigned the role of ensuring or authenticating publishers adhere to this protocol?


3 Answers 3


Since you have located History SE on the Internet, one approach would be to ask here

I have read an account of a particular event X from a source Y

"Is the account true of false?"

in the cases for which a historical account has particulars that are still not known

Again, you can ask the question here. That does not mean that the particular question can or will be settled here to any particular observer's complete satisfaction.

Some historical questions do not involve controversy, for example, "On what date was the United States Declaration of Independence signed?".

Other historical questions might not ever be entirely resolved, even using modern technology, to any or all readers, students, authors of history complete satisfaction, for example, the questions of the origin of the Ancient Egyptians and the claims of certain people having "deciphered" or "transliterated" the so-called "hieroglyphics" of Ancient Egypt.

To illustrates the basic issue of citing and relying primary evidence and then setting historical questions aside, some people might live a number of years believing that their parents are their biological parents before being told, or discovering themselves, they were adopted, or, that one of their parents is actually not their biological parent. Since no human remembers being born, the child has only the account of their parents to rely on, or, when they reach a certain age, the ability to cite a birth certificate. However, if the child is never told that they were adopted, or one of their parents is not their biological parent, then they could easily live their entire lives without ever questioning the primary source of a birth certificate being true or that one or more of their parents is not their biological parent.

There is also the element of instinct involved in the investigation and study of history, which should not be discounted entirely, else one might not investigate paths to the truth that do not appear in a previously published work, but rather, spring from your own intellect. At some point an individual might become enlightened to the degree that they draw their own conclusions based on their own reasoning. The important point to remember at that stage is to clearly state that you have drawn your own conclusions, and attribute the conclusion to yourself. Facts can be disputed and conclusions drawn refuted. History is a living art and science. Whether you stand on the conclusions that you draw, whether supported by a primary or secondary source, is your own prerogative.

Cannot honestly state that History SE is absent of institutional flaws, users which have disclosed or un-disclosed biases, or that even sources cited will not be questioned. Though History SE is at least here and available to vet questions such as "I have read an account of a particular event X from a source Y "Is the account true of false?"".

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    Sure well we can at least agree that this will serve nicely to open up a dialogue between members of the online community for any desired historical subject. It's not so much the aspect of our Ancient history that has patches of subjectivity that may very well never be truly resolved, I actually prefer the mystery surrounding Pythagoras to remain that way, the dull reality of the modern day mathematician needs that escapism. More the account from opposing sides of conflict in our most recent few centuries, the omission of details due to increasingly clandestine social structures. Commented Sep 19, 2018 at 1:01

what infrastructure and or institution is assigned the role of policing and regulating the authenticity of publications online.

There is no such institution, nor should there be. Truth isn't a token that can be possessed and guarded by any institution. Truth is a process, and peer review is one of the feedback mechanisms to guide that process. History is dynamic. What we know today is incomplete; tomorrow we will discover more and we will check the new facts against the old, and debate which is the most compelling narrative that includes most of the facts and omits the fewest facts in which we have high confidence. The day after that we'll discover something new and iterate.

You will discover incredible publications, both online and offline. Credible publications tend to cite other credible publications and make claims supported by evidence. Incredible publications tend to bend facts to fit theories. But there is no brilliant line. Our understanding of - just to pick an example - the causes of the American Revolution have changed utterly within my lifetime. Whiggish history used to be ubiquitous, but is now a subject for contempt. French historians used to be judged by how many times they cited Marx / page (that may be coming back into fashion).

I recoil from the notion of any institution or infrastructure that would "police and regulate" truth. The very concept is horrifying; no matter what complexities arise from unregulated truth, they cannot compare to the danger of regulated truth.

A pithier quote

Every periodical is its own ultimate authority, over its own content, as it should be. @pietergeerkens

(I just went back and did a tonecheck of my writing - don't know if it is necessary, but just for the record, none of the above is intended to be disrespectful or disparaging to @Adam; the above is merely my opinion in response to the question.)

Updating the question to address what I think is a gap in assumptions. I make a set of assumptions about any institution - if an institution were given the power to control publications, I think this assumptions would quickly dominate that institution's behavior.

  • The welfare of the institution is more important than the mission of the institution. Threats to the institution are existential; threats to the mission (history) are eternal and subject to interpretation.

  • Challenges to the interpretation of the institution are effectively threats to the institution and must be suppressed.

  • Challenges to the staff of the institution must be addressed vigorously.

  • "International" is a goal; nobody ever really forgets the prejudices of the natal country. If you were trained in history in France, you honestly believe that proper history should contain citations of Marx every 0.37 paragraphs, etc.

To misquote Federalist, "If historians were angels, there would be no need for the international institution of accuracy in history." But historians are human, and institutions designed by humans will serve the institution more than the discipline. The only possible protection is to prevent the formation of the institution.

Put another way, since history is a science, Kuhn indicates that progress in that science will consist of hard fought conflict. Any institution is only going to serve to retard that progress by providing a bastion for the established truth.

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    re "There is no such institution, nor should there be." Or perhaps more accurately: Every periodical is its own ultimate authority, over its own content, as it should be. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 17:16
  • Perhaps a better proposal would have to an authority or institution that seeks to ensure the truth as you call it, remains a process. If no such things are ever possessed as a token as you say, then how are laws ever made? I don't dispute this is often unfair, I can cite an enormous number of laws that exist in Australia amougst other places that are unjust and unjustly enforced. But I am afraid I consider you to be incorrect here, the law, as well as the protocol for which the medium periodicals are allowed publication, are such tokens, whichever way you look at it. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 5:26
  • And I can assure you good Sir, no disrespect was received, nor should there ever be in the case when one is in receipt of expressions of an opposing point of view. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 5:27
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    @Adam How do you determine that any such organisation is free of bias? It's nice to believe in such things, but it should be obvious looking at the mostly leftwing stance of universities today that any such organisation will be open to political influence. Claiming to have a monopoly on the truth is a great way to shutdown those with a contrary view on history.
    – Daniel
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 20:42
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    I loved the bit about learning history in France, yes here in Australia I remember there being very little to be told about the history of Tasmania. I suppose i wrote this question in one of those moments of self pity, not knowing every little detail about whatever i desire to, as if I'm the only person to ever go through such trauma haha Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 19:56

The scholarly discipline of history uses debated consensus forming across reviewed journal articles, chapters and books to describe a number of not currently rejected narratives of processes, relationships or agents.

Truth, fact and event don't belong to disciplinary history. "Not currently demonstrated to be meaningfully wrong," is what we do instead.

There are some ground rules of what not to do: misusing sources; not using essential sources; using inappropriate sources; not using enough sources; not using a great enough variety of sources. The response from reviewers will be harsh.

All historical writing involves theory use. Sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. Using bad theory, or using it inappropriately, will bring harsh responses.

Finally, the historical community pursues and in some cases publicly crucifies people purporting to be historians who are instead knowing and wilful liars. The community of historical scholars, and other allied fields such as teachers, archivists, librarians and curators have in the past fifty years been willing to attack western governments over historical myth making.

  • Well that truly is an uplifting final passage to read. I suppose on days I have turned on the television and listened to such myth making by various media groups I tend to forget that what is being said isn't likely to remain as the stated facts in the future there after, I am quite often guilty of only seeing a world of liars, they tend to be the loudest sometimes and I forget how many are there also paying attention and having respect for the truth. Commented Sep 19, 2018 at 1:21

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