I am frequently annoyed by what I read on Facebook, what I hear from politicians, or what I endure from the poorly researched articles created by journalists and pundits. Obvious ignorance, easily avoided, propagates freely.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Learning the simple principles of research could solve many from embarrassment.

My undergraduate degree was in history and one of the required courses was in the methodology of research. Our primary textbook was The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff. Another book I read in that class was Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, by David Hackett Fischer. Fischer demonstrated some of the mistakes that can be made in historical research—or any kind of research—by using examples from various books and academic articles.

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Together with a course in logic, and an understanding of both the scientific method and Occam’s Razor, anyone can learn to recognize truth and falsehood. In fact, once you get the principles inside of you, it becomes pretty easy to recognize lies, stupidity, and general misinformation even if you still don’t know what the truth is.

The basic methods of research include the following:

1. Recognize the primary importance of facts.  Priority must always be given to tangible, objective data, and to external evidence over subjective theory or speculative opinions. Facts must control theory and not vice-versa. Source material must always be scrutinized in this light.

2. Find the primary sources. In research, one must always seek out the original source material—seek to discover the origin of a story, legend, or incident. For instance, the tale of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree originates in a book written by Parson Mason Locke Weems entitled The Life of Washington that was published in 1800. The story appears nowhere prior to Weems’ book. He attributes it to “…an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family…” He does not name even name her. If you can’t get specific and verifiable names and dates for sources, then be very skeptical.

3. Treat stories that confirm or are consistent with what you believe the same way you’d treat stories that contradict what you believe: with skepticism.  If it’s so good, so delicious that it just must be true—it probably isn’t.

4. Take a positive attitude toward source material: that is, the original sources, documents, pictures and the like.  Our source material is innocent until proven guilty. It is the normal practice to assume the general reliability of statements in our sources, unless there is good, explicit evidence to the contrary. Unreliability, secondary origins, dishonesty of a writer, or tendentious traits — all these must be clearly proved by tangible evidence, and not merely inferred to support a theory. Does your source have an axe to grind? Does the source have an obvious bias or reason to be less than truthful?  Consider the fictional tale of a two man race between an American athlete and a Soviet athlete during the Cold War. The American won. The Russian newspaper Pravda reported the race as follows: “The imperialist American came in next to last, while the glorious Soviet worker came in second.” Accurate, but misleading.

5.  Negative evidence is really no evidence at all: “Although there is nothing to suggest Joe eats kittens, we also can find no proof that he doesn’t.” Obviously that tells you nothing about Joe.  Instead, it tells you a lot about the one who would say such a thing about Joe.  

When it comes to history, if someone writes, “we find no evidence of” something, that’s really all we know.  It doesn’t mean that the person or event didn’t happen.  Remember that the absence of evidence too often merely reflects the large gaps in our present day knowledge of historical periods; the further back in time we look, the less evidence that has survived to the present. Much relevant evidence still awaits discovery or decipherment, or else it has simply been lost. Although cuneiform tablets and fragments in the world’s museums are numbered in the hundreds of thousands, they are but a fraction of all that were written — perhaps ninety-nine percent are still in the ground or destroyed. In the words of the archeologist Cyrus Gorden, “for every mound excavated in the Near East, a hundred remain untouched.”

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