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Historical Evidence and Argument

David Henige

Publication Year: 2005

Historians know about the past because they examine the evidence. But what exactly is “evidence,” how do historians know what it means—and how can we trust them to get it right? Historian David Henige tackles such questions of historical reliability head-on in his skeptical, unsparing, and acerbically witty Historical Evidence and Argument. “Systematic doubt” is his watchword, and he practices what he preaches through a variety of insightful assessments of historical controversies—for example, over the dating of artifacts and the textual analysis of translated documents. Skepticism, Henige contends, forces us to recognize the limits of our knowledge, but is also a positive force that stimulates new scholarship to counter it.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi

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1. Declaiming the Endtime

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pp. 1-4

As the second millennium clocked down, a flurry of writing on “the end of history” appeared. This proved millennarian not only in timing, but in outlook. The end was nigh, not because historians had gone as far with the available evidence as they could, but because there was no farther to go. ...

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2. Traveling Hopefully

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pp. 5-14

When Srinavasa Ramanujan burst onto the world of mathematics in 1914, his work was recognized as brilliant, but also criticized as inchoate. He often provided solutions without step-by-step preliminaries. Nonetheless, his results survived testing so well that mathematicians came to accept that many solutions for which he provided no apparent basis would eventually prove to be valid.1

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3. The Anxieties of Ambiguity

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pp. 15-28

Hans Goedicke conceded that his hypothesis about the relationship of the two successors of Pepi I “cannot be confirmed by any written evidence (especially since the official tradition was changed later), but on the other hand no indi-...

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4. Unraveling Gordian Knots

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pp. 29-41

An episode of a radio show began with the keeper of a “differential integrator” regaling his audience with its wondrous powers. It could perform in sixteen minutes work that would take a team of twenty mathematicians ten years to accomplish. One of his audience innocently asked: “How do you know the answer’s right” unless “twenty mathematicians...

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5. When Too Much Is Not Enough

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pp. 42-57

Imagine a historian a millennium or two in the future attempting to write a history of some part of the world at the end of the twentieth century. Suppose that he was forced to work with less than one percent of the evidence that now exists. Suppose further that this evidence consists of a few general histories that often disagree with one another, fragmentary economic data, a few literary works that occasionally relate to the real world, and nothing else. ...

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6. The Many Births of Frank Lloyd Wright

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pp. 58-64

In 1911 Raymond Pearl conducted an experiment based on Mendelian genetics. 532 kernels from the same ear of corn were counted and categorized by fifteen different people. Pearl had divided them himself on a genetically expected 9:3:3:1 breakdown for color and texture, but found that “[n]o two of the fifteen highly...

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7. Destroying in Order to Save

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pp. 65-76

In 1998 Biblical Archaeologist changed its name; it was now to be called Near Eastern Archaeology. As the editor put it, the “decision . . . emerged from a lengthy and agonizing process.” Earlier, the title change had been described as “emotionally difficult,” and it ran against the grain of subscriber sentiment.1 ...

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8. Speaking of History

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pp. 77-90

In 1971 Leonard Berkowitz published the results of his investigation into how a famous psychological experiment had been assimilated into textbooks since 1951. Berkowitz found disappointing results: “[t]he findings are correctly reported in very few of these works” and “[t]here are serious omissions and represen-...

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9. Sensing Incongruity

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pp. 91-101

The Library of Congress classification system is almost universally used in the world of academic libraries. It is not without faults—one of these is that the scheme originally separated “works of literature” from “works of history,” and that division ostensibly remains today. ...

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10. Poisoned Chalices

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pp. 102-116

In baseball record books Ted Williams is credited with hitting .406 in 1941, and with six American League batting titles during his career. Behind these statistics are some intriguing variables. One involves the fitful evolution of the sacrifice fly rule. Except from 1931 to 1938 and 1940 to 1953, a fly ball out that drove in a run was not counted an official time at-bat. ...

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11. Scotching the Myth-Making Machine

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pp. 117-124

Abner Doubleday is a widely-recognized name in American sports history. Most who know his name also “know” he invented baseball. In fact, Doubleday had no more to do with the development of the game than his biblical namesake. After baseball became the national pastime, the game’s authorities felt impelled to document an indigenous origin. ...

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12. Irreconcilable Differences

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pp. 125-133

One of the best-known stories of all time is that of the “first Christmas.” This popular tale is actually a composite of elements from the gospels of Matthew and Luke—the other gospels start Christ off later in life. The elements in Matthew’s gospel (the “star,” the magi, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt) and those that appear in Luke’s...

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13. “We’re Changing Everything . . . Again”

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pp. 134-147

John Locke saw chronology and geography as saving history from being “only a jumble of Matters of Fact, confusedly heaped together without Order or Instruction.” But scholars need only be concerned with “the general part of it.” ...

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14. Rule Life vs. Real Life

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pp. 148-160

In 1994 A.T. Fomenko published a two-volume work with the imposing title Empirico-Statistical Analysis of Narrative Material and Its Application to Historical Dating, in which he called for a revision of “some important ancient historical events.”1 ...

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15. When Might Makes Wrong

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pp. 161-172

In 1999 millions of people laughed when the President of the United State publicly quibbled over the meaning of the word “is.” Their amusement sprang from the circumstances of the occasion, but also from an intuition that “is” cannot have too many variant meanings, and that the President was being uncharacteristically pedantic. ...

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16. Six Hundred Barrels of Plaster of Paris

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pp. 173-185

From time to time we see hypothetical reconstructions of gigantic dinosaurs, with an indication of the osteological basis of the reconstruction. Nearly a century ago Mark Twain addressed the problem when referring to what we knew for certain about a famous literary figure: “[William Shakespeare] is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of paris.”1 ...

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17. Millions of Moving Parts

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pp. 186-199

In his Republic Plato turned to a universal solvent: “I would say that if we can’t locate anything beyond these, we should consider something that applies to all of them. What? Virtually the first thing everyone has to learn. It is common to all arts, science, and forms of thought. ...

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18. He Says, She Says

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pp. 200-210

In his autobiography Charles Darwin recalled his attitude to scholarly colloquy: “I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at...

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19. Bringing Texts Up to Code

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pp. 211-222

From time to time we observe aging figures in the entertainment world and wonder how much of the original version has survived multiple liposuctions and face-lifts. Cosmetic surgery on the grand scale is not confined to this side of life and not all practitioners have medical degrees. ...

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20. Gaining and Providing Access

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pp. 223-235

Once the thinking has been carried out, doing follows, and this closely involves the relationship of historian and sources as well as historian and audience. The scholarly world is being reminded of an old concept—“access”— which in many cases is what libraries and scholars purchase in lieu of books and journals, photocopies and microforms. ...

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21. Hearing a White Horse Coming

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pp. 236-244

Gazing both behind and ahead, a historian of science indulged in a moment of introspection: “. . . in the fullness of time, will future generations of scholars smile at our methods, at our conclusions, and at our gullibility just as we smile at what we perceive to have been the geo-chronological absurdities of the likes of Ussher, Buffon, Kelvin or Joly? ...


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pp. 245-278


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pp. 279-316


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pp. 317-325

E-ISBN-13: 9780299214135
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299214104

Publication Year: 2005