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Remember This, Newmarket: Historians balance facts with narrative to bring alive our past

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod invites you to join the discussion: Is the telling of our history more closely aligned to the arts or the sciences?

Art or science? It’s a topic that has been under debate for many years, in fact dating back to my final thesis at university back in the 1970s. What is the nature of the study of history? Is it more closely aligned to the arts or the sciences? I invite you to join the discussion and offer your opinion in the comments section below. 

Perhaps we should start the discussion with a clarification of what history is about. I can clearly remember my first history professor at university stating,“History is not just a collection of facts about the past, it is an interpretation of the past based on the weight of available evidence.” 

History is an academic discipline meant to facilitate our understanding of the present and future by examining past events, affording us a more comprehensible understanding of the present, and the possible events in our future. 

History affords us the unique opportunity to examine present day events and trace them back to their root causes or to influential events from our past. 

Within the study of history, we find the convergence of two other disciplines, that of the arts and science. I still maintain it could very well be a bit of both. 

It is certainly true history is not strictly a science due to its numerous limitations regarding its methods, validity and scope, and the delicate distinction between a justified belief and an opinion. 

Perhaps it is important to define what we mean by the term ‘science’. I was taught that science is defined as an inquiry using the scientific method of verifiable and repeatable empirical testing of any given hypothesis. 

The study of history certainly does draw conclusions based on observational evidence.  Historians undergo the process of creating an inquiry aimed at getting as close as possible to truth, rather than mere opinion, but is this always true?

I think that the study of history has long been conflicted because it is unlike almost any other field of study. History has no unique subject matter; it is essentially the study of absolutely anything of interest and how it has evolved over time. 

When we look at ancient and medieval history, we discover history was thought to be an art. Its primary purpose was to reveal beauty and morality and provide a guide as to how they should aspire to live; if what happened in the past teaches a bad moral lesson, then historians were expected to revise the story. 

Truth was much less important than the lessons people were required to learn from it.

Over time, the study of history became more interested in accuracy. Eighteenth century historians searched for the 'laws' of history, a project that was eventually abandoned.

In the 19th century, an effort was made to make history an empirical science, relying only on primary source documentation, limiting any efforts by the historian to spin conjectures. 

This spinning of history is, of course, the root of all the conspiracy theories that we find prevalent in our society today.

In the 20th century, it became abundantly clear even those primary documents were largely unreliable. History is not just written by the winners; they also produce most of the records from their own point of view, and so any piece of evidence has the potential to be biased.  

The study of history continues to be far more than strictly scientific pursuit than historians envisioned 150 years ago. 

There is little doubt the study of history focuses on the discovery of facts rather than solely beliefs and utilizes the best empirical evidence available, incorporating a variety of new sources of evidence such as archeology, or paleoclimate science as they become available. 

Historical inquiry cannot use the conventional scientific method. History has no firm 'laws’ because human behavior is so extraordinarily complex. We are forced instead to draw indirect conclusions from the traces and relics of the past that may perhaps still exist today. 

Historians can make ‘verifiable predictions’ based on educated hypothesis, predicting things that are yet undiscovered: Heinrich Schliemann did predict the location of Troy based primarily on an analysis of geographical references in ancient texts.

History can sometimes make predictions about the future. We certainly have many examples of history repeating itself.

History today may not be entirely a scientific endeavour, however, that does not make its findings merely speculative.

If we could travel back in time and observe it as it happened, then it would be an observational science, but obviously that is not possible. What we can do is look back at the various sources of information, unearthing some of what was said by our ancestors about the past. 

I have been conducting ‘oral history interviews’ for nearly 50 years with excellent results.

Historians form conclusions based upon these reliable sources, but sadly historians are only human, having personalities, bias, personal interests, and individual concerns. 

History is constantly changing; historians looking at our Confederation in 1967 will likely tell a much different story than historians doing a similar examination in 2067. The story will get more accurate, but it will be different because the historians conducting the examination will be different.

It is quite possible that if you read another historian’s account of the same topic you may get a different story, with both stories being valid, simply different.

We expect that when a historian writes about a topic, that they are well read in as many different versions of the topic as possible, with an understanding of how the topic has evolved.

The historian utilizes many tools, such as the academic disciplines of sociology, economics, anthropology, and religion; academic disciplines that assist in the deciphering of the facts and figures. Historians often find themselves drifting into the realm of literature, attempting to interpret the human psychological basis for an event.

The evidence for past events is always incomplete and fragmentary. Many pieces of evidence are lost, and others quite often faded and warped. Historians fit the pieces together as carefully as possible, but holes generally remain in the picture and need to be reconstructed. 

Understanding the need to ‘fill in the gaps of historical facts’, touches on the essence of the art of history and the historian’s ability to piece together the facts to form a reconstructed narration of history.

The historian must try to strike a balance when attempting to enhance historical facts and historical narratives.

This area of balance is often the point at which the historian may omit evidence or interpret facts subjectively. Historians might find it impossible to omit their own point of view, to be aware of their own prejudices or to guard against letting these intrude into their approach to historical study.  

The historian is charged with the task of interpretation and documentation which, believe you me, is an art that can often make the difference between just a fanciful endeavour and an academic result. 

History, when done correctly, can take on the characteristics of both the arts and of scientific methodology.  

After all, who wants to read a dissertation of dry and boring facts? Above all, we must remember that history is about people and personalities make history. It is the people aspect that drew me to the study and documentation of history.

I can not think of a better hobby or more enjoyable pastime. The pursuit of the past should be fun and transport us back to a time and place that engages our imagination.

Be sure to let me know what 

Sources: Doing History Research and Writing in the Digital Age by Chris J. Arndt, Michael J. Galgano, and Raymond M. Hyser; What is History? by Edward H. Carr; History as Art and as Science: Twin Vistas on the Past by H. Stuart Hughes; A Short Guide to Writing About History 7th Edition by Richard Marius and Melvin E. Page


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, (aka the History Hound) has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.