Recent News - Comparing Viewpoints

Question 1: How can we trust evidence?

August 12, 2009 - 11:04 AM

In this first Viewpoints conversation, BHH welcomes Dr. Catherine Denial and Dr. Konrad Hamilton of the Knox College History Department.   Catherine has been a historian with Bringing History Home since 2001.  Konrad joined us in 2006.   They graciously agreed to provide the first pair of responses for this new blog, which is highly appropriate since their ongoing conversations during BHH plannings and de-briefings not only provide excellent eavesdrop fodder, but seeded the idea for this comparative viewpoint format.    

With that bit of background established, let's get to the heart of the blog.  In this post, I will list the question that was posed.  In the two following posts, I will list Catherine and Konrad's responses.  On August 4, 2009, I asked Catherine and Konrad to respond to the following...

In the course of Bringing History Home professional development events, we explore the nature of history as evidence-based and interpretive.  During a recent workshop, one of the 4th grade teachers attending the event considered the implications of this nature, and posed this question:

In today's world where we have the software to alter photos and 
edit documents, how do we combat things like holocaust denial?  How 
do we give students any confidence in drawing conclusions about 
what happened in the past when evidence itself is vulnerable to 
tampering and alteration?
  

Response-C. Denial-Question 1

August 12, 2009 - 11:04 AM

In today's world where we have the software to alter photos and edit documents, how do we combat things like holocaust denial?  How do we give students any confidence in drawing conclusions about what happened in the past when evidence itself is vulnerable to tampering and alteration?

 Dr. Catherine Denial's Response

There are two ways we guard against being misled - the first is by stopping to understand where the evidence we have came from, and the second is by corroborating items with other evidence from the same era.  In essence, primary sources must earn our trust.

 Sourcing:

 'Stop and Source!' is a tactic we talk about in our Bringing History Home workshops.  Whenever we analyze a document, a photograph, an illustration, or an artifact, we first stop and ask: 

  • Who made this?
  • When was it made?
  • Where was it made?
  • Why was it made?
  •  

These pieces of information help us become critical consumers of historical evidence.  They help us work out the context in which a document or an image was created and ask who benefited from it being made.  They help us anticipate the ways in which that document or image might be constructed to relate a very particular point of view.  If we don't know who made the document, image, or artifact, why it was made, or when, then we know to approach the item with a healthy dose of skepticism.

 Corroboration:

 Historians never base their conclusions on a single piece of evidence - rather, they compare primary sources (documents, images, and artifacts left from the era the historian is studying) to find patterns.  A single piece of evidence that suggests the Holocaust never happened (perhaps by omitting the location of concentration camps from maps, for example) would hold very little weight in comparison to the thousands of pieces of evidence that suggest the opposite is true.  The same is true for our students - they can compare evidence to see where patterns occur and learn that the strongest arguments are those that can be proved from multiple sources, not just one.

Catherine Denial is Assistant Professor of History at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. 

Response-K.Hamilton-Question 1

August 12, 2009 - 11:04 AM

In today's world where we have the software to alter photos and edit documents, how do we combat things like holocaust denial?  How do we give students any confidence in drawing conclusions about what happened in the past when evidence itself is vulnerable to tampering and alteration?

 Dr. Konrad Hamilton's Response

My answer consists of 3 general parts: technical; preponderance of evidence; motives.

Technical:  While it is true that photos and documents can be faked, it is the rare fake that can stand up to forensic scrutiny.  Alterations usually leave visual, chemical, physical, or other traces that are detectable by experts.

Preponderance of evidence:  Historians never rely upon one document or upon a series of documents from one source.  One photo from the Israeli defense ministry might be suspect.  But if its content is confirmed by different photos from USSR, French, British, US, and German sources, it's harder to argue that all of these photos were doctored.  If we also have German documents (and we do) to back up the content of the photos, then a massive conspiracy to fake every single piece of available evidence becomes less likely.

Motives:  What motive would those who control the documents on the Holocaust have to fake the event?  What could unite friends and foes of Jews, uncooperative nations, survivors and government officials, etc. to all collaborate in an intricate cover up of the truth?  Now ask what motive Holocaust deniers have to charge that the Holocaust is not true. 

Finally, I would use the various court cases and academic debates that have shown the Holocaust to be authentic to talk about the history of Holocaust denial as its own subject.
Variations on the above can also be used to refute those who deny slavery, Native American genocide, etc.

Dr. Hamilton is Associate Professor of History at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. 

Welcome to Comparing Viewpoints

August 12, 2009 - 10:30 AM

Welcome to Comparing Viewpoints.  In this new addition to the collection of BHH blogs, we'll be posing questions and points-to-ponder to various people in the world of history education.  Participants will not see one another's responses prior to their post.  After posting, however, they may wish to engage in conversation via the comments section of the blog. 

We encourage readers to get involved!   Do you have suggestions for questions or points to ponder, and/or pairs of potential respondents?  Please send your ideas to BHH director Elise Fillpot.  And don't hesitate to chime in on the conversations via the comments section.  We welcome divergent opinions; we simply we ask that exchanges be civil and respectful.   

Disclaimer - Positions, assertions, and opinions that appear on Comparing Viewpoints are in no way, implied or otherwise, necessarily endorsed or shared by the stakeholders of Bringing History Home.  The Bringing History Home web administrators reserve the right to delete any comments that are deemed uncivil or include any form of hate speech. 

 

 

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