Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

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Don Bradley
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Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by Don Bradley »

Since so much of what is discussed on Discuss Mormonism is about history, I thought that a few thoughts I posted in the CK in relation to the Kinderhook plates might have wider interest and relevance...

A few thoughts on historical method...

First, historical explanation is a process of inference to the best explanation. We seek to piece together the fragments of the past in the way that offers the best overall explanation. The more data an explanatory model can account for, the better for that model.

Second, what we mean by explaining the data here is that we can explain the various historical sources and why the events came out the way they did--why they came out that way in particular and not any of the other countless ways they could have.

Third, a model is to be judged not only on how much it explains, but also on how simply and elegantly it explains it. So, if a model can both account for more data than another and can do it more simply than another model, then it is, hands down, the better model.

Fourth, historical sources are by their very nature "messy." As in scientific measurements, there is always a level of randomness and "noise" in the historical data. For instance, despite the overwhelming mass of sources reporting that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, there is enough contradiction between sources and counter-evidence (such as Emma Smith's denials that her husband practiced polygamy) that some intelligent people have been able to put together entire books arguing that Joseph Smith did not practice polygamy. Yet, you'll notice, while this historical "noise" has been enough to trip up some non-historians, it has not fooled any actual historians. No model will perfectly account for all the data, but it doesn't have to. The preferable model is the one that provides the bestexplanation rather than than an unattainably high standard of perfect explanation of all noise. So, historians recognize that despite the noise in the historical record on Joseph Smith and polygamy, the model of Joseph Smith as a polygamist is by far a better explanation than the model of Joseph Smith as a monogamist.
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I'll add here that probably the two biggest errors I've seen non-historians (and even sometimes historians) make in the interpretation of historical data are:

1) Not realizing that historical data often conflict.

Because people don't typically realize this, they often believe that having any data points in favor of an interpretation make it true or that having any data points against it make it false. Rather, as noted above, because the data do often conflict, we look for the overall pattern of the data to determine which model works best.

(However, since we have no way of determining at the outset what data may be mere "noise," we should treat all historical data as potentially significant; and data that seem at first to be anomalies or noise can eventually serve as evidence for further refining an explanation. The error comes just in assuming that historical models have to have perfect consistency--by the nature of differing human perspectives, bias, the imprecision of language, and the decay of memory, they never do.)

2) Treating historical sources (records, testimonies, etc.) as authorities rather than as evidence.

The difference between these two approaches is stark.

If I view historical sources as authorities, then I compare different accounts of an event, select the one I deem most authoritative, and then reproduce that person's account as the definitive narrative of the event. And if there is no account that tells me outright that person A did X, then I am simply silent on the question, believing it cannot be known.

If, however, I view historical sources as evidence, I comb through all accounts of the event--and other historical documents related to it, treat minutiae in all these sources as potentially significant, and engage in detective work that, usually, accepts no one account as definitive but infers details of the event from a number of the sources. Think detective work. You may have reason to believe that one witness is completely honest, but honesty is no guarantee of accuracy. On the other hand, another witness may be completely dishonest, but you can infer that his lies will almost certainly be biased in favor of his own interests; so taking his story into account in the context of his bias, you may actually be able to infer to what actually happened. The great philosopher of history Robin Collingwood gave examples of this. And he wrote cogently about treating sources as evidence rather than as authorities and provided a brilliant exposition of historical method in the epilogues to his The Idea of History. (An application of this in biblical studies is where scholars use the "criterion of embarrassment" as a way of sifting out truth--if an author with a known bias offers a narrative or detail that cuts against the grain of his own bias, then you can be reasonably sure he didn't make it up).

An example of using historical sources as evidence, rather than as authorities, may be found, for instance, in the study of Joseph Smith's translation of Isaiah in his Bible revision (JST). Both the Book of Mormon and the JST vary from Isaiah in the King James Version. So, as an undergraduate, I wanted to know: Did Joseph Smith consult the Isaiah variants in the Book of Mormon to tell him how to edit Isaiah in the JST? Did he actually open up the Book of Mormon and dictate the Isaiah variants there to his JST scribe? In discussing this question with a noted authority on the JST I was told, "I don't think we'll ever know that. I don't think we can second guess the Prophet Joseph Smith." This scholar's reasoning appeared to be that since there was no historical account of whether Joseph Smith used Book of Mormon Isaiah in the JST--i.e., because there was no "authority", no one who explicitly said whether Joseph Smith did this or not--there was just no way of knowing.

That was a very silly assumption. Although we had no account from a putative historical "authority" on the subject, we had the actual texts of the Book of Mormon and the JST. All it took to figure out what Joseph Smith had done was to compare those texts. Extensive comparison of Isaiah in the 1830 Book of Mormon with Isaiah in the earliest Book of Mormon manuscripts showed that the copyists and typesetter had introduced 22 errors into the text of Book of Mormon Isaiah. Comparing these with JST Isaiah showed that 21 of those 22 errors showed up in the JST. Case closed.

This pattern of textual errors is as distinctive as a fingerprint: there is no other way the 'fingerprint' of Isaiah in the 1830 Book of Mormon was going to get onto JST Isaiah than from Joseph Smith importing it from 1830 Book of Mormon Isaiah. Thus, even thought we have no "authority" giving an account on the process used, the process can be uncovered quite clearly. In fact, this evidence is so powerful that even if we had a historical account that said Joseph Smith did not use Book of Mormon Isaiah in the JST, we would have to reject the alleged authority since we could prove it false from the evidence provided by the Isaiah text itself. (We see something similar with regard to the Kinderhook plates--the text of the GAEL finds its way into Joseph Smith's translation from the Kinderhook plates, showing that he used the GAEL as a tool for translating from those plates--although in that case we also have eye-witness testimony that dovetails with the textual evidence.)

Collingwood's epilogues in The Idea of History are the best introduction I know to historical methodology, and I'd highly recommend them to anyone interested in how to do history and do it well.

Don
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by honorentheos »

Thanks for this post, Don.
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by Don Bradley »

Sure, Honorentheos. It doesn't seem like a big question for debate in itself, but it is something that is involved in a host of other debates.

Don
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by honorentheos »

For sure. I suppose it could be expanded on, such as how the erroneous approaches you note align with what we know about how we treat information that either confirms or contradicts our already held beliefs. "Must I believe this?" as a response to contradicting information versus "Can I believe this?" in our use of evidence that confirms our prior held beliefs maps nearly onto much of what you point out. But is that needed or well trod? Either way, I appreciate it being elegantly laid out as it relates to treatment of investigating history.
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by dastardly stem »

Thanks Don. This is very interesting.

In his book Proving HIstory Richard Carrier argues a few things about historical approaches. I won't try to detail much of it here...but essentially he's pushing for historians to take probability science more seriously. The historical methods are certainly essential in uncovering history as best as we can represent it, but we need a more sophisticated and defined approach lest we allow experts alone be our guides in history. That is if we are able to actually determine with some degree of probability history itself, then we have a more reliable method to critically examine analyses and it's claims, rather than particular expert's and their preferences.

That's probably a poor summary for what it is, but I trust you are familiar. I found the book convincing, but I'm not an historian. I know he's found many critics of his proposed approaches(not saying he's alone here), because many think if we put numbers to the historical test they tend to be a bit biased sounding, as if an expert who considers her/himself or others consider him/herself the final word on something is somehow devoid of bias. The positive of putting numbers to it is you can more easily and more appropriately examine, critically, each step along the way of historical analysis. If the steps along the way show something problematic, then historians can argue for more appropriate values. The conclusions then become more solid, it seems to me. They then have a probability value, subject to change as further evaluations are made.

of course, Carrier's method showed Jesus didn't exist--certainly not the character drawn up in various biblical and nonbiblical works. So that's upset people. Then again, no one has taken on the task to evaluate his work and provided the rest of us a view of why he's wrong or how he's wrong. No expert, that I've seen, has provided any type of scholarly response. It appears to simply be assumed that he's wrong--sometimes mistaking his approach as easily dismissed as people seemingly respond to it with the problems you describe. I'm guessing if you have considered his work, you too object to it, in some measure.

Anyway, what is your take on incorporating into the "historical method" a science of probability?
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by Fence Sitter »

Don,

What are your thoughts on Thom Wayment's work showing Smith used Clarke's Commentary in making the JST?

Thanks
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by Physics Guy »

I'm not sure what historical methodology says about balancing the likelihood of a single, simple and elegant explanation, on the one hand, versus the likelihood of a whole large set of noisier explanations. I'm sure that historical methodology must in general prefer simple and powerful explanations, but I would be worried that some forms of methodology may weight simplicity and power too heavily, to the point where they let one giant defeat an army of goblins so large that it should in fact overwhelm the giant.

That is, the sheer number of the noisier explanations might actually make it far more likely that some one of them was true, rather than the simple and powerful theory, because weird things do happen in real life. The chance of any particular weird thing happening at any particular time may be small, but the chance that nothing whatever that is at all weird ever happens is generally a lot smaller still. So how heavily one weights simplicity and power against sheer number of possibilities can be a tricky issue.

How that relative weighting is assigned can itself be a non-trivial feature of methodology. To use an analogy from a field I know better than history, in physics there are some phenomena like the orbits of planets, which are expected to obey simple rules, and there are phenomena like tornadoes, which are expected to be messy. If you are telling me about how Jupiter orbits the sun, I'm not going to listen to any long lists of excuses and hypothetical scenarios, but if you are telling me about how to predict tornado seasons then I'm going to be a lot more patient when you list all the relevant factors. With Jupiter, simplicity and power carry a lot more weight than they do with tornadoes, for which the true explanation is unlikely to be simple or powerful.

I figure that history, too, may have its Jupiters and its tornadoes—things for which simple and powerful explanations are expected, and things that are expected to be drowned in noise. The problem I see in historical problems like the beginnings of Mormonism is that for Mormons the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is likely to be a Jupiter, while for non-Mormons it's a tornado. So the weights that Mormon and non-Mormon historians assign to simplicity and power may be different.
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by sock puppet »

Reading this thread, I am wondering what the purpose of history is? Is it to accurately describe what occurred? Is it to explain what happened? Certainly, these are not mutually exclusive of one another. But the aim of the historian is certainly relevant to a reader assessing for himself or herself what is being read.

In this context, too, I am reminded of these five verses from Matthew 7:
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
If the aim is to know a historical character, particularly a religious one, then perhaps identifying and examining his fruits we can then know if he was a good or corrupt 'tree'.
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Don Bradley
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by Don Bradley »

honorentheos wrote:
Tue Jun 14, 2022 11:40 am
For sure. I suppose it could be expanded on, such as how the erroneous approaches you note align with what we know about how we treat information that either confirms or contradicts our already held beliefs. "Must I believe this?" as a response to contradicting information versus "Can I believe this?" in our use of evidence that confirms our prior held beliefs maps nearly onto much of what you point out. But is that needed or well trod? Either way, I appreciate it being elegantly laid out as it relates to treatment of investigating history.
Oooh! You've read How We Know What Isn't So! A man after my own heart!

Yes, I love this insight, and it certainly applies to history as to all weighing of evidence.

Don
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Re: Historical Methodology: A Few Thoughts

Post by Don Bradley »

Fence Sitter wrote:
Tue Jun 14, 2022 4:14 pm
Don,

What are your thoughts on Thom Wayment's work showing Smith used Clarke's Commentary in making the JST?

Thanks
FenceSitter,

To be honest, I am so busy with my own projects in recent years that I am not up to date on this in the details. Obviously I know generally what has been said both by Wayment and by his critics, such as Kent Jackson. Given that some of my own research suggests an influence of Adam Clarke on Joseph Smith outside of the JST, I would not be even slightly surprised if it influenced him in the JST as well. Yet, while I would be predisposed to accept Wayment's case, I have not combed through Wayment's or Jackson's material in any detail or done independent research on this particular question.

Don
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