Figuring out the historical facts from the fakery

Matthew Wright

There’s a common belief that the work of historians consists of collecting ‘the facts’ from documents and writing them down. And that’s it. I mean, how hard can it be?

I can’t even begin to express the issues I have with such thinking. But let’s start with the obvious one – ‘the facts’. It’s something that hits us in everyday terms, even outside history. And the solution is the same in both senses.

The problem is that ‘facts’ aren’t always literally accurate. The issue – assessing the context and value of data – highlights the requirements of history as a technical study, although on my experience it’s something that few autodidiact history enthusiasts know because of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Take the casualty figure of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931, for example. This has never been pinned down. A little while ago it was unofficially reduced from the official…

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