Figuring out the historical facts from the fakery

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 but long disputed figure of 256, down to 253. That still doesn’t tell us too much about the true quake figure. But it’s illuminating about something much more important – how do we handle data, historically?

Packard: 1935. Building: 1932. Photo: 2015.
Napier was rebuilt after the devastating quake of 1931 in art deco style.

The new figure was obtained by a painstaking analysis by specialists of available geneological records, including death certificates. However, that wasn’t a definitive record: after the figure was published, someone pointed out that his uncle was removed from the casualty list because his death certificate listed ‘intestinal obstruction’, therefore the quake hadn’t killed him. The family story is that he was tipped off a fence by the quake and fell on a spike, catching him in the stomach – so, in all probability, he WAS a quake victim.

That raises it back to 254. And I am sure this won’t be the only story. See what I mean? Context is everything for history.

At this remove in time, of course, the specific number can probably never be definitely obtained. The work of specialists has refined the picture, but there is no substitute for actually being there in 1931. So do official documents really give a picture? We can’t ignore the possibility of error at time of writing. On my own research into my family, for example, I’ve found discrepancies in death and birth certificates and in census records. And that’s apart from the fact that these documents don’t give context.

The issue highlights the point that history is a lot more than just collecting facts or listing numbers. Sure, that’s where you start – but the issue then is what do those facts mean? And are they, in fact, facts? The official figure was provided in the 1934 government report on the quake. The tally of 256 seems to have been a miscount – there are 258 people named on the memorial in Napier’s Park Island cemetery. But it’s been long disputed anyway because problems facing people at the time included:

  1. In Napier, fire followed quake – immolating casualties caught under the rubble before they could be dug out. Every effort was made to locate remains, but the issue complicated the identification and some people reported as missing were never found. There is a persistent story of a woman lost in the Masonic Hotel – where the fire was most intense – who was never found, and whose remains are thought to have been scooped up with the rubble and dumped on the foreshore (under the modern Soundshell).
  2. Some citizens took advantage of the confusion to deliberately disappear to avoid debts. One was tracked down in Auckland.
  3. There wasn’t an official enquiry into the casualty numbers in Napier.
  4. Some of the injured, who died later, were taken out of the district and missed being recorded. My family have an example, an injured man who was looked after. A doctor from Palmerston North arrived and took him away to care down south. Was he captured by the official record? We don’t know his name and can’t check.
  5. Nobody has agreed on a framework for identifying the casualties. By ‘deaths’ should we mean those killed by direct seismic action, either at once or who succumbed to injuries in days afterwards? Or should we include those killed during subsequent events – such as those who died in an air crash near Wairoa while reconnoitring post-quake? How can we distinguish between death by natural causes on the day and quake injuries? And do those need distinguishing? Did anybody die, for example, of a heart attack – now known to be one potential consequence of earthquake trauma, even if no other injuries occur on the individual. Depending on how the numbers are identified, various tallies could be made. So is it better to have several lists that include all of these under different categories?

The point gives perspective to those who imagine ‘history’ as a data-copying exercise. As for the quake issue? There is room for a new coronial investigation even today – if for no other reason than enabling a new official tally to be established. However, because of the uncertainties an absolute ‘final’ number of deaths will likely always be a matter for argument (and that, of course, is something the coroner can officially point out).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017



11 thoughts on “Figuring out the historical facts from the fakery

  1. Yes! Historians are great researchers of veifiable facts and also great storytellers who often are required to fill in the gaps as logically as they can. That makes hostory a little frustrating, but also fascinating!

    1. Half the fun of history is figuring out the possibilities of what the data actually means – and arguing with other historians over exactly how all the moving parts fit together. (They even argue over the methodology for approaching the field – I remember covering it post-grad & watching the sparks fly…). Where it comes adrift is where people suppose that the profession is all about finding a definitive ‘final’ answer, which is often impossible. Just last year, here in NZ, I waded into a debate over the number of participants in our Gallipoli campaign. Nobody knows! The data was never collected and work done to date has been variable. Strange but true (and the only verifiable ‘fact’ here is that we can’t ever find out for sure…)

  2. I have lived long enough to see history revised multiple times, and I’m not entirely buying it. Some modern, so-called “scholarship” is abysmally opinionated and very weak in what you described: data interpretation. I also have been curious as to why the most recent opinions are often more highly regarded for their currency alone when they are further removed from the original events. My field is biology, so I appreciate the nuances of trying to get at the truth, and I see a good bit of overlap between the methodologies of history and science.

    1. I think the analytical philosophies required are pretty much the same between the sciences and history – I did the sciences before I did history and studied the philosophy of analysis post-grad under a student of Karl Popper (coincidentally the inventor of modern scientific method). Here in NZ, my professional historical work has been referred to as ‘post-revisionist’ because I’ve tried to go beyond the parameters of current academic thinking. I think the ‘latest’ ideas usually gain traction because of the recency effect, coupled with the illusion that the latest analytical approach somehow fixes the identified problems with the last and that thinking is somehow ‘progressive’ in the sense of moving towards a final answer. Of course that is never the case. Here in NZ, analytical orthodoxy is defined by the so-called ‘revisionist’ approach that gained ground from the 1980s. It was touted as the ‘final’ answer to our historical questions, to the point where some of the pioneers of it had their careers effectively made on the back of their PhD work alone, sailing on to easy sinecures as tenured lecturers and a relaxed lifestyle at taxpayer expense.

      In fact, ‘revisionism’ merely reversed the parameters of the prior ‘colonial’ approach, which i was supposedly discrediting – sometimes literally: if a colonial-age history said something turned left, the revisionists bent over backwards to prove it turned right. The approach consequently failed to transcend those limits. However, it still gained traction – largely on the back of academic subculture and the way it’s treated as a zero-sum status game – and became orthodox to the point where anybody who tries to question the analytical parameters is not only regarded as ‘wrong’, but usually finds themselves under open personal abuse from the in-crowds.

      This actually happened to me – because of my ‘post-revisionist’ approach – a situation further intensified, I think, by the way that academics link their status in the field to their personal self-worth, which gets hooked into that zero-sum game. I measure my own success on the number of complete strangers in that field who explode out of nowhere, hysterically angry and foaming with utter personal hatred for me, whose allegations have nothing to do with the field and everything with trying to present me as so personally incompetent you’d think I couldn’t even sit the right way around on a toilet. Without exception, they then cower behind their academic position or the pretense of ‘book review’ by way of escaping what in any other context presents as deliberate defamation. Curiously, their numbers include New Zealand’s supposedly top academic historian (he’s now at Oxford), who got angry and swore when my name was mentioned during an interview he did on national radio. He never made any effort to approach me in person, though I’d been to university with him and he knew very well who I was and how to contact me. Another time, an academic wrote a 2000 word ‘review’ of one of my books which, apart from openly lying about my content in order to run it down, ended with an openly abusive barrage of name-calling! This school-bully tirade was then published by an academic review magazine (the editor and the academic who wrote it were colleagues in the same department). Incredible. None of those doing it have had the personal integrity to introduce themselves to me or respond when approached, which to me gives a pretty good indication of the moral void in which New Zealand’s academic history apparently wallows.

      1. My field is molecular biology, but I have concentrated on teaching rather than research for the last 26 years. Well before I defended my doctoral dissertation, I realized that I didn’t want to base my identity on a profession where you’re only as good as your next paper and where your employer uses you as a de facto fundraiser. I found a quiet little college in a quiet little town in the midwestern United States, ate dinner at home every night, enjoyed having weekends off, and watched my children grow up. I never find myself thinking, “I wish I’d published another article.” I assume that you’re doing this because you like it. That’s pure, and it represents an attitude in which thinking is pleasurable. Your account of the treatment you received reminds me of the ridiculously trivial games that some academics play at almost any level. Take care.

  3. I confess one of the little sins I can’t resist is signing incorrect dates to documents. No, it will never, ever really matter whether I signed my letter of acceptance for the contract on the 10th of March or the 12th of March, but something about me likes knowing that if it were something someone cared to know, the document trail would get them just slightly wrong. My love can not understand this.

    1. My great grandfather did this to my grandfather when registering his birth. Possibly accidentally but it meant my grandfather’s official age was one day out from his actual age (my great grandmother, needless to say, knew exactly the day when her son was born).

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