Updated October 16, 2003

Why do historians accept some things as historical fact and not others? How do historian's deal with conflicting accounts of events and people? I look at some reasons why historical events are disputed, while others are accepted.


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The work of the historian - Distinguishing fact from theory:

History is the record of events in the order they occurred. Evidence is a fact, or combination of facts, which provide grounds for belief that an historical event or events actually happened. It is common that evidence is available only on certain aspects of what happened and historians then take these known facts and fill in the unknown elements with their own theories. This is why different versions of history can and do arise.

Most historians make clear to the reader the distinction between the known and the unknown elements of the information they present. Protocol for historical text requires historians to clearly distinguish between the known (with sources acknowledged and clearly referenced), and the unknown (i.e. their theory or explanation of events). In this way readers of history can easily distinguish between fact and theory, and can therefore reach their own conclusions in relation to a matter. Confusion arises when an author does not follow these conventions, and instead presents his or her own personal interpretations and theories as fact. (Indeed such works blur the line between historical truth and fiction.)

In historical fiction and film, however, such protocol does not apply, and distinctions between fact and theory are not required. Adherence to historical facts, and any extent of alteration to details, is determined entirely by the author. Entirely fictitious characters and events are often incorporated into actual historical circumstances as a narrative aid. This is done to enable fiction writers to fill in unknown details or time frames, or in order to explain complex issues, (rather than an attempt to 'rewrite' history). Inclusion of source lists, and references, are optional in historical fiction and film, and typically are not included.

So how do historians determine what information is 'evidence' and what is not?

Explanation of frequently used terms:

  • Evidence: Historians, strictly speaking, do not consider something is evidence unless it is 'factual'. Evidence is not considered reliable until it has been sourced and verified (see 'facts' below). Marriage, death, and birth records, if obtained from official sources are considered reliable, (although occasionally can include minor errors). Some historical 'documents' although genuine, can be subject to interpretation. Such things as police or government records (if verified by expert analysis) are reliable, however with regard to content, some consideration of the motives of the author and/or the author's source/s must be taken into historians' analysis. After all, something may sound like an official or objective record, but on closer inspection may ultimately be revealed to be no more than hearsay or rumour, even if written at or around the time of occurrence. Sometimes events are recorded 'officially' rather than factually, (e.g. with an eye to protecting an individual's reputation). Also the source's language used must be noted, and comparisons to modern linguistics measured in order to establish exactly what the record is saying. Evidence can be used for the basis for an interpretation or theory, however evidence does not of itself prove the theory to be true.

  • Circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence that implies something occurred but doesn't actually prove it. It is based on inference rather than personal knowledge or observation, and is not direct evidence (e.g. from a witness who saw or heard something). Circumstantial evidence is information, or a chain of facts, that infers a possible conclusion; it is not a provable truth. It is generally useful as a guide in historical study unless the connection between the fact and the inference is too weak to be of help. NB. The relevance of circumstantial evidence depends largely on its credence, (e.g. 'weak' circumstantial evidence is not persuasive).

  • Facts: Simply speaking, a fact is something known to have happened, a truth or reality that is known by actual experience or observation; in other words a 'provable truth'. A fact is a physical event, or existence, that is actual and true, rather than a probability, chance, opinion, or theory (see below). Historians rely on recorded facts from primary sources, (e.g. documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates.) Data is considered significant in historical analysis when it can be proven or verified as fact. Something may possibly be true or have occurred, but is not considered 'fact' by historians unless provable. Historical facts can only be determined by following the universal rules of objectivity in establishing what is known to be true (rather than opinion, belief or theory).

  • Data: printed and written historical accounts of an event or person, such as newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, archival documents, and books. All of these can, and often do, include hearsay, rumour, and opinion, so just because something is in 'print' certainly does not automatically make it 'truth', or even 'evidence'. Source/s must always be evaluated. Concurring articles issued by different newspaper reporters on the same day can certainly be viewed as being more reliable than, say, one report being issued and then a confirming report issued the following day, (or at a later time). The reason for this is obviously that one reporter may have read, and been influenced by, the previous reporter's article. Importantly, when evaluating a report or account for credibility one should take into account and assess the writer/reporter's 'source', particularly if the source is unnamed. A quote from an unnamed source is hearsay or rumour and therefore not reliable as it cannot be verified. One also needs to analyse if something stated in a newspaper or document may merely be an expressed opinion of the quoted source (or even simply of the reporter's) and is therefore not necessarily factual. (For example: a report can include 'Mr Smith stated xyz', we may rely on the reporter that Mr Smith did indeed make the statement, however the writer cannot vouch for the truth of a stated opinion, without alternate supportive evidence.) Each printed or written account must be evaluated individually for reliability, and compared to other evidence.

  • Primary sources are documents or records of events that have been verified as being both originally made by the witness or person/s involved, and, around the time of the event/s being studied. Government records such as birth, death and marriage certificates and registers are a good example of reliable primary sources.
    Some primary sources, such as original eyewitness statements for example, need to be scrutinized objectively, as the 'victor', or individual/s with power, will often write and change or influence, such accounts.

    NB. A good example, of the potentially tainted nature of such documents, is that King Henry 7th, House of Tudor, systematically went about rewriting history once he became King of England in 1485. He backdated his own reign in official documents, thus 'legally' implicating and punishing his enemies for treason. He gave instructions to have official documents from the reign of his predecessors from the House of York destroyed. Tudor 'historians' (such as Sir Thomas More, who wasn't even born until 1487), thereafter were influenced to write subsequent 'accounts' that were almost certainly biased, and, without proof even openly implicating Richard 3rd in murder. As a result, historians have access to very few surviving primary sources and difficulty in determining what is fact and what is fiction during that period of history.

    This is not uncommon in recorded history and thus even primary sources need to be impartially analysed and questioned.
    Note: A newspaper printed at the time being studied is not technically a primary source, as it has potentially been edited to an unknown extent (when made into copy before printing). However such secondary sources can be significant in historical study, particularly as they give a good indication of events, even if some details (for example, the size of a reported 'crowd' at an event) are altered. They can be useful to gain eyewitness accounts, (such as Ned's execution), but a comparative study of all similar accounts is more useful than simply one or another, as the personal opinion or interpretation of the author is a factor. (An example of the differences that can be reported is that different newspaper reporters gave different eyewitness accounts of Ned's 'final' words.) The subjective nature of such sources is often easily explained; newspapers, for example, are a financial business and carry with them the rights of 'editorial discretion'. Thus there can be any number of influences over what information is given or excluded. Many newspaper reports during and after the Kelly gangs outlawry, just as they do now, include moral commentary and accusations, (both against the gang and, more cautiously, against the police). That is to say, 'pro' and 'anti' Kelly influences can easily be seen within the supposedly objective 'factual reporting' of events.

  • Hearsay is a story or comment that is repeated by someone other than the original source, but where a source is claimed, (e.g. "Mr Smith told me…"). Hearsay can be oral or written. Hearsay cannot be treated as factual evidence in a court of law; neither can it be treated as such in an historian's conclusions. It can, however, be used in historical study as a guide once its reliability is established. Importantly, the reliability of information gained from hearsay should be evaluated based on its source/s. Hearsay from those proven to know the quoted source, for example, is more likely to be reliable than hearsay from a person once or twice removed, or who only claimed to know the source but offers no proof. Hearsay that has no clear or ascertainable source (even if it is widely acknowledged) should be treated cautiously as it is actually rumour (see below). The number of different people professing a 'story', even if they all draw the same conclusions, does not directly infer credibility on the information, (e.g. the world was once universally 'known' to be flat - simply because most people believed it was). Thus each story or piece of information, and its source, needs to be individually evaluated for reliability, and supportive evidence should be sought for verification in each case before any historical conclusions can be made. No hearsay can be used as a fact (see 'fact' above), unless verified or strongly supported by an alternate source (such as a document).
    For more information on oral history and memory - click HERE.

  • Rumour/gossip is extremely unreliable, although it is often stated with conviction and can be convincing, (e.g. "It is well known that…" or "I heard its true that…"). Rumour tends to be altered or embellished as it is passed from one person to the next. Even something that begins with an element of truth can wind up so diluted as to be unrecognizable. Alternately, rumour can be entirely fictional. Historians main concern is that there is usually no way of verifying a rumour, so it cannot be deemed reliable to any extent. Source is a vital part of historical analysis as it establishes credibility, yet when searching for the original source of a rumour, one is not usual found. Thus a rumour is unlikely to be able to be verified and so should not be used to reach a conclusion. If it can be factually established that a rumour to such and such an effect was circulating at that time, the historian will report it and make clear that it was a rumour. Note, in that instance the rumour is a fact, not the content of the rumour.

  • Theory is not evidence, neither is opinion. Some theories are stated with authority and with apparent evidence, (usually circumstantial), to support them, however this alone does not prove the theory or opinion. Theory can seem reliable, but no matter when, or by whom, or how a theory is stated, a theory or opinion in historical study, unless proven, is nothing more than a theory or opinion, and in historical analysis should be treated accordingly. Theories and educated opinions can possibly be accurate and correct, however they are not facts (see 'facts' above) unless proven.

  • Interpretation and Conclusions: History can be subjective and is not an exact science by any means. There is much historians simply do not know about the past and so sometimes even the most detailed research won't necessarily find 'conclusions' in concrete terms. This leads historians to make their own interpretations, based on acceptable methodology. Yet even when accepted protocols are followed, one historian can arrive at an interpretation that is completely different from that of another historian. (For example, the recent debate between Keith Windschuttle and Robert Manne about aspects of aboriginal history.) In historical study, like most disciplines, educated opinions and theories are important but do not constitute truth or fact and so should not be given more credit than warranted. Objectivity is the most essential ingredient in historical assessment, and all evidence available should be included and impartially analysed for credibility. Unlike science however, where one starts with a hypothesis and works towards proving one's conclusions, historical analysis is most successful when research is begun without a hypothesis, and when all accounts and evidence are taken into consideration, and an open mind sustained, whether or not conclusions are reached. The best historical study (and biggest challenge for the historian) is research without bias whether or not a 'conclusion' is found or can be presented. Ideally, historians will suggest several alternative interpretations and say which one is most likely in their opinion. Personal opinions can be included but should be clearly stated as such. Reviewing data through personal subjectivity, on the other hand, can cloud the facts and lead to questionable conclusions.
    In historical analysis, more often than not, the only conclusion/s able to be established is one of 'probability'. Proof is required for an accurate and factual conclusion to be drawn. One cannot make a reliable 'conclusion' in any area, or aspect, of historical study when contradictory evidence exists.

What is Legend?

Legend is a collection of stories about any person who has achieved fame or notoriety, or a story about a famous event. A legend can be a non-historical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times, that is popularly accepted as historical.

What is Myth?

A myth is a story, thing, or person that is imaginary or fictitious. A collective belief can be built up to suit the wishes of a group or society. The mythical person, or story, is often super-human.

 

Tabulated and written by N. Cowie


The aim of this website is to try to get as close as possible to the facts. Therefore I am predominantly interested in what we can be proven - not what I believe.

How I acknowledges my sources
It is for the reasons outlined above that my work on this site examines the history of the Kelly Story not in absolutes, but with qualifiers. When something has not be substantiated or authenticated as 'fact', it will be reported as "believed" or "alleged". I make distinctions between what is known fact, what is likely, what is unlikely, and what has been disproved. In each individual category or subject examined, I will be attempting to sort through and separate facts from theory, regardless of the source.

 

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