Updated April 23, 2002
Why do historians accept some things as historical fact and not others? How do historian's deal with conflicting accounts of events and people? Bailup looks at some reasons why historical events are disputed, while others are accepted.
Understanding Memory and Oral History
The aim of this website is to try to get as close as possible to the facts. I am predominantly interested in what can be proven - not what we might believe. That is why in my research I rely on documented events or facts from contemporary sources of the time, rather than oral history and hearsay. The prevalent Kelly story relies to a large degree on oral history. Oral history should not be discounted simply due to its being unable to be substantiated. Oral history has value, but it should be presented in context, rather than as 'fact'.
Why I treat oral history differently
When examining the Kelly chronicle closely, I differentiate between what can be relied upon in an historical sense, and the less reliable 'oral history'. Oral history will be treated in a more circumspect manner than facts. The reasons for this are simple - eyewitness accounts are subjective, and memory is unreliable.
Contemporary documents written at the time or shortly after events are as reliable as the eye-witness/author. Also they are written in the knowledge that they may have to pass the scrutiny of peers and others who may have shared the experience. Their main appeal is that they are as true today as the day they were written. They are not altered over time, or by being handed on from one person to another. This is an important distinction from accounts told orally over the years, or retold by another person entirely (i.e. hearsay).
Memory and how it works
For an event, circumstance or person's profile to be encoded into and stored in the short term memory, then transferred to long term memory store, kept alive intact, and then retrieved accurately, is a complicated process to say the least. Errors in this process are to be expected. Not a lot is known scientifically about the neural and biochemical processes of encoding, maintaining and retrieving bits of information stored as memory. At this point in time it would be fair to say, that research into memory is far from complete.
What scientists know
Oral History and Memory
Oral history can be influenced by any number of factors, the most significant of which would be personal perception, and errors in memory process.
Eyewitness accounts, for instance,
can be distorted by reconstructive inference, particularly inference based
on post-event information. Therefore it stands to reason, that inaccuracy
of memory construction for personally experienced states and events can
and does occur.
Recounting someone else's
oral history (i.e. hearsay) is open to even more potential errors
in memory process. The reason for the increased degree of error is obvious.
The story recounted is not simply one person's retrieved perceived memory
of an event. It is another person's retrieved perceived memory of a story
heard, not an event in itself. The more times this is repeated the more
chance of error in process.
A major defect historians find with eyewitness accounts and oral history, is that people do not always tell the truth, be it partially or completely. It is impossible to determine a lie from the truth without corroborative, or alternatively, contradictory evidence.
Yet another difficulty with 'oral history' arises when the more an event or story is repeated, the more it is generally accepted as fact regardless of whether it is true or not.
How I acknowledge 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 oral history and hearsay, regardless of the source.
Researched, tabulated, written and presented by N. Cowie