21 February 2011

Impossible to Verify

I stumbled onto an internet meme involving an odd use of the phrase “natural history” that led me here, to a weblog entry entitled simply “Natural History is Not Science” by somebody calling himself Dr. David Shormann. The piece turns out to be the usual claptrap about how geology and astronomy and the like are “interesting, fun, and adventure-filled pursuit[s]” but not “real science” because you can’t examine a supernova in a laboratory or watch the continents drift in real time or whatever the nonsense of the day is—as it’s retread stuff I didn’t really pay attention. The thing that did catch my attention, however, was the author’s bizarre claim that it is impossible to ever verify a historical event. Speaking about the past he says “you can theorize all day long, but unless you have a time machine, you can never verify your ideas”.

WTF? Where’d that come from? Of course you can verify your ideas—or disprove them, for that matter. Here’s an example from something I’m working on right now. I have a narrative in front of me, a narrative that purports to be the true story of a man’s life in nineteenth century America. It has some quite interesting material in it, if true. But is it? According to Dr. David Shormann there is no way on earth that I can determine this, since I don’t happen to have a time machine. I guess I just have to take it at face value.

Or do I? The author claims to have been raised by a man named Drake on a farm adjoining the land owned by former President Andrew Jackson. No way I can test this, right? Think again. Our narrator supposedly lived there from say 1836 to 1847. This means that if I look at the 1840 census I should find an entry for a man named Drake somewhere near the entry for Andrew Jackson, and there should be at least one male inhabitant in the correct age range for our narrator. Finding that would tend to confirm our narrative; not finding it to disconfirm. (No evidence of this sort of course proves or disproves a claim; proof belongs to logic and mathematics, not to history.) There was no such man, by the way, not a good sign.

Our narrator claims to have met Kit Carson in a St. Louis hotel in 1847, and to have accompanied him thereafter to Bent’s Fort in Colorado. Well, Kit Carson’s activities are well-documented for this time-period. If the narrative were true we would expect to find other records of Kit Carson staying at a St. Louis hotel, and leaving town with a fifteen-year-old boy in tow. The records do indicate that Carson was in St. Louis in 1847, but he stayed at a private residence, not a hotel, and he went from there to Arizona with an army regiment and went on from there to California—not to Bent’s Fort. And no fifteen-year-old boy puts in an appearance. Not conclusive, but a bad sign.

Again, he claims to have bought land on the Sacramento River and ranched there from 1867 to 1872. If he did, there should be a title transfer recorded in the land records there (and there isn’t). And he should have shown up in Sonoma county or thereabouts in the 1870 census. Instead he shows up in that census at the opposite end of the state, in Santa Barbara county, landless and breaking horses for a living.

And again he spent time in the 1860s fighting the Apaches with General Crook—when General Crook according to army records, newspaper accounts, and a host of other documents was fighting the Shoshones in Idaho. He was the scout who brought in the Modoc leader Captain Jack in 1873 according to his own account—but reporters on the scene make no mention of him, assigning that feat to a regular army detachment, assisted possibly by some Warm Springs Indians. This is supported by the military records, by recollections of participants, and by contemporary references, none of which so much as allude to our narrator’s participation in events.

Now, not everything in this guy’s narrative failed to pan out. He claims for example to have been in Seattle in 1888, and sure enough, his name appears there in the city directory, just as it should. He claimed to have known Buffalo Bill Cody—and there are witnesses who saw Buffalo Bill embrace him and give him a seat of honor when he showed up as an old man at one of his wild west shows. But when so many records of the time fail to bear out his story, or worse yet, place him elsewhere from the place he claimed to have been, it’s impossible to take his account very seriously.

My point is this: contrary to Dr. Shormann’s claims, it is entirely possible to verify, or to controvert, historical hypotheses. Police investigators do it every day. So do epidemiologists. Realtors. Lawyers. Accountants. It’s part and parcel of the way we do business in the world. And we don’t need time machines to do it.

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