Historical Literacy & the Criteria for Truth

The discipline of history focuses on studying what happened in the past. In my opinion, in a similar fashion to how being scientific literate involves being familiar with how science is done, being historically literate involves being familiar with how history is done. It’s important to note that otherwise qualified scientists and historians produce non-scientific and non-historical works masquerading as the real deal. The more historically (or scientifically) literate you become, the easier it gets to tell the difference between fact and fiction in your specific field.

In this article, I provide some brief commentary on the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest’s (LCHPI) “6 Steps to Historical Literacy” diagram. The steps serve as a questionnaire that’s to be asked when encountering historical information on the internet. Along with encouraging people to use that, they encourage critical thinking when consuming online information.[1]

I liked the idea behind making a checklist like this one and had some thoughts about it when reading through it. From my perspective, their list is essentially made to help prevent people from buying into false information. To meet this preventative goal, I suggest making use of the 5 criteria for truth laid out by Schwarz & Jalbert. They report that people generally make use of some of these criteria but rarely make use of all five.[2, p.74] I agree with them and haven’t seen evidence to the contrary.

As shown below, the 6 Steps to Historical Literacy can be organized under the 5 Criteria for Truth.

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Overview

Six Steps to Historical Literacy

1 – Is the author a historian?

2 – Is it copied from Wikipedia?

3 – Does the article only present one point of view?

4 – Does the article make an outlandish claim?

5 – Does the article cite credible evidence?

6 – Does the article promote constructive dialogue?

Five Criteria for Truth

The numbers in parentheses below correspond with the 6 points above.

1: Compatibility (4) – How does this fit in with other things I believe?

2: Coherence – Does the information contain any logical contradictions?

3: Credibility (1, 2, 5, 6) – How credible is the source?

4: Consensus (3) – What do other people think about it?

5: Evidence (5) – What evidence exists to support it?

Discussion

Here I will discuss the reasoning behind my choices as well as my thoughts on each point. Included after each question is the text from the original diagram.

Distribution Stats

Because #5 of the 6 is split between credibility and evidence, I’ve given each number 2 points (for a total of 12) in order to calculate what percentage of the 6 fall into each category of the 5. Therefore, Evidence and Credibility each get 1 point for #5 while the rest give 2 points to each of their categories.

Credibility: 7 points (58.33%)

Consensus: 2 (16.66%)

Compatibility: 2 (16.66%)

Evidence: 1 (8.33%)

Coherence: 0

As seen above, Credibility is the main focus of the LCHPI’s 6 steps, comprising nearly 60%. Taking Consensus and Compatibility together, they make up about 33% of the focus. Combined, they get a little over half as much attention as Credibility does. Aside from Coherence, which doesn’t get any mention at all, evidence gets the least amount of treatment.

Next I explore the 6 steps more in depth.

Credibility

These points all boil down to credibility. Is the source legit? Can it be trusted? The LCHPI advocates for professional historians, against

(1) – Is the author a historian?

“Many people who write about historical topics are not historians. Some are journalists, some are activists, some are history hobbyists, and some are current or former government officials. Historians have subject matter expertise that others often do not, gained from years (sometimes decades) of studying a particular topic. Pay attention to the byline and look for articles written by professional historians.”

Categorization: This points focuses on the credibility of the author and encourages people to look for content produced by professional historians.

Commentary: While it may be useful to consult professional historians, they are far from the only source of credible expertise. As reported by professional historian Jonathan Zimmerman, professional historians are often corrected by lay people.[3, c.52:00] Competent hobbyists, journalists, and activists alike can all contribute credible information.

In addition to this, I have to ask: what are the hallmarks of being a professional historian? The LCHPI did not have a link to an expanded discussion about each point, which I think would be useful for anyone (like myself) who wants more clarity about what they meant. They said, “Historians have subject matter expertise that others often do not”. What is this expertise? A bullet point list will help identify the key areas of expertise as well as help inform lay people on what to look for. The LCHPI did not link any such list to their diagram or the article that announced the diagram.[1]

(2) – Is it copied from Wikipedia?

“Wikipedia is an amazing resource for gaining a basic level of understanding about many topics. But Wikipedia entries can be incomplete, incorrect, or present only part of the story. Many articles online copy directly from Wikipedia, or use Wikipedia as their primary evidence—often without acknowledgment. Look for articles that go beyond Wikipedia and cite books, research, newspapers or other writers.”

Categorization: This one boils down to credibility by asking whether or not the source is credible.

Commentary: I have seen professional historians use Wikipedia, sometimes as their main source, for their content. I mention this here because even if you do go beyond Wiki and cite books, research, etc…, those might be using Wiki as their source too. I agree that Wiki can be useful, but overall I do what I can to avoid it due to how unregulated it is.

(5) – Does the article cite credible evidence?

“Historians make arguments based on evidence—proof that events actually happened. Often that evidence is found in an archive, a library, a newspaper, or some other source. Does the article cite evidence? If so, does it mention where the evidence was found? Does the evidence seem credible or has it been exaggerated or, perhaps, even fabricated, in order to prove a point?”

Categorization: This is the one that’s split between Credibility and Evidence. The question itself mentions both words and the quote expands upon both points.

Commentary: I’ll comment on both the Credibility and Evidence here. Evidence is the proof that supports a claim or an argument. It’s good to ask if an article cites evidence. I cite evidence in this article here and you can check it through my references. It’s good to ask if the evidence seems credible, or is credible, as well as if its been tampered with. If you want to know more about analyzing evidence, you may enjoy exploring the field of scholarship dedicated to evidence known as “evidence scholarship”. Sometimes even historians commit fraud by fabricating new evidence or distorting existing evidence. It’s good to be aware of this. I recommend Michael Grant’s “Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation” to get a glimpse of this.

(6) – Does the article promote constructive dialogue?

“Many articles use the past to promote a political agenda or make an ideological point (aka, my side is right!). Historians take a point of view, but they work tirelessly to ensure their research contributes to civil conversation, even on issues that ignite our passions. Tone matters. Look for articles that present information in a fair non-discriminatory and trustworthy manner with an eye toward educating the reader.”

Categorization: I put this under credibility because the focus is on the reliability of the source. It brings into question whether or not the source has vested interests. It asks whether the source can be trusted, whether they are credible.

Commentary: The way historians are painted in this point falls short of reality. Historians are a diverse group of people who put varying levels of effort into their work. Some historians put little to no effort into their publications while others do indeed “work tirelessly”. In light of #3 from the 6, I felt obligated to mention this here because the tireless historian picture only presents one of the many types of historians.

Consensus

(3) – Does the article only present one point of view?

“Historians uphold a standard of argument and counter-argument as part of professional ethics. For every point a historian makes, she also will weigh the counter-evidence that refutes her position. Examine articles closely, and ask whether the author is presenting one point of view, or considering other evidence that may refute it.”

Categorization: This number falls under Consensus because it deals with the opinions of other people.

Commentary: Again, this is a narrow view of historians. It doesn’t take much reading of historians to see that they do not weigh the counter-evidence for every point made. This comment from the LCHPI is an exaggeration. I’ve certainly seen this argument/counter-argument model encouraged, but the amount it is practiced does not match its promotion, at least in final print/content.

Also, this point genders historians as “she”s. This is inappropriate as it insinuates that only people who use she/her pronouns can be historians.

Compatibility

(4) – Does the article make an outlandish claim?

“”For The First Time Ever!” “You Won’t Believe!” “Like You’ve Never Seen Before!” Many articles about the past entice readers with headlines that appeal to our instinct to uncover something novel. Often, however, these articles reference events or objects that have been known about or studied by historians for a while. While discoveries are made from time to time, most new historical scholarship is based on new insights or new connections, not a new discovery.”

Categorization: This question falls under compatibility because it focuses on how outlandish do you find the claims to be.

Commentary: This question can be problematic due to a bias known as “anchoring”. The anchoring bias comes into effect when new information gets paired against already held beliefs. For example, if you believe a pizza is worth $20, that is where you are anchored. If that same pizza was offered for $10, you might think you’re getting a great deal, or that something’s wrong with it. If offered for $30, you might feel like someone’s trying to rip you off, or think that something’s been altered.

All this to say, what’s outlandish to one person might be commonplace to another. The text following this question doesn’t really focus on that, instead it focuses on anti-sensationalization, essentially asking, “Is this headline/article sensationalized?”. Fundamentally though, your response to this question will be determined by where you have anchored previous beliefs.

Closing Thoughts

I think creating a list of the expertise that makes someone a historian will be the best thing to do moving forward if the goal is to create a historically literate society. This list should cover the fundamental activities that go into producing historical scholarship. Please do let me know if you’re familiar with any lists like this.

The LCHPI’s 6 steps contradict their own standards (i.e., #3 being ignored in #5 & #6). The table is useful to get you thinking more about historical literacy and what it means to be historically literate, but as far as its practical application goes, I think it’s limited and could be refined.

I’m still under the impression that the best thing you can do to not get duped by false info is to practice skepticism at the time new information is first encountered.

Jason and I had a conversation about this article. You can watch it @

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References:

[1] – Villanova University. “Six Steps to Historical Literacy”. https://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/lepage/programs/resources/6_steps_to_historical_literacy.html. Accessed 2 Feb. 2022.

[2] – Greifeneder, Rainer, et al. The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation. 1st ed., Routledge, 2021. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-edit/10.4324/9780429295379/psychology-fake-news-rainer-greifeneder-mariela-jaff%C3%A9-eryn-newman-norbert-schwarz. Accessed 2 Feb. 2022.

[3] – villanovauniversity. “Fake News & Fake History: A Crisis of Authority” (22 Sept. 2017). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbCKvu3diKo. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022.

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