by R. M. de Vienne
There are two kinds of history: What the British call Public History and Americans tend to call ‘popular history’; and academic history. Unwarranted snobbery finds a home among those who write academic history. But finding original documents and writing footnotes doesn’t elevate academic history above its cousin.
Though it colors your style, the audience one writes for does not matter. What matters is an honest, rational approach to the subject. Dr. Schulz and I write about controversial religions. Those who read our books have preconceived notions, often wrong. Not every reader is willing to accept new evidence. Some want to write your book for you. One of our readers believed we should cite former adherents’ books and pamphlets. Almost none of them are relevant. They do not cover the era accurately if at all. They are all secondary, sometimes tertiary sources. They do not present an accurate picture. Often they lie.
Which brings me to my first point. If you write history, don’t lie to your readers. Some historians misrepresent their subject because their research lacks depth. Want an example? Of course you do. How many of you think that Juan Ponce de León went looking for the fountain of youth? It’s a common myth in American history books. But ... buster, it ain’t so. So ... this is what I wrote in a limited circulation school history:
As a result of political moves by Columbus’ son, he lost his governorship in 1512, but the Spanish king found ways to help him. King Ferdinand sent him out to explore new lands. Ponce de León heard of an island called Bimini. The story as it’s often told says he heard that the fabled Fountain of Youth was there. Drinking its miraculous waters would restore health and youth. Many writers say that seeking this fountain was the reason for his exploration northward. But this story was invented by a man who wanted to discredit Ponce de León. None of the original records mention a quest for a miracle fountain. Many years after de León’s death Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a partisan follower of Diego Columbus, wrote that Ponce was gullible, egocentric and dull-witted. Oviedo told the fountain of youth tale in his book Historia General y Natural de las Indias. It was a literary device meant to make Ponce appear foolish. de León’s real motive was wealth. The king promised that he would hold exclusive rights to the lands he discovered and that he would become their governor.
Do not lie to your readers by repeating a story you did not verify from original sources. ... Ever.
When sources conflict, the tendency of some writers is to accept what the majority say, even in preference to an eyewitness. This is argumentum ad populum, one of the major logic flaws. Sometimes the majority view is wrong. Never reject the opposition account without solid reason. And never discount opposition views on an unfounded basis. Age, status in life, and similar things do not, without strong evidence, account for an alternative view. Never adopt a speculation as firm evidence.
If a character says something different from others, and you do not know why, do not rush into a Non Causa Pro Causa argument. Do not adopt as a reason your speculation. If you cannot find in the original documents a supportable reason for the difference, simply note it. It is fair to balance that person’s testimony against that of others. If you do, only contrast it with eyewitnesses. False testimony comes from repeated use of the comments of one or two people. An example is the endless repetition of J. J. Ross’s claims against Russell. If you take only Ross against Russell and others who attended the trial, Ross is not sustained. However, the bulk of what has been written is derived from Ross because he represented what opposition writers wish the events to be.
Do not use every document as if it were valid, accurate and the rock-foundation of truth. This is especially so of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. Give them appropriate weight. If they contradict known facts, reject their testimony. Pay attention! This is important. If you accept a newspaper or magazine article, even contemporary with the event, merely because it supports your point of view, you’re a ‘dork.’ Stop it. Check further. Check your facts to ‘the bitter end.’ Bad writers don’t. Good historians do.
Historians should be ‘truth detectors.’ If the story develops in a way that differs from your pre-conceived belief, you are ethically bound to follow the facts. You are prohibited by ethics from making it up, casting someone in a bad light because you oppose what they believed or coloring the story to justify your own acts and beliefs.