History and sources

As a history instructor, naturally I explained to my students the meaning and significance of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from people who were there, those who took part in the event or who were witnesses of the event. Memoirs and autobiographies are, of course, primary sources. So are diaries, letters, oral histories, photographs, recordings, and receipts. Primary sources do not have to contain words: artwork and architecture can be primary sources, as well as tools, weapons, clothing, and other artifacts. Garbage is a great source of primary sources. (Imagine how much an investigator could learn about your family by examining your garbage from the last month!) Dead bodies and the artifacts buried with them are also great primary sources, although contemporary historians and archaeologists are showing greater respect for burials than was the case in previous centuries.

Secondary sources collect data from the primary sources, examine them, and draw conclusions from them. A soldier writes about sights and sounds on the battlefield, while a politician writes about decisions made in the halls of government; the author of a secondary source combines those perceptions to produce a fuller account of the war than either primary source could create. Secondary sources should contain notes and bibliographies listing those primary sources they used to form their interpretations, as well as which secondary sources were consulted to help the writers interpret those primary sources.

Newspapers, magazines, and web sites can be a mixture of primary and secondary source material. When a reporter quotes a participant or witness, that quote is a primary source; the rest of the article which describes and explains the event is a secondary source. Even those secondary sources become primary sources for the historian who wants to know how events were understood at the time, before historians began writing about an event and trying to understand and explain what happened, why it happened, and what it means for people today.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia articles (whether in print or online) are tertiary sources; so are textbooks. Student papers are tertiary sources. If a student only looked at the textbook and an encyclopedia or two and then wrote a paper, that paper would be a quaternary source, which is effectively useless. Junior high and early high school students might get away with that approach, but by college a writer should know how to read, evaluate, and summarize information from primary and secondary sources. The best uses of a tertiary source at that level of education are to get a general idea of what people are saying about the event and to consult the bibliography to find good secondary sources for research.

At this point, I ask the students if they agree with the statement that, “the more sources you have, the more likely you are to reach a firm conclusion about the event.” At first that proposition sounds reasonable, but too much information can be worse than not enough. Think of the assassination of President Kennedy. We have many primary sources—hundreds of witnesses who saw and heard the shooting, the doctors in Dallas who treated the President and declared him dead, the doctors in Washington who performed the autopsy, photographs, moving pictures, a bullet, bullet fragments, the President’s clothing, the car, and much much more. So many secondary sources have assembled interpretations of the event that probably no person can read and watch them all. Yet massive disagreement persists about what happened in Dallas that day. With so much information, researchers can choose those items and reports that match their theories while disregarding or dismissing contrary items and reports.

(Actually, good research affirms that the President was shot from behind. Analysis of the shirt and tie he was wearing confirm that the neck wound was an exit wound, not an entrance wound—as the Dallas doctors first thought and said. Still pictures taken from the Zapruder film clearly show the aftermath of the fatal head would exiting toward the front, indicating that the bullet struck him from the rear. Researchers who insist that other evidence indicates that shots were fired at the President from in front of the car must then explain how it was that those shooters missed their target—something I have not seen addressed in secondary sources.)

I have seen many sloppy works written by authors who deliberately skipped sources that did not agree with their preestablished conclusions, authors who misquoted and distorted their sources, and authors who relied on emotional persuasion rather than solid academic research to state their cases. These sloppy works are not limited to college students; they include professional historians, even some respected academic writers, who were more interested in publishing the conclusions they wanted to share than in being persuaded by the evidence of the sources that they were wrong. As I said before, historians have an obligation to be honest and fair with their information. The reputations of people from the past and the effective thinking of people in the future is in the hands of today’s historians. For this reason, I am very concerned about the way history is being taught in many classrooms today, and I am sorry that my voice is no longer among those being heard in those classrooms. J.

The war on information

Ray Bradbury wrote a number of science fiction stories in which a totalitarian government attempted to forbid the preservation of literature and history. The government tried to maintain control over the population by restricting information available to that population, often by forbidding and burning books. In one of his stories, though, Bradbury imagined the government controlling citizens by using the opposite extreme. The government flooded the market with information, producing so much material that no one could receive it all and comprehend it all. Important matters were lost in the flood of information, and the citizens were unable to resist control from the government under that condition.

Contemporary society has, perhaps, reached the point that Bradbury envisioned. The ordinary laws of supply and demand—and not a malevolent government—have overwhelmed people of our time with information of every kind. We have at our fingertips news and history, medical information, the results of scientific research, access to all the fine arts, and many more sources of education and of entertainment.

People use this abundance and freedom in strange ways. Instead of viewing the plays of Shakespeare, or listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, or enjoying the artwork of the Italian Renaissance, the largest number of people has turned to scripted shows that are called, ironically, “Reality TV.” News about current events and about historic events is increasingly being presented in entertainment formats rather than researched documentaries. Satirical news has grown in popularity, in part because many people cannot discern the difference between satire and real news.

From the Baroque era into the twentieth century, modern philosophers assumed that information could be received objectively and communicated objectively. Postmodern thinkers assume that all research and all communication is biased. As a result, contemporary people choose among a variety of news media, selecting those that match the biases already formed within their minds. Some trust The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Others prefer the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Breitbart. Each group accuses the others of trusting biased and distorted sources of information while failing to acknowledge that their own sources are also biased.

Some news stories are covered across the spectrum, although they are addressed and described differently in different places. Others are reported only by one side or only by the other. In controversial matters—for example, climate change—contrary studies are presented by different news sources as authoritative. Contrary reports also reveal mistakes or deliberate distortions in some studies, undermining the authority of the other side’s evidence for its position.

In the midst of all this contrary information, a growing segment of the population doubts everything that it hears as news. One day coffee is good for a person and red wine is dangerous; the next day red wine is beneficial but coffee should be avoided. Conspiracy theories prosper precisely because they seem more believable than the news that is being reported.

As to conspiracy theories, they began to flourish in the days of Watergate and because of revelations about conspiracies and crime within the White House and also in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Watergate actually revealed how government conspiracies really work: they are subject to incompetent agents, selfishness of individuals, and a lack of trust within any organization. Human people are fallible; they will not succeed with conspiracies that require large-scale participation, continuing deception, or a possible reward for the first conspirator who tells the truth about what really happened.

The danger in our current condition, this war on information, is that people who believe nothing inevitably begin believing anything. Satirical news frequently is repeated as if it were reliable information. Pity the poor elected leader a few years ago who, on the floor of the state senate, called for regulation to ban or at least limit the use of a certain chemical because it was directly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. (The chemical was water.) Because truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, many strange fictions are accepted as truth.

Doubt any report that relies upon the assumption that all the people of a large group with one common characteristic are working together for a common goal. All politicians, all leaders of big business, all entertainers, all homosexuals, all Christians, all Muslims—none of these groups are united enough to be working together to try to control the world.

Doubt any report that depicts a large number of people keeping grand secrets. Doubt any report that describes some massive hidden technology that is behind some unexplained event. Doubt any report that claims that a hidden group of people (especially one that hides in public with web sites and scheduled meetings) is secretly running the world. Doubt any report that a widely witnessed event never happened but was faked by some group for nefarious purposes.

Fake news existed in ancient times and will continue to exist beyond our lifetimes. What used to be labeled “rumor” is now spread by technology that gives it an added layer of credibility. We can survive the war on information by using a little common sense, checking sources when possible, and remembering to think for ourselves rather than allowing others to do our thinking for us.