History is the story of humans as told by other humans, and absolute objectivity is considered an impossible goal. Biases are so deeply ingrained that most people are no more aware of them than the air they breathe, and historians are no different. Historians study primary sources -- accounts written by people who lived through the events they are studying -- and strive to tell us "what really happened." The best ones try to be aware of their potential biases.
Some historians approach their job with ideological agendas, looking for the pieces of the puzzle that will reinforce what they already believe or what they want you to believe. For example, there is a vast gulf between Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" and "A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to America's Age of Entitlement," by Larry Schweikart and Michael Patrick Allen. Both books tell the story of the United States, but the choices the historians made about what to include and what to emphasize make them utterly different.
From the moment humans begin to use language, a range of cultural factors such as nationality, ethnicity, family beliefs and social class affect the way they see the world. For example, a Japanese historian and an American one might take away different ideas from reading original sources about World War II; so might two United States historians, one raised in a military family and the other in a family of pacifists. Students of human behavior have developed the concept of cultural relativism to try to lessen the impact of these factors.
Cognitive psychology tells us that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. Memories aren't videotapes, but instead are reconstructions that take place from people's (often biased) brains. The implications of this are as huge for history as they are for the field of criminal justice. Historians know what the ancients wrote, but it's harder to determine why they wrote exactly that instead of something else. What were they trying to accomplish? Were they trying to sway popular opinion, or simply tell what happened? What biases might they themselves have held? Decades or centuries later, it can be hard to tell.
An unwary historian can get tripped up by cognitive biases that are built-in factors of human psychology. Some examples include the bandwagon effect, in which people are more likely to believe what they see others believing; the confirmation bias, or tendency to believe things that confirm what the reader thinks he already knows; negativity bias (people are quicker to believe negative than positive information), and system justification, the tendency to believe things that reinforce the status quo.
When we say something got "lost in translation," it's not just a flip turn of phrase. Languages evolve out of specific cultural contexts in the first place, and then are translated by human beings who have innate biases. From these imperfect translations, historians attempt to understand events; the problem gets more complicated when the translation is being made from an ancient language whose culture no longer exists. The Bible is a classic example of a text that has been translated and interpreted in many ways.
- Pathways to Philosophy: Objectivity in History; Neil Munro
- Scientific American: Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts; Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld; January 2009
- Vanishing Georgia: Cultural Bias in Historical Resources
- Globoforce: Eight Cognitive Biases That Will Make Or Break Your Culture; Darcy Jacobsen, September 2012
- Whole Bible: Effects of Translational Bias; Bruce Scott Bertram; 2011
- History Is A Weapon: A People's History of the United States; Howard Zinn, 1980
- Patriot's History USA: A Patriot's History of the United States; Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, 2004
- Princeton University: Cultural Relativism
- Photo Credit Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images
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