Two weeks ago I said:
The other concept I’m playing with is that “what we know” is inextricable from “how we know it”. This is dangerously close to logical positivism, which I disagree with my limited understanding of. And yet it’s really improved my thinking when doing historical research.
I have some more clarify on what I meant now. Let’s say you’re considering my ex-roommate, person P, as a roommate, and ask me for information. I have a couple of options.
Scenario 1: I turn over chat logs and video recordings of my interactions with the P.
E.g., recordings of P playing music loudly and chat logs showing I’d asked them to stop.
Trust required: that the evidence is representative and not an elaborate deep fake.
Scenario 2: I report representative examples of my interactions with P.
E.g., “On these dates P played music really loudly even when I asked them to stop.”
Trust required: that from scenario 1, plus that I’m not making up the examples.
Scenario 3: I report summaries of patterns with P
E.g., “P often played loud music, even when I asked them to stop”
Trust required: that from scenario 2, plus my ability to accurately infer and report patterns from data.
Scenario 4: I report what a third party told me
E.g. “Mark told me they played loud music a lot”
Trust required: that from scenario 3, plus my ability to evaluate other people’s evidence
Scenario 5: I give a flat “yes good” or “no bad” answer.
E.g., “P was a bad roommate.”
Trust required: that from scenario 3 and perhaps 4, plus that I have the same heuristics for roommate goodness that you do.
The earlier the scenario, the more you can draw your own conclusions and the less trust you need to have in me. Maybe you don’t care about loud music, and a flat yes/no would drive you away from a roommate that would be fine for you. Maybe I thought I was clear about asking for music to stop but my chat logs reveal I was merely hinting, and you are confident you’ll be able to ask more directly. The more specifics I give you, the better an assessment you’ll be able to make.
Here’s what this looks like applied to recent reading:
Scenario 5: Rome fell in the 500s AD.
Even if I trust your judgement, I have no idea why you think this or what it means to you.
Scenario 4: In Rome: The Book, Bob Loblaw says Rome Fell in the 500s AD.
At least I can look up why Bob thinks this.
Scenario 3: Pottery says Rome fell between 300 and 500 AD.
Useful to experts who already know the power of pottery, but leaves newbies lost.
Scenario 2: Here are 20 dig sites in England. Those dated before 323 (via METHOD) contain pottery made in Greece (which we can identify by METHOD), those after 500 AD show cruder pottery made locally.
Great. Now my questions are “Can pottery evidence give that much precision?” and “Are you interpreting it correctly?”
Scenario 1: Please enjoy this pile of 3 million pottery shards.
Too far, too far.
In this particular example (from The Fall of Rome), 2-3 was the sweet spot. It allowed me to learn as much as possible with a minimum of trust. But there’s definitely room in life for 4; you can’t prove everything in every paper and sometimes it’s more efficient to offload it.
I don’t view 5 as acceptable for anything that’s trying to claim to be evidenced based, or at least, any basis besides “Try this and see if it helps you.” (which is a perfectly fine basis if it’s cheap).