We were asked to read a rather fascinating New York Times post regarding one man’s quest to answer a simple question: which of two historical photographs were taken first – because one of them was staged. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/?_r=0 I’ll not try and recount the issues, the story, or the saga, but if you have a few minutes I very highly recommend that you read this article. It is fascinating history and rich food for thought.
As a historian, the takeaway was this: how do we elicit Truth from the evidence that has come down to us? What assumptions are we making, why, and can they truly be supported by nearly-irrefutable evidence? Specifically, how frequently do we revert to psychological assumptions as evidence for past events and motivations. The author’s final conclusion was that many on one side of the debate were right, but none of them had been right for the reasons that they had laid out in support of the arguments. All had essentially based their arguments on what seemed to make sense to them, as had their opponents. The truth came down to tiny details from the most humble of sources and based upon the basic laws of nature. Entirely insignificant in appearance but once realized, nearly irrefutable.
This was a good reminder for me, because I am want to try and understand the past, to draw parallels of experience and empathize with the subjects of my research. This was a reminder that Truth in human action is extraordinarily difficult to elicit based upon one’s impression of what ‘makes sense’ or ‘seems right’ – sometime we have no other options, but as this author has shown, sometimes we just need to look at a problem with a new light.