The Problem of Systematic Bias-Can we really know history?

Bias(s)?

In my last article Is Bias Fair Can We Really Know History, I hope I convinced you of the fact that bias exists in all historical reporting. I also hope that you realize that the presence of bias does not poison history in such a way that we can’t know it. In that respect the question of bias is not a question of fairness. It merely exists as something we must deal with when interpreting history.

There is another form of bias though. It’s much more intentional and sometimes makes our job as interpreters of history more difficult. This form of bias causes us to reexamine our original question. I am referring to the problem of systematic bias. Can we really know history?

What is systematic bias?

As a Tennessean, I experience this quite frequently. I live in one of the states that seceded from the union in 1861. My ancestors were almost exclusively from North Carolina and Virginia, two other seceding states. Many of them were Confederates.

By some of today’s historical standards, each of my ancestors that supported the Confederacy are traitors and racists.

Those ideas come from a modern historical rendering of what caused the War Between the States. The establishment historical narrative which is only about 40-50 years old, implies that the War was caused by secession which was an illegal act of treason against the union by states involved in the protection and promulgation of slavery. A form of racial moral superiority and patriotism is granted to the states that fought for the union. On the other hand, all people who lived in, fought for, or supported the Confederacy are now condemned as traitors and racists unworthy of any honor.

“History is written by the victors.”-Winston Churchill

Whether that modern and sectional re-writing of history is correct can be left up to interpretation. My point is that the victors (Northern historians) have written history in such a way that systematically encouraged a particular view of the events and the people in question. It is only a recent understanding of the war, one that wasn’t taught even at the end of the 19th Century. It is systematic bias because it is willing to ignore certain facts or data to propagate a thesis about what happened.

Data or dishonesty?

Let me introduce some historical data into this analogy and then I’ll get to why it matters to Christians.

  • None of my Confederate ancestors owned slaves and were mostly poor mountain farmers. (You’ll have to take my word on that one)
  • Most of my Confederate ancestors were grandchildren of veterans of the American Revolution. (I could prove it but I can’t fit it into this blog)
  • VA, NC, & TN were last to secede citing Lincolns threat of invasion as their primary cause of secession in either their ordinances or speeches leading to secession.
  • About 25% of Southern families owned slaves. 80% of those had only 1-2 household servants who lived with, ate with, and worked beside them on small farms.
  • Secession was considered a legal act by those who ratified the Constitution for the united States

 

I could spend pages (some have) introducing facts or data that call into question the modern interpretation of the status quo. That’s not what this article is about. I only mean to place a bit of skepticism in your mind for this purpose-I want you to see how history can be systematically bent for a purpose, be it mine or another’s. I can ignore certain data that may bring into question the modern establishment history.  I can use personal primary source documents like letters to introduce skepticism. Or I can use major primary source documents like census data or speeches. Faced with my evidence, if you are intellectually honest, you will doubt the modern meta-narrative.

After careful study of American history and the issues that “caused” the War Between the States, you may decide to submit to the problem of systematic bias. Can we really know history?

The history of Christ

 Christianity at its core is historical. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical person. If we are honest, we must admit that if Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection can be historically falsified then our Faith is false. So, we must consider the problem of history if we are to defend our Faith.

If the history of the New Testament is false, then Christianity is false[1].-Lynn Gardner

 There are a few primary source documents that attest to Jesus and his life. Above all, the New Testament is the most important. Furthermore, the Gospels stand as the historical narratives that are witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. No other primary source documents sufficiently give us enough data about Jesus as the Bible, especially the New Testament.

The New Testament was written by people who held a bias. They were followers of Jesus. They wished to convey his message in their writings. Did they poison history with systematic bias? How can we defend that? How do we wade the waters of the problem of systematic bias? Can we really know history?

I don’t believe the New Testament writers engaged in systematic bias. They reported history honestly and the nature of their writings demonstrate that. On the other hand, there is a method that helps us as historians to navigate bias, even when it’s systematic.

The hypothesis hurdle.

 Just like the hard sciences, history is a process of gathering data, developing a hypothesis, and testing the hypothesis.  With that, Frank Turek’s catchy adage comes to mind. “Science doesn’t say anything. Scientists do.”

History is much the same.

alternative theories that have been hypothesized by critics to explain the resurrection on naturalistic grounds have failed to explain the data and are refuted by the facts-Gary Habermas[2]

Historians that are worth their salt don’t merely regurgitate facts. They tell stories. They use the data available to develop a story or hypothesis that best explains the “facts” of history. They then use accepted tools of history to test that hypothesis. This method is well established and reliable. It’s how history hurdles the problem of bias, even systematic bias.

You see, historical hypothesis is not something that gets in the way of history. It is the way to know something about history. The way a historian makes sense of the data is by developing a hypothesis that explains it. Too often this is classified as systematically poisoning the well of history. Most of the time it’s not. But, even in the case of systematic bias we are equipped to get back to the facts and rebuild a more accurate narrative. Remember, it is the historian’s job to understand, not condemn history.

The tools of a historian.

 Realize it or not, you are already equipped with some of the tools of a historian. Bias exists in all historical reporting. You should realize that sometimes people report events so that the reader will come away with a unique understanding of that event. Sometimes history is reported in a way that systematically excludes or adds data to convince the reader of their hypothesis. The question you must now answer is-if these forms of bias exist, can I know what really happened?

Sometimes the answer is no. Often history is complex and the answer is multifaceted. In these cases there are often competing and seemingly equal hypothesis. You must examine them and weigh them against the data to make up your own mind. Such is the case with the competing hypothesis of the causes of the War Between the States.

770
African Americans collecting bones at Cold Harbor VA

Sometimes though, when the historical event in question is limited in time and space, we can make an informed and accurate inference to what really happened. Even considering competing hypothesis, one will clearly stand out as a best explanation.

7 tools for a reasonably historic faith

There are tools that can help us make accurate assessments of historical accounts. Like science, history is practiced using specific methods that help us make inferences or judgments based upon the data.

When interpreting history, we use tools to develop or test a hypothesis that attempts to explain the “facts”. In the book, Reasonable Faith by W L Craig, some of these tools are outlined.

 

  1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.
  2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope (that is, imply a greater variety of observable data) than rival hypotheses.
  3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power (that is, make the observable data more probable) than rival hypotheses.
  4. The hypothesis must be more plausible (that is, be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than rival hypotheses.
  5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc (that is, include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than rival hypotheses.
  6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs (that is, when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements) than rival hypotheses.
  7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2) -(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions.[3]

Systematic bias and the genetic fallacy

 The fact is we have tools that help us overcome bias. But, often bias is an intellectual hurdle for skeptics. Let me remind those of us who fall into that category of something. Exclusion of evidence based upon systematic bias is a form of the genetic fallacy. It is an intellectually lazy way of ignoring the evidence history provides.

The Gospels, as well as the rest of the New Testament, provide evidence for the person and the works of Jesus of Nazareth. Even if the writers of these books show that they are attempting to provide an explanation of history that moves the reader to believe their hypothesis, that does not damage the data and for that matter their hypothesis. It is an intellectually honest person’s duty to deal with those explanations in a way that makes sense of the data.

Most historians agree on the data about Jesus. These are the facts of history that the gospel writers explained by a resurrection hypothesis. These are the facts we test against their and our own hypothesis. Gary Habermas sums them up…

 

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried.
  3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
  4. The tomb was empty.
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
  7. The resurrection was the central message.
  8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
  9. The Church was born and grew.
  10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
  11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
  12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was a Jewish skeptic).

The question ought not be were the gospel writers bias. Of course they were. That’s a very uninteresting truth. The intellectually honest person should examine the data and the competing hypothesis. Then use the tools of a historian to decide which, if any, better explains the facts about Jesus.

 

 

 

 

[1] Gardner, Lynn

1994

Christianity Stands True: A Common Sense Look at the Evidence. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company.

 

[2] Habermas, Gary R.

1996

The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company.

 

[3] Craig, William Lane

1994

Reasonable Faith : Christian Truth and Apologetics. Rev. ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

 

Leave a Reply