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Friday, February 24, 2012

Historical Research Is Hard Work

I posted the other day about the "guy who shot his kid's laptop." But what I was mostly posting about was The Last Psychiatrist's analysis of reaction to the video.

But in the comments, Prateek became a bit distraught, because I hadn't realized the whole thing was a hoax. This was interesting to me: this required historical research!

I followed the hint Prateek provided and found a video of some old codger (pot, meet kettle) chewin' on a pipe and making accusations against Tommy Jordan (the guy in the laptopicide video): that, for instance, Jordan is no IT dude at all. And the pipe-eatin' codger provided a link to where Jordan "actually" works. If you follow that link, you find out that Jordan... is their IT guy! So the guy who is "debunking" the original video can be debunked himself, at least on one point.

The long and the short of this is not to figure out whether this guy really shot his daughter's laptop -- I don't care that much -- but to illustrate something of the nature of historical research. The fact someone says "I shot my daughter's laptop" does not mean he did. Nor does the fact that someone says he's a liar mean that he is. And lastly, the issue is not a matter of the reliability or trustworthiness of the two disputants. Very unreliable people tell the truth at least occasionally, while the most honest man in the world can make mistakes. (But this is actually the point that many people stop at in historical thinking: "He was totally believable!" "No, his story made no sense!")

Both videos are pieces of evidence. If we really wanted to resolve the question of, "Did this dude shoot his daughter's laptop?" (but, again, who really cares?), we'd have to keep researching. We'd try to find the laptop and see the bullet hole. We'd interview Jordan's daughter. We'd find people who could tell us about the father-daughter relationship. And we'd keep going until we ran out of places to look, or we became certain of the answer to our question.

And what we would be doing, through this whole process, could not plausibly be described as collecting "known facts" or "assembling data" and then placing an interpretation on it. No, historical research is what we do to determine what the facts were.

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