This is not strictly about religions vs science, I have moved on from that for the time being, growing weary of all the non productive arguments on the intertubes.

Since I hope to study Microbiology once I am back from my gap year, I find the logic behind biology and evolution (at least on the layman level) very simple and logical to understand. If someone asked me why I think these things are facs, I could explain them, and how they make sense in the world we are living in.

But I was just thinking about how we take things like History for granted. All I was thinking was "How can you say my beliefs are wrong, but you believe in -- insert arbitrary historical fact here -- , how do you know that those books and records aren't lies that you believe in because they are continuously repeated from everyone ?

I had trouble to find any good counter argument other than:

"Well, I could check the facts, and then I would know that I am right!" <-(edit: Awful reply!)


"You have nothing to support your claims, so we are equally stupid!"

(edit:) or perhaps

"Well my beliefs do not have flying unicorns in them !!"

I guess my question is, how would you reply to the question? And do you think we use to much Ad Populum when it comes to layman science, or are you OK with that?


  • If you have a more Fitting Title, please tell me, or just Edit it yourselves ! Jul 26, 2013 at 12:26
  • If your question is how historical claims are justified, then it is more fit for the history SE (although it could to some extent be a philosophy of science question). Historiography certainly isn't based on ad populum arguments; it is much more complex than you make it seem here. I would suggest reading into an introduction to historical criticism and historiography first.
    – Ben
    Jul 26, 2013 at 17:49
  • 1
    I don't think this is necessarily best fit for history.SE. For starters, please read W.K. Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" (here is a shortened version of it; I think the longer one is still a good read if you can find it). Then, see SEP's entry by the same name: The Ethics of Belief
    – stoicfury
    Jul 26, 2013 at 18:24
  • 3
    This reads less like a question, and more like an invitation for a discussion. Not a good fit for the SE format, methinks.
    – prash
    Jul 26, 2013 at 22:35
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    That is from David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries.
    – Dan D.
    Jul 27, 2013 at 3:19

4 Answers 4


We take history for granted because we're not too interested, and as a general rule taking as true those things said by people who are interested in a topic is a heuristic that works reasonably well.

Of course the reason that this heuristic works reasonably well is that people who are interested are typically checking something other than opinion to verify their beliefs. Once they stop doing this, the chance of getting accurate information drops precipitously. There's a whole field of Historiography that is basically the study of the study of history--what methodology is used, why, etc..

Most fact-checking in history boils down to trying to find evidence that should give uncorrelated answers unless a particular historical event happened a particular way. This is always a bit risky, since people tend to like particular kinds of stories and thus can independently generate similar false tales, but it's a reasonable starting place. For big events, such as the War of 1812, there are so many independent pieces of evidence that it happened that we ought to be very confident indeed regarding when and where it took place, and what the outcome was. (Since we can't even get our story straight about why modern wars take place--Iraq for example--I am less hopeful that we can know why wars happened in history.) In other cases, e.g. regarding the Trojan War, we should be highly uncertain about all details, including e.g. whether or not Troy really existed as described or the war ever took place.


A good first starting point for this might be some material on Testimony in Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia). Testimony as a source of justification is recognised as something to be handled with care, since we might think that we need additional justification to believe that the testifying agent can be reliably judged trustworthy.

This shouldn't be seen as reason to hold that testimony can even in its most reliable cases have no part to play in the acquisition of knowledge. Knowing something about theories of testimony will go some way to ensuring that your attitudes to the reports and assertions of others is based in reasonable judgement.


Biology may be all very logical & simple to understand now. But if you look at its historical development you will notice that it wasn't always this way. What you see now is the end-product of a still on-going complex debate. And its still ongoing, for example the contemporary debate about the origin of consciousness and the relation to the neuroscience is controversial.

History is a scholarly subject, it has its own ethic & means of scholarly investigation and this includes the philosophical contours of the subject, which includes questions how does one form an idea of objective history as opposed to a history written by the politically strong (this is one of the reasons for Black History studies in America, post-colonial studies in the West). How does one distinguish history from mere opinion - this question goes back to Herodotus (at least in the West). What counts as justifiable evidence?


Follow Sokrates. The way out is a discourse about the method to resolve such arguments. That's the birth of science.

As soon as views of facts contain errors, all of their conclusions are true even if they are wrong (Ok, little confusing). Not accepting search and elimination of errors shows that there is no acceptance of the scientific method.

Science as the objective method would allow to solve historical puzzles. Unfortunately history is a political science disguised with the color of science but in all aspects much closer to marketing and politics.

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