This is a question that came up in my last knit night (shout out to Jessica and Rebecca!). It started when Rebecca asked me why I didn’t recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. After all, isn’t history just storytelling? Do you need a Ph.D. in history to tell a story?

This is something of a controversial topic. Look in any bookstore and you will see plenty of books in the history section that are not written by historians, but by journalists, politicians, etc… In fact, one of the most well-known history authors, Jared Diamond, is a biologist. But are these works good history? Is there a difference between work produced by historical enthusiasts and professional historians?

We’re Professionals, You Can Trust Us

If you have a cold, you can usually take Tylenol yourself, but if you were really sick, you’d go see your doctor. Why? Because your doctor has specialized training that gives her superior knowledge. The same goes for history. The biggest distinction between historical enthusiasts and professional historians has to do with training – most professional historians, though not all, have Ph.Ds.  A history enthusiast or entertainer  will present history to the best of their abilities. However, they lack the training to better understand the nuance and context, and the average listener has no way of distinguishing between these conclusions and those of historians.

What Makes Professional Historians Different?

Professional or academic historians train for years in order to understand the past by applying critical analysis to historical documents, material history (artifacts), and oral histories (interviews), all of which are called “primary sources.” But it’s not always clear to the public what this entails. My favourite introduction to this subject is the Historical Thinking Project, which was a framework developed by Peter Seixas for the teaching of history in public schools. He identified six main concepts that comprise “historical thinking.” I’d recommend checking out that link for more details, but simply put, they are

  • establishing historical significance (is this important information?)
  • using primary source evidence (interrogating primary sources, trying to read between the lines, and understand what is not being said)
  • identifying continuity and change over time (history isn’t just a sequence of events, but instead consists of patterns)
  • analyzing cause and consequence (just because two things happen around the same time does not mean that one is responsible for the other)
  • understanding the importance of historical perspectives (the “common sense” or world view of a particular time and place)
  • understanding the ethical dimensions of historical interpretations (which I mentioned above)

Another key thing to remember is that professional historians keep one another more or less “honest.” Like other academic disciplines and many professions, we check one another’s work. If, for example, you want to publish an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – research which could very well influence life and death decisions made in medical practices and hospitals – you’d better be damn sure the research is good! That’s why a team of one’s peers reviews every article to make it stands up to the standards of the field. History is no different. I don’t usually get to publish anything that comes into my head (except in this blog!) Without a vetting process, how are we to know if work is good?

But Isn’t History Just the Facts?

Now some people argue that history is, at its heart, facts strung together like a story. This is a bit misleading. Sure, we can say that Canada was legally established as a country on July 1st, 1867. But nearly all of these “facts” are subject to interpretation. For example, The Dominion of Canada was established on this date, but Canada didn’t truly become an independent country until 1982, when the constitution was repatriated (and we no longer required an act of the British Parliament to change our constitution). Also, Canada as we know it didn’t come into being on this date; it only included four of our current provinces. It took until 1999 for all of our current provinces and territories to be established. I could go on, but you get the point. The “facts” that many like to point out are more accurately defined as consensus that something happened among historians. This just means that a majority of historians agree on a piece of information. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees; just remember the old joke about how in a group of 20 historians, you’ll find 30 different opinions. The most important thing to keep in mind is that unless we develop time travel, there is no way of knowing anything for sure.

 So Who Should You Listen To?

Well, me, obviously. 😉 But seriously, How can you tell if someone is a good historian or worth listening to? Look up their biographies. What are their credentials? Do they have a background in history, or another field? Look up reviews of their podcasts by historians. Check out the sources they use and look for reviews of those sources by professional historians. Listen for false analogies, historical judgements, pronouncements of inevitability, and “what if” questions. And use your own judgement. Do you believe what the author is saying? Are they presenting you with a nuanced account or glossing over materials? Are they exaggerating or over-simplifying? Does something sound off? If you really want to be sure, you can always ask a friendly neighbourhood historian! There are five important warning signs that should tell you to take what you are hearing with a grain of salt: false analogies, historical judgement, presentism, inevitability, and “what if” questions.

  • A False Analogy is a comparison between two things that shouldn’t be compared. Think apples and oranges; both might be fruit, but you can’t compare them because they are different species of plants.
  • Historical Judgement is something that many people do on a regular basis. We all make fun of our grandparents for saying racist and homophobic things. But while no one thinks racism is a good idea, it’s important to understand that saying people in the past were bad because they were racist isn’t. Were they racist? Absolutely. While our racist and homophobic grandparents might be funny in an embarrassing way, they are simply reflecting an era they grew up in. Every time and place has a certain “common sense,” or the beliefs and values that shape how they see the world around them. While we can condemn the behaviour, it’s much better to try and understand why something happened, so we can prevent it from happening again. We can’t learn anything from historical judgements. You too will be judged and found wanting in the future, so it’s important to remember that, by and large, people are just people.
  • We also need to be wary about using the common sense of our era to understand the past. Historians call this “presentism” or anachronism. Instead, the past needs to be understood on its own terms, to be best of our abilities. We too are caught inside our own worldviews, which is why we don’t understand the logic of our racist and homophobic grandparents. While we can’t change this, we can be open and honest about where we are coming from and try to do our best.
  • For some historical enthusiasts, events in the past seem inevitable or that they are following a “natural” progression. But it’s important to keep in mind that nothing is inevitable, it just seems like it from our perspective. Remember, hindsight is 20/20 and all that. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, no one knew at the time that it would plunge all of Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia, into a World War. At the same time, be wary any time anyone uses the word “natural.” There is no such thing as “natural”; however, we often apply this term to things that make sense according to our worldviews. Once upon a time, it was seen as “natural” that women only wear skirts and not work outside the home, due to their “feminine nature.” I don’t know about other ladies, but I like to wear pants (though admittedly they are often of the yoga variety) and I’d go nuts if I didn’t have a career. If only those days were behind us….
  • “What If” Questions are popular questions among historical enthusiasts. What if Hitler had won WW2? What is Napoleon hadn’t been defeated at Waterloo? What would have happened? History enthusiasts like to speculate like this. But historians rarely do this. Why? Because there is no way of knowing! The work of historians like Niall Ferguson who engage in speculative or “counterfactual” history is often regarded with everything from amusement to derision.


So do you have to be a historian to do history? No. Do you have to be a historian to do good history? Usually. Should you listen to Dan Carlin? That’s totally up to you. I’m not personally a fan for a number of reasons. But if you like his style and find him entertaining, then go ahead. But remember that he is only telling one side of the story.

I think a better question to ask is one my very smart husband raised: “Why do historians do such a bad job selling the importance of history?” And what can we do to reverse this? Thoughts? Comment below!

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