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jtcc50.gif (1270 bytes)Internal and External Criticism

1-22-99: Dr. Lynn Sims, adjunct history professor at John Tyler Community College, notes two ways of looking at a set of data. He writes about applying these criticisms specifically to "the Battle of Sand Creek, Colorado, in November, 1864," but these methods can probably be applied to data in nearly any field.

bulletInternal criticism looks within the data itself to try to determine truth--facts and "reasonable" interpretation.  It includes looking at the apparent or possible motives of the person providing the data.
bulletExternal criticism applies "science to a document."   It involves such physical and technical tests as dating of paper a document is written on, but it also involves a knowledge of when certain things existed or were possible, e.g. when zip codes were invented.*
bulletExternal criticism and the application of both forms of critique often require research.
bulletPart of research can be oral history--a taped conversation, often with an older family member in Sims' course.

It seems to me that such principles are not just for helping to decide questions about who wrote Shakespeare's plays, whether the Piltdown Man is an authentic fossil, or whether Copernicus could have invented Newton's Laws of Gravitational Motion. The principles of internal and external criticism seemed to be crucial techniques in analyzing recent discoveries in the tobacco industry that led to the lawsuits settled in 1998.  Such principles might also help to clarify questions about any company or culture or college, when the questions become important. Did our college have phone in registration before 1997? How could McD's have sold 99 billion hamburgers--and when did they start counting?

The oral history component could have many applications, too.   For instance, does anyone know the history of your college?  As the VCCS professoriate ages and retires, will each college lose track of its origins and its pioneers and have to redefine its anew?  Putting an archive of photos to use, getting old-timers to talk about what registration was like before computers or running the college before it had buildings--these might be worthwhile activities.

*Source: Dr. Lynn Sims, "Taking an Active Role in Learning History," Inquiry 2.1 [Spring] 1998:22-24.


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