Greater vs. Lesser Truth
Related link: Varied Truth Paths
Opening thought: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,. but not their own facts.” ~Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The challenge for the historian is to locate the "greater truth" when confronted with multiple explanations of matters in history. Greater truth is derived after analyzing various perspectives for how much--or how little--they tell us about the issue at hand. While there can be outright lies, half-truths and several lesser truths, there is only one greater truth which is based on the preponderance of the evidence and historical reasoning.
"Greater vs. Lesser Truth" is not intended to be an abstract concept but only a statement of how historians endeavor to do their job. Our pursuit of history should be about the pursuit of truth but this is not easy because the greater truth is not always apparent without doing some work. When it comes to history (as in life), we rarely possess 100% of the truth on one side and zero on the other. This concept of greater truth also empowers us to seek wisdom (i.e., valid generalizations). This is consistent with our ongoing goal of teaching ourselves responsible judgment when it comes to history (or for that matter life). Basically, the greater vs. the lesser truth is determined by the preponderance of the EVIDENCE--what is more-so/less-so the case. So it's not a simple all or nothing matter of truth. It's not as simple as one side being the truth-tellers and the other being liars (because liars have to know the truth first before deciding to lie about it no?). It's not as simple as dismissing something as "that's just a generalization." The point is whether the generalization is more-so or less-so true based on the available facts. Thus one or several exceptions cannot invalidate the greater truth that exists.
Here are some examples that will hopefully further clarify this concept:
Example 1: Seat belts.
An example of this is about seat belts. Seat belts both kill and save lives. But which is the greater truth?
The greater truth is that the use of seat belts saves lives. This has been proven with empirical EVIDENCE; most people accept this as being true even if they don't necessarily buckle up. Nevertheless, is it not also true that sometimes the use of a seat belt might well prove fatal as when someone is trapped in a vehicle unable to free themselves? Thus the lesser truth emerges here that seat belts kill. Thus both assertions are true--seat belts both kill and save lives. The question for the the History Thinking Machine is to discern between the greater and lesser versions of the truth.
Example 2: Holocaust Denial.
Another example is that raised by deniers of the Holocaust. So who should we believe? Were Jews systematically exterminated in huge numbers or not? Or as this image displays, is this all some gigantic hoax or lie?
Holocaust deniers point at that the six million figure is not accurate. That is true in that we do not not have the exact number to the person. But this lesser truth does not invalid the greater truth. Once again we return to the general rule: preponderance of the evidence. Most historians and scholars reject Holocaust denial as "grounded in hatred, rather than any accepted standards of assertion, evidence, and truth" and a "pseudoscience" that "rejects the entire foundation of historical evidence," that instead is primarily motivated by an anti-semitic (anti-Jewish) ideology. While a few Holocaust deniers have training as historians, some of their most prominent representatives have been shown in court to have a pattern of falsifying historical documents (e.g. David Irving) or deliberately misrepresenting historical data (e.g. Ernst Zündel).
This history of Holocaust deniers distorting, ignoring, or misusing historical records has led to almost universal condemnation of the techniques and conclusions of Holocaust denial, with organizations such as the American Historical Association, the largest society of historians in the United States, stating that Holocaust denial is "at best, a form of academic fraud." Despite a gap in knowledge here and there, the greater truth remains that the Holocaust was a Nazi government policy deliberately targeting the Jews and the Gypsies for extermination as a people; over five million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis and their allies; and tools of efficient mass extermination, such as gas chambers, were used in extermination camps.
See also Truth & Conspiracy Theories
Example 3: Six Blind Men & the Elephant.
This example comes from John Godfrey Saxe's ( 1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend. The moral of the story is that while "each was partly in the right" have at least the lesser truth, "all were in the wrong" because each settled for the lesser truth without going further to explore more of the evidence to better ascertain the "greater truth" of what what is the metaphorical elephant.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!