How do we know what we know? How do we prove it?

One of the fundamental things about working with sources is the understanding of how we know what we know, how we know what we know, how the information is transmitted, and why. But I understand that such philosophical sounding questions don’t plague a lot of non-historians. But in doing history this goes to its very essence. How do we know what we know?

Ask yourself how you know when you were born. Really, how do you know that x day of x month was actually when you came into this world?  Sure, you were there, so in a basic way you understand it happened, but you were young, and kind of busy at the moment, so marking the date in your calendar was not a high priority.

Knowing when you were born comes in gradually, understanding that on a specific day everyone sang to you, and gave you cake and presents. Other days also become understood as belonging to other members of the family.

Your birth date probably was told to you by your parents, who said that a particular day was your birthday. Likely, at least one of them knew the information to be true as they witnessed the moment.  No doubt most will trust that they were not lying, but it should be considered.  Not everyone tells the truth, and there might be extenuating circumstances which could lead to them reporting a falsehood.

Of course, when dealing with issues of identity governments don’t usually trust that the date I provide is accurate, but instead require some kind of documentary proof. This generally means the showing of a birth certificate.

But what of the birth certificate? Who submitted the information, when did they do it, why and how?  Most western countries have required the civil registration of births since the mid to late nineteenth century.  That means that by law the parents are required to register the birth of their children.  Registrations are as a result standardized, use a form, and ask a number of questions of the informant.  The types of information varies over periods and area, but all are official, stamped and signed by a government officer.  Often also a fee is paid for the service.

Official documents are considered to be accurate, but keep in mind that people fill them out. The registrar might hear the parent incorrectly, spell the name wrong.  The reporting parent might also get it wrong.

My great-grandmother insisted that my grandfather was born in October 1897. His birth certificate however gave a date in August. His father registered his birth. This wasn’t a big issue for my grandfather, who typically celebrated both birthdays, and got his pension a few months early. It is fair to say that the family took his mother’s word, and considered the October date as the real birthday, and the August date as the “official” birthday and an excuse for more cake.

This example demonstrates that sometimes documentary evidence can differ from witness testimony.

Also it should be considered that people will lie when creating official records. Not legally married when the child was conceived?  Perhaps a change in birth date makes the marriage appear less “shotgun.” The father’s name may be different from the actual, the occupation different, ages, marital status.

A number of other official documents provide our birth date, but consider how many of them depend upon the production of the birth certificate.

What other kinds of evidence can give you information about your birth date? Newspapers can be a good source. Parents often insert birth notices which are informative.  If you were born in interesting circumstances like on a new years’, in a plane or the child of royalty, you might be the subject of a newspaper article.  Diaries, calendars, and cards might also provide a recording of your birth.  If you were baptized the church would have recorded that event in their registers and probably provided a certificate.

Of course all of these pieces are considered evidence of your birth, some more accurate than others, all taken into account by the historian when determining when a person was born. The more and varied the sources the better, then it comes down to the number that agree, context of production, and careful analysis.

So how do you know what you know? This is really a part of the larger question of how you prove that you know is actually true. Sources are great, but like all human endeavours, not perfect.  There is knowing, and then there is proving.