My Research Methods: Part One

Every shipwreck, from RMS Titanic to the SS Hiawatha is complex and complicated. This is why the researcher needs to conduct his or her work with an open mind, as if they are learning about the event fresh, for the first time. No preconceived notions, ideas, or theories. This is why I start all research projects, (from ancient Egypt, to lost Confederate gold, or even RMS Titanic) by re-reading my copy of “The Critical Method in Historical Research and Writing” by Homer Carey Hockett, Emeritus Professor of History in the Ohio State University. The Titanic is different, from most research projects, because of the vast amount of evidence available about her wreck. In order to understand exactly what happened, all of the evidence needs to be sifted and rated as to what is the best evidence.

Best evidence is a common law term used in legal proceedings. To arrive at best evidence in research, one must use scientific methods of research and evaluation, much as a genealogist or professional historian would use in research and evaluation. The methods a professional uses are easy to evaluate. Professionals have credentials and peer-reviewed articles that they have written. We can also evaluate the universities they attended and the quality of their graduate work.

This does not mean amateurs cannot make meaningful contributions in the field of historical research, in the fields of archaeology and astronomy some of the greatest discoveries have come from amateurs. However, the amateur without credentials and peer-reviewed work, must present, along with the work, the methods of research and analysis used. Only then, may the quality of the amateur’s work be properly evaluated.

The evidence used for “Titanic, The Journey Begins” falls into three categories: 1) scientific evidence; 2) an examination of the wreck and debris field surrounding Titanic; 3) eyewitness testimony.

From the field of physics, scientific formulas such as “distance to the horizon”, were used to determine if witnesses could see what they claimed, at the ranges they claimed. However, timelines, speed, ship’s drawings, and charts were also used to determine if eyewitness claims were feasible.

Though there are many ways that the Titanic could have broken up and sunk, there is only one way that it actually happened. Each piece of debris surrounding the Titanic landed in the exact location it is in with the damage that we see now, because of an exact sequence of events. By a forensic analysis of the objects in the debris field, including the stern and bow of the Titanic, we can determine the sequence of events which led to the loss of the ship and its eventual arrival at the bottom of the ocean. There are many ways that it could have happened, but there is only one way that it actually happened. That physical evidence lying on the ocean floor will tell us the exact sequence of events that actually happened as the Titanic broke up and sank.

Eyewitness testimony is the most problematic. While the public places great faith in eyewitness testimony, the professional knows eyewitness testimony is the least reliable of all evidence. We think of our memory like a movie recording everything that we see, a movie we can rewind, fast-forward, pause, and even play in slow motion. However, the reality is that many details escape our observation and over time, many of the details we observed are forgotten. We also have to take into account if the witness was actually in a location to see what they claim they saw. It is also possible that the position of the witness prevented them from seeing important facts and the complete sequence of events. One important, but often overlooked part of eyewitness testimony, has the memory of the eyewitness been contaminated by: news of the event, talking with other witnesses, or talking with experts? All of this, and we have not even touched on bias, honesty, competence, and personal interest in the event (or the outcome of subsequent events). In some courts eyewitness testimony alone, is no longer sufficient evidence to bring murder charges against an individual.

The manner in which the testimony is given is also of great importance. Was the eyewitness a willing contributor or a hostile witness? Is testimony second or third hand? Was testimony given immediately after the events or decades later? In a court of law sworn testimony, in the form of a sworn affidavit or previous court testimony, is given greater credence than eyewitness testimony that is secondhand; as is testimony which is taken immediately after an event, instead of years later.

For all these reasons while researching the book “Titanic, The Journey Begins” I restricted myself to evidence I could prove scientifically to be accurate, the wreckage on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and the three official inquiries into the loss of the Titanic (American Inquiry 1912, British Inquiry 1912, and the British Inquiry 1992). In order to allow professional and amateur historians to evaluate the veracity of my claims, I chose to write “Titanic, The Journey Begins” in two parts, part one the narrative and part two the evidence. Part two presents the evidence, and my evaluation of that evidence, that I used in writing the narrative.

This series of articles is taken from part two of my new book to be released this year. This methodology prevents me from using much of the material that has been written about Titanic. However, that material is not primary source evidence but is, or should be, based on primary source evidence. The material I have used in researching and analyzing the wreck of the Titanic is primary source evidence. If I have done my work correctly, my work will stand the test of time.

When I made the decision to publish the thesis upon which my previous book “Titanic, A Search For Answers” was based, I first re-read the manuscript. I was looking for information that I had written which had been proven incorrect in the 15 years since I originally wrote the thesis. What I discovered, was that all of my assertions 15 years earlier were still correct. All that was left for me to do was to write a postscript, and publish. If I have done my work correctly with my new book “Titanic, The Journey Begins”, the same will hold true … again.

click here for part two of “My Research Methods

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic (Photo credit: paukrus)

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