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Gilbert Sheldon was born at Ashbourne in Derbyshire on July 19, 1598. Very little is known of his family background.

It drives me crazy to read about some historical figure that "not much is known of her early life," or "no-one knows why she made the decision." These seem to be a stock way to deflect anticipated criticism over a lack of detail.

Of course, the absence of information is impossible to cite or verify, unless it has itself been studied and reported on. The claims also leave unclear whether the author is reflecting the consensus of a group of scholars that the information does not exist, or in fact oblivious to information that does exist.

Is a disclaimer for missing historical background ever useful and appropriate?

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    I'm not a historian but I suppose that the lack of information is part of the "data" of the work. Do you suggest it shouldn't be mentioned at all? – BioGeo Jan 7 '17 at 19:31
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    Even the one fact given in your quote appears to be wrong, according to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_Sheldon. That would annoy me a lot more than a statement that "little was known about his early life." – alephzero Jan 7 '17 at 21:33
  • Can you please explain exactly what you mean by "disclaim"? Do you mean "state that no information exists" or actually "deny some presented information". – problemofficer Jul 24 '17 at 12:27
  • @problemofficer I want to know not about the denial of a stated claim, but about a denial that claims can be made. To what degree is an author describing their own failed search? Are they foreclosing or incentivizing further primary research on the matter? – Aaron Brick Jul 24 '17 at 19:35
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Without some statement regarding the early life of the subject of the biography, it is impossible to tell whether the author looked hard and found nothing or just didn't bother.

By writing that little is known, it indicates that the author (or others whose work the biography draws on) has made efforts towards finding such information but that it is not available.

Pointing out the explicit difference helps readers who either wish to learn more or would wonder (as you seem to have done) at the lack of detail.

  • I do like the idea of a declaration about the information available, but I have a problem with the question of whether the author "looked hard". If the author is an historian writing a work of original research, they know how to make an explicit claim, like "archives X and Y contain no letters by subject Z". If the author is a lazy student, they probably just copied the claim from somewhere else, or failed to do the research that would answer the question. I'm reluctant to believe it when an author says "trust me"; even the professionals can and do miss source documents. – Aaron Brick Jan 8 '17 at 16:58
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    @AaronBrick in scientific fields the standard formulation is "to the best of our knowledge [this is the first time the geometry of potatoes has been studied]". – Davidmh Jan 10 '17 at 9:01
  • @Davidmh That's great for science, but less useful for history, where the chance discovery of a single document can change the whole story. Whether other people have looked at all is distinct from whether they have looked well, and of course the latter criterion is subjective. – Aaron Brick Jul 22 '17 at 22:03

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