2012 is an election year, a time when we make history together as a nation. Potential turning points in history often get tarred with false interpretations of history to sway an election, or worse, a completely false recounting of history. Especially in campaigns, we need to beware false claims of history, lest we be like the ignorants George Santayana warned about, doomed to repeat errors of history they do not know or understand. How to tell that a purported piece of history is bogus? This is mostly a repeat of a post that first appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub six years ago.
Robert Park provides a short e-mail newsletter every Friday, covering news in the world of physics. It’s called “What’s New.” Park makes an art of smoking out bogus science and frauds people try to perpetrate in the name of science, or for money. He wrote an opinion column for the Chronicle of Higher Education [now from Quack Watch; CHE put it behind a paywall] published January 31, 2003, in which he listed the “7 warning signs of bogus science.”
Please go read Park’s entire essay, it’s good.
And it got me thinking about whether there are similar warning signs for bogus history? Are there clues that a biography of Howard Hughes is false that should pop out at any disinterested observer? Are there clues that the claimed quote from James Madison saying the U.S. government is founded on the Ten Commandments is pure buncombe? Should Oliver Stone have been able to to more readily separate fact from fantasy about the Kennedy assassination (assuming he wasn’t just going for the dramatic elements)? Can we generalize for such hoaxes, to inoculate ourselves and our history texts against error?
Perhaps some of the detection methods Park suggests would work for history. He wrote his opinion piece after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which the Court laid out some rules lower courts should use to smoke out and eliminate false science. As Park described it, “The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.” The Court said lower courts must act as gatekeepers against science buncombe — a difficult task for some judges who, in their training as attorneys, often spent little time studying science.
Some of the Daubert reasoning surfaced in another case recently, the opinion in Pennsylvania district federal court in which Federal District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s order that intelligent design be introduced to high school biology students, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.
Can we generalize to history, too? I’m going to try, below the fold.
Here are Park’s seven warning signs, boiled down:
Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?
I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate. [I have cut out the explanations. — E.D.]
- The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
- Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
- The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
- The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:
- The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
- The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
- The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
- Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
- The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
- The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
- The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.
Any history account that shows one or more of those warning signs should be viewed skeptically.
In another post, I’ll flesh out the reasoning behind why they are warning signs.