Posted by: Ed Darrell | May 14, 2012

How do we know that what is claimed about history is not bogus? Part 1

Can we tell bogus history from real history?

The straight answer is, it’s often difficult.

Elections loom ahead in 2012.  Election years fall prone to bogus history, and bad interpretations of good history.  We have only to look to the zombie-like “birther” movement, which questions the birthplace and even the parents of Barack Obama, to see the operation of bogus history today, in real time.

A photograph of the plaque outside of the Ausc...

A photograph of the plaque outside of the Auschwitz concentration camp reading: “KTO NIE PAMIẸTA HISTORII SKAZANY / JEST NA JEJ PONOWNE PRZEŻYCIE” / GEORGE SANTAYANA / “THE ONE WHO DOES NOT REMEMBER / HISTORY IS BOUND TO LIVE THROUGH IT / AGAIN” / GEORGE SANTAYANA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Election years become times 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.


Recognizing bogus history, 1

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 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?

Bogus science section of Thinkquest logo

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:

Park wrote:

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.]

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Voodoo history

Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


  1. What did george santayana refer to on the plaque? Was he a nazi? Did he believe that everything would end up in hitlers power at some point? Therofore concluding that everyone would experience it? is the plaque still placed in Auschwitz? And what is Auschwitz now? Did they keep everything the same as a memorial or is it a town now?

    • George Santayana was an American philosopher (though, as I recall, he was born in Madrid), famous for his observation that, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (See more on Santayana, here.)

      The engraving of Santayana’s quote came long after the war, when the camp at Auschwitz was made into a memorial for those who perished there. Santayana was opposed to the Nazis, though probably past the age of fighting when the war broke out. I’m sure he hoped no one would end up in Hitler’s power at any point.

      The plaque was done in Polish, since the camp is in Poland, and then translated from Polish to English — hence the wording a bit different from the way Santayana wrote it.

      The town of Auschwitz has changed a lot, I imagine. The camp is very much as it was discovered by the Allies when the camps were liberated. In fact, one of the key issues of the camps today is how to preserve them from further deterioration, and what to preserve.

  2. White House Adds Obama’s name to Bios of Past Presidents….what do you think about this Mr. Darrell? While reading the bogus things about Park haha makes me laugh, Is he trying to prove something right, Makes him sound like he’s a mormon… ha

    Miguel Rodriguez 7th Period

    • Miguel, I think this story may be similar to the one you saw, yes?

      Great question. I’ll go take a look.

      • Yep, that’s the one. I think it has to do with been recognized….

    • The White House bios of past presidents were done for the White House Historical Association by the late, great White House reporter for Time, Hugh Sidey, and Michael Beschloss, one of the nation’s better historians specializing in the presidency. Their accuracy is outstanding.

      Since this feature was added to the White House’s official website, it’s been ignored by most people, except for history teachers and middle school students cramming for reports they should have read books to do.

      I think the additions at the bottom of the reports are a good idea, generally. The links to the biographies of the presidents’ wives make a lot of sense. And links to current information on the same issue make a lot of sense, too. However, I think the way the links are phrased is a little heavy handed. Were I advising the Obama campaign, I’d advise them to tell the White House staff to use a much lighter touch. Link to the policies, link to the current issues, don’t tell the conclusions they want the readers to reach. Readers are smart, and they can reach their own conclusions.

      But, I wonder where the critics were when the previous administration put in links from each biography to the current president’s bio. That was more heavy handed, and the Obama White House cleaned it up. The historical references the current administration added are all accurate, so far as I have seen (I checked a dozen of them). The GOP parodies of the thing are complete fictions. I hope the authors know the difference.

What do you think about this little point of history?

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