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Pseudo-history, and related issues
#1
As some of you may have noticed, I am writing a book on common errors about Antiquity. There will be a postscript to it, in which I point out that the main source of errors is not pseudo-science (Atlantis, pyramidiocy, et cetera), but amateur scholarship. Popular authors like Tom Holland can give a second life to ideas that have been refuted more than thirty years ago.

So far, so good. The problem is that it is not just amateur historians who make these errors. Over here in the Netherlands, I know a book written by a professor in ancient history that contains more than 250 factual errors, and I have seen similar publications in English. What these authors are missing, is a sound knowledge of the latest developments in ancient history and the logical foundations of the discipline. In the first category -insufficient knowledge of the plain facts- belongs this book and in the second category -insufficient knowledge of logic- belongs Paul Cartledge, who is capable of repeating logical errors that have been refuted more than a century ago.

What Cartledge and Holland have in common, is that they believe that history is "telling a story based on sources", whereas it also involves knowledge of "what is a cause?", "what type of explanation do you have in mind?", or "what is a fact?" In other words, they believe that history has no logical foundation. (Cartledge is probably unaware of the problem, because he is a classicist-turned-historian and was never formally educated as a historian.)

Now my question: how to call this? It is not pseudo-science or pseudo-history, because authors like these are pretty serious. They are not beyond reason, like Carotta who believes that Jesus Christ is Julius Caesar (JC=JC, need I say more?). They are just unaware of the theoretical foundations of their discipline. How shall we call this?

For the moment, I have called it semi-history, but it is a poor expression. Anyone any thoughts?
Jona Lendering
Relevance is the enemy of history
My website
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#2
What about "errant-history"? That doesn't imply intent to deceive, just an error of one sort or another. "Flawed history" might be almost as neutral.
M. Demetrius Abicio
(David Wills)

Saepe veritas est dura.
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#3
Maybe 'popular history' is the most recognisable. I believe 'commercial history' to be more correct but probably insulting to some (but still correct).
Robert Vermaat
MODERATOR
FECTIO Late Romans
THE CAUSE OF WAR MUST BE JUST
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
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#4
Thanks for the response! Anyone else?
Jona Lendering
Relevance is the enemy of history
My website
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#5
Quote:What Cartledge and Holland have in common, is that they believe that history is "telling a story based on sources", whereas it also involves knowledge of "what is a cause?", "what type of explanation do you have in mind?", or "what is a fact?"

...

For the moment, I have called it semi-history, but it is a poor expression. Anyone any thoughts?

Clear case, they are positivists, that is they believe that facts speak for themselves and thus do not need to have a sound theoretical basis or justification. The opposite view is that there are no facts without/beyond theory. I am a supporter of the later stance, and as such, I often find it really frustrating to argue with people who are insufficiently aware of the conditions of their own reasoning. It's like explaining the world to children.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#6
Quote:In the first category -insufficient knowledge of the plain facts- belongs this book and in the second category -insufficient knowledge of logic- belongs Paul Cartledge, who is capable of repeating logical errors that have been refuted more than a century ago.

Could you be more specific about Paul Cartledge? I just finished reading his Alexander the Great.
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#7
Jona wrote:
Quote:Now my question: how to call this? It is not pseudo-science or pseudo-history, because authors like these are pretty serious.
....I am not sure I follow you here - pseudo-historians usually have a serious purpose too.......but I think I see what you are driving at. Pseudo-History is often driven by an agenda, a means to an end. In this instance you are looking at 'accidental' ignorance, or shoddy research with no agenda behind it, hence it is different from pseudo-history and needs a term of its own?

Here is a quiteb perceptive passage from "Skeptic" magazine that may be pertinent to the topic, whose sentiments I share....

".....There are other, deeper reasons, I believe, that underlie the revisionist movement, having to do with the larger movements of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Reason and rationality, as skeptics know too well, are under attack on all fronts. No claim, no matter how absurd, is immune from belief by someone or some group. But beyond this there is an intellectual current brought about by the philosophers of my own profession--the historiographers. It began in 1935 when Charles A. Beard delivered his now-famous lecture on "That Noble Dream" of objectivity, that was quickly disappearing. Beard defined history as "contemporary thought about the past" where he argued that "no historian can describe the past as it actually was and that every historian's work--that is, his selection of facts, his emphasis, his omissions, his organization, his method of presentation--bears a relation to his own personality and the age and circumstances in which he lives" (1972, pp. 315-328). This vision of historical relativity may be summarized in the following enumeration:

1. History exists only in the minds of historians.

2. The past is constructed by historians, much as sculptors construct figures out of marble.

3. Historians can only know and describe the past through available documentation, which itself covers only part of "what really happened."

4. Historians can no more purge themselves of bias than anyone else, including physicists and biologists.

5. There is no complete causal structure of contingent events in the past.

6. Historians construct a causal structure in their minds out of the available documentation.

7. Historians' job is to present this constructed past not as it actually happened but as it might have happened in one interpretation only.

The relativism of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s returned in a different covering cloth as literary criticism and deconstruction in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It is a by-product of our egalitarian age: if everyone and everyone's opinions are equal, then everyone's histories are also equal. Just rewrite the past to fit present needs. History empowers, so it is acceptable to deconstruct the history of those in power, and reconstruct it for those who are not. African-Americans are embracing their African heritage, but in the process some extremists are now claiming all of Western civilization as their own--the Egyptians were black, along with the Greeks and Romans, who stole their legacy from the Africans. Native-Americans are also recapturing their past, but in the process some are blaming the white European male for all that is evil in the world.

The solution to the problem of pseudohistory is not just in refuting the claims of pseudohistorians. We must also treat history as a scientific discipline, concerned not only with names, dates, and narratives, but with analyses and methodologies. We saw that the Holocaust is proved through a convergence of evidence--a concept taken from a philosopher of science. But this is, in fact, how any historical event is proved. There is a convergence of evidence that comes together from different sources to tell a story. Whether the story is told in a narrative form or an analysis is irrelevant, as long as the facts are presented and the interpretations are made within the boundaries of the evidence. If one practiced history as the revisionists do in trying to challenge the Holocaust story, there would be no history. The past would dissolve into a Rorschach-like blot in which observers see whatever they like. For this reason we need now, more than ever, to make history a science. If we do not, it could be the end of history."


Now clearly, in addition to the pseudo-historians, such as the Erich von Danikens of this world, there are those who accidently perpetuate 'myths' through ignorance, and often by way of 'popular' histories - the Hollands and Dando-Collins for example.

An appropriate phrase that springs to mind is 'half-baked History', and 'half-baked historians' - who as Jona rightly says are not just restricted to the ranks of amateurs..... Smile D
"dulce et decorum est pro patria mori " - Horace, ODES
(It is a sweet and proper thing to die for ones country)

"No son-of-a-bitch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country" -GeorgeC Scott as General George S. Patton
Paullus Scipio/Paul McDonnell-Staff
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#8
Quote:they are positivists, that is they believe that facts speak for themselves and thus do not need to have a sound theoretical basis or justification.
Yes, that is indeed the most precise expression to describe the errors that are so frustrating; and yet, it is not what I am looking for. It describes one specific error, not a category of related mistakes.
Quote:The solution to the problem of pseudohistory is not just in refuting the claims of pseudohistorians. We must also treat history as a scientific discipline, concerned not only with names, dates, and narratives, but with analyses and methodologies.
I could not have said it better.
Quote:Could you be more specific about Paul Cartledge? I just finished reading his Alexander the Great.
In his book on Themopylae, he maintains that the Persian Wars were decisive for the birth of western civilization. If we assume, for argument's sake, that there is indeed a connection between Greek and our own civilization (e.g., some kind of cultural paradigm was created in Greece that is still in existence), we must also prove that this would not have come into being if the Persian Wars had resulted in a Persian victory. The arguments for this thesis were for the first time put forward in the nineteenth century (Persian victory = eastern obscurantism, mysticism instead of rationalism, no democracy, no science).

Max Weber, more than a century ago, already explained that this was a counterfactual explanation - and how can we be sure about the contrafact? Note, for instance, that during the Persian age, the scientific method (empircal cycle etc) was invented in Babylonia, that Mardonius allowed democracy to continue in Asia, et cetera. Counterfactual explanations are almost never correct.

Cartledge seems to be unaware of this. There are only two possibilities: either he does not know the most basic theoretical concepts of his discipline (which I find hard to believe: he is a professor in Cambridge), or he is not looking for the truth and instead tries to use history for propaganda. As it happens, he explicitly writes that his book has a lot to do with The Defense Of The West Against Islam - which I take as a confession of the second option. He has gone too far to propagate his view: he has been adviser of Tom Holland's book Persian Fire, which is inspired by Cartledge's nineteenth-century vision, and proceeded to write a review (The Independent, September 2, 2005.), in which he praised Holland. Essentially, Cartledge is his own applause generator.

I do share Cartledge's believe in certain western values, which I think we must defend (and I seize this opportunity to express my admiration for some of us RATs who are now on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq), but no useful aim is served by sacrificing logic, and project our current conflict back upon the Persian Wars. Relevance is the enemy of history.
Jona Lendering
Relevance is the enemy of history
My website
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#9
Now wait a minute, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, let us consider the opposite here: Who are the "real" or "serious" historians?

Edward Gibbon?

As Gibbon himself wrote in his book, Memories of My Life, "A gentleman possessed of leisure and independence, of books and talents, may be encouraged to write by the distant prospect of honor and reward: but wretched is the author, and wretched will be the work, where daily diligence is stimulated by daily hunger."

By this standard few of us would be considered "gentlemen of leisure" with the time and money to write "serious" history worthy of the ink.

Must we not also consider the original source as well as the interpreter of those sources?

In dealing with ancient history, even a period as well documented (relatively speaking) as the Fall of the Republic is, we are in fact dealing with very limited sources. Cicero was a voracious writer, a gold mine of material, but can his letters and essays, speeches and books be taken purely at face value?

Perhaps this is where Jona's plea for Logic comes in for surely we must use our judgement when examining these sources. However, in applying that judgement do we not then invite the very criticism leveled at "revisionist history" in the Septic Magazine article quoted by Paullus?

Now, I have said many times before that Jona's command of the source material is truly amazing, and I think his analysis of Holland's book Persian Fire quite telling. I do not share his sentiment when it comes to Holland's other book, Rubicon, but I would welcome Jona's detailed review of that book as well. No doubt I would learn as much from the review as I did from the book itself.

So I am not in disagreement with Jona's central idea, and I think the term he is looking for is indeed "Popular History" for that does have a pejorative air to it.

Then again, such a term takes in a lot of territory.

Is not Winston Churchill's history of World War Two a "popular history" in that he wrote it for the "common" people? Of course one might also consider it suspect in that Churchill was not an objective observer and chronicler of the events.

Which brings me to the article from Septic Magazine, which I find interesting, but not entirely convincing. Again, the main thrust of the article, that history should be treated as a science, seems quite reasonable and a position I would support. I hold a BA cum laude in History and yet I doubt very much that my training as a historian was in anyway as rigorous as that which Jona underwent, so indeed I would support an increase in the standards for what we call the discipline of history.

However...

I do not think the Holocaust is the best example. That event is still within living memory. Many of us no doubt have paid visits to the Camps and have met survivors who still bear the numbers tattooed on their arms. But in a thousand years, in 3045, what will history say then and who will the sources be?

David Irving?
Henry Ford?
Joseph Kennedy?
Steven Spielberg?

Imagine if Cicero's writings had not survived, or if Caesar's commentaries had been destroyed... How differently we might view the fall of the Republic.

Furthermore, history is constantly being revised.

We just observed the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Landings and look at how many books have been and continue to be written about that one campaign. Indeed, Anthony Beevor has yet another book due out this year to add to those by Keegan, Hastings, Ryan et.al.

What more can Beevor have to say about D-Day?
What more can Goldsworthy have to say about Caesar or the Fall of the Roman Empire?

We read these books, and countless others, hopping against hope that we will gain a sharper picture and a deeper understanding of a time and a place that has captured our imaginations and our hearts.

Forgive me for going on at length. I agree with the general tenor of this thread but would caution against a headlong rush to man the barricades against the hordes of Revisionist Popular Historians. All Historians have an agenda -- the trick is leaning to recognize that and read beyond it.

:|

Narukami
David Reinke
Burbank CA
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#10
Quote:Cartledge seems to be unaware of this. There are only two possibilities: either he does not know the most basic theoretical concepts of his discipline (which I find hard to believe: he is a professor in Cambridge), or he is not looking for the truth and instead tries to use history for propaganda. As it happens, he explicitly writes that his book has a lot to do with The Defense Of The West Against Islam - which I take as a confession of the second option. He has gone too far to propagate his view: he has been adviser of Tom Holland's book Persian Fire, which is inspired by Cartledge's nineteenth-century vision, and proceeded to write a review (The Independent, September 2, 2005.), in which he praised Holland. Essentially, Cartledge is his own applause generator.

Cartledge may indeed be a propagandist on this issue, but if so then in a minor key. For a true propagandist one need but look at David Victor Hanson and his writings about the Greco-Persian wars, particularly the essays he wrote in support of the film 300. Hanson is considered a "serious" historian. :?

:|

Narukami
David Reinke
Burbank CA
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#11
Quote:I think the term he is looking for is indeed "Popular History" for that does have a pejorative air to it.
Perhaps, perhaps. The trouble is that I'm writing in Dutch, and "populaire geschiedenis" has different associations - "populariseren" means "to explain to a larger audience", but some of these books have been written by academic insiders. That being said, there's a lot of wisdom in your remarks, David.
Jona Lendering
Relevance is the enemy of history
My website
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#12
Quote:It is not pseudo-science or pseudo-history, because authors like these are pretty serious.

Just because these authors are serious doesn't mean they can't be false. (Although there can be some connotation of deception with the use of the term, which might not be the case.) Personally, I think pseudo-history is a good term.
David J. Cord
http://www.davidcord.com
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#13
Quote:
Jona Lendering:3ucmijdw Wrote:For a true propagandist one need but look at David Victor Hanson and his writings about the Greco-Persian wars, particularly the essays he wrote in support of the film 300. Hanson is considered a "serious" historian. :?

That is interesting, what did he say? To my own astonishment, I liked the film very much, and the reactions from Iran somehow showed that it hit a nerve there. They could have just laughed at it, a comic movie, but chose to take it seriously.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#14
Quote:The relativism of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s returned in a different covering cloth as literary criticism and deconstruction in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It is a by-product of our egalitarian age: if everyone and everyone's opinions are equal, then everyone's histories are also equal. Just rewrite the past to fit present needs. History empowers, so it is acceptable to deconstruct the history of those in power, and reconstruct it for those who are not. African-Americans are embracing their African heritage, but in the process some extremists are now claiming all of Western civilization as their own--the Egyptians were black, along with the Greeks and Romans, who stole their legacy from the Africans. Native-Americans are also recapturing their past, but in the process some are blaming the white European male for all that is evil in the world.

Great quote, Paul, laudes. I can't agree more. I just got slated in another history forum for using the term "oriental despoty" in connection with the merciless human wave attacks of the Ottomans on the walls of Constantinople in 1453, which was their most effective weapon (and not the artillery). PC has made it impossible to use ever such terms, even in a limited context, where it's use is justified.

Although the main bombard actually burst, and the breaches were filled by the Byzantines, it has to be the modern Turkish cannon which was instrumental in the victory, not the antiquated scale ladders, because Western European siege were by then also decided by siege artillery. Cut every ear that sticks out, that's egaliltarianism in historical science, the strongest currrent today in writings on world history.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#15
Quote:It is not pseudo-science or pseudo-history, because authors like these are pretty serious.
Why not? I think you're to nice. Dedication and dilligence are no scientific criteria in the closer meaning. Never been and never will. There's reasons why the scientific community developed methods and standards over centuries for what is correct (or rather acceptable) methodology and what not. If one doesn't stick to the rules - be it unknowingly or not - and appears to be using scientific methodology when in fact he's not, it's perfectly appropriate to call it pseudo-science. Because it is. There's no need to be PC about.

Quote:Maybe 'popular history' is the most recognisable.
Hm, I don't know, here we use that term basically for kind of a shortened version of "real" science, in order to make complicated ideas more understandable to a wider audience. While the term is of course slightly derogatory IMO, it doesn't automatically imply the scientist in question doesn't work properly or his results or logics are flawed.
[size=85:2j3qgc52]- Carsten -[/size]
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