Who writes history?

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UnrepentantSinner
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Who writes history?

Post by UnrepentantSinner » Thu Apr 07, 2005 3:25 pm

This is sortof a friendly "trawl" more so than a "troll" for replies, but since I was a history major, and debate about the effects of bias that we get (or even outright fraud) in terms of the historical record of humanity, it's an area of great interest to me, especially in how skeptics apply their skepticism.

I wrote a post to JREF (probably long lost now, so I have no link) about "alternate histories" (which, like alternative medicine I don't believe exist - it's either medicine or it's not, and it's history or it's not such as Holocaust denial and extreme Afrocentrism).

I just recently started reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" and it devotes something like three pages to proffering his bona fides, while downplaying his potential cultural bias. I was glad to read that he had more academic "cred" than some virtually anonymous article author at Stormfront.org, but ultimately for me, it's the hypothoesis, the theory and the evidence that supports of falsifies ones position. He seems to have plently of the latter, but I'll wait until I complete the book to render final judgement.

But back to the original topic - who writes history? My biggest problem with the trite adage "the victor writes history" is that Thucydides was an Athenian, and yet wrote the most comprehensive history of the Poloponesian wars. History, at least in terms of how the war between Sparta and Athens took place was written by a loser.

With that in mind, shouldn't skeptics encourage the larger population to look ultimately to the facts about history established by archaeology and contemporaneous history, rather than just accept claims by alternative historians just because their supposed claims seem "reasonable?"

And yes, this thread was inspired by Moon Landing deniers...

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SkepticReport
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Post by SkepticReport » Thu Apr 07, 2005 3:39 pm

That's what we do, as skeptics: Writing true history.

"History" is, put simply, an account of past events. Everytime we correct a falsehood from swindlers in paranormal beliefs, we write the true history.

False claims are countered with evidence. Holocaust deniers, Däniken-believers or paranormal prognosticators alike are challenged, and their untrue accounts are shown wrong.

What claims by alternative historians are you talking about?

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Thu Apr 07, 2005 4:23 pm

For one, when I see the phrase "Alternate History" I tend to think of fictional "What-if" accounts, i.e "What if the Confederacy had won in the Civil War", or the book series I read where aliens invade Earth in the middle of WWII. I don't think that's quite what you mean.

Now if by "alternate history" you mean thinks like holocaust denial, "Aliens built the Pyramids", etc. I don't think skeptics generally accept their claims merely because they seem reasonable. Shermer has written on Holocaust Denial, The Bad Astronomer tackles the "Moon landings were hoaxed" crowd regularly and I seem to recall Randi taking on an assortment of historical myths at various times.

I don't think that the types of claims you are referring to get much credit among historians or the public either. I have argued previously that history isn't a science and that it has unique problems of its own when it comes to proving historical claims. But it still has standards nonetheless, and if someone claims, for example, that Atlantis was a real place, then he is going to have to meet the same standards of proof as any other historical claim. And if those standards can't be met, then the claim shouldn't be accepted. And as far as I know, it generally wouldn't be, not by historians at any rate, and even the public seems more dubious of things like Holocaust denial and Atlantis than they are of psychics and such.

So I'm really not sure what you are getting at.

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Post by Raskolnikov » Thu Apr 07, 2005 5:35 pm

>With that in mind, shouldn't skeptics encourage the larger population to look ultimately to the facts about history established by archaeology and contemporaneous history, rather than just accept claims by alternative historians just because their supposed claims seem "reasonable?"

I do think the skeptical community tends to ignore "pseudohistory", with a few exceptions (Holocaust denial is the big one). The Kennedy Assassination is probably the most glaring omission. Posner's book, "Case Closed" falls squarely within the skeptical debunking tradition, painstakingly examining the accuracy, evidence, and context for various conspiracy theories, and finding them as weak as anything you will find from a Holocaust denial or UFOlogist.

Another example is Shakespearian authorship. The methods of the diverse proponents of Oxford, or Bacon, or Marlowe will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has debated creationists.

But I am also not sure what your point is. While I have seen a lot of history mostly ignored by the skeptical community, I haven't seen the skeptical community swallow historical bunk, either.

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Thu Apr 07, 2005 5:58 pm

Raskolnikov wrote:>With that in mind, shouldn't skeptics encourage the larger population to look ultimately to the facts about history established by archaeology and contemporaneous history, rather than just accept claims by alternative historians just because their supposed claims seem "reasonable?"

I do think the skeptical community tends to ignore "pseudohistory", with a few exceptions (Holocaust denial is the big one). The Kennedy Assassination is probably the most glaring omission. Posner's book, "Case Closed" falls squarely within the skeptical debunking tradition, painstakingly examining the accuracy, evidence, and context for various conspiracy theories, and finding them as weak as anything you will find from a Holocaust denial or UFOlogist.

Another example is Shakespearian authorship. The methods of the diverse proponents of Oxford, or Bacon, or Marlowe will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has debated creationists.

But I am also not sure what your point is. While I have seen a lot of history mostly ignored by the skeptical community, I haven't seen the skeptical community swallow historical bunk, either.


While I think you have a point that "pseudohistory" doesn't get the attention from skeptics that pseudoscience and the paranormal do, I think it is because skeptics tend to focus on whatever delusions tend to be most popular at the moment. Right now among the public, Kennedy assasination conspiracy theories, holocaust denial, "ancient Astronauts" and the like are taking a back seat to things like spirit mediums, angels, and other more popular delusions. So much woo, so little time, alas. I think that if, for example, the Kennedy assasination become a hot topic among the public once more, you would see a corresponding shift in skeptics making the effort to look into the myths surrounding it.

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Post by Raskolnikov » Thu Apr 07, 2005 6:22 pm

>I think that if, for example, the Kennedy assasination become a hot topic among the public once more, you would see a corresponding shift in skeptics making the effort to look into the myths surrounding it.

It did, during the 40th anniversary. Jennings did a piece on it for ABC, and there were a few other mentions. Skeptics mostly ignored it. I think this is mostly because their interests are elsewhere. I am just offering a nudge to broaden the scope of skeptical inquiry.

Frankly, a lot more people believe in Kennedy conspiracies than believe in Chelation Therapy, urine therapy, or moon landing hoaxes, which get a lot more attention from skeptics. I would also argue that the belief is far more pernicious, in that has a very chilling effect on people's trust in democracy. (Shakespeare authorship is something I find interesting, but I do recognize and concede that it isn't particularly important, although I think it has value in being a topic where you can teach skeptical inquiry to people more interested in the humanities than in science).

Not that I think things like the Kennedy Assassination are completely ignored. There are some historians and writers out there who have done a great job (Marquette's John McAdams, Gerald Posner, etc.). But skeptics seem unfamiliar with their work, and rarely mention and link to it. As such, these worthies are missing a large audience that would almost certainly value and benefit from what they have written.

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Thu Apr 07, 2005 6:37 pm

Raskolnikov wrote:>I think that if, for example, the Kennedy assasination become a hot topic among the public once more, you would see a corresponding shift in skeptics making the effort to look into the myths surrounding it.

It did, during the 40th anniversary. Jennings did a piece on it for ABC, and there were a few other mentions. Skeptics mostly ignored it. I think this is mostly because their interests are elsewhere. I am just offering a nudge to broaden the scope of skeptical inquiry.

Frankly, a lot more people believe in Kennedy conspiracies than believe in Chelation Therapy, urine therapy, or moon landing hoaxes, which get a lot more attention from skeptics. I would also argue that the belief is far more pernicious, in that has a very chilling effect on people's trust in democracy. (Shakespeare authorship is something I find interesting, but I do recognize and concede that it isn't particularly important, although I think it has value in being a topic where you can teach skeptical inquiry to people more interested in the humanities than in science).

Not that I think things like the Kennedy Assassination are completely ignored. There are some historians and writers out there who have done a great job (Marquette's John McAdams, Gerald Posner, etc.). But skeptics seem unfamiliar with their work, and rarely mention and link to it. As such, these worthies are missing a large audience that would almost certainly value and benefit from what they have written.


I also seem to recall a corresponding surge in debunking of Kennedy conspiracy theories at the same time. I will admit that it is purely my perception though.

I also have quite the opposite impression of how many people beleive in Kennedy conspiracies vs. things like chelation, urine therapy etc. It would be interesting to see some numbers to compare, but I am not really sure where to get them.

I have read several books, both pro and con, about the myths surrounding the Kennedy assasination (I used to be a bit of a conspiracy woo myself, years ago), but I couldn't tell you if I have read the specific authors you mention. Could you name off some titles? You are quite right that they don't get the attention from skeptics of a Shermer or a Randi, though. Maybe people like yourself who are more familiar with their works can do a bit to promote them.

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Post by Raskolnikov » Thu Apr 07, 2005 7:13 pm

>I also seem to recall a corresponding surge in debunking of Kennedy conspiracy theories at the same time. I will admit that it is purely my perception though.

Yes, there was an upsurge. It was just ignored by the types of skeptics that usually dominate the net.

>I also have quite the opposite impression of how many people beleive in Kennedy conspiracies vs. things like chelation, urine therapy etc. It would be interesting to see some numbers to compare, but I am not really sure where to get them.

Gallup did a poll for the 40th anniversary:

---------------------------------

"Turning now to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963: Do you think that one man was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think that others were involved in a conspiracy?" Form A (N=533 adults, MoE ± 5)
One
Man Others
Involved No
Opinion
% % %
11/03 19 75 6
3/01 13 81 6
11/93 15 75 10


.

"There have been many theories about who was involved in the assassination. I'd like to know if you think any of the following were involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Do you think [see below] was/were involved in the assassination, or don't you think so?" Form B (N=471 adults, MoE ± 5)
Involved Not
Involved No
Opinion
% % %
The mafia 37 56 7
The CIA 34 60 6
Lyndon Johnson 18 75 7
The Cubans 15 78 7
The Soviet Union 15 77 8

http://www.pollingreport.com/news.htm
---------------------------

I don't have comparable numbers for the other issues I mentioned, but I have rarely met anyone who has even heard of chelation therapy, much less had an opinion about it.

>I have read several books, both pro and con, about the myths surrounding the Kennedy assasination (I used to be a bit of a conspiracy woo myself, years ago), but I couldn't tell you if I have read the specific authors you mention. Could you name off some titles?

The Big One is Gerald Posner's "Case Closed", which is extremely comprehensive, and points to the shoddy work done by conspiracists. I fact-checked its claims extensively, looking up many of the interviews cited to make sure it got them right. Posner did his homework.

McAdams doesn't have a book, I believe, but runs the Kennedy Assassination Home Page at http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm

Dale Myers' "With Malice" comprehensively covers the Tippit murder, of which the most popular conspiracy theories try to absolve Oswald. (If he killed Tippit, it is very unlikely he was a patsy and innocent of the Kennedy killing).

I also recommend the "Image of an Assassination" DVD, which contains a the Zapruder film, where you can slo-mo it, freeze frame, or frame advance it at your leisure. Netflix has it. Watch closely under the zoom, and you can see Kennedy and Connally getting shot simultaneously, although Kennedy's reaction is more pronounced (his hands jump to his throat - Connally does a modest flinch).

Jennings' "Beyond Conspiracy" is also out on DVD. It is a decent overview, and doesn't say anything wrong that I call, but it is very superficial, spends too much time on computer models (which won't persuade you unless you are convinced the inputted data is correct), and probably won't change anyone's mind. Netflix also has that.

Additionally, most of the primary sources (Warren Commission report, interviews and evidence, House Select Committee report, interviews and evidence, etc.) can be found by Googling. The biggest eye opener for me was when you compared the conspiracy theory claims about interviews and evidence to what is actually in the interviews themselves, and you are drowned in the percentage of quotes ripped very bloodily from context to the point where white now means black, or single interviews which are cherry-picked in favor of much more voluminous and credible contradictory evidence. (My favorite example of this is Oliver Stone's exclusive citing of one Tippit witness who claims Oswald wasn't the shooter, when over a dozen witnesses IDed Oswald as the shooter or as someone carrying a gun away from the scene of the crime in a direction where Oswald was eventually caught. Stone's witness never claimed to see a gun - the best bet is that she opened her door late and mistook one of the other witnesses for the shooter).

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Post by Raskolnikov » Thu Apr 07, 2005 7:14 pm

The poll data didn't format well. Their poll found that people don't believe Oswald acted alone, by a 75-19 margin.

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Post by Flash » Sat Apr 09, 2005 10:00 pm

Only the perpetual rewriting of the past will eliminate revisionism in history.
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Re: Who writes history?

Post by Coobeastie » Wed Apr 13, 2005 6:28 pm

UnrepentantSinner wrote:With that in mind, shouldn't skeptics encourage the larger population to look ultimately to the facts about history established by archaeology and contemporaneous history, rather than just accept claims by alternative historians just because their supposed claims seem "reasonable?"


No, skeptics should endeavour to encourage critical thinking about history, and proper evaluation of the evidence. The trap you are falling into is to say that because something is contemporaneous it is 'fact', when it never is; it is an account, filled with the social, cultural and political bais of the writer. The National Enquirer is a contemporaneous source for modern US history.

As for archaeology, the saying goes "A rock is a rock; two rocks are a wall; three rocks are a building, and four rocks are a palace." The only archaeological 'fact' is "we found artefact X in strata Y at site Z" (and that's not going into archaeologists planting finds). Scientific developments can add to this (like dendrochronology for dating), but beyond that you are again into evidence evaluation and theorising.

There was a quote my A Level history teacher told us "The history books of any given period tell you more about the period they are written in than the period they are writing about." The same is true for our modern texts, even those that give the 'accepted' view.

This is not to condone holocaust denial, or any such pseudo-historical bollocks. It is also be the case that the above approach is far too in depth for those who aren't enthusiasts about the subject, and promoting the most commonly held view on historical events is useful. But we're back again to critical thinking being the most useful attribute.

Part of this is to do that my favoured period of history is the early medieval period in Europe, where absolutely everything can be contended. It's good for developing critical thinking.

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History

Post by Zeitgeist » Mon Aug 08, 2005 3:26 pm

I was a history major as well. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about historiography. I have come to the conclusion that history is liquid and can be written from many perspectives. There is no "history" that is conrete. As long as someone's perspective takes in the facts, digests them honestly with a critical eye, and adopts conclusions that fit the whole and scope of all the surrounding history than it can be an acceptable account of what happened. But not the only account mind you. To get a good grasp we often have to look at many points of view and try and put it all together. This is what I think good historians do.

I think we run into error when we try and limit it like science per se. In science, there is generally a right and a wrong. Either the evidences supports something or not. It works or it doesn't. I think it is good to try and approach history with the tools of science, but not treat it like science.

I was very interersted in religious history. Religious history is highly contestable. From a faithful perspective one sees God dealing with man. From a skeptical/naturalistic perspective, God doesn't exist so we have to come up with another explanation. Both views often use the same facts, but can draw some amazingly different conclusions. I believe both can tell a valid story. We decide which interpretation of the facts we will accept. Is one right or wrong - again it is your philosophy that is going to determine this. I feel the debate shouldn't necessarily center on the point of view but on the facts, evidence, and documents that support such a view.

These are some of my own thoughts and I would love to write more on the topic someday for the skeptic magazine.

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Re: Who writes history?

Post by The Inquisition » Tue Aug 16, 2005 5:23 am

UnrepentantSinner wrote:who writes history?


hopefully, everyone does. one my favorite sources of American Civil War history has been the articles, letters to the editor, rebuttals, surrebuttals, etc. written by its participants in the Century Magazine, later published in the multi-volume Battles and Leaders. The numerous authors refought the war for years after it ended.

post WW2, the American army's historians interviewed and took statements from hundreds of Japanese officers or encouraged them to write their own mongraphs on the war. there is no end to the numbers of published books, essays, accounts or biographies of Axis personnel.

Of course, one of the problems with who gets to write the histories is that often the defeated go to great lengths to destroy written records, as both the Reich and Imperial governments did.

as for the question, "who gets to write the prevailing historical interpretation", that seems to be a continually evolving process, sometimes depending on prevailing politics but otherwise as new facts, documents or investigative techniques throw new light on events past.