History Reader Beware: The Past Is Full Of “Fake News”
The past is full of “fake news.” But the good news is …
“Forty million schoolbooks can’t be wrong.” The hospitalized Inspector Grant looks to his young researcher, Brent Carradine. “Can’t they?” Carradine replies.
The scene lies somewhere in the middle of Josephine Tey’s brilliant historical mystery novel, The Daughter of Time (1951). In the story, Grant and Carradine are investigating several murders in the Tower, murders that history texts universally blame on their uncle, Richard III.
What these two investigators find is that some historians lie while some are merely incompetent. Grant and Carradine agree to dig past the traditional accounts to the earliest source documents available, particularly those that deal in practical matters like finance, real estate, and deaths and births. “Truth isn’t in accounts but in account books,” Carradine says. You’ll have to read the book to find out their conclusions.
The point here, of course, is simple. Not all history books are reliable. All authors have an agenda. The worst offenders are the ones that claim perfect objectivity. Sometimes that agenda is relatively innocent: the author needs to supplement his income, or he wants to put his notes in published form for his own students. Even so, all history books represent their author’s political leanings, moral assumptions, and intellectual diligence. Let’s consider this last weakness first, and return to the other issues next week.
Sorting Through the Stacks In a really good library or any self-respecting used book store, a student of history will find all sorts of books, some interesting, many dull, lots that are outdated, and a very few that … for good or ill … are revolutionary in their perspective. What follows is a simplified guide for the honest inquirer, the reader who really wants to know what in the world is going on.
At one extreme we have the little paperbacks that play fast and lose with sources. These turn legend into fact, speculation into esoteric truth. These books often weigh men and their actions by their broad reputation. Many of these books come from New Age publishers. Some come from cults or fringe religious groups. Sadly, some come from small and fringe Christian publishers. For the most part, these books are a waste of time and usually self-evidently so.
A step or so higher we have books that get their information from Wikipedia or high school history books. Many cheap autobiographies, religious histories, children’s histories, and fictionalized histories fall into this category. The writers aren’t historians or researchers; they’re merely out to tell a story, probably illustrated with watercolor pictures or line drawings.
Next, there are textbooks themselves. The low-quality ones contain “grey sludge” and no one but their authors have read them more than once. But there is a better sort. The authors of these texts have a touch of imagination and ingenuity. They have read the works of specialists and are probably familiar with some of the original sources, though they will only reproduce snippets of them in their textbooks. These textbooks will usually have a recommended reading list that will point to better source material, though few of them will be primary.
Now we come to books on particular topics that nevertheless paint with a broad brush. These books are written for the layman and try to interpret a strand of history or a specific event in the light of a specific thesis or a particular point of view. These books have footnotes and include a lengthy biography. The authors know how to do research, but only a careful look at their arguments and footnotes will tell the reader what their agenda is. For these authors’ judgment is in matters historical. And for these of these authors, the past is full of fake news because they placed the fake news there themselves.
Next to last, there are secondary sources or scholarly works that interact with the original source documents and with one another. These books will tell the reader how we know what we know and how much of our knowledge is really certain. They will argue for particular interpretations while acknowledging rival theories. These books will contain lengthy quotations from the original sources, copious footnotes that allow the reader to trace the roots of the author’s argument, and an extensive biography of primary and secondary sources. These are real history books and this is where the fun begins for serious researchers.
Primary Source Documents
Finally, we come to primary source documents. Even here the reader must exercise caution. The only infallible historical document is Holy Scripture. It describes, with varying degrees of detail, the first four thousand years of human history, though its focus from the beginning is on God’s covenant people and, in particular, the genealogical line that leads to Christ. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Rome come into biblical history only as these empires interact with God’s people. Still, Scripture contains a consistent timeline that stretches from Creation to Christ and a wealth of information about the kingdoms and empires that surrounded and interacted with Israel. Some portions of Scripture, however, are easier to interpret than others, and the careful reader will compare his own reading with that of the best commentators. For example, the reader who finds a UFO in Ezekiel 1 is hard at work, imposing his expectations on Scripture, not reading the Bible to see what it actually says. Reliable commentaries would make this immediately apparent.
Records of legislation, edicts, decrees, court decisions, and treaties can usually tell us what kings, parliaments, and courts actually said publicly. The explanations of motive and intent contained in these legal documents may, of course, be mere propaganda. Even so, the documents reveal what lawmakers and judges thought would pass for good reasons.
More difficult to access but probably more reliable in the long run are account books, ledgers, business reports, and official statistics. These are the work of serious paper pushers who might fudge their expense accounts but will probably tell the truth about who bought what when or who married whom on what date at what chapel. Making sense of these sorts of records, however, requires a lot of diligence and patience or a degree in research or accounting.
Journals, diaries, and personal letters all suffer from the same limitation. People lie, even to themselves. While they may provide subtle insights or bring to light hidden facts, relationships, and agendas, they also cast the writer’s point of view on everything he or she writes about. These documents call for discretion and wisdom in the reader.
Contemporary newspaper articles add very little to our knowledge of history. They generally report what the major papers or news services are saying at the given time. The major media outlets, whether radio, TV, or print, have usually followed the lead of the Eastern Establishment—banking, Ivy league schools, liberal think-tanks, and tax-free foundations. But even without such influences, newspapers have always been plagued by what we now call “fake news.” For example, in 1835 the New York Sun ran a series of articles describing intelligent life on the moon. Newspaper sales went though the roof.
Photos, video and audio recordings have the same limitations as diaries and letters plus a few more. People lie on tape or in front of a camera as naturally as they do in writing. The TV/YouTube generations have an additional problem and it’s a whopper. They equate visual images with the truth. “I saw it with my own eyes!” the excited millennial exclaims. Of course, he didn’t really. He saw an edited product originally filmed over a matter of minutes or seconds and shot from a particular angle at a particular distance all designed to shape his perspective. The viewer has no way of knowing what happened before or after the taping or what might have stood just outside the camera’s frame or behind the subjects in the foreground. And, obviously, the viewer has no way of knowing how much the video has been edited or altered.
Finally, we can talk about biographies and autobiographies. Lying, of course, is a big part of the game. Some biographies are sheer political or religious propaganda. But now and then, an aging senator, diplomat, or spy will feel the need to come clean or blow the whistle on some of his old cronies. Once again, the reader should exercise caution and discretion.
Facts don’t interpret themselves. The historian collects and chooses his facts in terms of his own presuppositions. But he too is limited by his intelligence, naiveté, previous reading and education. This is as true of Christian writers as it is of secular scholars. An excellent first step toward understanding history, then, is a profoundly critical and suspicious nature. Men lie and men make mistakes. Many scholars are sloppy. They believe their own professors’ lectures and books without checking their facts. Christians blindly believe their pastors and pastors trust their seminary professors. On the other hand, a good historian won’t be so naive to trust every fact he comes upon blindly. A good historian should research, check, and double check before going to print.
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