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On the Perils and Pleasures of Confronting Pseudohistory

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 10, Number 5, November 2009
pp. 2-5 | 10.1353/hsp.0.0067

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Back in 2000 I attended a meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference in Cleveland. At the banquet, I was seated at a table with two scholars who had written biographies of Columbus. During the course of conversation, it came out that in 1993 I had published a critical encyclopedia of theories about people who had visited America before Columbus. One of the Columbus biographers was quite interested in the topic while the other responded, “Why would you want to write about that?” Now I could have taken a Samuel Johnsonesque approach and answered, “Well, I guess because the book earned $10,000 in royalties.” But I didn’t. The fact is, there are very good scholarly and educational reasons for writing a book about the fallacious beliefs people hold about pre-Columbian discoverers and settlers. Lots of people, especially students, assume that these ideas have a basis in fact. There is obviously a receptive audience for them, as the success of Gavin Menzies’ 1421 amply demonstrates.

Pseudohistory is not confined to quirky theories about lost fleets belonging to Alexander the Great, or Mongol raiders or Irish monks visiting the Americas. Those are just a few of the many varieties of pseudohistory. Atlantis is a perennial pseudohistorical favorite. Ancient astronauts, myths of the Ten Lost Tribes, catastrophic events altering ancient history, occult and spiritualist accounts of prehistory, various racist cosmogonies, pyramidology, lost civilizations in the Earth’s core or under the Antarctic or deep within the Amazon jungles—all are expressions of pseudohistory, tinged with pseudoarchaeology and buttressed by pseudoscience.

As pop culture shows us, these ideas fascinate people. They form the premises of movies, television series, novels, and video games. They provide fodder for hours of fantastic chat on late night radio and drive legions of faithful audiences to weekend conferences devoted to the latest hot idea. Pseudohistory can be fun, just like a Star Trek convention or a Renaissance fair can be fun—as long as your pockets are deep enough and your skepticism sufficiently submerged.

But there is a dark side. Pseudohistorical ideas are used to justify racism and nasty political agendas. They provide a seemingly factual basis for the beliefs of fringe religious movements and destructive cults. Pseudohistory can sometimes bring about very real and tragic history for unfortunate acolytes. The adherents of Heaven’s Gate killed themselves so they could join god-like aliens on their approaching spaceship. Followers of the Nation of Islam killed each other in power struggles over the movement’s money and property. Identity Christians killed enemies, particularly if they were Jewish, African-American, or representatives of the United States government, which they viewed as under the control of Satan. In each of these examples, pseudohistorical beliefs provided the justification for atrocious actions. And like all pseudohistory, these beliefs were mistaken and wrong—dead wrong. It is a situation that amply justifies research, study, and analysis.

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An illustration of the Obelisk of Nimroud from Charles Forster, The Monuments of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia: With a New Key for the Recovery of the Lost Ten Tribes (London, 1859).

Students and the general public ask questions about pseudohistorical and pseudoscientific ideas, and they deserve answers based on research and facts, not simply condescending dismissals of their questions. They need to be shown the difference between history and pseudohistory. They need reliable facts and unbiased narratives so they can see for themselves why genuine history is based on valid, verifiable knowledge, while pseudohistory is raised up on false knowledge masquerading as history.

Historians need to confront and refute any and every expression of pseudohistory when they engage students in the classroom, when they speak to the public, when they write books and articles, and when they publish on the Internet. Yes, there is a lot of pseudohistory out there. A lot of people are peddling it for reasons ranging from the naive to the nefarious. Historians should help expose this high strangeness to the light of reasonable discourse and contribute to explaining the appearance and persistence of the phenomenon.

Pseudohistory can be used to justify homicide, suicide, and even genocide. It is well known that Nazism based its ideologies...