One of the most perplexing challenges of historical research is that of figuring out exactly how to extract fictional revisions from accounts of actual fact. Unlike scientific works, which aim to reveal “what is”, and thus function independent of human superstition, time and place, the study of history is far fuzzier. Anyone who has ever been to a library, or spent more than a handful of minutes on the Internet, is well aware that works of fiction are both ever present and wildly popular. Plenty of fictional stories take place in historical settings, and include representations of actual people, speaking and thinking and acting according to the needs of story.
Occasionally, such tales were (and are) presented as fact, even in articles published in widely read and trusted newspapers, magazines and journals. Consider the world of pseudoscience, traditional Chinese medicine, the “discovery” of arsenic-loving life, the fake journals of Elsevier. Consider the yellow journalism of William Randolph “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” Hearst, his later demonization of marijuana, and the many news hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe and Benjamin Franklin. Much as we complain about the poor standards of the mainstream media of today, news sources were typically no better and often far worse in previous centuries. Sales, as always, was the goal, and straight facts appeal to a much smaller audience than grand fictions ever will.
The 20th and early 21st century have already seen plenty of examples of revisionist attempts, many of them enormously popular among their target audiences. To select just a small sample from the last twenty years: no, Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian, nor did he desire the States to become a religious country; no, there are no records of the US Army supplying American Indians with smallpox-infected blankets; no, there is no evidence that the Chinese landed in America in 1421, or any time soon after that. Appealing though these ideas might be, and challenging as they might be to an established view of history, professional historians can do little more than tear their hair out as these popular “histories” pass their 20,000th sales mark, leaving traditional histories in the dust.
Armed with the knowledge that lies, half-truths and outright bullshit populate so much of recorded history, it becomes a rather daunting task to sort through it, and formulate a genuine, factual account of anything at all. One of the best tools for separating fact from fiction comes in the form of Bayes’ Theorem, a math equation described in an earlier post. Far more complicated than its simplified form appears, it has been successfully used to determine not only the authors of the Federalist Papers, composed soon after the American War of Independence, but the locations of missing atomic bombs in the 1960s, and the identification and termination of email spam. But the revelation that the theorem could even be applied to resolve historical questions, and our ability perform the rather intensive calculations required to make it useful, are still very recent developments which have yet to be embraced in full by the social sciences, and community of professional historians. Other techniques currently dominate their work, and even those go back only so far as the Enlightenment era.
The written word held immense power in the ancient world, much as it does now. The rulers of every kingdom in history were well aware not only of this power, but of how to wield it. They could change entire histories at a command, or record exacting minutiae about deceased individuals, whom their vast legions were expected to follow with nary a question among them. The time involved and scale of these projects were truly enormous, and often left much to be desired, despite the best intentions of the scribes of the day. Henry Ford was profoundly right, and profoundly wrong, when he said “History is bunk.”