Pseudohistory is a pejorative term applied to a type of historical revisionism. It purports to be history, and uses ostensibly-scholarly methods and techniques (which in fact depart from standard historiographical conventions), but is inconsistent with established facts and/or with common sense and often involves sensational claims whose acceptance would significantly require rewriting accepted history. The term may apply to a theory or to a work or works based on that theory. Cryptohistory is a related term, sometimes applied to pseudo-historical publications based on occult notions.
The pejorative nature of the term arises from the implication of ignorance, deliberate misrepresentation, carelessness, gullibility or poor scholarship on the part of the (pseudo)historian.
Definition and etymology
The term pseudo-history was coined in the early 19th century, which makes it somewhat older than pseudo-scholarship, and somewhat younger than pseudo-science (although New Latin pseudo-historia had been in use since at least the 1650s). It is attested in 1823 as referring to an early example of a historical novel. Similarly, in an 1815 attestation, it is used to refer to Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi, a fictional contest between two historical poets. The current pejorative sense, referring to a flawed or disingenuous work of historiography, is found in another 1815 attestation.
Pseudohistory can be compared with pseudoscience in that both consist of a methodology, belief, or practice which purports to, but does not, adhere to the established standards of the discipline of which it claims to be a part, and which has limited or no supporting evidence or plausibility.
The definition of pseudohistory can be extended to varying contexts. Historian Douglas Allchin contends that history in science education cannot only be false or anecdotal, but misleading ideologically, and that this constitutes pseudohistory.
Robert Todd Carroll suggests that a work which is pseudohistoric will meet at least one of the following criteria:
- the work uncritically accepts myths and anecdotal evidence without skepticism.
- it has a political, religious, or other ideological agenda.
- it is not published in an academic journal or is otherwise not adequately peer reviewed.
- the evidence for key facts supporting the work's thesis is:
- selective and ignores contrary evidence or explains it away; or
- speculative; or
- controversial; or
- not correctly or adequately sourced; or
- interpreted in an unjustifiable way; or
- given undue weight; or
- taken out of context; or
- distorted, either accidentally or fraudulently.
- competing (and perhaps simpler) explanations or interpretations for the same set of facts, which have been peer reviewed and have been adequately sourced, are rejected or not addressed, contrary to the principle of Occam's razor which favours a simpler and more prosaic explanation of the same facts. For example, the work may rely on one or more conspiracy theories or "hidden-hand" explanations.
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke prefers the term "cryptohistory", of which he identifies two necessary elements as: "A complete ignorance of the primary sources" and the repetition of "inaccuracies and wild claims".
Other common characteristics of pseudohistory are:
- the arbitrary linking of disparate events so as to form - in the theorist’s opinion - a pattern. This is typically then developed into a conspiracy theory postulating a hidden agent responsible for creating and maintaining the pattern. For example, the pseudohistorical The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail links the Knights Templar, the medieval Grail Romances, the Merovingian Frankish dynasty and the artist Nicolas Poussin in an attempt to identify lineal descendants of Jesus.
- hypothesising the consequences of unlikely events that “could” have happened, thereby assuming tacitly that they did.
Not all controversial historical theories are pseudohistorical. Specifically:
- if there are no established facts in the matter under consideration, or if all evidence is contradictory, any theory consistent with common sense is speculation rather than pseudohistory. For example, in the absence of evidence as to the historicity or legendary status of demigods and semi-mythical heroes, any reasonable theory can be classed as speculative, not pseudohistorical. However if evidence in support of a theory could reasonably be expected to exist, its absence suggests that the theory might be pseudohistorical. For example, if spacefaring aliens frequently visit Earth, their movements and landings could be expected to have been observed; the fact that they have not, to the satisfaction of impartial judges, casts doubt on theories based on their presence. See also Ufology
- if evidence is so scanty as not to permit any definite conclusions to be drawn, any theory consistent with the evidence is likewise speculation and not pseudohistory
- if the main or only evidence is ideological or religious doctrine, the same applies. Believers in the doctrine may reject the theory as incorrect, but cannot justifiably argue that it is pseudohistorical
- if a theory is invalidated by evidence which subsequently becomes available, this does not make it retrospectively pseudohistorical. For example, in the 19th century it was believed that the fossil remains of dinosaurs were those of giants who lived before the Biblical Flood. This was a reasonable theory at the time and not pseudohistorical. However any contemporary claim that denies or contradicts established paleontological evidence would almost certainly be pseudohistorical.
Pseudohistory vs. Revisionism
Pesudohistory is to be distinguished from historical revisionism. The latters involves forming testable hypotheses about historical events and evaluating them using reputable scholarly techniques. For example, it is legitimate to carry out historical research to clarify aspects of the Holocaust, which may lead to revision of our understanding of it. But promoters of Holocaust denial typically call themselves revisionists, though their underlying hypothesis is contradicted by firm evidence and their purpose is not to enhance understanding but to justify their claims. Holocaust denial is thus prima facie pesudohistorical.
Categories and examples
The following are some common categories of pseudohistorical theory, with examples. NB;
- not all theories in a listed category are necessarily pseudohistorical; they are rather categories which seem to attract pseudohistorians
- caution should be exercised with lists of theories, as proponents of any historical theory, or any ideology, may assert that theories with which they disagree are pseudohistorical, in order to discredit them and their promoters:
- Anti-semitism-inspired (see also Blood libel)
- Ancient astronauts, Archaeoastronomy and Lost lands (see also Atlantis location hypotheses)
- Alternative chronologies - revised sequences of events or other alterations to the timeline of ancient history.
- Confederate revisionists (AKA "Civil War revisionists") and Neo-Confederates argue that the Confederate States of America's prime motivation was the maintenance of states rights and limited government rather than the preservation and expansion of slavery.
- Ethnocentric pseudo-history (see also National mysticism)
- Most Afrocentric (i.e. Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories, see Ancient Egyptian race controversy) ideas have been identified as pseudohistorical
- The Indigenous Aryans theories published in Hindu nationalism during the 1990s and 2000s.
- The "crypto-history" of Germanic mysticism and Nazi occultism. Among leading Nazis, Heinrich Himmler is believed to have been influenced by occultism and according to one theory, developed the SS base at Wewelsburg to an esoteric plan
- British-Israelism (Anglo-Israelism).
- Psychohistory The ill-fated attempt to merge psychology with history, replacing historical method.
- Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact excluding the Norse colonization of the Americas and other reputable scholarship
- Religious speculation (see also scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts)
- works such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which purports to show that certain historical figures, such as Godfrey of Bouillon, and contemporary aristocrats are the lineal descendants of Jesus Christ, using genealogical tables that are now known to be spurious:
- The writings of author David Barton and others postulating that the United States of America was founded as an exclusively Christian nation.
- See also Searches for Noah's Ark
- The theory of Lemuria and Kumari Kandam.
- Chariots of the Gods? and other books by Erich von Däniken, which claim ancient visitors from outer space constructed the pyramids and other monuments.
- Publications by Christopher Knight, such as Uriel's Machine (2000), claiming ancient technological civilizations.
- visits to Earth by spacefaring aliens
- The Shakespeare authorship question, which claims that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works traditionally attributed to him.
- Unexplained events "explained"
- Historical revisionism (negationism)
- Historiography and nationalism
- Pseudoscientific metrology
- Monthly magazine and British register, Volume 55 (February 1823), p. 449, in reference to John Galt, Ringan Gilhaize: Or, The Covenanters, Oliver & Boyd, 1823.
- C. A. Elton, Remains of Hesiod the Ascraean 1815, p. xix.
- The Critical review: or, Annals of literature, Volume 1 ed. Tobias George Smollett, 1815, p. 152
- Fritze, Ronald H,. (2009). Invented knowledge: false history, fake science and pseudo-religions. Reaktion Books. pp 7-18. ISBN 978-1-86189-430-4
- Allchin, D. 2004. Pseudohistory and pseudoscience Science & Education 13:179-195.
- Michael Shermer, Alex Grobman. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, University of California Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-520-26098-6, p.2
- Carroll, Robert Todd. The skeptic’s dictionary. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons (2003), p. 305.
- Goodrick-Clarke 1985: 224,225
- Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism, page 225 (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2005 edition). ISBN 1-86064-973-8
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", last updated 4 May 2009.
- Deborah E. Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Plume, 1994, Page 215, ISBN 0-452-27274-2
- Fritze, Ronald H,. (2009). Invented knowledge: false history, fake science and pseudo-religions. Reaktion Books. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-86189-430-4.
- Novikov, S. P. (2000). "Pseudohistory and pseudomathematics: fantasy in our life". Russian Mathematical Surveys 55.
- David Barton (December 2008). "Confronting Civil War Revisionism: Why the South Went To War". Wall Builders. Retrieved 30 December 2013.
- Barrett Brown (27 December 2010). "Neoconfederate civil war revisionism: Those who commemorate the South's fallen heroes are entitled to do so, but not to deny that slavery was the war's prime cause". TheGuardian.com. Retrieved 30 December 2013.
- "Howard Swint: Confederate revisionism warps U.S. history". Charleston Daily Mail. June 15, 2011. Retrieved 30 December 2013.
- Sherwin, Elisabeth. "Clarence Walker encourages black Americans to discard Afrocentrism". Davis Community Network. Retrieved 2007-11-13.
- Ortiz de Montellano, Bernardo & Gabriel Haslip Viera & Warren Barbour (1997). "They were NOT here before Columbus: Afrocentric hyper-diffusionism in the 1990s". Ethnohistory (Duke University Press) 44 (2): 199–234. doi:10.2307/483368. JSTOR 483368. Unknown parameter
- Nanda, Meera (January–March 2005). "Response to my critics" (PDF). Social Epistemology 19 (1): 147–191. doi:10.1080/02691720500084358. Sokal, Alan (2006). "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?". In Fagan, Garrett. Archaeological Fantasies: How pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past and misleads the public. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-30592-6
- Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. 1985. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890–1935. Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press. ISBN 0-85030-402-4. (Several reprints.) Expanded with a new Preface, 2004, I.B. Tauris & Co. ISBN 1-86064-973-4
- Fritze, Ronald H,. (2009). Invented knowledge: false history, fake science and pseudo-religions. Reaktion Books. p. 11.ISBN 978-1-86189-430-4.
- Laura Miller (2006). Dan Burstein, ed. Secrets of the Code. Vanguard Press. p. 405. ISBN 978-1-59315-273-4.
- Specter, Arlen (Spring 1995). "Defending the wall: Maintaining church/state separation in America". Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 18 (2): 575–590.
- House Passes, Considers Evangelical Resolutions, Baltimore Chronicle
- David Barton - Propaganda Masquerading as History, People for the American Way
- Boston Theological Institute Newsletter Volume XXXIV, No. 17, Richard V. Pierard, January 25, 2005
- Dietz, Robert S. "Ark-Eology: A Frightening Example of Pseudo-Science" in Geotimes 38:9 (Sept. 1993) p. 4.
- Fritze, Ronald H,. (2009). Invented knowledge: false history, fake science and pseudo-religions. Reaktion Books. p. 201. ISBN 978-1-86189-430-4.
- Merriman, Nick, editor, Public Archaeology, Routledge, 2004 page 260
- Tonkin, S., 2003, Uriel's Machine – a Commentary on some of the Astronomical Assertions.
- Hope, Warren and Kim Holston. The Shakespeare Controversy (2009) 2nd ed., 3: "In short, this is a history written in opposition to the current prevailing view".
- Potter, Lois. “Marlowe onstage” in Constructing Christopher Marlowe, James Alan Downie and J. T. Parnell, eds. (2000, 2001), paperback ed., 88-101; 100: “The possibility that Shakespeare may not really be Shakespeare, comic in the context of literary history and pseudo-history, is understandable in this world of double-agents . . .”
- Aaronovitch, David. “The anti-Stratfordians” in Voodoo Histories (2010), 226-229: “There is, however, a psychological or anthropological question to be answered about our consumption of pseudo-history and pseudoscience. I have now plowed through enough of these books to be able to state that, as a genre, they are badly written and, in their anxiety to establish their dubious neo-scholarly credentials, incredibly tedious. . . . Why do we read bad history books that have the added lack of distinction of not being in any way true or useful . . .”
- Kathman, David. Shakespeare Authorship Page: “. . . Shakespeare scholars regard Oxfordianism as pseudo-scholarship which arbitrarily discards the methods used by real historians. . . . In order to support their beliefs, Oxfordians resort to a number of tactics which will be familiar to observers of other forms of pseudo-history and pseudo-science.”
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