Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions
Ronald H. Fritze
London, Reaktion Books, 2009, ISBN: 9781861894304; 304pp.; Price: £19.95
University of Minnesota
Date accessed: 6 June, 2023
The first principle of understanding history, I was taught, is to sympathize with the historical actors, to immerse oneself in their context and perspective.(1) Otherwise, history becomes a fabricated reconstruction – more about the writer's ideology than the events of the past. Such a benchmark can be challenging when addressing advocates of false knowledge: how can one portray their claims as reasonable and false both? One seems to risk abandoning rationality and slipping into relativism.
In Invented Knowledge, Ron Fritze addresses the history of several pseudohistory and pseudoscience chestnuts: Atlantis, Velikovsky's World in Collision (and other catastrophists), von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods, Bernal's Black Athena, the historical claims of the Nation of Islam and the Christian Identity movement, various theories about the peopling of the Americas, and others. Fritze's accounts are well documented and informative. But they rarely render the thinking of the historical actors effectively. Rather, Fritze renders pseudohistory as willful irrationality (an early working title of the book was 'Irrational Science' (2)). Advancing such false claims shows one to be (in Fritze's monikers): naive, biased, prejudiced, cynical, gullible, undiscriminating, unscrupulous, undisciplined, unorthodox, irrational, spiritual, flawed, fallacious, sensationalistic, amusing, quirky, eccentric, crazy, bizarre and embarassing, pathetic, off-beat, audacious (or 'almost unimaginably audacious'), outrageous, rhetorically clever, wild, extremist, over-eager, obsessive, manic, nefarious, reprehensible, and contemptible, not to mention communist and obfuscating (pp. 8, 9, 10, 14, 16, 61, 66, 70, 83, 100, 136, 160, 164, 165, 167, 168, 169, 180, 183, 188, 202, 218, 219, 220, 253, 254). Pseudohistory is a 'charlatan's playground' of 'opportunists', targeting those all too 'willing to suspend disbelief' and slip into an 'abyss of fantasy' (pp. 8, 61, 202, 255). It is 'corrosive of concepts of authority, objectivity and factual evidence' – an 'enemy unto Knowledge' (pp. 251, 252). Fritze's book thus fits in the genre alongside Gratzer's Undergrowth of Science, Youngston's Scientific Blunders and Grant's Discarded Science (3): a triumph for those who revel in others' errors and credulity. But the chronicling is also ultimately short on explanation, analysis or fruitful historical understanding. Fritze's broadside thus provides an occasion for reflecting on how history might contribute to understanding the epistemic process.
Fritze epitomizes a tradition that equates the right method with the right answer. Pseudohistory or pseudoscience must be, accordingly, 'incorrect methodologically' (p. 18). 'Wrong' answers could never be reached for the 'right' reasons, nor 'right' answers for the 'wrong' reasons. This is Whiggish philosophy, akin to the more familiar Whiggish history.(1) It interprets the process backwards – here, yielding (to adapt a phrase) irrational reconstructions. In Fritze's accounts of pseudohistorical cases, one repeatedly encounters implicit criticisms of methods that elsewhere in the history of science have led (on more than one occasion) to important discoveries: for example, resilience and discounting of 'counterevidence'; ostensibly outlandish speculations when evidence was yet incomplete or results uncertain; or preconceptions biasing observations and their interpretation. Elsewhere, normally endorsed methods in certain historical contexts did not yield the conclusions we accept today: such as creative engagement with unexplained anomalies, interpreting evidence conservatively (narrowly), or finding patterns that cross disparate disciplines. Methods and outcomes do not always align ideally. Using the outcome of research ('right' or 'wrong') in a particular case to reason about the nature of the methodology is a fallacy. When one focuses on individual cases in history, as in science, one can easily misinterpret the relevant causes. To assess methods more scientifically, one needs comparative history, if not controlled study. One needs a vaster historical net that embraces more contrasting examples and allows more rigorous isolation and analysis of the relevant variables.(20). History can surely contribute to epistemic analysis, if done systematically and critically.
Fritze's historiography, however, seems to rest, in part, on a once popular but now outmoded epistemological model. Philosophers today acknowledge that human minds are the product of evolution, with various cognitive patterns and limitations. The conventional ideal of transcendental rationality (whether in philosophy, economics or other disciplines) is simply unrealistic. Epistemology has become naturalized.(4) Cognitive science or psychology is now integral to understanding how we can know what we know – or what we don't know.(5)
Fritze asks, 'how can a person know what is truth and fact, and what is lie and error in history, or science for that matter?', and replies plainly, 'the answer is evidence' (p. 11). Any 'educated person' or 'competent reader', he claims, 'can and should be able to identify it [pseudohistory]' (pp. 11, 152). This is the conventional rationalist's stance, echoed in other books about pseudoknowledge for a popular audience.(6) Of course evidence is foundational. But when epistemics is naturalized, the problem is not so simple. One major cognitive phenomenon is confirmation bias: early perceptions and interpretations tend to shape later perceptions and interpretations.(7) As a consequence, we often draw conclusions before all the relevant information is available or when evidence is essentially incomplete (the conventional fallacy of 'hasty generalization'). In addition, our minds unconsciously filter observations, tending to select or highlight confirming examples, while discounting or peripheralizing counterexamples. Ultimately, all the 'available evidence' is not really cognitively available. The believer in pseudohistory typically does respect the need for relevant evidence – and believes that it has been secured (witness their expansive volumes). Merely rehearsing the evidence against pseudohistorical claims, as Fritze largely does, is hardly sufficient for remedying those beliefs – or for understanding why anyone holds them.
Fritze appropriately notes the weakness in picking and choosing evidence and the corresponding value of complete evidence (pp. 12, 191–2, 214, 218). But he fails to describe an objective method for ascertaining which evidence is relevant or when it is complete. One cannot know everything. Typically, one relies on experts. Even experts rely on other experts. One inevitably depends on the testimony of others. But who is an expert? And how does the non-expert know? Even if reliability of evidence is the ultimate aim, assessing credibility becomes the proximate tool.(8) The foremost challenge for most people becomes deciding who to believe – not what the evidence indicates. Trust is essential. (Ironically, believers in pseudoscience often parade their skepticism, challenging acknowledged experts.) In targeting reliable knowledge in practice, then, well-placed trust seems more important than the rationalist's widely touted skepticism. Social assessments of credibility loom larger than logic.(9) In such contexts, attributions of gullibility (p. 219) offer little insight or guidance.
Equally important, when one addresses pseudohistory (or pseudoreligion or pseudoscience) as beliefs, one implicitly adopts the challenge of interpreting a psychological phenomenon. Beliefs need not be rational or grounded in evidence at all. Indeed, beliefs sometimes (often? nearly always?) precede the 'justifications' that, post facto, are used or developed to rationalize them. It should surprise no one that a religious orientation will generate a history that legitmates its views, even if that history is false – or, further, that believers will seek to inscribe that account into unassailable nature or imbue it with some other form of irrefutable authority.(1, 10) No wonder, then, when counterevidence fails to weaken those beliefs. Given how our minds function, evidence and 'rational' thought are often secondary to belief. 'Kooks' are everywhere (11).
Even in the best of all possible (human) worlds, then, individuals can be mistaken. Even Nobel Prize winners.(12) Smart people can advocate false history, paranormal phenomena and other 'weird things'.(3) Fritze himself describes several academics espousing 'wrong' ideas: Barry Fell, Charles Hapgood, Martin Bernal, and others. But they remain a conundrum for him: their irrationality contravenes the academic mantle of absolute authority (pp. 201, 220, 251). Alternatively, one may well wonder how we manage to construct academic and other institutions that seem to buffer themselves against spurious thinking. We might want to celebrate how public institutions, for the most part, do not succumb to pseudohistory when it is so rampant in the culture, as well as to ask why this is the case. For conventional rationalists (exemplified in Fritze's approach), rational belief is the expected norm, and one attributes 'deviation' from those norms to social and psychological factors (see list above). But the real challenge seems to be the symmetrical explanation: how does something as unusual or fragile as rationality, empirical science or reliable history emerge psychologically and socially?(9, 14)
Most recent analyses by professional historians, philosophers and sociologists of science highlight the significance of the scientific community. Error is regulated socially, through a system of checks and balances. Individuals may each err or adopt idiosyncratic perspectives, but collectively, through critical discourse, they expose and accommodate each other's blind spots. The locus of scientific rationality (if one finds such a concept fruitful at all) thus lies at the community level, where different perspectives interact: a social epistemology.(15) Contrasting cultural perspectives, properly deployed then, are a source of epistemic strength, not a handicap. Indeed, all the cases Fritze describes seem to have been resolved within the academic community through this social system – not through raw facts or brute methodology alone. In a healthy intellectual community, individuals who espouse pseudohistory become isolated and ineffectual. So, one may ask, in what ways is popular culture structured similarly or differently – and what types of mutual accountability result?
Scientific communities and their conclusions can still express bias. Witness historical cases of sexist theories of hysteria and other female behavior, racist theories of intelligence and human evolution, religious theories of Earth's age and history, and theories of eugenics, biological determinism and others. When scientists all share the same cultural perspective, bias can persist unchecked, even amidst claims of objectivity and evidence. In pursuing reliable knowledge, science thus relies epistemically on diverse communities.(15, 16) One might well apply that insight to non-academic communities, as well: conceptual or ideological homogeneity is generally not congenial to securing truth.
Fritze's concerns about pseudohistory include the popular context (although he rarely differentiates his comments: all individuals, apparently, are supposed to know and heed the conventional academic rules of rationality). On several occasions, Fritze calls upon the diffuse theme of a 'cultic milieu': a nebulous subculture (or counterculture) that serves as a reservoir for false beliefs and somehow nurtures their continuity (pp. 12–14, 84, 117, 125, 134, 168, 201, 210, 219). According to Colin Campbell, who introduced the concept (17), the cultic milieu is inherently heterodox and dissident. It thus celebrates free expression, the liberty of belief, and resistance to authority. In this view, pseudohistory, pseudoscience and pseudoreligion all reflect a similar and ineliminable feature of secular society: expect no remedy. Here (finally!) is an analytical claim to seed a potentially fruitful psychological and sociological analysis. A feature of singular value in Fritze's accounts is his dogged tracing of 'intellectual pedigrees' (p. 126). Ideas discredited on one occasion, he shows, tend to reappear later in another guise. The same false ideas are recycled time and again. That might lead one to explore, following Campbell's sketch, the social structure and communication networks and how they convey such ideas. How do certain cultural contexts or power relationships foster pseudohistory, eclipsing or peripheralizing available evidence? Fritze seems to set aside this opportunity in favor of purely 'rationalist' criticism: apparently, we are simply to lament the 'vague anti-intellectualism' and fret about the 'nadir of objective and empirical knowledge' (pp. 61, 254). The disparaging connotations of the term 'cultic' seem more valuable here than sociological analysis. Fritze's view of authority may be reflected, perhaps, in his immoderate use of epigraphs, which open every section of text (43 in all).
While focusing primarily on threats to the integrity of academic rationality, Fritze also touches upon the cultural consequences of false beliefs. Unscrupulous profit, foremost (pp. 8–10, 16, 61, 98–103, 179, 183, 202–3, 210, 219–20). Power, too. Fun, amusement and entertainment, perhaps (Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones, etc.) – but apparently unjustifiably given the lies. Add mass suicides, racist serial killings and civil war, and you have quite a spectre. Yet the causal power or role of the historical claims is usually overstated. The history typically seems to rationalize other, deeper motives, such as in-group identity, out-group blame or political power. 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult died in 1997 believing they were the privileged team to board a spaceship that had arrived to annihilate Earth. But their motives were surely more about belonging to something larger than themselves than adhering to some alien apocalyptic tale. One can find flaws in the Nation of Islam's historical claims, too. But as Fritze notes, members also found personal stability and purpose, adopting a healthy and abstemious diet, while refraining from alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, promiscuity, adultery, prostitution and gambling. One may ask about the scale of harm in some subsidiary details of a derived false history (which surely had little to do with promoting racist or religious behavior) compared with such benefits. Fritze implies that if pseudohistory, etc., were remedied by rational (factual and methodologically correct) thinking, we would forestall racism, anti-Semitism, religious cults, capitalistic exploitation, etc. This causal connection is, of course, far from established.
Some claims of pseudohistory or pseudoscience do warrant public concern: for example, Holocaust denial, the teaching of creationism or 'intelligent design', or portraying global warming as a hoax. These are significant to both public and personal decision making. To solve such problems, Fritze suggests more teaching of critical thinking (pp. 60, 219). This would seem plausible, were it not for the empirical evidence otherwise. Belief in the paranormal is extraordinarily resilient to such teaching (as currently taught). Levels of belief, for example, have remained steady over several decades as 'critical thinking' instruction has spread. Deeper thinking seems to be correlated, rather, with personalities that are open to new experiences, and that also exercise high standards of proof: reflecting a natural selection epistemic model, coupling blind variation and selective retention.(18) Education surely seems appropriate, but only if we use a better model of 'critical thinking' (or 'rationality').
Deeper historical understanding of the cognitive and social origins of error, as profiled above, can guide reform. First, we need to dramatize the cognitive flaws associated with appeal to 'evidence' and 'logical thinking'. Too often, imagined justification is merely superficial rationalization. We need to instill some appreciation of the fallibility of our minds. Evidence can be deceptive. Awareness of confirmation bias is foundational. Second, we need to underscore the role of social checks and balances and of distributed expertise (and sanctioned, or registered, credibility). That means profiling occasions for trust and respecting others' perspectives. Ironically, echoing the experience of the ancient Greeks, we may need to deflate epistemological hubris and instill greater intellectual humility. Third, we need to foster tolerance and the valuing of heterogeneous perspectives and even seeking of alternative views – along with the responsibility of engaging critics. That, in turn, may involve nurturing a strong sense of self and personal security (a worldview not threatened by difference). More may be needed, but let these three benchmarks help us begin to restructure the meaning of teaching effective thinking skills.
More effective education will also need to respect the research literature on teaching and learning. Informed educators now reject the model of authority whereby teachers list known fallacies, provide illustrations, and test for recall and taxonomy. Professional educators underscore the value of problem-based learning. Students need to be engaged in the process to develop skills: by following exemplars and practicing applications. Episodes such as those Fritze discusses could be valuable case studies in such an education. But to be effective, one must recreate the historical contexts, problems and information at hand as in historical simulations. One must sympathize with the central characters and appreciate the reasonableness of error, given an incomplete view. That can then be contrasted to the later, more complete view. One must appreciate the 'ironic diptych' of reasonableness and falsity that often characterizes history.(19) Understanding the awkward relationship of alternative perspectives is how one can tame relativism without resorting to artificial absolutes.(20) Fritze's accounts, unfortunately, leave us wanting for just such an enriched historical understanding.
- H. Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931); H. White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore, 1987); B. Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge, MA, 1987).Back to (1)
- <Back to (2)
- W. Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science (Oxford, 2000); R.Youngston, Scientific Blunders (New York, 1998); J. Grant, Discarded Science (Wisley, 2006).Back to (3)
- Taking the Naturalistic Turn, or How Real Philosophy of Science is Done, ed. W. Callebaut (Chicago, 1993); W. Wimsatt, Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings (Cambridge, MA, 2007).Back to (4)
- For example: T. Gilovich, How We Know What Isn't So (New York, 1991); S. Sutherland, Irrationality: Why We Don't Think Straight (London, 1992); M. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (2nd ed., New York, NY, 2002).Back to (5)
- For example: K. L. Feder, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries (Mountain View, CA, 1999); R. Park, Voodoo Science (Oxford, 2000); M. W. Friedlander, At the Fringes of Science (Boulder, 1998).Back to (6)
- R. S. Nickerson, 'Confirmation bias; a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises,' Review of General Psychology, 2 (1998), 175–200.Back to (7)
- D. Allchin, 'Do we see through a social microscope?: credibility as a vicarious selector', Philosophy of Science, 60 (Proceedings, 1999), S287–S298.Back to (8)
- S. Shapin, A Social History of Truth (Chicago, 1994); A. Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World (Oxford, 1999).Back to (9)
- D. Allchin, 'Naturalizing as an error-type in biology', in Proceedings of the Sixth Brazilian Conference for the History and Philosophy of Biology, ed. M. E. Prestes and R. Martins (São Paolo, 2008).Back to (10)
- D. Kossy, Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief (Los Angeles, CA, 1994).Back to (11)
- D. Allchin, 'Nobel ideals and noble errors', American Biology Teacher, 70 (2008), 389–92; L. Darden, 'The nature of scientific inquiry', 1998 <Back to (12)
- M. Shermer, op cit. (n. 5), pp. 279–313.Back to (13)
- D. Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery (London, 1976).Back to (14)
- S. Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (Ithaca, NY, 1991); H. Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton, 1990); M. Solomon, Social Empiricism (Cambridge, MA, 2001).Back to (15)
- For example: N. Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science (London, 1982); E. Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism (Cambridge, UK, 1992).Back to (16)
- D. Campbell, 'The cult, the cultic milieu and secularization', in Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain, ed. M. Hill, 5 (1972), 119–36; reprinted in The Cultic Milieu, ed. J. Kaplan and H. Lööw (Lanham, MD, 2002), pp. 12–25.Back to (17)
- For example: M. Shermer, op. cit. (n. 5), pp. 290–6; D. T. Campbell, 'Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought and other knowledge processes', Psychological Review, 67 (1960), 380–400.Back to (18)
- D. Haraway, Primate Visions (New York, 1989), pp. 160–161.Back to (19)
- J. Losee, Theories on the Scrap Heap (Pittsburgh, 2005); S. Brush, How Theories Became Knowledge, forthcoming; also see bibliography: <Back to (20)
It is always good to have one’s book reviewed and I thank Professor Allchin for taking the time. I must say, however, that if I were a potential reader of Invented Knowledge, after reading Professor Allchin’s review, I might not be all that interested in reading my book. The problem is that his review generally has little to do with the book I wrote and much more to do with Allchin’s own ideas about the writing of the history of science. One major source of disconnect between the book and the review is that Allchin’s previous writings show that he applies somewhat idiosyncratic definitions to the concepts of pseudoscience and pseudohistory.(1) It appears that he defines pseudoscience as science which has subsequently proven to be incorrect. Would it not be more accurate to refer to such science as obsolete or discredited rather than pseudoscience? Scientific knowledge has moved beyond Aristotle’s early researches, some of Descartes and Newton’s ideas about the universe, and some of Darwin’s ideas about evolution. Although certain of their ideas are now obsolete, that does not make them pseudoscientists. Allchin appears to define pseudohistory as a great man approach to the history of science. The more accurate term for his approach is triumphalist or teleological history. In contrast, most people who deal with the subject of pseudohistory and pseudoscience view both as ideas or hypotheses that are out of the mainstream of contemporary scholarship and lack acceptable evidence or practice flawed methodologies.(2) I wholeheartedly identify with that group.
Early in Allchin’s review he provides a list of over 40 terms that I use to describe the people and ideas discussed in my book. This conflation of quotes purports to show a narrow and biased approach to my subject. First, I stand by each and every term in Allchin’s disjointed string of quoted words. Second, at various places throughout his review, Allchin rightly endorses the necessity of providing and appreciating context in historical scholarship. I am not sure how ripping over 40 words or short phrases out of their context in a book of 304 pages shows any great respect for context. Let me given some typical examples. Allchin cites p. 100 in my book where I use the term ‘sensationalistic’. The word is used in the context of a discussion of Gavin Menzies’ 1421. I wrote, ‘The result was an engagingly written but sensationalistic book that garnered scathing reviews from scholars’. Now, what other than sensationalistic would Allchin call a book that purports to have discovered the voyages of four hitherto unknown Chinese fleets that discovered the Americas, Australia, Antarctica, circumnavigated the globe, circumnavigated Greenland, and navigated the Northeast Passage during the 1420s?! In another place on p. 188, Allchin cites my use of a phrase ‘almost unimaginably audacious’. The full sentence reads ‘Most scholars considered Velikovsky’s claims to be almost unimaginably audacious’. It refers to Velikovsky’s attempt to resynchronize ancient history by eliminating 500 years from the history of Egypt and Greece along with the Greek Dark Ages and the Hittite civilization. From the point of view of ancient historians and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern archeologists, what would Allchin call Velikovsky’s claim, if not almost unimaginably audacious? Allchin also states that I refer to someone as a communist, which seems to imply that I engaged in some Cold War style rhetoric. The actual text on p. 253 reads, ‘His [Martin Bernal’s] father was John Desmond Bernal, a respected scientist, who was also a committed communist and political activist. Early on Martin Bernal exhibited the same political engagement, which manifested itself in opposition to the Vietnam War and sympathy for the Maoist cause in the People’s Republic of China’. Allchin’s problem with my identifying someone as communist presupposes emotive political symbolism or code words that aren’t in my text. I’m a historian. A fact is a fact. Based on my reading, both Bernals were and are proud of their political stances. It forms part of the context for Martin Bernal’s work. So how can Allchin have a problem with such a matter-of-fact statement?
In another case, Allchin cites a phrase, an ‘enemy unto knowledge’ on p. 251. The words are not mine; they are Sir Thomas Browne’s and are part of an epigraph. It reads, ‘But the mortallest enemy unto Knowledge, and that which hath done the greatest execution upon truth, hath been a peremptory adhesion unto Authority, and more especially, the establishing of our belief upon the dictates of Antiquity’. Apparently Allchin couldn’t discern the context of language and all of the peculiar cadences that tie it to a historical epoch. Maybe he just has a history of difficulty with quotation?
The epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne also raises another issue. Later in his review Allchin makes the statement ‘Fritze’s view of authority may be reflected, perhaps, in his immoderate use of epigraphs, which open every section of the text (43 in all)’. The implication is that I am using the epigrams as proof texts in the manner of a medieval scholastic. Surely, Allchin recognizes that I used epigrams in a number of ways – ironic, paradoxical, empathetic, contrasting, comparative, humorous, and, yes, sometimes to prove a point. For example, on p. 40 I used an epigram ‘Indiana is not Atlantis’ which comes from Charles Portis’s novel Masters of Atlantis. Being born and raised in Indiana, I could not resist. How can that epigram be taken other than as humorous? Of course, if Allchin will forgive my overuse of epigrams, I will forgive him his overly exuberant employment of an arcane, technical vocabulary and his glossilalic prose.
Allchin has a tendency to put words in my mouth. He writes ‘Fritze renders pseudohistory as willful irrationality (an early working title of the book was Irrational Science)’. Let me set the record straight, the working and contracted title of my book was The Twilight Zone of History: Pseudohistory and Popular Culture. That remained its title until after the book was submitted and approaching the end of production. At that point concerns were raised that potential readers would think the book was about the classic television series The Twilight Zone. Various new titles were suggested and debated. Irrational Science formed a part of one such title but it was not my suggestion and I rejected it. The fact is, I consider pseudohistorians to be generally rational in their approach to their scholarship. It is the improbably and sometimes fantastical assumptions that underlay their scholarship that are problematic and tendentious.
In the third paragraph of his review, Allchin asserts, ‘Fritze epitomizes a tradition that equates the right method with the right answer’. That is a caricature of what I think. In fact, I recognize that science done in a methodologically proper way frequently yields negative results that do not bear out the hypothesis. Such negative results are, in fact, useful but they don’t go very far when it comes to impressing grant-giving agencies. Allchin is correct to assert that there are cases in the history of science where people operating outside of accepted scientific methods have made important discoveries. I am not, however, writing about those scholars. Instead, my book is about people like Madame Blavatsky, Barry Fell, Wallace Fard, and Erik von Däniken among others. I am hard-pressed to discern where any of them has made an important discovery that advanced scientific or historical knowledge. Allchin is talking about the history of scientific endeavor through the ages, whereas I wrote a book about some aspects of the phenomenon of pseudohistory that came into being during the 19th century and is a product of mass culture of the industrial and post-industrial West.
Allchin also mistakes my intended audience. He writes, ‘Merely rehearsing the evidence against pseudohistorical claims, as Fritze does, is hardly sufficient for remedying those beliefs – or for understanding why anyone holds them’. That statement presumes that I wrote to persuade Graham Hancock or Zecharia Sitchin that they are wrong. Now that would be ‘epistemological hubris!’ Many have attempted that before me and failed. My objective was more modest. I wrote my book for the undecided, for the teachers of the undecided, and for the curious. I agree with Allchin that ‘Trust is essential’ when determining who is a reputable authority and an expert. The account of the genesis of Gavin Menzies’ 1421, based on his own words and those of his publisher, will probably not inspire trust in the historical reliability of that book but that conclusion is what my research revealed. My hope is that my book provides this and other contexts for deciding which experts to trust and which not to trust.
Allchin next chides me for making a historical criticism of religious beliefs of groups such as Christian Identity and the Nation of Islam. His argument is that such religious beliefs must be approached as a ‘psychological phenomenon’. As he puts it, ‘It should surprise no one that a religious orientation will generate a history that legitimates its views, even if that history is false – or, further, that believers will seek to inscribe that account into unassailable nature or imbue it with some form of irrefutable authority’. Again, Allchin assumes that my audience includes the followers of Christian Identity and Nation of Islam, and that my goal is to persuade them to give up their erroneous beliefs, thus attempting to impose a historical solution to a psychological problem. Now that would again be ‘epistemological hubris’. In fact, my goal was to provide a critical narrative of the development of the pseudohistorical aspects of the theologies of Christian Identity and Nation of Islam. Many of my readers are interested in such phenomenon. The fact is, I am not particularly comfortable with the idea of adherents of Christian Identity reading my book. As my book shows, they have been known to shoot people who offend them.
Allchin claims that Barry Fell, Charles Hapgood, and Martin Bernal, as holders of academic positions, ‘remain a conundrum’ for me due their espousal of pseudohistorical ideas. His implication is that I cannot figure out how properly trained academics could possibly advocate dubious historical ideas. The fact is, although these men held academic positions, those professional positions had no connection to the questionable ideas discussed in Invented Knowledge. Barry Fell’s expertise was marine biology but his pseudohistory concerned evidences ancient Celtic languages and epigraphy in ancient North America. Charles Hapgood was a historian of the French Revolution but his initial pseudoscientific works concerned geological theories about pole shifts and crustal displacement. Even his more pseudohistorical work Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings presents conclusions that are still predicated on these theories. Martin Bernal is a professor of political science specializing in the history of communism in China. His Black Athena is a work of radical revision of ancient history. So when these three men wrote their pseudohistorical or pseudoscientific works they possessed no more formal academic expertise than Eric von Däniken, Madame Blavatsky, or Gavin Menzies. Of course, many people have written fine works of history without the benefit of a PhD or a university appointment. Readers can judge for themselves whether Fell, Hapgood, and Bernal belong in that group.
Allchin goes on to give a paean to the self-regulating and self-correcting nature of the academic community with all its diversity. According to him, we should have faith in this ‘social epistemology’ as a prophylactic against error. With the exception of Martin Bernal, I do not see how any of the people are discussed in Invented Knowledge can be counted as part of such a university-based community of scholars. Allchin even claims that ‘all the cases Fritze describes seem to have been resolved within the academic community through this social system – not through raw facts or brute methodology alone. In a healthy intellectual community, individuals who espouse pseudohistory become isolated and ineffectual’. I am hard pressed to fathom how this description fits any case covered in my book. Atlantis and lost continents remain popular. Myriad theories of pre-Columbian visits to the Americas continue to appear. Gavin Menzies weeps bitter tears over how the academic community has rendered him ineffectual and isolated while he struggles to decide how to spend his advances and royalties. I am unaware that Christian Identity or the Nation of Islam were ever part of the academic community or its debates. Yes, Immanuel Velikovsky’s and Martin Bernal’s ideas aroused fierce academic debates but the debates never formally settled anything. In both cases, the controversies became stuck in epistemological quagmires and eventually succumbed to academic entropy not resolution.
Further on in his review, Allchin writes ‘One can find flaws in the Nation of Islam's historical claims, too. But as Fritze notes, members also found personal stability and purpose, adopting a healthy and abstemious diet, while refraining from alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, promiscuity, adultery, prostitution and gambling. One may ask about the scale of harm in some subsidiary details of a derived false history (which surely had little to do with promoting racist or religious behavior) compared with such benefits’. In making that statement, Allchin misses the fact that Wallace Fard was preaching a religious and historical justification for hating white people and committing acts of violence. That these teachings never produced much racial violence can be attributed to the early Black Muslims being always outnumbered and always outgunned. The overwhelming power of white society compelled Elijah Muhammad to tame that millenarian violence just as the Anabaptists of early 16th-century Europe did in the aftermath of the bloodbath at Munster. He then follows up by asserting, ‘Fritze implies that if pseudohistory, etc., were remedied by rational (factual and methodologically correct) thinking, we would forestall racism, anti-Semitism, religious cults, capitalistic exploitation, etc. This causal connection is, of course, far from established’. Again if I harbored such belief, I would truly be guilty of ‘epistemological hubris’ of the worst sort. History saves the world. I don’t think so! Of course, it suits Allchin’s rhetorical strategy to present my book as outmoded empiricism or positivism while promoting his own philosophy of the history of science. It is fine for Allchin to have his own ideas about how to do history. They are perfectly good ideas to apply to the study of the early modern scientific revolution or the prehistory of Darwinian evolution. The applicability of his ideas to the study of pseudohistory is problematic.
At the end of the day, Professor Allchin has his ideas and opinions and I have the ideas and narrative that I presented in Invented Knowledge. Some readers will agree with him and some will agree with me. And that is exactly the sort of diversity of scholarly discourse that Allchin claims to respect. It would have been nice if he had reviewed the book I wrote rather than telling us about how he writes the history of science.
- Douglas Allchin, ‘Pseudohistory and pseudoscience,’ Science & Education, 13 (2004), 179–95 and Douglas Allchin, ‘Why Respect for History – and Historical Error – Matters,’ Science & Education, 15 (2006), 91–111. For some cogent criticisms of Allchin’s definitions of pseudoscience and pseudohistory see David R. Hershey, ‘Pseudohistory and pseudoscience: corrections to Allchin’s historical, conceptual and educational claims’, Science & Education 15 (2006), 121–5, and Anton E. Lawson, ‘A reply to Allchin’s “Pseudohistory and pseudoscience”’, Science & Education 13, (2004), 599–605.Back to (1)
- For good examples of the standard treatment of pseudohistory and pseudoscience see, the special issue on Pseudohistory in Skeptic (4, 1994); The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, ed. Michael Shermer (2 vols., Santa Barbara, CA, 2002); and Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the Past and misleads the Public, ed. Garrett G. Fagan (London, 2006).Back to (2)