The Invention of History

I have just finished reading Robin L. Fox’s The Invention of Medicine: From Homer to Hippocrates (Basic Books, 2020).  I found it interesting that numerous medical treatises were attributed to Hippocrates many centuries after his death.  It seems that the content of these treatises was more credible if attributed to Hippocrates.  I have read of similar claims about the Bible and other historical texts.  Later writers invented history to support their assertions.

This is more complicated than just these two instances.  Many years ago, I was reading to one of my children, Rebecca or Will.  After finishing, they thanked me for the interesting story.  I responded, “That wasn’t a story.  I was history.  It really happened.”  Their precocious response was, “How do you know that it really happened?”  I told them that I believed the story was true but I did not really know.

How much of our knowledge is believed rather than known to be true?  Certainly, our experienced knowledge – it is cold and rainy today – has a strong empirical basis.  What we have personally experienced in the past has a strong empirical basis, although memory of past events is not 100% reliable.  However, much of what we were told by parents and teachers, or read in books, is more believed than known.

“History is written by victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill, but its real origins are unknown. It indicates that history is not grounded in facts, but the winners’ interpretation, which prevails. The victors impose their narrative on historical records.  An unusual counter example is the Goths sacking Rome but having no written language to chronicle their exploits – so, the Romans wrote the story.

We typically assume that our educational system will instruct us in evidence-based history.  This can be a tenuous assumption.  The southern states in the US have long taught a narrative about the Great War of Northern Aggression that differs substantially from the history of the Civil War taught in the north.  German lessons on the Treaty of Versailles similarly differed from Allied accounts.  Reports on the recent elections pose challenges as well.

So, what do we reasonably know?  Did the Holocaust actually happen?  Did we really land on the Moon?  Who was actually responsible for 9/11?  Do the police really mistreat blacks?  Does smoking cause lung cancer?  Do poor diets contribute to obesity?  Did Jewish space lasers cause the California wild fires?  The First Amendment of the US Constitution allows people to claim absolutely anything.

I feel that I need a safe place from all the misinformation.  I completely ignore Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.  Their purpose in not evidence-based informing of the discussion and debate.  I discount CNN, CNBC and Fox News.  I pay attention to The Economist, New York Times, Washington Post, IEEE Spectrum, and Technology Review, as well as publications of the National Academies.  If these outlets agree, I am comfortably ready to believe, at least until next week’s reports.  That’s how evidence-based thinking works.

Of course, not everybody — actually relatively few people — pay attention to this collection of periodicals and publications.  They pay attention to Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps Fox News.  Their reality has no basis in – well, reality.  That doesn’t matter.  What they believe is how they vote, protest, and insurrect.  They embrace invented history and will defend it to their deaths, or perhaps ours.

What do we really know?  In Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, 2011) by Siddhartha Mukherjee, we learn of the many times the medical community was absolutely sure of the best treatment, e.g., radical mastectomies, to later learn they were completely wrong.  This unfortunate outcome is completely different from arguing that Jewish space lasers caused the recent California wild fires.  The former was well informed but wrong; the latter was ill informed and staged to gain political attention.

We need to educate the American public to differentiate sound scientific evidence, which may be displaced by better evidence, from political theatre where, due to First Amendment rights, people can claim absolutely anything that gives them political attention.  An important transformation of our society would be strong inclinations to label people as political clowns.  If these people reaped broadly-based disdain and contempt, we might see a transformation of political discourse.  Unfortunately, social media make their antics all too easy.


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