Being a historian, I have done several articles on this blog about faulty, disingenuous or careless use of historical methods and historical facts, such as this article, this one, or this one. I have also laid down a warning, which I think more apposite than ever in these times, about the dangers of “fake history” in general. In my continuing campaign against the misuse of history, people who don’t like what I have to say occasionally accuse me of being “biased” because I don’t endorse an alternative version of facts that they wish I would accept. In that context, to add to my previous discussions of “fake history,” I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why insisting on provable facts, and dismissing false ones, is not “biased.” We do not, and never have, lived in an era when facts don’t matter. Yet strangely, a lot of people out there seem to think that facts are malleable, and that fairness requires some sort of false equivalence between real facts and fake ones.
Bias is a surprisingly difficult concept to pin down, and a word that’s thrown around much more casually than it probably should be. Its use in everyday argument seems to be tinged with a similar coloration that surrounds the concept of bias in the realm of journalism. Beginning mostly in the 20th century, newspapers and other media outlets began using the concept of bias as a marketing tool: a good newspaper, and one worth buying, was free of bias and reported the news honestly, which set it apart from its competitors. Especially in electronic media like radio and television in the latter half of the century, vigilance against bias usually involved giving “equal time,” which TV and radio stations were required by law to do until 1987. This phenomenon reinforced the idea among media consumers that there are two equally balanced sides to all, or most, issues. It’s also how news shows became endless duels of talking heads (and talking points). The famous 1968 television debate between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal was the paradigm of this.
In 1968, Gore Vidal debated William F. Buckley on TV. It was one of the great debates of the 20th century, but arguably spawned an era of “false equivalency” in media reporting.
The problem, though, is that this is how it works in journalism, which is different than history, science or some other realm where the way things are (or were in the past) is often verifiable and provable. While historical interpretations are often matters of analysis or professional opinion, historical facts are not. People who don’t understand how history works often don’t appreciate this distinction.
Let’s take a concrete example. George Washington was the first President of the United States. That is historical fact. There is an abundance of evidence to establish it: documents in the National Archives, the eyewitness accounts of people who were present at his inauguration on April 30, 1789, letters signed by him, and an almost infinite array of circumstantial or indirect evidence that all points in the direction of Washington occupying the office of chief executive from 1789 to 1797. We can know with certainty that Washington held this office and that no one else held it before he did.
Suppose some crackpot comes along with a theory that George Washington was not the first President. (Don’t laugh. There are such people, and sometimes they leave blog comments). If somebody out there is convinced for whatever reason, genuinely and with no intent to deceive anyone, that, say, Woodrow Wilson was the first President of the United States, it is not “biased” of me to reject that fact and tell this person that he’s wrong. Because we have already established that Washington in 1789, not Wilson in 1913, was the first President, whatever bizarre chain of reasoning the Wilson believer uses to try to convince himself that Wilson was the first President must necessarily be wrong. There are not two equally balanced sides as to the question of who the first President was. Bias never comes into it.
Look, this happened. Some things are just historical facts. You are not entitled to your own facts.
This is very different than a situation in which key facts are unknown or legitimately disputed. For example, a long time ago I did an article on United Airlines plane NC13304, which mysteriously exploded over Indiana in 1933–the first terrorist attack directed against an airliner. We know it was a bomb that brought down the plane, but we have no idea who planted it or why. That’s an unknown historical fact. We can debate, hypothesize, form theories, argue them, mark some as plausible, others as less likely. That’s history too, but it’s not a free-for-all where any assertion, however outlandish, competes with every other on an equal playing field. If a document came to light purporting to be a statement by someone claiming to have planted a bomb on NC13304 back in 1933, and we could authenticate that document and prove the accuracy of its claims with reasonable certainty, we would have definitively solved the NC13304 matter.
This is also different than historic interpretations or historical analysis. We know that Tsar Nicholas II signed an order mobilizing the Russian army on July 30, 1914, one of the key events in the causation of World War I. This is fact; we know he did it. There are differing interpretations–some more persuasive than others–as to why he did it. Zooming out, the question, “What caused World War I?” is a legitimate question of historical analysis. It’s like “Why did the Roman Empire fall?” There is no silver-bullet answer to questions like those.
In 1933, a plane like this one blew up and crashed, an act of terrorism that remains unsolved. There is one single true fact about what happened here–it’s just that we don’t know what it is.
Yet, the vast majority of accusations of “bias” that have been made toward me, as a historian, ironically don’t involve legitimate questions of analysis, but actual facts. Did a former burger stand owner and charlatan named George Adamski really meet flying saucers in the California desert in 1952? Clearly not, but I have been accused of “bias” for not asserting that he did. Do the facts indicate that a building contractor named Ed Walters faked a series of famous UFO photos in Gulf Breeze, Florida with a cardboard spaceship in the 80s? They do, but I have been accused of “bias” for stating that. Did Japanese troops invade Nanking, China in December 1937 and slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians? They did, and I can prove it, but tell that to the crackpots who think I am “biased” for not denying that it happened.
The world, and the past, is not wholly relative. Reality doesn’t change based on your beliefs or perceptions of it. Avoiding “bias” is not an excuse to abandon what we know, and can prove, about what happened in the past or what’s true in the present. It is not “biased” to accept true facts and reject false ones. This is how the world works. Deal with it.