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History

False Equivalence: why it’s not “biased” to insist on real facts and dismiss fake ones.

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.

All images in this article are believed to be public domain. The header image is a composite created by me from public domain images. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.

6 Comments

  1. eli

    this is a very good article…thoughtful and well written
    fight alternative facts!!!

  2. That you actually have to write this is pretty sad, but you are dead on. I think one of the problems goes back to how we teach history, especially in secondary education. History is presented as a litany of people and events without much energy put into analyzing and evaluating. Even when middle and high school history teachers are using primary source material, the lesson usually amounts to reading comprehension rather than historical analysis. Students are expected to just passively accept what the teacher says without evaluation. So then, when they read nonsense in a book or article somewhere they can’t differentiate a valid analysis from swill.

    I’m doing what I can, but against stiff resistance. This resistance mostly comes from students who thought they were good at history when it was about learning names and places and dates and events and coloring in maps. Then they get to me and it’s about interrogating sources and supporting theses. But, you are right. History is much too important to not do right. Every decision we make, from who to vote for to who to take to the prom, requires historical analysis. Keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Thanks! Your last line (“Deal with it.”) is intriguing. Dealing with it is a major failure of those suffering from confirmation bias. Their powers of inductive reasoning (drawing conclusions or constructing theories from observation) are failing.

    From Wikipedia: “Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias,[Note 1] is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.[1] It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias is a variation of the more general tendency of apophenia. ”

    One of the sad but somehow humorous replies from those who forward to me unsigned, undated, and unbelievable political emails, which I then show to be untrue, is “Well, it ought to be true!” Such folks really have a hard time “dealing with it.”

    For more a bit of wry humor about such people, check out my webpage: http://www.BahrNoProducts.com/SuckerCertificate.htm

    Thanks again!

    • I know exactly what you mean. For a long time, this article (https://seanmunger.com/2013/07/18/faceoff-the-squirrely-legend-of-mark-hamills-car-crash/) about the 1976 car crash suffered by Star Wars actor Mark Hamill was the most popular article on my blog. It refutes the myth that the car crash was “disfiguring” and changed his appearance tremendously. Eventually I had to close the comments because people were abusing them, like writing off-color poetry about Mark Hamill’s face.

      I once got an email from somebody who insisted that I reopen the comments. He insisted that Mark Hamill had been replaced by an almost-look-alike, for reasons unknown, and the car crash story was a cover for this sneaky switcheroo. This fellow was obviously deranged, but he ended the email by staying that comments should be open so “people can tell their truths” about Mark Hamill’s face. Such a telling phrase!

      I didn’t reopen the comments.

  4. A pertinent and well written article, Sean. Belated congratulations on your doctorate.

  5. Reid Nelson

    Another great post. Something to discuss (as you may start to notice with my comments) is the idea of “I think therefore it is true” or the manipulation of cogito ergo sum. People have, for years now, been developing this idea that because they think it is true, it is. There is no questioning of their knowledge of facts, there just simply is. Then they come up with facts to back it up, but as you pointed out, these facts can simply be just – wrong or not true.

    However, these people believe in the facts that have been given to them so much that it just has to be true. Their understanding of the topic is based on the fact that they believe in.

    Here’s an easy example – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32X88HMae0I (take it with a grain of salt, there is some bias in that report.) This gentleman had to prove the world was flat, so he flew up to prove it. His understanding of the world, his belief in his understanding of the world actually, was so strong that he had to put himself on the line to prove it correct.

    That’s the issue – you can provide facts all day long, but they just won’t believe it. Here’s another example.

    My wife and I were at the DC March for our lives event. We listened to the kids speak, we understood and actually recorded (one girl actually, we recorded her while we were recorded the whole crowd) their speeches. We go down south and begin to have a discussion with her hard line conservative father who insisted that the kids were all talking about just taking guns away period. Now, I do not want this to turn into a comment section about THAT topic in particular, but wanted to focus on that her father’s belief in the facts that he had heard were so strong, that he refused to listen to what we were saying. We were wrong because we contradicted the facts that he believed in.

    I think you hit the nail on the head about how facts can be distorted (or sometimes just not true) but how do you educate somebody on a fact if they refuse to listen to your facts? That’s the ultimate question I’ve come across.

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