Friday, July 15, 2011

In Search of Bogus History

For no particular reason, I was recently thinking about the subject of bogus history—historical "facts" that are very widely believed and flatly false. The example I started with is one of some current political interest, the belief that Herbert Hoover responded to the beginning of the Great Depression by cutting government expenditure. As I pointed out some time back in response to such a claim, it's the precise opposite of what really happened. By the end of his term, Hoover had increased federal expenditure by about 50% in nominal terms, 100% in real terms (i.e. allowing for the fall in prices), 200% measured as a share of national income (which, of course, had fallen). By that standard, he makes Obama and Bush look like skinflints.

For a second and unrelated example, consider the standard story of Columbus—that he heroically stood up for the scientific truth of a spherical earth against a flat earth orthodoxy, sailing west in defiance of warnings that he would fall off the edge. 

That again is almost precisely backwards, since in that controversy Columbus was the one holding out against the (accurate) scientific knowledge of the day. A spherical earth had been the accepted scientific doctrine for well over a thousand years and the Greeks had produced a reasonably accurate estimate of its size. Combine that with what was known about the width of Asia—by the end of the 15th c. quite a lot of people had gotten to China and back—and it was possible to calculate about how far Columbus had to travel to reach "the indies" by sailing west. In fact, he barely made it to the Americas, the width of a continent and the Pacific ocean short of where he claimed to be going. His justification consisted of fudging both numbers—claiming the earth to be much smaller than it was, the width of Asia much longer. Details available from Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morrison. I'm going by memory, but reasonably sure of my facts.

What are other such examples—historical beliefs widely held and demonstrably false? Medieval witch hunts might be a candidate, large scale persecution of witches having started long after the end of the Middle Ages and being based, I think, on beliefs that the medieval church considered heretical. And I gather that the Spanish Inquisition has an undeserved reputation in that context, that being concerned with the serious issue of secret Muslims and Jews it regarded witchcraft accusations as a distraction to be dealt with by applying serious standards of evidence. And, from one of my areas of interest, there is the myth that medieval food was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat. 

But can anyone here offer examples as clear cut as my first two?


J Storrs Hall said...

The belief that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. The real story (including a fascinating detective story of how the truth came to be discovered) is in Seth Shulman's The Telephone Gambit.

HH said...


go to and go through their archives. You'll encounter dozens of lists of such things, and you'll laugh.

Max Lybbert said...

When I was in Brazil, I heard several times how Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont invented the airplane while in Paris. Unfortunately, he did so a few years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

Looking into it, it turns out that several countries have dubious claims about inventing the first flying machine ( ).

Leonard said...

I expect you can find a lot of bogus history surrounding politically sensitive topics. Hoover's actions are one example. Another would be the facts about how USG got into most of its wars. In all of our major wars, the executive branch wanted a war, lied brazenly about that, and maneuvered the rest of the country into it.

Or, how about the "fact" that the Constitution is the basic charter describing our system of government?

Richard Allan said...

I'm thinking something along the lines of "Germany was crippled by reparations payments after WW1", maybe. Their welfare state was much more expensive. Also, in a linked problem, "Bruning's government caused Hitler's rise to power by insisting on deflationary policies." See for example this book review.

HH said...

Here, I'll get you started:

David Friedman said...

HH: I am afraid those stories only convince me that their source can't be trusted. In particular, there is no evidence that whoever wrote the one about Einstein has any idea what the theory of relativity is.

The Paul Revere account is accurate, so far as I know, but it doesn't fit what I'm asking for--the basic story people believe is true, many of the details are wrong.

Francis said...

"In the Middle Ages, serfs were being ordered by their overlord to silence frogs in the moats (e.g., by flapping water) so they could sleep better."

Famous French Middle Ages expert Regine Pernoud likes to tell how children in France were told that story, and everyone believed it in France. She could trace that "fact" to a single book (by author Michelet, if I remember well). There was no reference, of course. Even better, she decided herself to try to silence frogs by flapping water. Conclusion: it simply cannot be done!

Francis said...

"Richard III killed his nephews"

The popular book "The Daughter of Time" debunks the myth, and shows that at least some historians know this. I don't know if this is still taught in English History, though.

dWj said...

If you're willing to count etymology, you could go on quite a while with just that.

iceberg said...

"The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor for no reason" -WWII

"They hate us for our freedoms" - 9/11 and the ensuing wars

Francis said...

"The invention of the stirrup changed the art of warfare and lead to the rise of the horse soldier". Also "Stirrups were used by Germanic tribes at Adrianopolis, against the romans, and that's why they won."

There is no sign (artifacts, drawings, text, etc.) horse soldiers used stirrups before 800 AD. Furthermore, even in the Middle Ages, it were the foot soldiers who controlled the battle, not the horse soldiers. Horse soldiers were valorized and most of the stories were about them because they were in the nobility.

Francis said...

"Indians of America traded furs with Europeans at a ludicrously low price, i.e., dozens of beaver hides for a single gun." And "Indians purchased mainly guns and alcohol from Europeans."

Actually, the trade was not so unfair. (I don't have the figures, but I know they are not such a scandal.) Indians bought guns, for sure, but they purchased clothes, cereals, metal vessels, more than alcohol. (Again, from memory.)

Francis said...

"If the RAF had lost, Hitler would have conquered England".

That the RAF saved Britain is true, but to extrapolate that had they failed, the door was opened for an invasion without is an extrapolation. And there is no consensus about what would have happened: for example, some say the British Navy was able to block the invasion.

Anonymous said... is a pretty good resource, although I'm not sure if any of the historical misconceptions meet all your criteria (except the Columbus one, which you already mentioned).

Gordon said...

Other than that NASA put a man on the Moon and that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK, no.

Unknown said...

@DF & HH re: Einstein, "the" theory of Relativity and Cracked.

As an actual, credentialed, if lapsed, theoretical physicist, let me offer some highly qualified support for HH and Cracked.

To start from the beginning: There is not "one" theory of relativity. Any physical theory which describes how the world looks to one observer compared to another is properly "a" theory of relativity.

Before Einsteinian relativity, there was what today's theorists call "Gallilean" relativity which may be summarized as (a) if two observers--and I realize that this term is used in certain descriptions of Quantum Mechanics, but here I am talking about a purely non-quantum universe and observers--are at rest with respect to each other, their coordinate systems may be offset against each other, but all distances between events in time and space and quantities derived therefrom (e.g., velocity, momentum, energy) are the same and (b) if the two observers are at motion with respect to each other velocities (and derived quantities) will just be offset by a fixed amount of their relative velocity.

There also was a one system of dynamics, incorporating gravity, due to Newton.

The great and profound beauty was that Newtonian dynamics was invariant with respect to Gallilean relativity. That means that the laws of Newtonian mechanics were exactly the same for each observer, assuming Gallilean relativity. In other words, there was no preferred observer (with respect to either location or movement)--each observer would see the same Newtonian laws of dynamics.

Unknown said...

The great conundrum, though, was that Maxwellian electro-dynamics was NOT invariant with respect to Gallilean relativity. In other words, if Gallilean relativity was correct, Maxwell's equations could only hold for one system of observers at rest with respect to each other. For all other observers in relative motion, there would be error terms to Maxwell's equations. The one set of observers for which Maxwell's laws were exactly correct were the ones which were at rest with respect to an hypothesized universal--literally!--"ether."

The problem was a set of experiments around 1900--most famous the Michelson and Morley's--was that the error terms in Maxwell's equation were measured to be ZERO! Assuming Gallilean relativity, that means that Michelson and Morley's experiment (located on the surface of an apparently rotating body--the earth--revolving around another much larger body--the sun--which itself appeared to be in some motion with respect to the rest of the known universe) proved *they* were still at rest with respect to the universal ether. In other words, the entire universe was moving around with respect to them and only they were truly at rest!

That being an obviously dubious conclusion, a number of great physicist--including Poincare and Lorenz--came up with a number of creative explanations about how objects distorted themselves in response to motion with respect to the universal ether so as to exactly cancel out the error terms.

Those theories were, needless to say, ridiculously complex, but if followed exactly to their logical conclusion, they made the same predictions as Einstein's special theory of relativity and predated it. If one argues that two physical theories--Lorenz/Poincare/et al.'s and Einstein's special relativity--make the same predictions about observable outcomes, they are equivalent, then indeed Einstein was not the first to come up with the special theory he is associated with.

Indeed, one could go further, and say that Maxwell, three decades earlier, had claimed that his electrodynamics hold for all observers, he would already have implied Einstein's special theory.

What Einstein is justly famous for was for the radical simplification of instead of postulating a vast and complex set of error terms, he instead tossed out Gallilean relativity (and, by implication, Newtonian mechanics) out in their entirety and replaced them by his theory of relativity (and the mechanics it implies), massively, if radically, simplifying the terms in which the physical world was described.

For that leap alone, even if it arguably was equivalent to what others had done recently before in a ludicrously complex manner, he is justly known as one of the greatest physicists who ever lived.

Add to that that a decade later Einstein undisputedly first enunciated the General Theory of Relativity (which really is a new theory of gravity to replace Newton's rather than a new theory of relativity) and all attempts to belittle Einstein are rightly viewed as laughable.

As for Cracked, I have to say that its writers, while highly opinionated and sometimes wrong, are very entertaining and there usually is at least a nugget of truth to their claims.

David Friedman said...

Blogger Æternitatis said...

"As an actual, credentialed, if lapsed, theoretical physicist,"

As it happens, my doctorate is in theoretical physics.

"The theory of relativity" is the usual short label for either special relativity or general relativity or both. I've never seen it used in the sense you are using it, and if a web page uses it that way without explanation it is either incompetent or dishonest.

In particular, to claim that Einstein didn't event the theory of relativity, when what you mean is that he did invent what is routinely called the theory of relativity but didn't invent something else that could be labeled a theory of relativity is a good reason not to trust material from that source.

I'm sure some of what the source says is true, but a nugget of truth buried in a bunch of puffery isn't very useful for my purposes.

David Friedman said...

On the various suggestions offered ... . Many of them are too obscure for my purposes, and for many the "true" answer isn't sufficiently clear and in conflict with the accepted answer to fit what I'm looking for.

But thanks all.

mdavid said...

Several examples:

1) The American revolution was not generally fought because of excessive taxes; rather, more often because the East Indian Tea Company was given the freedom to undercut prices and thus lowball smugglers. This is accepted historically, but not by the public.

2) The myth that Germans soldiers were really "bad guys" in WWII. In fact, they tended to be better trained and typically more humane than their opponents (look at the number of rescued sailors, prisioner treatment, etc.). One would have been far worse off being captured by nearly any other army of the time.

3) That we know six million Jews were killed in by the Nazis. In fact, it was likely far less (this is the mainstream view of historians); that six mil number merely got out early during the propaganda post-war and so it stuck as dogma...also, the million Catholics and some other other Christians & Roma who were also killed in the camps by the Nazis are ignored by history.

4) Of course, there are many taboos in modern history as well that are given the lie treatment - for example, that IQ testing is not accurate (the peer reviewed literature is clear and used every day), that human evolution has not occurred in recent times (lactose tolerance, blue eyes can be genetically estimated for the time of change), and so on.

5) Recent history: that Catholic priests are somehow more likely to molest children (in fact, they are statistically far less likely than the average to sexually abuse anyone, and even quite a bit less than other pastors from other religions). This data is based upon convictions.

In fact, history is fairly unknowable - we can sometimes tell what is not true or did not happen, but it's hard to tell what did actually happen.

Tim Lambert said...

The notion that a ban on DDT caused millions of people to die from malaria.

David Friedman said...


And what fraction of the population do you think believe that a ban on DDT caused millions of deaths from Malaria?

Or in other words, too many of the response I'm getting involve some controversy obscure to all save the participants, not a "historical fact" routinely taught in school and accepted as gospel by a sizable fraction of the population.

Greg Gruber said...

Having grown up in America attending public schools, I was surprised many years later while living in Canada that most Canadians believe that Canada won the War of 1812, and the cause of the war was the U.S. desire to acquire Canada (this is what their public schools teach). We in the U.S., of course, are taught that the U.S. won the War of 1812, and that the British were trying to "undo" American independence.

As near as I can tell, both accounts are bogus. Canada did not even exist in 1812, the war was basically fought to a draw, and the war was a result of escalating trade disputes between the U.S. and England.

Greg Gruber said...

Addendum: I don't mean to imply that during the course of the war the U.S. government did *not* try to conquer the remaining British North American colonies.

Anonymous said...

"And, from one of my areas of interest, there is the myth that medieval food was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat."

I actually heard this one in a talk at Kalamazoo. A sort of murmur went through the room, as a dozen or so people almost leapt to their feet. Somebody asked the speaker about it afterwards, and she said "Oh, I'm a Shakespeare scholar, not a cooking-history scholar, but I thought everybody knew that." Just to make your point again :-)

J Storrs Hall said...

By the way, there's an excerpt from Shulman here:
and the whole book is available on Kindle for $1.21.

The discussion of the controversy on Wikipedia is quite poor, claiming, for example, that a book published 8 years earlier than Shulman was a "rebuttal".

The fact remains (and all parties appear to agree) that the first working telephone -- the one over which Bell said "Come here Mr. Watson, I need you" -- was a liquid-transmitter type of Gray's design, and that Bell only managed to get his own electromagnetic design to work some time later.

Sigis said...

One popular myth is that Stalin's purge of Soviet Army in 1936-1938 made army weaker.

"The majority of those purged were, in fact, not military personnel at all. Because everyone important in the militarized state carried military ranks, simply enumerating the generals, commanders, etc. who were killed leaves one with the incorrect impression that the army was beheaded. Most of those "tried and executed" were political functionaires, members of NKVD, GPU, or other organizations whose only purpose was controlling the civilians and the party discipline through bloody terror. Most of those deserved to die anyway and their removal did not hurt the army."

John Fast said...

"BBC Calls Hearst Vow Apocryphal, Quotes It Anyway"

h/t Instapundit, as usual.

jimbino said...

The Civil War was fought to abolish slavery.

Child abuse is mostly perpetrated by strangers.

The Bible sets standards for Christian marriage and provides examples.

"Alcohol related" traffic accident stats show the degree to which alcohol is a cause in traffic accidents.

Herbert Hoover spoke Chinese. George W Bush spoke English.

Our Presidents were almost exclusively circumcised Christian males.

John said...

A friend recommended "33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask" by Tom Woods. I haven't read it yet, but I found the 33 questions online and here are some of the myths:

The American Indians were environmentalists. “States' rights” were code words for slavery and oppression. The “Wild West” was ‘wild’ and violent. The Civil War was all about slavery. The U.S. Constitution was meant to be a "living, breathing" document. Unions and the government made American wages rise. FDR's New Deal lifted the United States out of the Depression.

…And some of my own: The 3/5 Compromise was bad for slaves because they weren't counted as full people. Slavery has been racially driven and has only been perpetrated by whites (Thomas Sowell wrote a book on this). Blacks in the South were against segregation (90% weren't). Joseph McCarthy and other anti-communists were evil. Presidents have total control over making decisions. The Second Amendment was about the military and is now outdated. The government gave us rights rather than we gave the government rights. The pay gap is due to discrimination. Monopolies can only be broken by government. War is not only necessary but good economics. Billionaires like Rockefeller were inherently evil because they were wealthy and old. Everything the government did was by definition constitutional because they were allowed to do it. “Separation of church and state” is in the constitution (so when we are all living in public housing, going to public schools, and working at public jobs we won’t be able to do anything). The founding fathers weren’t Christian or even religious. The only important individuals throughout history (especially amongst minorities and women) were those involved in politics and social activism. “Socialism” and “Communism” are in addition to capitalism (when in reality they are just subcategories of capitalism known as state capitalism). Everything resets with a new president (in other words, if you are against what Bush did, you are suddenly for Obama even though he didn’t repeal anything).

Anonymous said...

The belief that "daylight savings" was enacted to help farmers (to the extent that farmers cared, they were against it).

Anonymous said...

In case it wasn't mentioned above, the original of the name "America" (for the United States of America). Most everyone seems to have learned that it had something to do with "Amerigo Vespucci" the Italian explorer. But then I read a book of little facts (forgot title) that claims that the name came from a Scottish investor named Richard Ameryck.

TheVidra said...

1) That McCarthy was a raging lunatic (while he was a politician, and prone to exaggeration, newly opened files from the Cold War show he was really on to something; check out the Mitrokhin files)

2) that magicians use, and historically used their sleeves a lot (it is very rare, at least in modern magical acts, for the sleeves to have any practical use to a performance; little research indicates widespread use in historical performances)

3) that Dracula (the real one, Vlad 3 the Impaler) was the ruler of Transylvania; he was actually the ruler of neighboring Wallachia, and spent very little time in Transylvania

4) that Columbus was the first European to discover the Americas and lead to European colonization of it; the Vikings had undertaken a colonization (which eventually failed) at L'Anse aux Meadows, documented in writing

5) that Copernicus was the first to observe (and record) that the sun was the center of our planetary system (again, his rediscovery, just like that of Columbus, had real impact on the world, but the heliocentric model was proposed by Aristarchos of Samos in the 200s BC; the Greeks knew a lot of things we know now, they just weren't taken seriously in the subsequent eras).

6) that the religious sects came to North America for religious freedom; quite the opposite, they were sent there to establish their totalitarian societies because they were too intolerant for European mores at the time

7) the history of Texas (remember the Alamo and all that) - basically the real story is Anglo immigrants came in waves and basically became more powerful than the Spanish speakers there (initially they were allowed to immigrate, in order to help protect from native tribes attacks)

8) that fascism/Nazi-ism were related to Christian fundamentalism (you see this in CNN comments all the time, when arguing how Christianity and Christian-derived ideologies hurt the world); actually they had more in common with neo-paganism than mainstream Christianity

9)that the Arabs developed the modern numerical system (Arabic numerals); Indians were first, passed on to Persians, and only then to Arabs

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

About 8 months ago, I would've said that Homo Sapiens never interbred with Homo Neanderthal. I suppose it is still thought that we did not interbreed with homo Heidelbergensis, but that's pretty obscure for your purposes.

Maybe that Darwinian evolutionary theory explains the origins of life. It does not, abiogenesis studies that issue and still hasn't explained it.

Medieval Ordeals were mindless justice-by-chance exercises. In truth, the audience (or part of it) played a large role in meteing justice because the test could be manipulated (tie up all the limbs, some or none) and interpreted (bodies thrown in water kind of float and kind of sink, so you there's room for choice). The other ordeals had similar ritualistic means by which people, not natural chance, judged.

That our revolution gave birth to a united country. The civil war finished our revolution, before that the states were a mere federation, the governing charter was just paper.

Since you know more than I on this topic, how about Gravity explains the movement of heavenly bodies, when it seems to be a description rather than explanation? (This is on my list of things I want to find out, but don't know).

Anonymous said...

The belief that "daylight savings time" was enacted to help farmers (to the extent that farmers cared, they were against it).

TheVidra said...

this one is kind of subjective, but the notion that the Dark Ages were really backwards, with little scientific and intellectual achievement; from what I read, the Renaissance guys made the Middle Ages look worse, so they could look better themselves (as if they were the enlightened ones, bringing light and knowledge and intelligence and art and so on to the world)

TheVidra said...

That Bill Gates was a rags to riches story. That Native Americans lived in tents and followed herds of whatever they were hunting seasonally (many tribes built storied houses and practiced settled agriculture, before the Europeans arrived, and had complex societies, not quite like Mesoamerica, but still fairly advanced). That Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc were part of the Soviet Union (I heard this many times from college educated people in the US). That the Scandinavian countries are very socialist compared to the US (the Heritage Foundation actually ranks Denmark above the US in economic freedom, Sweden is not that far behind).

TheVidra said...

That Iranians or Afghans are Arabs or that their language is Semitic, like Arabic (it is Indo-European). That Hungarians descended from the Huns (the H in Hungary was added much later to Regnum Ungariae, the word is of Bulgar/Turkic origin, On-Ogur). That the Panama Canal is a modern idea (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, wanted this project done in the 1500s).

Sigis said...

Germans knew how to fight Blitzkrieg.

In reality in 1941 Germany invaded USSR with only 3410 outdated tanks and 750,000 horse drawn carts, and it took German army twice longer to reach Moscow than for Napoleon.

Ilíon said...

The "Eternal Warfare" between "religion" (i.e. Christianity) and science is a good example of the sort of bogus history you're asking after.

On the other hand, there *is* an eternal war of 'Science!' (i.e. scientism) against Christianity, and even against just simple reason.

Anonymous said...

One I can add is that FDR and the New Deal created the 40 hour work week. In fact, Henry Ford had adopted it in the early 1920s.

Sigis said...

The South started the "Civil War", when in reality South was invaded with Star of the West ship which carried 250 Union soldiers.

Anonymous said...

see Kolko 'Triumph of Conservatism', pg 98 (Meat Inspection: Theory & Reality)

Chris Ott said...

That the Library of Alexandria was burned by rioting Christians in the 4th century. Actually Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library down in 48 BC when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea.

David Friedman said...


As best I can tell, there are several different accounts of how the library was destroyed, and it isn't known which, if any of them, is true.

Another popular one has it done by the Muslims when they conquered Egypt, on the theory that either the contents of the books were true, in which case the relevant knowledge was in the Koran, or false, in which case the book should be destroyed. There seems no evidence for that, but it makes a good story.

I actually discussed the subject in a post here:

Sound and Fury said...

Pythagoras. Probably didn't exist, if he did he was a mystic and numerologist not a mathematician, neither discovered nor proved the theorem that bears his name.