What Is Pseudohistory?
A lot we learn as history never happened. “What’s the dividing line between romanticism, pseudohistory, and plain old error?” That comment under my May 30 post, “Time Travel Fallacies,” gives a lot to grapple with. Here’s a start.
I’d define pseudohistory as an account of the past that meets three criteria:
1. It purports to be true.
2. It either contradicts or goes far beyond the evidence.
3. It has an agenda.
Holocaust denial is a familiar example. Matriarchal prehistory, Neopaganism that poses as ancient, and Afrocentrism are less insidious, and more likely to be taken seriously in my circles (meaning I’ve probably just offended somebody). They may be less insidious, but not harmless when they’re taken as history rather than myth.
Taking pseudohistory as fact encourages a habit of devaluing evidence for the sake of an agenda. It’s fine for an agenda to shape the questions we ask. It can draw attention to peoples and issues that were traditionally ignored, or to longstanding assumptions that need reexamination. But to serve us well in the long run, the answers need to emerge from the evidence, not what we wish the evidence showed.
9/5/2016 11:08:44 am
Very well said. Thank you for the clarity.
9/5/2016 11:38:16 am
Thomas Cahill's book "How the Irish Saved Civilization" might be an example of pseudohistory done with panache. A writer can sometimes balance a large generalization on thin legs of evidence by being humorous - and as long as no one breathes or moves, for a happy moment it seems to hold.
Sounds like a fun read! Does it really go far beyond the evidence? Goodness knows the Irish were less "backward" than most of Europe in that period and were sending out missionaries all over the place. Well, maybe there's hyperbole in "saved civilization." Or maybe not - I'll have to read it!
12/4/2019 07:07:00 pm
Well, I am glad to know that I’ve learned something new from this. But, does this post tells me that pseudohistory is not a fact? That is how I have understood it because it has something to do with devaluing evidence for the sake of an agenda. I guess, all people have done it on their lives; doing something for their own personal agenda. Well, whatever it is, I am, hoping that you will make another post that clearly defines what pseudo history really means! I am just so excited to know what it could be!
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.