The Real History Behind Pseudohistories

Poneke’s review of ‘Absolute Power’ (which I’ve already linked to) has got me thinking (additionally; my normal state is thinking, it’s just that I’m thinking more [if that makes any sense whatsoever]). I’m currently updating my coursebook for the forthcoming Conspiracy Theories course and this week’s reading of choice is Sharan Newman’s ‘The Real History Behind the Templars.’ One of the appendices is entitled ‘How to Tell if You Are Reading Pseudohistory’ and it struck me that if biographies are a kind of historical text, and that some of them will be bogus, then some purported biographies will be pseudohistories.

(Indeed, pseudohistories-cum-patently false biographies will be interesting beasts. Some will be largely bunk, others will be based upon a thick slate of truths with just a few, select lies put in, et al. The most interesting ones will be those that stick with the ‘facts of the matter’ but introduce new and novel interpretations on those acts, such as, say, the future Prime Minister of Aotearoa drowning kittens as a child not because that is what a person does when they grow up on a farm but because it made them happy…)

Newman provides three hints that suggest you are reading a Pseudohistory:

1. The author uses terms such as ‘Everyone agrees that…’ or ‘All historians know…’ This is just a mark of sloppy research where the author hasn’t bothered to provide arguments and reasons for their position. The kinds of things historians all agree upon are trivial issues such as ‘The pyramids are examples of astounding engineering skill’ and ‘The Battle of Hastings was in ACE1066.’

2. The author insists that crucial evidence for their theory isn’t freely available because there is a cover-up, or that they have a secret source.

3. The author makes supposition after supposition, assumes they are all true and then uses them to prove other suppositions.

(Newman, Sharan ‘The Real History Behind the Templars,’ Berkley Books, New York, 2007, p. 412-3)

Now, as I continue to state (like a MP3 on repeat) I have not read ‘Absolute Power.’ I have read an awful lot of commentary on the book which hasn’t convinced that I need to buy it, but for those of you who have read it, two questions:

1. How much does it, it at all, resemble a pseudohistory (qua Newman’s definition), and

2. What would you add to the list of suspect qualities to such texts? (I have a few ideas myself which, if I get comments, I’ll collate together with your own)

Answers on a comments thread.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.