Empire of Facts
through this issue's table of contents before publication, I jumped straight
to reviews of Kirsten A. Seaver's Maps, Myths and Men and Sumathi
Ramaswamy's The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic
Seaver's topic is the "Vinland Map," a 16th century
chart which whose depictions of Newfoundland and Labrador were purportedly
derived from lost Viking sources dating back to the time of Leif Ericsson
and Bjarni Herjólfsson. For forty years, scholars have debated its authenticity.
It is, Seaver believes, a clever forgery.
didn't start out as a fraud but as a hypothesis. Seeking to explain how
lemurs could inhabit regions as widely separated as Madagascar and India,
late 19th century naturalists speculated that the two landmasses had once
been connected by a third, dubbed Lemuria. By the end of the 19th century,
Ramaswamy writes, occultists got a hold of the idea, refashioning it as
the Lost Continent of Lemuria, Atlantis of the Orient. In the hands of Tamil
intellectuals, Lemuria became something more. Distant from early 20th century
centers of Indian political power and cultural authority, Tamils idealized
Lemuria as their ancient homeland, proof of their own antiquity, prestige
and achievements. Though biologists no longer need "lost continents" to
explain the distribution of lemurs (plate tectonics does the job nicely),
Lemuria remains, for a few, a powerful idea.
we did not plan on pairing the two reviews, I read them side-by-side. The
reviewers – Gayle Brunelle and Carol Adamson – reminded me how
I got interested in history in the first place, and why historical study
is so vital.
learned about Lemuria from L. Sprague de Camp's Lost Continents
(1954), a study of the invented geographies taken so seriously in the late
19th and early 20th centuries. De Camp started his career as a writer of
pulp sci-fi and fantasy in the late 1930s, and brought the same expressive
energy to his portraits of Ignatius Donnelly, Helene Blatavsky, Edgar Cayce
and other champions of Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria. De Camp took great delight
in debunking such silliness, but his wit was wasted on me. Eleven years
old, I eagerly believed the very stories Lost Continents ridiculed.
In fact, any reconstruction of an antediluvian past, no matter
how fantastic, won my immediate loyalty. I spent hours poring over maps
in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and Robert Howard's Conan
series, superimposing the shapes of their worlds upon our own.
The Los Angeles Central Library indulged my passions.
Shortly after reading De Camp, I discovered the library's Map Room, which
then occupied an enlarged breezeway between the Literature and History departments.
It was here I found, in a hard red library binding, The Vinland Map
and the Tartar Relation (1965), the very book Seaver's work discredits.
It was, for me, a glorious story: a heroic legend, a conspiracy of silence,
and a forgotten sheaf of parchment which holds the key to a secret history.
On a nearby shelf was another book: Charles Hapgood's
Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966). Hapgood, a former intelligence
officer, had from his youth nursed an interest in prehistory. In the mid-1950s
he learned of a strange document discovered nearly twenty years before during
construction work in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace. Prepared in 1513 by Ottoman
admiral and cartographer Hadji Muhiddin Piri ibn Hadji Mehmed, it became
known as the Piri Reis ("Admiral Piri") Map. Drafted from Spanish and Portuguese
originals twenty years after Columbus returned from his first voyage, the
map depicts, with an accuracy surprising for its time, West Atlantic coasts
from Brazil to the Bahamas.
was not especially interested in the questions a world historian might ask
about the document what, for instance, it can tell us about Ottoman interests
in Iberia's Atlantic voyages. Instead, Hapgood focused on the southerly
portions of the map. At the greatest distance from Columbus's landfalls,
the distortions are here the greatest or so everyone else assumed. Hapgood
had another idea: the map depicted Antarctica without an ice cap!
How could this be? There was, Hapgood concluded, just one possible answer:
the Piri Reis map was based not on Iberian sources but on ancient documents
which predated all known civilizations. This made perfect sense to Hapgood,
who believed that the earth's north and south magnetic poles were liable
to abrupt reversals which caused geologic calamities recorded in ancient
myths of earthquake, fire, and flood. Heartened by an encouraging letter
from Albert Einstein, Hapgood mined the Piri Reis Map to confirm his theory.
Not surprisingly, he found what he was looking for.
Vinland Map and Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings
were just the beginning. I soon discovered Immanuel Velikovsky, the Russian
psychoanalyst and amateur cosmologist whose Worlds in Collision
(1950) and Earth in Upheaval (1955) argued, as had Hapgood, that
natural catastrophes (in this case, ancient near-earth approaches of rogue
planets) explained terrestrial mythologies. I also devoured Erich von Däniken,
whose breathless Chariots of the Gods? (1968) credited everything
from the pyramids to the "Nazca lines" to the fortuitous intervention of
I became something of an amateur catastrophist myself.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that ice ages lock up so much water that
oceans recede beyond the edge of the continental shelf. I also read that,
if Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets ever melted, sea levels would rise
as much as 300 feet. I found the idea that civilizations rise and fall in
sync with a wildly oscillating climate to be delightfully horrific. Armed
with pens, markers and mimeographed maps stolen from the desks of my unsuspecting
teachers, I equipped myself to play God. I unleashed monsoonal downpours
that turned the Sahara into a vast marshland and filled the Caspian Basin
like a bathtub. I locked entire oceans in ice, revealing the Bering Straits'
pedestrian walkways and Indonesia's vast lowland plains. I devoted one afternoon
to exhuming the North Sea's Dogger Banks, which I imagined as a subtropical
archipelago. Another day, I generously provided Nashville's citizens with
an ocean view. Even for the 1960s, I was a strange child.
By the time I got to high school, I learned that
actual scientists had nothing but contempt for such ideas. Newspaper articles
ridiculed Von Däniken; Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan dismissed Velikovsky's
extraterrestrial catastrophism. (Ironically, attacks on Velikovsky culminated
just as UC Berkeley physicist Luis Alvarez was discovering the first iridium-laced
evidence of a Dinosaur-killing meteor). Later, between classes at UCLA,
I would occasionally spend a couple of hours in the research library read
up on the waning controversy. But I now understood that the maps were, at
best, authentic artifacts misused by bungling amateurs. At worst, they were
nothing more than clever forgeries.
Though this truth was vaguely disappointing, it
contributed to a growing skepticism for historical, political and scientific
claims of all kinds. Raised in a deeply politicized family, I followed the
Watergate affair and read, cover to cover, the New York Times Watergate
Tape transcripts. Later, I poured over transcripts of the Church Committee's
investigations into covert US intelligence operations. Though I inherited
a certain wide-eyed mid-century respect for government, I found in the 1970s
very little to sustain that faith.
history courses only fed my newfound commitment to doubt. A Western Civ
class, taught by the owlish and urbane Albert Hoxie, was particularly eye-opening.
Hoxie devoted one memorable lecture to 16th century Italian humanist Lorenzo
Valla's systematic investigation of the "Donation of Constantine," a medieval
document purporting to legitimate Papal power. Applying some very sophisticated
techniques of textual analysis, Valla exposed the Donation as a forgery.
The same year, I read The Hermit of Peking, Hugh Trevor-Roper's
biography of the acclaimed early 20th century sinologist Edmund Backhouse.
In a couple of hundred pages, Trevor-Roper demonstrated that Backhouse was
a scam artist whose "scholarship" was almost entirely fraudulent. (The last
laugh was on Trevor-Roper, who in 1983 vouched for the authenticity of the
Hitler Diaries, only to endure professional ridicule when it turned
out that the Diaries had been forged).
from UCLA in 1979 having concluded paradoxically that: 1) conventional wisdom
learned from institutional authorities deserves my distrust, and 2) those
radicals who most aggressively assault conventional wisdom are, quite often,
delusional. Others might side with one camp or another; I distrusted both
civilization and its discontents.
just after the turn of the century, I find that my old cynicism has become
the reigning cultural style. Anyone who has seen The Colbert Report
or The Daily Show knows that cynicism has entered its High Baroque
era: its ornamental elaborations and extreme exaggerations rival even those
of Jonathan Swift.
critics I'm thinking here of David Horowitz, Jacques Barzun and Dinesh
D'Souza blame our culture of doubt on the postmodernist "turn" that has,
they say, subverted universities, colleges, and schools. This explanation
is wildly unlikely. Just 10% of students major in the humanities, and only
in upper division humanities courses will they find a coherent discussion
of postmodernism. I know a few professors of Liberal Arts. They would love
to believe that their lectures are actually powerful enough to sink a civilization.
The key fact about Foucault is that very few people have read him, and of
those who have, the proportion who are under 25 is vanishingly small. What
is true of Foucault is true of the entire body of ideas with whom he is,
fairly or not.1
From a Leftist perspective, the casual cynicism
is the spawn of corporate media who have co-opted an "outsider" ethos for
its own purposes (see, for instance, Thomas Frank's 1998 Conquest of
Cool). The "free market", in this view, mass-produces a submissive
consumerism clothed in street-wise political-cultural posturing. We are
nothing more than sheep wearing wolves' clothing. As description, this is
accurate enough: immersion in privately owned media can indeed insulate
us from the world. But it is not clear why this particular provincialism
is more powerful than the provincialisms that preceded it. Can a cocoon
spun by Netflix and Facebook be much more snug than that of a preindustrial
village or, for that matter, a postwar suburb?
their flaws, both perspectives correctly diagnose what is new: not the earnest
populism of attacks on the elite, nor the dripping contempt that traditionalists
have for their critics (these have always with us), but of the very idea
generations has realized Yeats's prophecy: the best really do lack all conviction.
Many people are positively unable to believe the stories told by elite institutions
(news bureaus, governments, schools, universities). However, they are equally
contemptuous of social critics, whose numbers can include populist con artists
and radical lunatics who populate skepticism's wilder suburbs. Such doubters
may call themselves "independent" but this merely wraps their mistrust in
a layer of self-deception. In fact, they suspend their judgments mid-air.
Questions of history, of philosophy and of politics orbit lazily around
them like bloated, helium-filled moons. Such people do not believe in Lemuria,
certainly, but they do not rule it out. They believe that George Washington
and Confucius existed (well, Washington did, anyway), but the jury is out
on both men. They are happy to accept whatever narrative a classroom might
offer, but will not commit to it. Their numbers include many of our students,
of course, but also many of us.
neither Michel Foucault nor Milton Friedman for our dilemma. Instead, I'd
point a finger at Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). From his perch at the University
of Berlin, Ranke all but invented "History" as a college discipline. Above
all, Ranke was a connoisseur of the individual fact. The historian, he believed,
ought first to carefully evaluate each piece of documentary evidence and
then synthesize the evidence into a history. Ranke understood "history"
not as an analysis of the past, but as a simulacrum of the past.
History, he said famously, represents events "wie es eigentlich gewesen
ist" "just as they happened." Ranke promised that historians, if
rigorously trained in documentary analysis, would one day be able to speak
about the human past with the kind of certainty then attainable only by
a naturalist or mathematician.Like his better known contemporary Auguste
Comte, Ranke wanted the historian to become a "social scientist".
document, in short, was a fact waiting to be dissected and then sutured
into the body of historical narrative. Ranke's approach is seductive for,
as Mary Poovey writes in The History of the Modern Fact, a document,
like numerical data, seems "preinterpretive or somehow noninterpretive."
The fact precedes judgment like the atom precedes grosser agglomerations
of matter, and thus has become "the bedrock of systematic knowledge" (xii).
It is easy to laugh at Ranke's grim faith in applying analytical techniques
to a single mote of documentary evidence, and intellectuals have been laughing
for the past hundred-fifty years. The idea that we can assemble documentary
"facts" without selection bias is indeed worth a smirk. Even in Ranke's
time it was perfectly possible to construct many different histories out
of much the same documentary rag-heap: Spencer and Marx each considered
his own work "scientific", but it is hard find agreement between them. Facts
rarely precede ideas. Frequently, it is the other way around. Most often,
the two are locked in intimate synergy.
this reception, the "Modern Fact" has triumphed in the world at large. Why
is this so? The answer is not found in classrooms, but in courtrooms.
common to all open societies is that power is not arbitrary. Mediating most
if not all disputes is a complex legal framework, one which channels disputes
into highly theatrical ceremonies of legislative debate, judicial arbitration,
and jury deliberation. Consider, for a moment, how often courtrooms become
symbolic battlefields for clashing interests. Each generation may forget
a distant war or a genocide, but most will recall its own "trial of the
century", from Sacco-Vanzetti and the Scopes "monkey" trial through Nuremberg
to Rodney King. Criminal trials have occupied and continue to occupy
the attention of audiences throughout the world. Media outlets compete to
present and contest the "facts" at issue, hiring "experts" to describe each
procedural knife-thrust. From the legendary "water cooler" to the classroom
mock trial, we all learn that life and death depend upon the meaning of
documentary evidence. So we are all von Rankes now. In the Empire of Facts,
each piece of evidence creates the world es eigentlich gewesen ist.
has long since spilled over into politics. The big divisions are over facts.
Committed Leftists wonder: "did September 11 really happen, or did the CIA
do it?" just as, a few years ago, movement conservatives asked, "Did Vincent
Foster really commit suicide, or did the Clintons have him murdered?" By
and large, the Iraq war debates have focused less on the big question
the future of the Middle East and of the world but on smaller (and nastier)
debates over fact. Yellowcake? WMDs? The Downing Street Memo? The Prague
meeting? Ideas free markets vs. socialist planning, foreign policy realism
vs. Wilsonian idealism these are the background noise.
with politics – and history – is that the jury never votes.
Each fact flies like a flag, ripped to shreds by the criticisms of its opponents,
none of them accepted as a common standard. Since so much depends on interpretation
of facts, no fact is free from doubt. Between two contesting positions,
we may conclude that all "facts" and all interpretations are suspect. This
is our world. And it is the world of our students.
William Faulkner, we have entered a world where facts are not history;
they are not even facts.
maybe ten years that I first saw the phrase "false fact" in a student paper.
I mistakenly assumed oxymoron to be unintentional. It was not. The word
"fact" no longer refers to a verifiable certainty. It refers to a contested
claim. We can hardly blame students for taking this view. Media outlets
of all persuasions, from Le Monde to Le Figaro, from Al Jezeera to Fox News,
and from The Nation to The National Review are, among
many other things, roadside vendors, hawking "facts." Ours is a marketplace
of facts, each faction struggling to build marketshare and brand loyalty.
how do we deal with this? In our classrooms, we require that students read
and evaluate individual documents. We demand that they compile research
on notecards (one card per unit of information). We teach them to construct
databases. We ask that they evaluate "point of view" (always in quotes).
We introduce them to a shelf of books whose authors shout caveat emptor
from the rooftops: beware of lying statistics! steer clear of deceptive
maps! don't use online encyclopedias! and for heaven's sake, always footnote!
When they're done, we ask that they synthesize their work into a neat monograph-like
package. Rankeans all.
all this myself, of course. Like a lot of teachers, I believe that document-based
essays and research projects can expose students to a much wider world.
What I don't believe is that, in doing so, I am teaching some kind of "critical
thinking skills". Sorry, no: Rankean research does not hone any such "skill".
Documentary analysis will never equip students to become independent thinkers.
Why? Because documentary analysis is nearly irrelevant to good judgment.
why, look again at the Vinland map. When I finished Carol Adamson's review,
I wondered whether anyone had challenged Kirsten Seaver's argument that
the Vinland Map was a fraud. Sure enough, I found website devoted entirely
to the Vinland Map.2 Its author, Ohio State University economist
J. Houston McCulloch, is fanatically devoted to the map, but is also very
good at what the rest of us call "critical thinking." McCulloch leaves little
to chance. His argument turns on analysis of the ink's anatase titanium
dioxide particles, comparisons to the 16th century Portuguese charts, finely
parsed analyses of medieval paleography, and much more besides. In the end,
McCulloch concludes that Seaver "fails to make a convincing case" for forgery.
The Vinland Map is "genuine after all."
I haven't the faintest idea.
nothing about anatase titanium dioxide. I am in no position to determine
whether an appearance of the Gothic diphthong "œ" really supports McCulloch's
case or Seavey's. Can students do better? I doubt it. I might send them
to websites supporting each side. I might require that they read Adamson's
review. I might invite a chemist and an expert in medieval calligraphy to
speak to the class. At the end of the day, they'll know there's a debate.
Relying upon expert opinion, they might even venture a judgment. I already
know the outcome: even after they decide on the facts, the truth will remain
it is important to know how experts reach their conclusions (many of our
students will end up developing an expertise of their own), we cannot be
expert in everything. Nor do we have the time to assess every document.
Few people can pronounce "Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane" and we knew
nothing of the pelican's life cycle, but we chose to trust Rachel Carson's
elegiac Silent Spring far more than the Ph.Ds who defended DDT
(it is possible, by the way, that Carson's conclusions were flawed). We
trusted "Kremlinologists" who studied the seating charts at Communist Party
coffee klatches and assured us that the USSR would never fall: we certainly
couldn't read Russian ourselves. While each of us has his or her own expertise,
we are at sea outside of it. Years ago, C. P. Snow wrote of "two cultures",
Science and Humanities, each increasingly estranged from the other. But
even in his own time, people navigated hundreds of mutually incomprehensible
discussions. We rely on others to mediate these encounters.
if we could understand every realm of human understanding and see clearly
into every documentary source, we wouldn't have time to do so. In the Ming
Dynasty it was said that the Hongwu Emperor read and responded to over two
hundred petitions a day for days at a stretch. We can sympathize with the
Emperor's problem. Leave too much to the "man on the spot" and that man
will line his own pockets. And yet: though impressive, the Emperor's Brobigdingian
appetite for "critical thinking" was unsustainable. Indeed, his successors
did not sustain it.
now in an Empire of Fact far larger than any the Hongwu emperor could possibly
have imagined. We must rely on someone else's reports. And we do just that.
Faced with a new claim, we run it rather quickly through filters reflecting
our expertise, our experience and our ideological and religious values.
If we are conscientious, we might wade through a thick file of newspapers,
article abstracts, book reviews, and executive summaries. We have a favorite
magazine, political blog, or columnist. We contribute to political organizations,
and we read their email alerts.
these reports we construct routines for making historical and political
judgments. We trust these routines because they have served us well before,
but mostly because we have to trust something. Unprocessed facts
cannot be eaten raw.
most thinking is not critical thinking. None of us make most of our decisions
about history or politics by analyzing a sheaf of documents. We know how
it's done, of course. We know it can be done well or badly. Instead, assuming
we make a decision at all, we do so by delegating it to others.
does this mean for our teaching?
It does not mean that we simply toss out
documentary analysis, chronology, or even memorization. Training students
to identify lies, omissions and distortions can inoculate them against the
grosser and more dangerous deceptions to which we are all prey. They may
not train students in "critical thinking," but they do teach students that
the world is fiendishly complex, that facts are not always as they appear,
and that truth is subtle and shape-shifting. Any teacher who takes the time
to teach students to write a document-based essay or research project is
a teacher I admire.
do such strategies teach "critical thinking"? No. "Critical thinking" is
event, why settle for so modest a goal? Why not shoot the moon? How about
judgment? How about wisdom?
Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series, Glinda the Good Witch owns a
book whose pages record all the events in Oz and beyond, exactly at the
moment they transpire. This being a children's book, Baum keeps from his
young readers the plain fact that not even Glinda has enough power to fully
employ such a tool. To do so would to become enslaved to the book, as the
Hongwu Emperor was enslaved to his empire.
both Glinda's book and the Ming Empire exist actually exist. There are limits
to the Internet, but it encompasses far more useful information than any
empire has ever assembled. We live, indeed, in the Empire of Fact. Being
partial to children's literature, I would prefer that students develop something
of Glinda's forbearance and judgment than the Hongwu Emperor's illusion
important questions in a history classroom do not include "how can I understand
this document". Answering that question merely opens a door to asking five
others that really are at the center of our work:
do I believe the world works? Embedded here are a host of other questions:
How do I distinguish between what is important and unimportant? What is
the relationship between cause and effect? Are some agents of change more
powerful than others?
2. What is true? Many "critical thinking" exercises ask a different
question: "what is false?" This is helpful in unmasking the David Irvings
of the world, but is no help in unmasking the world. We need to know when
a "fact" or person is worthy of trust.
3. To whom should I listen? This is different from asking "who
can I trust?" In 1935, there would be few reasons to trust Winston Churchill,
whose errors in Gallipoli and Iraq were disastrous. Churchill was, however,
worth listening to. He broke with members of his own party over a number
of issues, most obviously the threat posed by Hitler. A man who thought
for himself, he deserved attention. Without a range of such sources, our
filters become too selective.
4. When should I act? When the time for judgment comes, few of
us believe we have enough information at hand. Our fears are well-founded:
we never know all the facts. Yet every political event sets a deadline
for a decision. The question is: can we prepare ourselves for such a decision?
5. How should I live? Yes, this is a question for a history classroom.
It is not, of course, a question for teachers to answer. But broaching
the previous questions leads here inexorably.
one of our students arrives to our classes having already framed answers
to these questions. They may never have articulated those answers, and their
answers may be based on erroneous understanding. Our work is to bring these
questions to active consciousness, empowering students ask each question
aloud, using their answers to pry open the others. Our goal is not skillful
debate over the facts by itself, that only reinforces a paralyzing skepticism.
Our goal is to move further, towards active engagement with the world.
history is worth teaching because it invites conscious self-reflection.
Any history course can do that, of course; world history has the
advantage (which, granted, poses its own risks) of drawing from the widest
possible variety of human experience. Teaching history will never be a Comtean
science. Nor is it, ultimately, a humanist art. It is, in fact, an introduction
to a socially engaged and self-reflective philosophy.
G. Knapp, et al., "Postsecondary Institutions in the United States: Fall
2000 and Degrees and Other Awards Conferred: 1999-2000". Education Statistics
Quarterly (National Center for Education Statistics) Table D, visited
29 January 2007 at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/quarterly/vol_4/4_1/q4-4.asp
2J. Houston McCulloch, "The Vinland Map: Some
'Finer Points' of the Debate." Accessed January 15, 2007 at