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The Empire of Facts

Tom Laichas

     Reading 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 Histories. 1
    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.
    Lemuria 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.
    While 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.
    I first 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. 6
    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. 7
    Hapgood 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. 8
     The 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 space aliens. 9
    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. 11
    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. 12
    Undergraduate 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). 13
    I graduated 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. 
    Now, 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. 15
    Why is this so?  
    Some 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 16
    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? 17
    Despite 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 of truth.  18
    Recent 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.  19
    I blame 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".   20
    Each 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.  21
    Despite 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.   22
    One characteristic 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.  23
    This 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.  24
    The problem 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. 25
    To paraphrase William Faulkner, we have entered a world where facts are not history; they are not even facts.  
    It was 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.  27
    As teachers, 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.  28
    I do 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.  29
    To understand 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."  30
    Who is right?
    I haven't the faintest idea.
    I know 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 elusive.  32
    While 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.  33
    Even 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.  34
    We live 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.  35
    Around 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.   36
    To summarize: 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.  
    What 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.
    Still, do such strategies teach "critical thinking"? No. "Critical thinking" is a chimera.  39
    At any event, why settle for so modest a goal? Why not shoot the moon? How about judgment? How about wisdom?  40
    In L. 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.   41
    In fact, 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 of control.  42
    The most 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: 

1. How 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.

    Every 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.  44
    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.  45


1Laura 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

2J. Houston McCulloch, "The Vinland Map: Some 'Finer Points' of the Debate." Accessed January 15, 2007 at  

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