Writing at the uniquely wonderful Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, Ed Darrell proposes that “Voodoo history should be suspected if two or more of the [following] signs are present”:
- The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of nonhistorians, for pay.
- The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
- Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
- The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
- The author has worked in isolation.
- The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.
Read the whole thing, including the amusing story of the Chicago church where Abraham Lincoln supposedly said his prayers every morning during the Republican Convention of 1860. (Didn’t happen.) Darrell is following a 2003 publication by Robert Park on when to suspect bogus science, available here.
But don’t go overboard. Suspicion of bogosity is not proof. Sam Smith, one of the first alternative journalists and a Clinton skeptic from way back, offers “A Thinker’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories,” that is, theories about major events on which important facts are still missing. Key quote:
“The intelligent response to such events is to remain agnostic, skeptical, and curious. Theories may be suggested–just as they are every day about less complex and more open matters on news broadcasts and op-ed pages–but such theories should not stray too far from available evidence. Conversely, as long as serious anomalies remain, dismissing questions and doubts as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is a highly unintelligent response.”