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Ethical Concerns

The Importance of Trust.

In T. Mills Kelly’s “True Facts or False Facts,” one of the key elements in the success of the original hoax was its riding on academic trust networks. She claims that those taken in “didn’t do their jobs as historians.” I believe otherwise.

Academic trust networks are a vital part of actually being able to do the job as a historian. Simply put, there is too much history, and too much history being made, to do anything else. With citations, in theory, any historian can track any book or article all the way back to the primary sources. However, that is, in many cases, not practical. As a case in point, I have a random book off of my shelf, Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till. The book uses endnotes, and in the 13th citation of chapter 17 “Protest Politics,” Tyson cites the New York Times, and I can go, and find the article. However, not all of those sources are as easy to find. The second citation of the same chapter goes to an article found in the Carl and Anne Braden papers, which is held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. In the latter case, I have to trust that Tyson is telling the truth both about what the article says, and where it is held.

There is more to academic trust than simple citations. As historians and academics, we are often forced to take on questions that do not fully fall into our self defined niche. That can be covering another teacher’s class, trying to answer a student’s oddball question, facing down the public in an open forum, or trying to follow the implications of a question we raised ourselves. . With these questions, being able to answer well often requires some significant degree of trust in the historians around us. No historian has the time to fact check every claim made in every book. In point of fact, no historian has the time to read every book. So, to try and combat the never ending flood of publications, informal trust networks form in order to pass relevant important information to other historians, and gain useful information ourselves.

However, this does not make the historical hoax as an exercise any less valuable. While “”In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”* In history, a lie often requires a bodyguard of truths. In order to be convincing, the students had to not only learn the basic skills that any introduction to history teaches, but also how to write convincingly, how to weave together sources to create a narrative, and how to use multimedia tools effectively. Any good historian can create a convincing historical hoax, because it requires the same tools of research, writing, and development in order to create a plausible narrative. By teaching how to lie convincingly, Kelly was also teaching how to tell the historical truth in an engaging and meaningful way.

*Winston Churchill: The Second World War, Volume V : Closing the Ring (1952) 338.

2 replies on “The Importance of Trust.”

It’s odd how telling a lie requires the same skills, and even a similar level of research and ability/knowledge, as doing factual, solid history. There is another part of Kelly’s piece that I want to mention – the acknowledgement of a change in culture due to the rise of digital information mediums. It seems odd to me that students at the college level would have difficulty discerning primary, secondary, tertiary sources. While reading, I had to sit back and question my age. I’m 26 and grew up in the same technological trends as most 17-18 year old students that are entering freshman, however, I do remember a time where education was nowhere near a computer and we still learned to navigate our school library using the Dewey Decimal System and a card catalogue. That was my small, rural, elementary school that was slow to adopt computers in the 90s.

The book was published in 2014, a few years after I graduated high school, but maybe a few years is enough in a rapidly evolving digital age. Kelly makes a great point, new students are in an age where they are accustomed to seeing information that is a combination of mediums and discerning what is a primary source, perhaps, becomes difficult information to decipher. Kelly’s chapter was an odd read for me. My overall point is that, if I try to look at things apart from what historical and undergraduate training I have had thus far, I can easily see how younger individuals and new students may seem history as a more “malleable” thing. I do not necessarily think this is negative. The issues that we face today might require some flexibility in interpreting information. Hopefully, though, without creating hoaxes.

I find this to be recurring theme between our generation and my parents. They are part of the baby boomer generation so their research experience meant that they went to a library and poured through physical books or microfilm. Sometime when I discuss the conversations with history like about revisionism, they don’t entirely understand. They know that history can be left out, as they both told me how Japanese Interment Camps were never taught in their schooling, but the concept of recreating or rewriting seems puzzling and at times, flat out wrong to them. I think we are more open to this because we see the benefits of digital history allowing us to more easily correct the misconceptions that have been reprinted in physical books for years, whereas they were taught those books are solid truth all of their lives.

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