The Biases That Fill History Books

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May 25, 2015 by Liberty

I’m a huge fan of history. I think about history in terms of story telling. What makes it so amazing is it’s unpredictable nature. In a novel, the author needs to lay out a strong logical framework of why certain things happened and why certain things didn’t happen. All of it has to make a certain amount of sense to proceed.

Chekhov’s Gun is an example of this process. Chekhov’s gun is a principle in drama. It tells authors not to put a loaded gun on the stage unless somebody is going to be using it. When an author adds a loaded gun onto the stage, it adds a certain tension to the story that needs to be released for drama. On top of that, why is the loaded gun even being mentioned if it would never be used? It’s irrelevant.

I don’t know if there is an actual reverse principle for Chekhov’s gun but that idea can be taken in the other direction too. Don’t have someone using a loaded gun when there is absolutely no reason to believe they had that gun without some explanation at some point. If the character is a cop, great, they probably would have a gun. If the character is a pacifist monk then we need a little explanation.

History doesn’t need that. It’s the old idea that truth is stranger than fiction. If someone were to tell me a novel about a group of assassins failing to kill a minor public figure in a small country only to have one of the assassins accidently run into him while getting a sandwich. I’d say, that’s just stupid. Dumb luck isn’t good for storytellers because any idiot could have wrote it. If that person then told me how that single assassination dominoed into a worldwide war, I’d be thinking the writer was insane.

Of course, That’s exactly what happened in World War 1. I find it to be one of the most fascinating stories in history. (At least that I’ve invested time into learning.) So, perhaps I’m the fool for thinking the story wouldn’t work. Or it’s just a basic discrepancy in what sources can get away with. An author can’t write that story out of thin air but time can write whatever story it likes.

Learning about history is a little painful for me though. Despite all these beautiful sources, virtually every source I read into has some significant bias somewhere. Certainly, very few of those sources are libertarian in nature. By reading three different sources, you can get virtually three completely different stories about the cause and effect. Most of them are pro-government in one way or another. The small word choices like “had to” versus “chose to” add up to a major change in the ultimate story.

The biases go deeper than that though. Some of these biases seem to hit almost every major source of information.

A Corporation’s History

When I was younger I got a job working for a big corporation. That corporation had a nice long training program. During that training program I was required to watch a twenty minute video about the founder of the company and how he grew the company. It told the “heroic” tale of this “wonderful” company “beating all odds” and becoming one of the biggest companies in the world.

Now… take a guess. Imagine I was working for Ford. Do you think that the Ford historical educational videos would include information about Henry Ford being anti-semetic? Historically, that was a rather important issue for Ford. He required all his stores to hold his newsletter that included anti-semitic literature. I would consider that a rather important historical piece about Ford and his company. (They should at least be condemning it or putting it in perspective or something.)

Of course, the Ford training video would not include that little detail. It would include wonderful things about Henry Ford and his heroic innovations but naturally, it won’t introduce negative factors.

As you could imagine, that training video I was required to watch was not a real history of the company. Well… It was real but it sure as hell wasn’t completely unbiased. Virtually no one would believe that it was unbiased. It’s a little bit of a given. Right?

Now what about the education a student receives in school. The average person would say the children get a mostly unbiased educations (short of the crazy sex all the time liberals and the wacko chop your nuts off to not sin conservatives.) Virtually no one will notice the similarities between this corporate education and this government education.

Government is paying for the education of students. Of course they’re going to teach important things. When I was training for that job. 95% of the information the company presented was helpful information for the job. Only a small percentage of the information was pro-company propaganda. Of course schools are going to spend the majority of their time teaching “important” facts but a small percentage of it is bound to be biased.

History public education (and regulated private) has a natural pro-government bias. You will not hear about Lincoln being a racist in school but of course that was the case. He was a massive historical figure but textbooks will glide over this point and make him sound like a hero. They also don’t teach you that George Washington was a terrorist drug kingpin (okay maybe just a grower.) Of course they don’t teach you this kind of information, it would be absolutely idiotic if they did.

This barely scratches the surface of the problem though.

Who cares about history?

History is not a vital subject for the average person. Sure, there is the old idea of not knowing the mistakes of history and repeating them but most of “history” is completely inactionable. I can take thousands of beautiful lessons from World War 1 but quite frankly, virtually none of them are actionable. Nope, I don’t happen to be an iron fisted dictator or world leader. It’s not exactly practical information for me. Sure, I can learn not to sign up for the military but considering the dramatic changes since then, it’s a bit uncertain from history alone.

A few hundred years ago, no one even cared about history. (By no one I mean most ones.) History was an obscure and pointless pursuit. People were too busy doing productive things like producing food, clothing, and raising a family. History was a bit of a luxury reserved for the well off in life.

That’s, of course, excluding one major source of historical information because certain people had a significant benefit to derive from history. Government benefits from controlling history. People would know a little about history without government. Most of what people knew came directly from the people benefitting from altering that history.

Political leaders would ensure the history recorded mostly aligned with pro-nationalistic ideals. Those nationalistic ideals could help send kids to war, encourage tax compliance, and drown out the few unbiased historians in history.

The benefits political leaders got from history was valuable enough to have professionals record. Of course, these writers have their own bias. If I’m hired by Henry Ford to write a biography of him then I probably would be putting an awfully positive spin on his anti-semitism just to get it past his scrutiny. Most of recorded history is recorded like that.

Sure, there are journals from hundreds of years ago that offer accurate representations of small bits of information but ultimately, the most intensive resources were usually commissioned by governments.

This is a theory I’m still trying to find counter evidence to but look at it from this perspective. Perhaps you can prove it wrong. Areas without strong governments recorded significantly less history. That means we have very few accounts of some governments and anarchistic societies but all kinds of accounts of powerful nations.

Modern History

This is where I’m going to be going into wild speculation that I’m not even sure I believe. I feel like there might be some hope in the ideas but whether it’s true or not is well beyond my understanding.

Historically, we’re having more and more sources for the same information. That means ideally, we will have a more unbiased perspective. Sure, the biases still exist but we could hopefully balance them all out. On top of that, we have videos, we have audio recordings, and we have hundreds of millions of people holding these devices.

That doesn’t solve all our problems though. People are still going to take this information and interpret it in whatever way that they like to interpret it. I’d probably find some anti-government theory while others will dig for some reason to suck more at the tit of government’s evil breasts of destruction! (I’m totally an unbiased source. I swear.)

Theoretically, this increase of sources will increase the accuracy of our final history. That idea is nothing new. In fact, I find it a tad bit uninteresting based on how many people I’ve heard talk about it. I mention it just to prepare you for this idea.

Perhaps the real hero in this story will not be the wild increase in sources. Sure, it will help but 90% of those sources will just be copying information from some other source. What if the real hero in this story is data aggregation.

I know what you’re thinking… “data aggregation! I love that subject!” But please don’t get too lost in your overwhelming excitement.

With the tools we have today, we can sort information better than ever. We can look at hundreds of thousands of blogs and sort their information automatically in virtually no time at all. Sure, the ideal sorting mechanisms aren’t necessarily in place but it’s very possible. Soon enough, we’re going to have access to hundreds of thousands of journals and news stories and blogs and tweets and pictures and videos and BE ABLE TO SORT THROUGH THEM MEANINGFULLY. (We could separate direct sources from indirect sources. “I saw,” versus, “someone told me.”)

I guarantee you that hundreds of years ago men and women wrote true accounts of historical events that would blow our minds today. They would be able to tell us things that we couldn’t have imagined in 100,000’s years. The only problem with this is that there are so many events and so many sources that it would be absolutely impossible to gather and sort through them all. Sure, many historians try even today but it’s a never ending task.

Perhaps, in the future, this is going to be one of the easiest things to do. The pro-government biases in history may just become eliminated with the honest account of millions of people. Instead of government controlling the history and the interpretation, government will have no choice but to focus only on the interpretation. Then a more libertarian history might get developed.

The way we currently are forced to view history may soon be… history…

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