Studying history helps us deal with conspiracy theories, lies and disinformation

Earlier this week the UN secretary-general António Guterres tweeted about the dangers of conspiracy theories, rumours and lies which are seriously hampering efforts to limit the remorseless spread of Covid around the world. The tweet included a graphic highlighting several questions that Guterres urged people to ask before sharing something online. What is noteworthy is that those same questions are asked in history classrooms day in and day out. Recent blogs have discussed the importance of history in the curriculum. History gives us an understanding of people, events and developments in past times and how they have shaped the present. Taught sensitively, history promotes community cohesion and helps us forge a sense of identity and belonging. And history also improves our critical thinking skills, enabling us to make sense of the world around us in this age of information, misinformation and disinformation.

In October the United Nations launched a major initiative called #PledgetoPause to help stop the spread of misinformation (ie incorrect information) and disinformation (ie information that is deliberately intended to mislead) online and to encourage people around the globe to share information that is based on science. The immediate context is, of course, the Covid pandemic. The Guterres tweet included a graphic that said:

Before you share, think:

  • Who made it?
  • What is the source?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Why are you sharing this?
  • When was it published?

The study of history — at whatever level — is all about asking these (and other) questions when handling and working with historical sources. It encourages us to reach careful, provisional judgements.

The Anglo-Saxons, written by Marc Morris, was published just a few months ago. Morris provides an excellent insight into how historians work and the judgements they make — particularly when the evidence is scarce or contested. Take the chapter about Offa, for example, the eighth-century Mercian king. Within the space of a few pages we read numerous phrases along the lines of: “He claimed … but this may have been just a fiction to boost his credentials”; “Given that … Offa must have been…”; “It looks as if…”; “The outcome of the battle is not recorded, but it was almost certainly a defeat for Offa…”; ‘Other sources suggest that…”

Or how about the work of Sir Richard J Evans, one of the outstanding historians of the last 50 years? Evans is a former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. He is opinionated, frank — read his obituary of another noted historian, Norman Stone — but also authoritative. His books distil knowledge and understanding built up over a lifetime of study. Above all, there is a respect for the historian’s craft, rooted in careful research and verification of facts, and objectivity and dispassionate analysis.

Questions of truth and accuracy are very much at the heart of Evans’ latest book, The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination. The book is organised around five topics: the notorious antisemitic publication called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the stab-in-the-back myth after 1918; the Reichstag Fire in 1933; Rudolf Hess’ flight to Britain in 1941; and the fate of Hitler in 1945.

For those with knowledge of the Nazi period, these are all well-known issues and ‘mysteries’ — indeed, the final chapter about what happened to Hitler is so much a staple of modern culture that it is probably familiar even to those with little or no knowledge of German history — and Evans deals with them all in his usual thorough and judicious way.

For me the most interesting parts of the book were the bits in which Evans draws out more general lessons about what he terms ‘the paranoid imagination’ — conspiracy theories and ‘conspiracists’ (ie people who believe in a conspiracy theory or theories and not to be confused with ‘conspirators’, people engaged in a conspiracy).

He talks, for example, of a widespread refusal to recognise reality. This is not as ridiculous as it first sounds, when the very idea of objective facts and empirical verification is under sustained assault: consider the fact that vast numbers of Americans still refuse to accept that Joe Biden won the presidential election in 2020. What matters in the paranoid imagination, says Evans, is not whether the facts themselves are true but the ‘essential truth’ that lies beneath.

The lessons that Evans draws — another is how myths become so embedded that they can no longer be discredited by facts and morph into unchallengeable truths — are as pertinent in the modern day, with its swirling mass of information, misinformation and disinformation, as they are to the student of Nazi Germany.

The aims and objectives of the Edexcel A level in history (for young people aged 16–18) include enabling students to:

  • improve as effective and independent learners, and as critical and reflective thinkers with curious and enquiring minds
  • develop the ability to ask relevant and significant questions about the past and to research them
  • acquire an understanding of the nature of historical study, for example that history is concerned with judgements based on available evidence and that historical judgements are provisional

Such thinking skills are the bedrock of history for all ages. The history national curriculum for England (for children up to the age of 14) covers helping students to understand “the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.”

It talks of encouraging children and young people “to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement.”

Young people aged 14–16 who study GCSE history develop the skills to analyse, evaluate and use contemporary sources to make substantiated judgements, and to incorporate these judgements into wider discussions of historical events and developments.

History teaching deals with the utility and reliability of sources for the particular enquiry under discussion. As a framework to guide their thinking, students are often taught to consider the nature, origin/provenance and purpose of a source, beginning with stock questions like: What type of source is it? Who created it? Why? Who was the intended audience? They are expected to consider the internal evidence of a source and the extent to which it is corroborated by other sources and by the student’s own knowledge of contextual events.

In our recent blog Why teaching critical thinking is critically important we asked: at what point exactly in a child or young person’s life do we actually, systematically, teach them critical thinking skills? History ought to be a major part of any answer to that question. The study of history helps us develop the ability to think clearly, rigorously and rationally – to hone what Steven Pinker refers to in his recent book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters as “the intellectual tools of sound reasoning”.

The image of Whitby Abbey at the head of this article is by Tim Hill from Pixabay.

Diogenes writes a monthly blog on his own website about books, TV and films. Some of the text in this article first appeared in his blog for December 2021.

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