Blogs > Cliopatria > Detecting and Establishing the False

Jun 17, 2006 4:17 am

Detecting and Establishing the False

I don't read Arabic and am no authority on the Middle East, but when Michael Ledeen in the National Review, Marc Lynch, and two foreign correspondents for the Washington Post all doubt the authenticity of documents that the Iraqi government claims were found on the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, I'm inclined to think that there's good reason to doubt their authenticity. There's no reason to think that such diverse sources of doubt conspired on their conclusion and each of them explain their reasoning.

At The Grail Code, Christopher Bailey writes:

Did you know that, in 374 a.d., the emperor Constantine suppressed the most important pagan festival of the year by simply striking those three days out of the calendar? To this day, February is three days shorter than the other months—all because Constantine was determined to impose Christianity on the Roman Empire at any cost. You didn't know that, did you?

Well, of course you didn't know that. I just made it up. Constantine wasn't even alive in 374. Not a word of it is true.

But, says Bailey, you can make it true by saying it twice, in two different books or articles.

That works no matter how easily disprovable the statement is in itself. I call it the Two-Statement Rule.

Let me explain how it works. First I make a ridiculously false statement, like the one about Constantine striking three days out of February. Then, under a different name, I make the same statement in another book, citing the first book as my source in a footnote.

Now I've made the statement true, because it's based on research. ("His research is impeccable," one reviewer said of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.) Other books can cite my second book, and still other books can cite the other books, and so on. Will any of them ever try to figure out where the original statement came from? Of course not. It's in a book, and the book has a footnote. What more do you need? Soon the popular media will report both sides of the" controversy" about Constantine and February, and the real historians who attempt to set the record straight will generally be dismissed as cranks, if not conspirators.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown introduces us to Sir Leigh Teabing, one of the world's foremost authorities on the Holy Grail. Where does his vast knowledge come from? Does he spend his days poring over ancient Welsh poems, or French and German romances? Hardly. Mr. Brown helpfully describes the most-used books in Sir Leigh's library, so we can see for ourselves what kind of research a Royal Historian does. All the books are conspiracy-theory books, most of them based on other conspiracy-theory books. You won't find Chretien de Troyes or Walter Map—or the Bible, for that matter—anywhere among them. Original sources only cloud the issue.

This is why Mike [Aquilina] and I both have such an obsession with reading the original sources and forming our own conclusions. When it's possible, we prefer to hear what the original writers had to say for themselves. The Two-Statement Rule is especially hard at work in the world of Arthur and the Holy Grail, where the original sources are meager compared to the huge libraries written about them.

Bailey's Two-Statement Rule works, at least for a time, not only in ancient history, where detecting false claims may be difficult because of a paucity of original sources, but it also works, at least for a time, in the much more recent past, where if anything the problem is of an abundance of primary sources. That's among the more serious charges against Ward Churchill: that he made and published claims in another person's name and subsequently, in his own name, cited that secondary source as evidence for the same claims, thus creating an illusion of scholarly consensus. Thanks, as always, to Ben Brumfield at Horizon for the tip.

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Jonathan Dresner - 6/17/2006

Our lack of control over the Academy doesn't stop us from pronouncing on its mood, tone, content or quality.

Robert KC Johnson - 6/17/2006

And even beyond the timing issue, much of this assumes that al-Zarqawi could have possessed documentary material on the insurgency as a whole. This seems to inflate his leadership role within the anti-American forces, which seem more diffuse than centralized.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/17/2006

Fortunately for your biographer, your pay stubs are probably accurately dated. There's no indication in the discussions of whether there's a date on this document or, even, whether one would ordinarily expect to find one on such a document. If it is authentic, there's some internal evidence that ought to help place it, which is why Ledeen is dubious, but your question still stands. I'm going to call Marc's attention to the Ledeen piece and see what he makes of it.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/17/2006

I was wondering if some of the inconsistencies, especially those noted by Ledeen, might not be the result of the document being from an earlier time than the immediate present?

I don't know how long terrorist cells keep circulating memos, but if someone tried to find actionable intelligence in the ruins of my house, they'd have to contend with a huge pile of out-of-date and archived material. I've even been known to carry old documents (pay stubs, mostly) in a briefcase for months before cleaning it out entirely.

As Marc Bloch said, "The act of inventing a lie presupposes an effort which is distasteful to the mental inertia common to the majority of men. " The document might be authentic but outdated, but that wouldn't stop the Iraqi government from using it to whatever PR purpose it could.

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