by William H. Benson
April 29, 2010
An English word that has drifted out of common usage is the word “pseudodox,” meaning a false idea or untrue opinion, but perhaps it is time to bring the word back.
Today, April 29, 2010, marks the anniversary of the passing of Dionysius Lardner, an English scholar who died on this date in 1859. Known for editing the massive 132-volume encyclopedia named the Cabinet Library, Lardner was dismissed later in his life as one who was less than fully committed to facts. Charles Dickens labeled him as “that prince of humbugs,” and another denounced him as “an ignorant and impudent empiric.”
Despite his lofty knowledge of scientific and technical matters at the time, Lardner had a difficulty: he would issue blanket declarations that others, through experimentation, later disproved. In other words, he proclaimed pseudodox.
For example, he cautioned that trains must not be allowed to travel more than thirty miles per hour because they would asphyxiate passengers. Then, in 1835, he calculated and “proved that a steamship could never cross the Atlantic because it would need more coal than it could possibly carry without sinking.” There were others: all pseudodox.
The question for today is “how do we know what to believe?” Or, “what is true?” Or, “how do we separate the true opinion from the false?” The historian would say that it all is derived from facts, those provable pieces of information supported by evidence.
This past week it was announced that two clerks in the Bisbee, Arizona courthouse were reorganizing files in a storage room when they stumbled upon a manila envelope marked “keep” that contained the original transcripts of the eyewitness accounts of the gunfight at the OK Corral.
At 3:00 p.m. on October 26, 1881, at least five cowboys had ridden into the town of Tombstone and met up with the lawmen: the brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp and also Doc Holliday. Three of the cowboys ended up dead that afternoon, and in the inquest conducted that same day, eyewitnesses gave their testimonies, which were transcribed onto pages of paper, the same pages found this week.
The envelope’s contents were turned over to Arizona’s archivists, who had the duty of restoring the documents, which, after 119 years, are faded and “as brittle as potato chips.” They will remain on a shelf in the state’s archives, henceforth.
Occasionally, biographies magically appear, such as Clifford Irving’s of Howard Hughes, which Hughes himself in 1971 declared via a teleconference on “60 Minutes” was a forgery. Then, in 1983, the German news magazine Stern paid $6 million in U.S. dollars to the journalist Gerd Heidemann for Adolf Hitler’s supposed autobiography, conveniently found in an East German barn. A scholar later proved that it too was a hoax: the ink, only recently applied to the paper, was not manufactured before 1950.
How do we—those who are privileged enough to be alive today—know that there was once a gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone; that there once lived a reclusive billionaire named Howard Hughes; and that there was once, which is more than enough, a tyrant, a murdering madman named Adolf Hitler?
Again, the answer is historical evidence: written documents, such as texts, chronicles, genealogies, diaries, and memoirs; oral interviews; works of art, such as paintings, coins portraits, and films; human remains; business, military, and government records; language; and artifacts, such as tools and pottery shards.
Supported by the physical evidence, facts become stubborn things, for they repeatedly puncture holes in our opinions, in our prejudices, and in our cherished and most recently adopted political / religious / cultural package of beliefs.
Robert J. Shafer, a historian, said it best: “Many statesmen have testified that the study of history prepared them for what to expect: from human greed, cruelty, and folly, and from nobility and courage and wisdom. It is clear that men who are ignorant of history are apt to make superficial judgments. . . .
“[In our open society] we must expect unreasonable charges founded on ignorance, emotionalism, idiocy, vague fears, lust for attention, and hope of pecuniary and political profit.” In other words, we can and must anticipate a steady stream of pseudodox, and the best way to block it is by holding fast to the facts, all supported by genuine evidence.