A Guide to Thinking Critically About History
From time to time, we’ll be referring in class to the argumentative fallacies below as we interpret history and the way it’s interpreted by others. I’ll sometimes use the Numerical Codes below in the comment box for your written work (e.g. RD-1 will refer to Item #1 on the Rear Defogger page). All of us, students and professional historians alike, can easily fall into habits of crooked thinking. In fact, the more one cares about a subject, the more likely s/he is to make questionable leaps of logic or play argumentative games, even if subconsciously. Fallacies and cognitive biases aren’t things that dumb people are guilty of as opposed to smart people; they are tire ruts that all of us fall into because our brains resist sound thinking about matters other than those directly related to our own survival (it takes too much energy and burns calories we could otherwise use for useful things like hunting for food and building shelters). Yet, think we must because many of these matters are related to our survival. Intellectual laziness and fallacies are to be avoided as best we can when studying history, just as cognitive distortions are discouraged in behavioral psychology. The links and list below can help us defrost the rear windshield, so to speak, as we look behind us — thus the title of our page.
For others — politicians, salesman, lawyers, professors, or anyone putting a spin on things — knowledge of fallacies and crooked thinking constitute a virtual playbook of how to manipulate their audience without actually lying. For that reason alone, understanding common biases and argumentative fallacies should be a basic part of citizens’ educations as they embark on a world of voting, buying, litigating, learning, posting, and debating. Historical interpretation is an excellent vehicle to acquaint ourselves with these nuts and bolts of argumentation. One can make infinitely bad arguments on behalf of truth, but there are limits to the quality of cases one can make on behalf of a false proposition. At the conclusion of this course, you should be familiar with the habits of mind that it takes to understand history and arguments about history. Today’s media landscape affords the best opportunities ever for gathering good and diverse information, but it’s also flooded with “noise,” misinformation, and bad arguments. Scientist E.O. Wilson wrote (optimistically) that “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
Tedious? Perhaps. But, without a long history of philosophers and psychologists unpacking how to argue and think, you’d probably be running around right now trying to kill game with a stick instead of looking at your screen in air conditioning.
ACC Library Student Skills Workshop: Critical Thinking
Straight & Crooked Thinking Thouless (1932) PDF
Cognitive Biases (Wikipedia)
Common Fallacies (Don Lindsey)
How to Reason & Argue (Duke Univ.)
Common Historical Fallacy
Nizkor Project: Fallacies
Critical Thinker Academy (Kevin deLaplante)
Beware the Fallacy Bully! (Kevin deLaplante)
the Fallacy Fallacy
Von Däniken’s Chariots: A Primer in the Art of Cooked Science (CSI)
The Fine Art of Baloney Detection (Carl Sagan)
1. Be Wary of Subtext(s)
There’s usually a story behind the story that is the reason we’re talking about it.
Ex. 1: The most common use of subtext connects to a story’s broader context. In 1980, Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi reminding voters during a discussion on education that he’d always admired Southerners’ appreciation for states’ rights. As is often the case in American politics, the subtext behind the code word states’ rights was race. This wasn’t about education (the text); Reagan was telling the audience that he was on their side regarding the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s (against it). There was already subtext behind the location of the speech. Philadelphia, Mississippi was where three civil rights workers were killed by the sheriff and Klan in 1964. While Reagan didn’t endorse that violence, the town was a symbolic place to recruit southern, white voters.
Ex. 2: This one also has to do with race. In the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, the text was the actual murder case but subtexts were race and celebrity. Simpson was a famous African-American football player accused of killing his white wife and another man. The broader context was decades of racial tension between the LAPD and the city’s African-American community.
Ex. 3: In HH 1302 Chapter 4, Margaret Sanger’s reputation and association with eugenics are in the spotlight because of her founding role in Planned Parenthood. The text is Margaret Sanger, but the subtext is whether American taxpayers should fund Planned Parenthood.
Ex. 4: Normally, the Secretary of State isn’t held accountable for everyday security matters at embassies around the world. The subtext of controversy surrounding the 2012 Benghazi tragedy was SOS Hillary Clinton’s upcoming run at the 2016 presidency.
Ex. 5: Cryptocurrency and one’s attitude toward it carry with it a subtext about one’s attitude toward governments and nationalism. Those skeptical of today’s nation-states are more likely to favor cryptocurrencies.
Ex. 6: In Chapter 18 on the Vietnam War, President Diem doesn’t win over many South Vietnamese with his support of Catholicism at the expense of Buddhism. The subtext was the perception among critics that Diem was a western lackey, underscored by his endorsement of the “white man’s religion.” Catholicism symbolized suspicions that Diem was America’s puppet.
Ex. 7: Subtext can also refer to the message one sends beyond the actual text of the message. A student emails his/her professor and asks, “based on my current scores, can I still make a B?” This might be a situation where the student can’t do the math (which is fine and we can work with) or doesn’t understand the grading scale (which can be clarified), but it’s most likely an email with the following subtext: I could probably figure this out on my own but I’m too lazy so I’m just going to have you do it for me because my time is more valuable than yours. Word to the wise: this is not a subtext you want to convey to future bosses on the job.
2. Missing the Big Picture & Broader Historical Context
This is can be connected to Subtexts (as in the LAPD example above), Selective Observation (below) and “not seeing the forest for the trees.”
Ex. 1: Someone once told me that he opposed wind power because birds sometimes get killed in the turbines. While we all love birds, and the problems they have in turbines might be one of many factors we think about when considering energy, it’s best to step back and look at our overall energy use. What are the overall percentages of production broken down by coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, etc.? What are the cost/benefit analyses of each type of energy? How important is climate change and how much will it cost? Can we do a better job of protecting birds as we build and run turbines? It might be best to consider all these things before deciding that you oppose all wind power because some birds get killed. The same goes with all the pros and cons of all types of energy and, for that matter, with the pros and cons of any topic.
Ex. 2: After the atomic attacks on Japan in 1945, many military leaders in the U.S. voiced their disapproval of nuclear weapons. They may have been genuinely opposed, but it’s worth noting that most of those opposed came from branches of the armed forces that stood to lose funds relative to the Air Force as it branched out of the Army and formed its own wing that included nuclear weapons — that’s one context of the argument, with others being moral, strategic, etc. Later, when the Army and Navy got funding for some of their own nuclear weapons, criticism died down quickly. Always be aware of the motivations and biases of various actors in the historical play, but also understand that motivation alone doesn’t prove guilt. Cui bono (who profits?) is a very worthwhile question to ask, but it’s not enough.
Ex. 3: When you consider whether aliens from another planet invaded Los Angeles in February 1942, consider the context. Civilians and military on the West Coast were understandably on edge in the months just after Pearl Harbor. The night before the alleged attack, Japanese subs fired on an oil rig just north of Los Angeles, near Santa Barbara. Might these factors have contributed to why the military would overreact to strange, unidentified objects in the sky? Weigh that versus the unlikelihood that beings from another planet would visit, coincidentally, right as that was happening. The same goes in general with the timing of the UFO phenomenon and the early Cold War.
Ex. 4: Archaeologists unearthed human remains beneath Benjamin Franklin’s London home and dated the bones to his stay there (1757-1755). Imaginative theories popped up connecting rituals to his membership in the Masons and alleged association with the Illuminati, and even devil worship. Context presents a more likely if boring explanation. Franklin was interested in science and anatomy and, at the time, the only real way to study corpses was to purchase them on a grave-robbing black market. We don’t know for sure how the bodies ended up under his basement, but anatomical research is a far more likely explanation than Satanic worship.
Ex. 5: During the Protestant Reformation, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Leo X might have cracked down harder on Martin Luther’s heresy. However, in the larger context, they were hesitant to alienate local princes like Frederick of Saxony that supported Luther because they needed their support in fending off a potential Muslim invasion. These princes understood this context and leveraged the situation to gain power at the expense of the Catholic Church.
Ex. 6: When Henry VIII appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Pope didn’t refuse him just because Henry was a high-profile king or that the Church believed marriage was life. The broader context was that Clement didn’t want to alienate the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, the Spanish King Charles V, who was Catherine’s nephew. This led to the English Reformation.
Ex. 7: FDR has been criticized as racist for not wanting African American Marianne Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. It’s true that he didn’t want her to, but the reason he didn’t want her to was that he feared violence on the part of the KKK. Maybe that still wasn’t a good enough reason, but the motivation wasn’t as it appeared on the surface.
Always think of the historical context surrounding whatever issue or event it is that you’re studying. Often that sheds new light and will lead you to interpret things in a different way. It’s impossible, for instance, to understand the American Revolution without understanding the broader context of the British Empire and European diplomacy. It’s impossible to understand Nazism without understanding its connection to World War I and historical antisemitism. It’s impossible to understand American race relations without understanding slavery and the Mexican war. Context is why it’s impossible to understand anything well without understanding its history, which is why you’re taking this class.
3. Over-interpretation of Roots or Results
Be wary of judging something based on its long-term historical roots or of judging something historical based on what someone does with it later.
Ex. 1: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a racist. Therefore, people like Hillary Clinton who support Planned Parenthood today are trying to commit genocide against inner-city Blacks. Modern liberals, whatever their other faults, aren’t into genocide, and neither was Sanger.
Ex. 2: Adolf Hitler encouraged the invention of the Volkswagen Beetle, so today’s VW’s should be associated with Nazism.
Ex. 3: Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is wrong because after his death people misapplied social Darwinism to racist eugenics or the Holocaust.
4. False Analogy, False Equivalence or Lack of Perspective
Avoid unwarranted equivocation and what psychologists call “magnification.”
Ex. 1: Should American Christians be intolerant toward Muslims? Well, look at Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father. One of his first acts as President was to send the Navy into battle against North African Muslims. True, but he didn’t do that because they were Muslims, rather because they were pirates. Conveniently flushed down the Memory Hole: Jefferson advocated religious tolerance toward all American citizens, including Muslims.
Ex. 2: The red lights should go on whenever anyone describes the U.S. government as “tyrannical,” even if it is overbearing in a particular instance. Describing any of the democratic countries’ governments as generally tyrannical waters down the term and is likely coming from the mouth or pen of someone unfamiliar with real tyranny or with a warped sense of reality. They’re “magnifying” and over-generalizing from instances where democratic governments really are overbearing. If the majority in a democracy passes a law, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you might not like it, but the law wasn’t passed by a dictatorship against the wishes of the people. There’s a difference. The same goes with the 2001 Patriot Act, which a critical balance of voters supported. Democratic countries like the U.S. experience the advantages and disadvantages of not being tyrannical.
Ex. 3: Americans were just as bad as Germans during WWII because they held Japanese citizens in concentration camps. This is a false equivalent brought on by confusing terminology and a lack of perspective and knowledge of what happened. While it’s true that the U.S. imprisoned innocent Japanese-American citizens and that one could technically call internment camps “concentration camps,” they crucially didn’t enslave, torture, and murder them in these camps.
Ex. 4: American eugenicists influenced German Nazis prior to the Holocaust. However, for the most part, they had no agenda to exterminate anyone — only to sterilize “undesirables” before they had children. Thus, we can’t equate the American eugenics movement with the Holocaust. Like the Japanese internment camps, that’s a false equivalent.
Ex. 5: Dr. Ben Carson argued that since the Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) requires people to purchase health insurance, it’s “worse than slavery.” It’s helpful in today’s media to say provocative things to draw attention to yourself, but the comparison shows a lack of perspective on both issues. Ultimately, this one is a matter of opinion (his assertion isn’t demonstrably false), but most reasonable people would argue that he’s either “magnifying” the downside of the insurance mandate and/or isn’t fully aware of the slave experience despite being African-American.
Ex. 6: Another example of a false equivalent would be to say, if we mention that the Sun is the center of the Solar System then, to be fair, we should give equal time to the idea that the Earth is actually the center of the Solar System. This one’s not a matter of opinion. The geocentric model doesn’t deserve equal time because it’s wrong. It deserves no time.
Note: Lack of perspective isn’t really a “fallacy,” but gaining perspective is one of the big advantages of studying history.
Ex. 7: It adds perspective on UFO history to realize that, at every point in history, humans have seen things in the sky that make sense to their own given time period. In the Middle Ages, they saw angels. In the late 19th century, people didn’t see silvery disks but rather “mystery airship” dirigibles powered by pedaling Martians. That’s likely because they were aware of hot-air balloons and bicycles and were on the verge of inventing powered aircraft. In the 1950s, they saw craft similar to what we were trying to build ourselves to get into space and similar to what science-fiction writers imagined. Why no sleek, modern-looking craft in the Middle Ages? Why no pedal-powered dirigibles in the 21st century?
Ex. 8: Declinism. It’s helpful when you’re experiencing the near-universal human emotion that the world is going to pot to step back and understand that every era thinks of itself that way. There is virtually no such thing as a civilization that examines itself and pronounces that things are looking up and that people seem to be behaving better. The reason you’re especially aware of the immorality of your own era is mainly that you’re especially aware of your own era to begin with.
Ex. 9: We almost take it for granted today that supporters of church-state separation are anti-religious. But a longer view makes one realize that everyone’s beliefs would’ve been outlawed at some point by some government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s idea that complete, uncompromising religious freedom and lack of government interference would actually benefit rather than hinder religion was arguably borne out over the course of American history. No religion maintains any legal preference over any other in the United States and the U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the world.
5. False Premise
Example #9 above is an example of a potentially false premise: assuming that religious separationists are anti-religious. Always carefully consider your starting assumptions.
Ex. 1: We’re mystified that children from wealthier families are suffering from a disproportionate amount of asthma. Why is that? Maybe being reared in a clean environment lowers one’s immunity. That argument is premised (rightly or wrongly) on the idea that the poor raise their children in dirty environments. If that’s wrong, the argument falls apart.
Ex. 2: Examine the following phrase: “My mother is someone who, in all respects, should be a Republican. She works hard, is very religious and has strong family values. Yet, because she is a Hindu and Indian-American she votes Democrat.” It’s based on two debatable premises, or assumptions — that Democrats don’t believe in hard work, family or religion, and Republicans are racist. Those sound mainly like ideas that the respective parties think about each other than how people define themselves.
Ex. 2: The item above about Jefferson and Muslim pirates is premised on the idea that modern Americans should think or act in the same way as the Founding Fathers. That’s not a “false” premise, but it’s a debatable premise one would want to consider when making or hearing out the argument. It’s an appeal or argument from authority. Jefferson had slaves, too. Should we?
Ex. 3: The debate over whether Harry Truman should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan is premised on the reasonable assumption that he ordered the attacks. However, there’s no actual proof of such an order. This lack of proof, in turn, doesn’t prove that he didn’t. That fallacy is known as an appeal or argument from ignorance.
Ex. 4: FOX Commentator Greg Gutfeld explained on C-SPAN that the purpose of conservatives is to make liberals possible. To wit: conservatives take the initiative to create a business (taking risk, going into debt, working long hours, sleeping on the floor, etc.) so that a liberal can come along later and demand higher wages as an employee or benefit from re-distributed taxes. Whatever the argument’s other merits, the premise that job-creators are conservatives is an over-generalization. A recent poll of small-business owners, for instance, showed that about 45% identify as Republicans or Tea Partiers and 30% as Democrats with the rest independents. Among larger corporations, much of the cutting-edge entrepreneurship of the last 30-40 years has come from the “bluest” areas like Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest. “Blue Islands” (liberal strongholds) are more prosperous, in general, than “red” areas. Why would that be if they’re filled with unassertive pikers waiting around for job-creators? Moreover, conservative ranchers and farmers in “red states” receive billions each year in government subsidies — far more proportionally than “blue states.”
Ex. 5: Arguments over affirmative action at elite schools are normally premised on the idea that all students are better off at elite schools. In fact, there’s substantial research showing that’s not the case. Some students might be better off elsewhere. Likewise, arguments against affirmative action are often premised on the idea that Whites are disadvantaged by such policies. However, sometimes Whites take spots from Asian-Americans to fulfill informal quotas.
Ex. 6: We often mistakenly assume that history moves uniformly, rather than in stops, starts, and regressions. Haven’t things gotten steadily and gradually better for women and minorities over the course of American history? In the big picture, yes, but not in any given small picture. Southern Blacks in some areas were arguably better off in the first few years after the Civil War (Radical Reconstruction) than they were in either the South or North a generation later. Women were less likely to work in most careers in the 1950s than earlier in the 20th century. Gains are hard won and often groups have to continue to fight to hang on to what they’ve won. Don’t assume that history progresses uniformly.
Ex. 7: We often bemoan the fact that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas or that it’s become too commercialized or less religious. That’s based on an unspoken assumption or premise that might be false: that Christmas was traditionally a more religious holiday “back in the good ole’ days.” Here’s a good example of where history sheds a different light because many historians think that Christmas has gotten more religious over time and that “traditional” Christmas was a more pagan and unruly celebration. It’s possible that pagan Christmas celebrations kept the tradition alive for enough centuries that it was later able to take root as the relatively wholesome, religious (if commercialized) holiday that Christians enjoy today. Of course, this whole discussion is premised on the idea (your author shares, btw) that it’s a good thing for Christmas to be more wholesome, not less.
Ex. 8: Donald Trump’s idea that the U.S. is going to pull out of trade deals and diplomatic alliances and, instead, operate in its own best interests, is premised on the idea that the U.S. entered into such deals for the benefit of others rather than itself. However, the reason America has entered into trade deals and alliances wasn’t charity but rather because it reasoned, rightfully or wrongfully, that it was in its own best interests.
Ex. 9: The atomic attacks on Japan were justified because they killed fewer people than a landed invasion would have. That may be true, but it leaves out the possibility of other options. It’s premised on the notion that there were no other options. It’s incumbent on the person making that argument to rule out other options rather than just comparing the first two.
Ex. 10: The idea that the U.S. entered into peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese after the 1968 Tet Offensive is premised on the idea that the battle was an American defeat. However, if the battle was actually a communist defeat, then it’s plausible that the U.S. was already willing to negotiate and it was actually the North Vietnamese who were ready for peace talks because of Tet. This is not only an example of a false premise, but potentially confuses cause and effect, or next topic.
6. Confusing Association & Causation, or Cause-and-Effect
If A and B are simultaneous, or B occurs just after A, that doesn’t mean that A caused B (though it might have). The Latin term for the fallacy that if B follows A, A must have caused B is post hoc ergo propter hoc, usually just shortened to post hoc fallacy.
A. Pioneers moving onto the Great Plains cleared forests to grow crops.
B. It then rained a lot.
C. Chopping down trees makes it rain.
Ex. 2: Always be skeptical of, “well President so-and-so tried X, and we all saw what happened….” We might not have seen exactly what happened. Are we sure that the president’s action or mere presence in the Oval Office was the only thing acting on whatever phenomenon we’re talking about? Was the president even responsible for it happening in the first place, or was it something Congress passed and he signed (or overrode his veto), or something that happened in society while he/she was president? Reality is complicated and political leaders aren’t Gods.
Ex. 3: Civil rights writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued, based mainly on New Deal racism, that there is an intrinsic (essential) connection between progressive, leftist politics and racism — that progressivism is inherently white. However, many minorities and civil rights leaders have been economic progressives, and there’s no reason to think that progressivism and racism are intrinsically linked. There’s no lasting causal relationship between leftist politics and racism, even though progressive Democrats of the 1930s had to forestall civil rights in order to bring Southern Democrats on board for the New Deal.
Ex. 4: For critics of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff, protectionism worsened the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Economist Paul Krugman argues that such an interpretation confuses cause and effect. The decline in trade was even worse before Smoot-Hawley than after and was a result (not cause) of the worsening recession.
Ex. 5: Here’s a sentence with a couple of problems: “I think one of the biggest factors that caused the outbreak of the [Witch] trials is that they were always accused of being women.” First, the fact that victims were often women is an attribute of the Salem Witch Trials, but not necessarily the cause of the trials (though misogyny might be a cause to investigate); after all if misogyny was the lone or primary cause there would’ve been witch trials going on whenever women have existed, which is all the time. Second, the problem wasn’t that suspected witches were accused of being women — anyone accused of being a witch rather than a warlock is female — but rather that women were disproportionately accused of being witches.
Ex. 6: Another head-scratcher: “If women gaining the right to vote was such an invaluable accomplishment for equality, then why were we such a better nation during the Early Republic than we are now.” This sentence has a few problems. First, it’s premised on the fact that the early U.S. was a better country than the current U.S. That’s a matter of opinion, but one that many historians would contest, so it demands further explanation. Second, it’s one thing to argue that things were better during the Early Republic, and quite another to argue that women being disenfranchised was why things were better. There might just be an association between those two phenomena rather than causation.
Take the time to think through what you’re saying.
The following examples aren’t uniformly true just because they aren’t uniformly false. It’s nitpicky for sure (some might even call it “politically correct”), but if you don’t use adjectives like some or most, you are, in effect, using all.
Ex. 1: Southerners who switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in the late 20th century did so because they opposed the civil rights movement.
Ex. 2: Northerners are more racially progressive than Southerners.
Ex. 3: Muslims want to kill infidels.
8. Conflation (Lumping Together) & Failure to Distinguish Nuance
This is closely connected to #7. Distinguish the various elements and nuance of an argument. This takes time and failure to do so is a sign of intellectual laziness. Avoid conflating two distinct assertions. Some of the problems here in #8 overlap with the concept of Red Herrings. To throw northern racism in a discussion about whether the South seceded to defend slavery is to deflect attention off onto a wrong, or irrelevant track. To do so deliberately is to introduce a Red Herring into the argument.
Ex. 1: Arguing that slaves helped build early America doesn’t mean one is endorsing slavery. Also, arguing that slaves did all the work in early America ignores the obvious fact that free laborers worked in many regions and industries throughout colonial America and the early United States.
Ex. 2: Arguing that Nazis built good highways isn’t the same as sanctioning the Holocaust.
Ex. 3: America was founded as a Christian nation because many of the Founders were Christian. The fact that many Founders were Christian does not mean that they legally enshrined Christianity as the official religion of the United States in the Constitution, just as the fact that many Founders were Deists doesn’t mean that they didn’t. The personal faith of Founders and what they enshrined legally in the Constitution are two different things. Both assertions might be true, both might be false, or the first might be true and the second false, or vice-versa; but in any event, they should not be conflated as the same assertion.
Ex. 4: The unfortunate habit of American commentators — some well-educated, respected journalists — to compare people they disagree with to fascists. What do Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have in common? All have been likened to Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler. As far as I can see, not a single fascist has ever run for office in the United States. Dare to have the courage, emotional restraint, and intellectual insight to consider that someone can disagree with you without being “just like Hitler.”
Ex. 5: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a racist and wasn’t perfect, but people criticizing his use of gas on Iraqis and Indians should point out that it was tear gas, not mustard gas or some other lethal poison. Tear gas isn’t healthy, to be sure, but there’s a big difference.
Ex. 6: Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (R) arguing that trickle-down economics works because he pulled himself up by the bootstraps. The two concepts overlap, sort of. They both concern economics and class. But people can pull themselves up by the bootstraps without trickle-down economics and effective trickle-down economics wouldn’t necessarily spur people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps; in fact, they might be less motivated to do so.
Ex. 7: In his Pulitzer-prize winning book on polio, author David Oshinsky argues that some organizations exaggerated the threat in order to raise funds. Some students interpret this as meaning that polio was a hoax. That’s not the case and not what the author is arguing. People can play up real threats to garner funds; in fact, it happens all the time in budgetary fights.
Ex. 8: In our textbook (1302: 14) I mention that John Kennedy appears clueless on one recording about the presence of American missiles in Turkey. One student interpreted that as meaning that my overall interpretation of Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was cluelessness and incompetence because of that, which is certainly not the case — that’s just one incident within a bigger story. Look for bigger, more general interpretations rather than focusing on one sliver of an argument.
Ex. 9: During the 2016 campaign, it was common to hear people say that Hillary Clinton was caught on tape saying that she wanted to overturn the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). Two things here: 1. Presidents don’t pass or overturn Constitutional amendments. 2. She never said she wanted to; she said that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment in the D.C. v. Heller (2008) case was flawed, which many scholars agree with.
Ex. 10: Some say the Civil War was about slavery but, in fact, the North was racist. That’s lumping together different parts of the issue. The second assertion doesn’t conflict with the first part; they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s a false dichotomy.
9. False Dichotomy
Don’t present the reader with false choices — things that aren’t mutually exclusive.
Ex. 1: Many people think of spy work as glamorous but, in real life, it’s often one-sided. One-sided isn’t the opposite of glamorous. James Bond was glamorous, but he still worked for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not UNICEF.
Ex. 2: America was not an imperialist country in the late 19th century because they were trying to expand trade and market access. There’s no contradiction between imperialism and economic growth. In fact, that’s why countries imperialize. It’s like saying “I didn’t beat my neighbor up because he deserved it for stealing my trash can.”
Ex. 3: Did the Americans win the Revolutionary War because of Washington’s tenacity, wit, and courage, or did the British just give up? Couldn’t the British have given up because of Washington’s tenacity, wit, and courage?
Ex. 4: “Many historians think that the battle of Saratoga was a game-changer because it brought the French into the Revolutionary War. Really, though, upstate New York remained contested between Rebels and Loyalists.” The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive; they could both be true.
Ex. 5: Columbus didn’t discover America because he thought he was heading to Asia (and/or still thought he was near Asia while in the Caribbean). Setting aside the fact that no European was first to “discover” America, did Columbus’ intent or geographical misconception really mean that he didn’t discover (from the European perspective) a new continent? No.
Ex. 6: I couldn’t discover anything about the author’s biases (for a book review) because he is still alive. Does an author have to be dead for a reviewer to uncover biases?
Ex. 7: Many people are on one side or the other between sympathizing with black victims of police brutality or respecting the police and appreciating the difficulty of their tasks. However, the two ideas of respecting the police and expecting that they do their jobs properly aren’t mutually exclusive.
Ex. 8: A lot of people tend to think of economics on a left wing-right spectrum, but really a lot of emerging technologies come out of garages, like Steve Jobs’ Apple computer. What does that have to do with left and right?
Ex. 9: A student writes that Nancy Eisenberg’s White Trash examines how the class system has always existed in the U.S. even though the popular narrative is that America is a place where anyone can succeed. This is an example of a false dichotomy because someone could work their way up through the class system, and also an example of how one little word can change or nuance an argument. This statement wouldn’t be a false dichotomy if it said the book examines how a rigid class system has always existed in America….
Ex. 10: People credit the Arsenal of Democracy with protecting democracy and winning World War II, but really it was a boondoggle for profiteers. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, so the BUT in the sentence should be an AND.
Make sure to “stay on point.” You don’t have time to meander. This will be important later as you deal with clients, customers, patients, etc.
11. Long Leaps of Logic
If you have to take a running jump, you might not make it over the mud puddle.
A. It’s ridiculous, and even downright arrogant, to suppose we are the only life in the universe. Okay, so far so good.
B. Therefore, little green men with one head, two arms and two legs from outer space come here in spaceships to visit and suck blood and marrow from our cattle. Whoa, Nellie. That’s a mighty long way from A to B. It may be that humanoid-like aliens suck cow blood, but for a believer arguing with a skeptic, it doesn’t suffice to retort, “Do you really think we’re alone in the universe?” This is the same issue with Lumping Together and Conflation mentioned in #8. These are two different assertions, the first an infinitesimally tiny subset of the first.
12. Anchor Bias
I learned it differently when I was young, therefore, you’re wrong now.
Ex. 1: A student raises his/her hand in class and says, “Actually that’s not true because I heard that….” except that they usually only imply and leave out the because I heard that. It’s possible the teacher is wrong but, either way, that has nothing to do with which order the listener hears something in. Why trust the first person you heard something from more than the second?
13. Bandwagon Effect
Believing something because lots of other people believe it.
“Groupthink,” as it’s often called, isn’t irrelevant — there might be a good reason an idea is popular — but the “hive mind” isn’t always right. Once upon a time, the majority thought the Earth was flat. Likewise, the fact that 99% of humans now think the Earth is spherical isn’t necessarily a good reason to agree, even though this time they’re right. Once an opinion gets up into the 99% range, you should seriously consider it.
14. Argument From Ignorance
If someone else can’t come up with a good explanation, then the answer is no doubt….
Ex. 1: Again with the UFO analogy. There’s a light in the sky I can’t explain. Therefore, little green men with a head, two arms and two legs from outer space come here in spaceships to visit and suck blood from our cattle.
If you have a mystery I can’t explain or account for with a logical explanation, that doesn’t mean your highly specific supernatural explanation is right. It’s more likely that there are other options and neither of us is smart enough to suggest them.
15. Confused Terminology
Read questions or analyze problems carefully by making sure what’s under discussion. Here’s an example of a misuse of terminology:
Ex. 1: What were some of the costly mistakes the South made during the Civil War? Answer: their army was too small. Their small army wasn’t really a mistake because they didn’t have a choice in the matter; it was more of a disadvantage that they had to cope with. A better example of a mistake would be Robert E. Lee’s decision to invade the North, which was arguably a poor decision (at least in hindsight — see #28 below). Mistakes involve choices.
16a. Focusing Effect & Reductionism
Historical events don’t have to happen for a single reason, so be wary of flattening interpretations by reducing to one factor. History usually happens because of multiple forces acting simultaneously.
Ex. 1: The stock market dropped by 1% yesterday because of a decrease in new housing starts. More likely the 1% was the cumulative effect of thousands of different things acting on the market at the same time, including (maybe most prominently) news about housing.
Ex. 2: Some historians argue that the Salem Witch Trials happened because of frequent Indian attacks, while others argue they stemmed from economic tension or rivalries between denominations. Others argue they occurred because of the Puritans’ supernatural, fundamentalist worldview. Which one is right? Why limit yourself to one? Why couldn’t all those factors have contributed at the same time? Do they actually conflict?
Be open, instead, to the concept of the Perfect Storm. Things can (and most likely do) happen because of multiple factors occurring simultaneously. It’s possible as long as the causes aren’t mutually exclusive.
16b. Too Little Focusing: Applying Broad Principles From Specific Examples
Ex. 1: The failure of Prohibition demonstrates that “you can’t legislate morality.” Isn’t this just a catchy phrase our neurons associate with the singular example that the government failed to outlaw alcohol effectively? Turn this around by forgetting alcohol for a moment and asking yourself whether our society has any laws that people don’t want to overturn or that haven’t utterly failed that pertain to morality. Obviously “you can’t legislate morality” is far too broad of a claim to apply to all of history and society.
Ex. 2: The “Munich” effect. If the traditional thinking goes that western Allies should’ve confronted rather than appease Hitler in 1938, as they did with Munich Pact, then we should always intervene without delay in every situation henceforth so as to not create a bigger problem down the road. All situations are different. If applying historical lessons was as easy as the Munich crowd suggests, we would’ve figured things out long ago.
17. Framing Effect
Consider the angle or spin of how things have been presented to you. What’s been included? What’s been left out? All arts of manipulation are based on framing, including political campaigning, selling and (especially) marketing. Tom Sawyer got his friends to help him paint a fence by framing it as being fun. Consider how the same movie or restaurant recommendation sounds coming from someone you respect versus someone you disrespect. If a doctor prescribes 24 antibiotic pills of the same color, the patient will usually quit taking them when they feel better. However, if the doctor instructs the patient to take 18 white pills first, then finish up by taking 6 blues, they’ll finish the prescription. One study showed that people like an ice cream called Frosh considerably better than the same ice cream when called Frish. Why? Because the o sound is “bigger and creamier” whereas the latter sounds like fish. Framing is also important in historical interpretation and lies at the heart of partisan hypocrisy (liberals and conservatives predictably like or dislike policies based on whether it’s coming from the mouth of a Democrat or Republican). Politicians must learn to manipulate voters’ views through framing to win elections. Advertisers, salesmen, and carnies specialize in framing, and magicians take it to extremes.
Ex. 1: Andrew Jackson often comes under criticism for his Indian Removal policy, and justifiably so. The Trail of Tears, which occurred under his successor (Van Buren) but was a direct result of his policy, was cruel and unnecessary. Yet, if you pan out with the camera and take a longer view, Jackson’s Indian policies were part of an overall policy started by the Founding Fathers continuing on through Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant. Should Jackson be singled out as the president we blame Indian policy on while ignoring the topic altogether when talking about those on Mt. Rushmore like Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln?
Ex. 2: A 2012 study at Washington University showed that 222 MBA students (45 female) who were shown prospectuses of the same company — except with some examples listing a female CEO and others a male CEO — overwhelmingly described the finances of the company being run by a female as being in worse shape.
Ex. 3: Recently, when a study asked a group of white Americans how much they think black Americans earn per year on average, the average response was around $29k. However, when the same group was asked later in the study how much African-Americans earned, the figure jumped to $37k.
As demonstrated in examples #4-7 below, studies show that when Democrats and Republicans are shown various political options and policies, the biggest determining factor in whether they favor or oppose the policy is whether there is a (D) or (R) next to the name of whoever is introducing the idea. Most of the time, a voter will switch his or her opinion if the idea gets associated with the rival tribe.
Ex. 4: Many Americans who opposed “‘Obamacare” liked the main features of the 2009 Patient Protection & Affordable Healthcare Act. Why, if they were the same thing? Because of how the question was framed. When it was called “Obamacare” the question really concerned whether or not one liked Obama. Conservatives introduced and promoted the idea of mandates and healthcare exchanges, then turned against the bill passed and signed by a Democratic congress and president. Zero Republicans voted for the ACA. At that point, the “market-based solution” they’d promoted transformed into big government-run “socialized medicine.”
Ex. 5: Likewise, in a study by Ariel Edwards-Levy, Republican voters were asked whether the economy had improved between 2008-9 (the height of the financial crisis) and 2016. Most thought it had, but the numbers dropped 20% when they were asked later in the same questionnaire whether the economy had improved during Barack Obama’s presidency (the same years).
Ex. 6: Most liberals and even moderate conservatives would agree that Donald Trump’s staunch opposition to illegal immigration is reactionary. Yet, Bill Clinton (D) proposed cracking down on illegal immigration in a State-of-the-Union address in 1996 and no Democrats objected. Why? We’re complicating things here some by comparing two different times, 1996 and 2016, but an even bigger difference is that the message is framed differently depending on whose mouth it comes out of, especially if Trump seasoned his message with inflammatory rhetoric.
Ex. 7: In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s missile defense shield initiative (SDI) threatened to undermine the Cold War dynamic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). While there were sound arguments against SDI, would Democrats who hadn’t been big fans of MAD previously objected as strenuously if the idea been proposed by John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton? Hint: No.
Ex. 8: Controversies over coal demonstrate framing in a couple of ways. For one, coal advocates have argued for years that they have the technology to produce “clean coal” (or coal processed cleanly). Yet, when the government mandates that they produce clean coal, they claim the government is waging a “war against coal.” Coal also overlaps with the earlier issue of gaining broader context. In recent years politicians beholden to coal company executives have done a good job of redirecting coal miner’s animosity from management onto Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, whom they claim are “killing coal.” Those spinning this interpretation could show graphs like this depicting the loss of coal miner jobs during the Obama administration:
While it’s true that the EPA has tried to clean up the industry and Obama tried to spearhead a transition toward renewable energy, the primary cause of decline in the coal industry during this era was cheaper natural gas due to fracking. But coal mining was already in a long period of decline in terms of job creation (not production) because of mechanization. While the chart above is perfectly honest and accurate as far as it goes, zoom out and look at the period in that chart in the context of a longer chart (2007-2015 is in the black circle):
It’s a dramatic example of how, even without dishonesty or “fake news,” framing can change one’s view of what’s going on.
18. Non-Comparative Comparisons
When asked to compare and contrast, remember to demonstrate knowledge of all the subjects.
Ex. 1: If someone asked who contributed more to America’s tradition of religious freedom between Roger Williams, William Penn and Thomas Jefferson, it wouldn’t be enough to say, “Thomas Jefferson because he helped James Madison write the First Amendment.” In fact, you could write a long and beautiful treatise on Jefferson and religious freedom and it still wouldn’t be enough. You have to demonstrate knowledge of Williams and Penn.
You’re not the tallest person in the room because you’re 6’3″; you’re the tallest person in the room because you’re 6’3″ and everyone else is shorter.
19. Excessive Slippery Slopes
Aka the Camel’s-Nose-Under-the–Tent. The slippery slope idea isn’t entirely without merit — indeed, it’s often the strategy of people hoping for more radical change — but beware of its overuse.
Ex. 1: If we extend healthcare insurance it could lead to Nazi-like concentration camps in the U.S. A year after Obamacare passed, two of the top three books on the New York Times best-seller list suggested just that. The argument is that since Nazis further centralized the socialized healthcare system started during the Weimar Republic, and physicians were disproportionately involved in Nazism and the Holocaust, therefore socialized medicine leads to Nazism. The glaring problem with this argument is that fascism is in no way essential or necessary to socialized medicine. After all, most countries in the world today have socialized, single-payer healthcare systems — all major countries besides the United States, Mexico, and Chile — and none of them are run by Nazi fascists. It’s a mix-up of causation and correlation, as described in #6. In 1930s Germany, socialized medicine was correlated with Nazism, but socialized medicine obviously doesn’t cause Nazism or fascism. Hitler breathed oxygen, too, but that doesn’t mean that breathing oxygen makes a person fascist. There may be other perfectly sane reasons to oppose socialized healthcare insurance, but fear of Nazism is irrational because fascism isn’t a distinguishing feature of socialized healthcare insurance.
Ex. 2: If convicted felons have to register their guns or if children can’t own semi-automatic weapons, then the government or an incoming president is going to steal everyone’s guns, overturn the Second Amendment and outlaw hunting. The person that wants to overturn the Second Amendment is a “straw man” (see #20). One other note lost on many Americans: presidents can’t pass, abolish or repeal Constitutional amendments.
Ex. 3: Almost anything that leads one to believe in vast, organized conspiracies. If the NSA has gotten out of hand and subverted the 4th Amendment in the early 21st century, that doesn’t mean that “the government” as a whole is in a cabal to take over the world and your life. Representative governments are too disorganized, incompetent and, in America’s case, vast to ever collude on such a project. Moreover, they don’t have much motivation to.
20. Straw Man (or Bogeyman)
Misrepresenting opponents or opposing viewpoints — Aka the imaginary enemy argument.
Ex. 1: Why do Republicans hate or root against poor people?
Ex. 2: Why do Democrats oppose hard work?
Ex. 3: Why do Republicans love war?
Ex. 4: Why are Democrats against business?
Ex. 4: Why don’t Christians like to have fun?
Ex. 5: Why do atheists hate God? Why don’t atheists have a sense of right and wrong? (e.g. Phil Robertson)
Ex. 6: Why are gays against traditional marriage?
Ex. 7: Why do gun control advocates want to repeal the Second Amendment, outlaw hunting, and confiscate everyone’s guns?
Ex. 8: Why do gun rights advocates want to recreate the Wild West and promote violence?
Ex. 9: Mainstream historians celebrate the triumph of white civilization over Indian savages or leave out Native Americans altogether… (true only as long as the textbook you’re reading was published at least fifty years ago, or your teacher is 100 years old).
Ex. 10: Why don’t history textbooks mention that slavery existed in the North until 1820? They do; you just didn’t read the textbook. People often complain about what “textbooks leave out” when they haven’t read one.
21. Selective Observation
This overlaps with the flushing and cherry-picking mentioned in the Memory Hole. We’re all guilty of some selective bias because of limitations on space or time when we’re writing or arguing. Having said that, try your best to argue fair. In the long run, it’s more persuasive. Dare to try something truly radical and transform social media into an arena of intelligent debate. (Warning: don’t follow this advice if working as a salesman, lawyer, or politician.)
Ex. 1: In the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump often pointed to a 2012 Pew study showing that many people were registered to vote in more than one state, implying that Democrats only win elections by cheating. What he didn’t mention is that the same study showed there are no more Democrats than Republicans in this circumstance and that neither actually vote in two states.
Ex. 2: Various right-wing memes point to the Democratic Party’s racist history and association with Confederacy and KKK, with the presumable implication that, therefore, the modern Democratic Party is more racist than the GOP. The people posting are either ignorant of the 1960s party realignments or hoping that the viewer is.
22. Shifting Baselines
Often we ascribe things to the past that weren’t so, especially in the case of “tradition.” People think of our contemporary ideas of traditional marriage, for instance, as “the way it used to be.” It wasn’t. The idea of romantic marriage is relatively new and arranged marriages and marrying one’s relative were common in the West, while polygamous marriages were common in some parts of the world. Traditional housewife is another shaky one. Most women prior to the mid-19th century were farm wives and, as anyone can tell you that was raised on a farm, life there is far from the notion of the idealized 1950s domestic housewife or the idealized domestic sphere of the 19th century.
23. Circular Reasoning
Ex. 1: I’m right because this book says so. Why do you believe in the book in the first place? Because it says to in the book.
24. No Back-Up or Argument Support
Support assertions with evidence and/or examples.
Ex. 1: Recently I drove through the LBJ Ranch outside Johnson City with a CD that narrates the tour. At least three times we heard that one can’t understand LBJ or his policies without soaking in the Hill Country landscape. Missing was even a single example or illustration of how LBJ’s policies connected in any way, shape or form to the Texas countryside. We at least heard a pleasant recording of LBJ saying the moon was fuller and the stars were brighter around there than other places.
25. Don’t Confuse Quantity of Evidence With Quality of Evidence.
Ex. 1: The quantity of “evidence” for the Truther and Birther movements and Pizzagate is no doubt mountainous — as mountainous as the market demands. But on all three accounts, there isn’t any quality evidence defined, say, as the kind that would stand up in court among a reasonable jury or would change anyone’s mind. Where’s the Birth Certificate? Right where it’s supposed to be. A better question is “why are you asking?”
Ex. 2: There is ample evidence for Bigfoot; there just isn’t any compelling, persuasive evidence of the sort that would convince most open-minded skeptics. Skeptics aren’t “haters;” they just have higher standards of belief, that “fantastic claims require fantastic evidence.” Real science requires something along the lines of the Claim+Evidence+Reasoning (CER) framework.
Ex. 3: There’s a lot of talk that the Federal Reserve exists to make a profit that it is, in effect, stealing from the public. However, the Fed’s profit goes back to the Treasury (the taxpayers, ultimately) and no one has ever presented in compelling evidence otherwise.
26. Teleological Thinking & Determinism
This occurs when interpreters allow the outcome of events to explain their earlier stages. It overlaps with the confusion of cause-and-effect mentioned in #6 (post hoc fallacy). We read history backward when it unfolds forward. The past is a series of choices with unforeseen consequences, not a predetermined script. Teleological thinking presupposes that things are scripted, or destined to go in a certain direction before they happen. It’s related to the mythology of prolepsis, where historical action has to await its future outcome in order to fulfill its true meaning. Teleological thinking rejects or forgets that things could go in multiple directions, contingent on multiple factors. Teleological thinkers believe in inevitability or fate; most historians do not. Teleology is also an excuse for laziness because if humans can’t impact history, why care about what choices they make?
Ex. 1: The fact that we usually study New England more than the Caribbean in early American history classes. We know, in retrospect, that New England became part of the U.S., and that the U.S. grew into a big nation, thereby imparting to the Pilgrims an importance they wouldn’t have understood. From the perspective of the 17th century looking forward, though, the English and French saw the Caribbean as more important than any of their mainland colonies. The reason was that sugar was the most profitable staple crop.
Exs. 2-5: Like “Middle Ages,” use of the term “Early American” history isn’t something that would’ve made any sense to people that lived through it. Like us, their only sense of their own place in history was being on the cutting edge of modernity. Likewise, World War I is a teleological term that only makes sense to someone who lived after World War II. People who lived through the “Great War” wouldn’t have understood it and didn’t use the term. If things go well for the United States, future historians might group the early 21st century into their sections on “early America.”
Ex. 6: We often hear opposing sides of debates say that the Founders would’ve agreed with their side and not the other. Undoubtedly, they wouldn’t have agreed with either or even really understood either. The Founding Fathers didn’t found America because they wanted it to evolve in any direction that would make sense to us today. They couldn’t have conceived of the 21st century. As historian Jane Kamensky put it, colonial America can’t be reduced to the “Glorious Cause of the United States…waiting, patiently, in the wings the whole time, ready to burst upon the stage, promising liberty to all comers.”
Ex. 7: The whole notion of naming a chapter or lecture on the 1850s “the coming of the Civil War” or antebellum (Latin for pre-war) imparts a sense of inevitability, or determinism, that wouldn’t have made sense to people in the 1850s. They didn’t think of themselves as hurtling toward war. The antebellum or “coming of the war” ideas are accurate enough in retrospect, but just remember they wouldn’t have made sense to many people living through the 1850s (in that case, some were accurately predicting war, but they were just guessing right).
Ex. 8: Were either the Northern or Southern causes in the Civil War really meaningful enough to justify four years of bloody carnage? That question presupposes that politicians or citizens actually considered that cost/benefit analysis in 1861. Neither side thought anything of the sort. Each side thought their cause justified a quick and easy victory over the other to teach them a lesson. Since only 90 miles separated the respective capitals of Washington and Richmond, it seemed a major battle or two would settle their issues once and for all. If anything, the onset of war was a relief from the political tension and bickering that preceded it.
Ex. 9: American Journalist William Shirer lived in Berlin and wrote a classic, eyewitness account of Nazism called The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich (1960). While the book has a lot of good, thorough information, it relies too heavily on the Sonderweg or “Luther to Hitler” thesis that all of German history was a prelude leading up to the culmination of Nazism. That’s far too deterministic — a classic example of teleological history. Martin Luther degenerated into a rabid anti-Semite in his later years and Hitler may have tapped his works for quotes, but Luther didn’t exist to lay a foundation for Hitler. Four-hundred years of free will existed in between them. Why would Germany have evolved into a republic in the Weimar years if it was rushing headlong into totalitarianism after World War I? Why didn’t Beethoven write fascist symphonies? Why did Jews see Germany as enlightened compared to Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century?
Ex. 10: In Chapter 10 of History Hub I discuss the process of American states unifying into one country, slowly at first under the Articles of Confederation and, even under the new more unified Constitution, struggling with the concept up through the Civil War and beyond. However, it’s not a pre-determined fate for these states to unite as one country and stay that way. Maybe we’ll revert toward decentralization until future (also teleological) historians see unification as a bump in the road and autonomous states as normal.
Ex. 11: A kinder, gentler form of determinism is the idea that one’s ancestors lived and sacrificed to make their lives possible. It’s a touching thought, but it’s more likely that they never considered you. Most people care about their kids and grandchildren, but who thinks ahead five generations?
27. Shoehorning or Retrofitting (related to Prophecy)
This is another form of Hindsight Bias, similar to #26. It’s the preferred technique of those who interpret prophets like Nostradamus. They “shoehorn” or retrofit vague predictions onto specific events only after the fact. It’s also called postdicting, as opposed to predicting. Predictors are always vague, temporarily lucky, or out of a job. Postdictors are creative in their use of Hindsight Bias and make money off a perpetual market of people with an emotional need for the future to have been scripted or to have already unfolded on some dimension. For critiques of Nostradamus’ theories, see this link on his predictions about Napoleon, Hitler and 9/11, and this link on Hitler, 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination. I encourage anyone who’s interested in how history actually works — or put another way, how reality actually unfolds — to consider the following mind blowing if boring proposition: the future hasn’t happened yet, so there’s nothing for prophets to “see into.” The past is a series of choices with unforeseen consequences, not a predetermined script.
28. Historians’ Fallacy
This, too, overlaps with #26 and #27 as a hindsight bias. The perspective of time benefits historians but hindsight also obscures real motive. People in my profession need to constantly remind themselves that individuals and institutions don’t have the benefit of hindsight or understanding all the factors around them as they move forward, and often didn’t know what we now know (or think we do). They’re making quick decisions based on incomplete knowledge. They’re in the “fog of war” as Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it.
Ex. 1: When Roosevelt issued the infamous Order #9066 to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, he didn’t know nearly as much about Japan’s military or espionage capacity circa 1942 as we do now. It might have still been an overreaction based even on what they knew at the time but, whatever case, don’t judge FDR assuming he knew what we know now.
Ex. 2: Future historians will need to remind themselves that actors during the 2016 election — including H. Clinton, Obama, Putin, probably Trump, all journalists, and most voters and citizens — thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. Their actions and decisions can only be judged in that context. Obama, for instance, didn’t take a stronger stance against Russian interference — though he discussed it with Putin in China in September 2016 and told him to “cut it out” — because he thought that would make it seem like he was weighing in to help Clinton and Clinton would win anyway, so why bother? Rather than helping Trump win, Putin was likely just trying to stain Clinton’s reputation as much as possible on her way to victory. Trump might’ve played fast and loose with the law because he figured he’d lose anyway, the campaign might help his brand, and no one would’ve ever ask for his tax returns.
Ex. 3: When we remember Abraham Lincoln as the “great emancipator” we should remember that he didn’t set out to abolish slavery. He would’ve happily gone along with a Constitutional amendment to preserve slavery in the Southeast had that prevented secession. Later, events conspired to make the Emancipation Proclamation possible in the context of a war that Lincoln didn’t want.
For football fans, this one is a little like the difference between a “Monday morning quarterback” (fan or journalist) and the real quarterback in the pocket deciding when and where to throw the ball. It’s one thing to be on the sidelines or watching on TV; it’s quite another when you have two seconds and a gigantic defensive end sneaking up behind you about to snap your collar bones in half and bounce your skull off the turf. The Historian’s Fallacy is similar to “Hindsight is 20/20” and is one version of the Hindsight Bias (aka “knew-it-all-along” or creeping determinism). In real life, no one in important decision-making posts ever seems to “know everything all along.” But after things happen, unimportant people did.
29. Fundamental Attribution Error & Actor-Observer Bias
Also known to sociologists as the Attribution Effect or Correspondence Bias, this fallacy puts undue focus on internal factors explaining someone’s behavior rather than considering outside effects or relations with others. Some argue that Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory about the inherent inclination toward violence and intolerance in Islam is subject to this weakness. It focuses too exclusively on Islam itself and ignores its interactions with the West. Historians must always keep an eye on context: what is going on around countries, institutions, and individuals. The reverse of this internal emphasis is called Actor-Observer Bias, which ignores internal issues at the expense of outside forces.
Projecting something that didn’t exist then back into history. It can apply to material items like clothing or technology, but a more common trap to fall into is projecting modern ideas or attitudes onto historical characters. When people say we shouldn’t judge historical actors by modern standards, they are guarding against anachronism.
Ex. 1: Movie buffs are fond of looking for and pointing out anachronisms in historical dramas. If you see Nike Air Jordans on a cowboy in a 19th-century western, that’s an obvious anachronism. In John Paul Jones (1959), the eponymous sailor visits Virginia in the early 1770s and discovers that his deceased brother has been reading revolutionary literature, including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. However, Paine’s famous pamphlet wasn’t published until 1776 and it wouldn’t have made sense five years earlier.
Ex. 2: Celebrating Christopher Columbus as an Italian is an anachronism of sorts because Genoa, his hometown, wasn’t in Italy in his lifetime. In fact, there was no country called Italy during his lifetime (it formed in 1861).
Ex. 3: When a gun advocate suggests that the Founders would’ve wanted the Second Amendment to apply to assault rifles had they lived to see them, that’s debatable, but it’s not demonstrably wrong or necessarily an anachronism. However, if the NRA argued that the Founders intended to include assault rifles in the Second Amendment, that would be an anachronism because they had no concept of automatic weapons. As for the first assertion, that they would’ve wanted assault rifles included had they lived to see them, neither pro-gun or anti-gun advocates have any way of knowing or proving what they would have wanted.
Ex. 4: The Broadway musical Hamilton celebrates the protagonist as an immigrant who came from the Caribbean to New York. However, Hamilton was a British subject in both places. His move was no different than an American today moving between states. It’s true that if someone today moved from the Caribbean (other than Puerto Rico) to the U.S. they would be an immigrant, but not in the 18th century.
31. Chronological Error
Ex. 1: In the Iraq War of 2003-07, many Americans assumed that the U.S. was there as part of their War on Terror. There ended up being some truth to that, but it’s worth noting that al-Qaeda didn’t come into Iraq in serious numbers until after the U.S. invasion. Also, By mid-2001, months before the 9/11 attacks that triggered the War on Terror, a behind-closed-doors Energy Task Force comprised of various departmental secretaries within George W. Bush’s administration had set a policy that included covetous maps of Iraqi oil fields, with a list of potential foreign firms to develop them. The Bush administration entered office in January 2001 favoring regime change in Iraq. These chronologies, both hinging on only a matter of months, will matter to future historians trying to unravel why exactly the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
32. Counterfactual History
Counterfactual history (e.g. Philip Dick’s The Man In the High Castle) — what might have happened — is not a fallacy, and it can even be useful in reminding historians about the contingencies and factors on which real, factual history depended, but it’s widely discouraged among professional historians. The reasons are that it’s difficult enough as it is to unravel what really happened and that a counterfactual scenario quickly introduces far too many variables to ever accurately assess what “would have happened.” A similar principle applies to why, so far, we’re only good at short-term weather forecasting rather than long-term. Unless the initial information that forecasters use is absolutely perfect (which it usually isn’t), then small mistakes “mushroom” or multiply exponentially over time. The same applies to all the contingencies and different crooked paths that history might have taken if we were to go back and change something or imagine what it would’ve been like if we could change something.
Ex. 1: Woodrow Wilson’s actions at the end of World War I forced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which led eventually to the rise of Nazi fascism (this interpretation always skips over the Weimar Republic, hoping its readers don’t know about it). Therefore Wilson — and, by extension, the American Progressive movement of which he was (kind of) a part — led to the Nazi Holocaust. Ergo: liberalism causes genocide. Subtext: it will again if you vote for a Democrat in the 21st century.
First, Wilson wasn’t personally responsible for the Kaiser’s abdication, though he supported it during the negotiations of early November 1918. The German military had lost faith in the Kaiser and forced him to step down. Second and more theoretically important, this involves too many degrees of separation and is so far out on the counter-factual limb that, by this logic, all of us now alive are guilty of whatever horrible things happen in the next century.
Counter-factual history can be fun and even instructive, but keep it in perspective.
33. Too Many Contingencies
Too many contingencies connects to the problems for counter-factual history and determinism (#26) but also can apply to analyzing other problems.
Ex. 1: The QAnon conspiracy theories include many factors — far too many. When it comes to the plausibility of conspiracy theories, less is more. The more contingencies, the more likely the whole house of cards collapses because one part isn’t true. The theory is only as good as the weakest link in the chain.
34. Fallacy Fallacy
Poor reasoning doesn’t necessarily mean someone is wrong. Maybe little green men really are visiting us, even if the evidence for and arguments on behalf of that proposition are weak.
Basic Problems w. Written Work To Be Wary Of:
A. Forgetting the Mention and Explain the Topic (Assuming Knowledge)
Whenever you write a response to an essay question, you should be able to hand your response to a stranger and they should be able to give you at least a rough idea what the question was. Write as if you’re explaining the topic to someone unfamiliar with it.
B. Factual Error
This is the most basic of argumentative mistakes but not necessarily easy to resolve. At least today we can pull out a phone and look up someone’s opinion on the matter, but we’re likely to get multiple opinions. Avoid factual errors that contradict consensus views on the matter.
C. Top Heavy Paper
Don’t dive into detailed writing about background that’s not critical to your paper, then breeze through the important sections because you’ve met the length requirements of the paper. If your paper is on American involvement in WWI, don’t spend 1000 words on the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and 500 on American involvement.
Make sure to “stay on point.”
E. Assuming The Reader Already Knows What You’re Talking About
Ex. 1: “The U.S. could be defined as imperialist based on what happened in the 1890s in Hawaii and the Philippines.” That’s not a compelling argument to me as a jurist if I don’t know what happened in Hawaii or the Philippines. Don’t assume the reader knows.