There are many historical fallacies out there, some of which are popular. So what is a historical fallacy and why do people believe them?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers three interesting definitions of a fallacy. Those are definitions are:
1. A false or mistaken idea.
2. A deceptive appearance.
3. An often plausible argument using false or invalid inferences.
Thus a historical fallacy is a false, mistaken, or deceptive idea about history. Predictably, we often base historical fallacies on faulty history or questionable narratives about history.
Now that we have defined historical fallacies, we will look at some popular historical fallacies. Note: I will examine some broad or general historical fallacies here rather than specific events.
Some Popular Fallacies about History include:
David beats Goliath
People love an underdog story because most of us are underdogs. Hence, we love it when the little guy or girl triumphs over the big bully.
This narrative explains the popularity of the Bible story about sweet little David killing big bad Goliath. Such David and Goliath stories fill our popular culture (for example, Star Wars) and often shape historical narratives.
Historians, propagandists, and fiction writers often rewrite history as David over Goliath stories to make historical figures more attractive. A classic example in World War II. For example, the brave people of England beating back big the Nazi war machine and the heroic Russian people resisting German invasion.
In reality, the Allies won World War II by building bigger and badder war machines than those of the Japanese or the Nazis. Yet, you would not see this reality in most war movies and historical narratives. Most movie and TV producers and documentations reduce World War II to simple David v. Goliath stories of outnumbered and outgunned Allied citizen soldiers barely overcoming or outwitting the Nazi or Japanese hordes.
I’ve seen dozens of World War II movies and I can only think of one the 1962 film The Longest Day that shows the Nazis as outgunned and outnumbered. The most memorable scene in the movie is a frightened German soldier looking out at the Allied invasion fleet on D-Day. Yet, history shows the Allies usually outnumbered and outgunned the Nazis and the Japanese.
Other David v. Goliath mythology involves the American Revolution and the Vietnam War. The United States only won the American Revolution by enlisting French help. In Vietnam, the US crushed the Communist guerrillas only to pull out, allowing North Vietnamese forces to defeat a corrupt, unpopular, and incompetent South Vietnamese government.
Hence, you should always question any narrative of the little guy winning or pseudo historians who say you can never defeat an insurgency. History is full of insurgencies crushed by empires.
For example, the defeat of Afrikaners by the British in the Boer War, the American victory in the Philippine Insurrection, and the Union victory in American Civil War. History teaches that the insurgents usually lose.
Thus, in reality, Goliath usually beats David to a pulp. However, that story does not sell, so storytellers and movie producers ignore it. David beating Goliath is good storytelling but poor history.
The End of History
Every few years, some prophet, pundit, politician, or intellectual proclaims the end of history.
Famously, political scientist Francis Fukuyama infamously claimed history was over in 1989. Fukuyama went onto a write a book called The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama thought history was over because the United States had won the Cold War.
In 2018, New Yorker writer Louis Menand mockingly wrote “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History.” After almost 30 years of history, Fukuyama changed his mind. History kept right on marching despite Fukuyama’s beliefs.
Fukuyama was only one of many people to fall prey to the delusion history ends with them. For example, early Christians in the First Century AD believed they were the last generation who would witness the end of history and the Second Coming of Christ. The faithful are still waiting for Jesus, 2,000 years later.
Similarly, the radicals behind the French Revolution though they could reset history and launch a new age of liberty. Hence, the Revolutionaries created a new calender. Accordingly, 1792 became the Year One of a new millennium.
The French Revolutionaries cleansed the calender of Christianity by renaming the months and offering new dates. For example, the first month was Germinal and the second Floréal.
History, however, reasserted itself in the month of Thermidor (19 July to 17 August) 1794. That was when the revolutionaries sent Jacobian leader Maximilien Robespierre to the guillotine. Robespierre’s death ended the Reign of Terror and the radical phase of the revolution.
The End of History was fallacy is attractive because it makes the present age or generation more important than anybody else. For example, the early Christians thought of themselves as God’s chosen, who would soon see Jesus. Similarly, the Jacobians thought of themselves as new men who were building a new world.
People love to think they have escaped history. We love to believe that the present generation is better and smarter than all the ignorant clods who came before us. Robespierre was just one of many proclaimers of history’s end who fell victim to history.
The End of Civilization
The fallacy is that some event such as defeat in a war, leads to the disappearance of civilization.
For example, Winston S. Churchill claimed British defeat in World War II would lead to the end of European civilization. Similarly, many Americans claimed US defeat in the Cold War or Vietnam could lead to the end of civilization. Others claimed that the collapse of the British Empire could lead to the end of civilization.
History shows these claims were gross exaggerations. For example, European Civilization did not disappear after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Indeed, we can argue Rome’s fall strengthened civilization by making it more diverse, decentralized, and resilient. Many states instead of one centralized government, for example. Moreover, Christianity; which people call the basis of civilization, became stronger and more popular after the empire’s collapse.
The End of Civilization is popular because it is great propaganda. For example, Churchill and American Cold Warriors were portraying their enemies as barbarians and a threat to civilization. Similarly, conflating the British Empire with civilization justified colonialism and imperialism by giving them a noble purpose.
Today, the End of Civilization trope gets revived every time American imperialists need to justify their enormous defense budget or Iranian Ayatollahs need to defend their oppressive “revolution.” By associating “civilization” with political their causes, both the Ayatollahs and neocons can justify atrocities and the waste of taxpayers’ money.
Fortunately, civilization is far more resilient than its self-proclaimed defenders say. History shows that civilization can survive enormous catastrophes, including World War I, World War II, the fall of empires, colonialism, imperialism, Communism, Nazism, and pandemics.
Thus, any claim that civilization is about to fall is probably false.
Technology Does Not Matter
Another popular fallacy that technology has no impact on history. The appeal of this fallacy is obvious.
People want to believe that the valor of soldiers or the justness of their cause leads to victory in war. For example, Britain won the Battle of Britain because of the bravery of its pilots. Not because the Royal Air Force (RAF) had better fighter planes than the Germans.
Similarly, Americans want to believe they won World War II because our GIs were braver and tougher than the Japanese and the Nazis. Not because the United States had far better industry and aircraft than the Axis. Likewise, Russians want to believe it was the heroism of the Red Army, not the superiority of Soviet tanks and artillery that beat the Nazis.
Ironically, many of today’s technologists use the technology does not matter fallacy to hide their crimes and excesses. For example, the belief that social media has no effect on politics, society, family life, or mental health protects Facebook (FB) and those who profit from it such as Mark Zuckerberg. Likewise, some oil and gas producers bankroll climate change denial to protect their moneymaking technologies.
Similarly, Peter Thiel who has made billions from Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), PayPal (PYPL), and other Silicon Valley companies, claims America has made no progress in recent decades. I think Thiel downplays the digital technologies that made him rich in order to deflect criticism.
The last five hundred years show that technology is one of the most powerful forces on Earth. For example, technological progress drove the Industrial Revolution. In addition, superior military technology made the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Soviet Union, and the American Imperium possible.
Today’s world is being shaped by digital technology and Climate Change which is a side effect of technology. Technology has become one of the most important forces on Earth.
The technology does not matter thesis has a powerful appeal because people do not want to admit they could at the mercy of tech. For example, nobody wants to admit a “machine or an algorithm could do my job better than I can.” Nor does anybody want to admit that their favorite technology is doing more harm than good.
Instead, people want to believe that human beings are always superior and can achieve anything without technology. One motivation for this belief is the reluctance to admit that many, if not most, people could not survive without technology.
Hence, people do not want to admit that technology is the basis of our civilization. Yet any honest analysis shows technology is the basis of our civilization, but that observation raises serious questions about the value of religion, philosophy, art, and culture few people want to ask.
In the final analysis, historical fallacies exist to make people feel good, not to explain our world. Recognizing historical fallacies could give us a true understanding of history and the world it created.