J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Alert for Historical Hoaxing

Back on 25 August, Prof. T. Mills Kelly at Edwired wrote:

what really has me charged up this semester is that I’m teaching a new course, “Lying About the Past” that is an investigation of historical hoaxes, plagiarism, and fakery. The first half of the semester my students will be examining the history of historical hoaxes. The second half of the course is a practicum, by which I mean we will work together as a group to create an online historical hoax that we will then turn loose on the Internet to see if we can actually fool anyone.

They have already been warned that several topics are off limits. Given the incredibly detailed knowledge of the American Civil War out there in the community of Civil War buffs, we’d never fool anyone if we tried to pull of a historical hoax on that topic. Similarly, anything to do with national security or terrorism is off limits, largely because I don’t think a vacation in Cuba would be any fun. And they have to scratch anything to do with medicine from their plans, because it would not be funny at all if we hoaxed someone seeking information about medical treatments. With those minimal guidelines, they will have to decide what their hoax will be and I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time discussing the ethical and legal landscape before settling on a final project.

As you might imagine, not every historian I tell about this class thinks it’s a great idea. I’ve already been told that I’m violating some sort of historian’s Hyppocratic [sic] oath by encouraging my students to wilfully mislead a possibly credulous public. Aside from the fact that I don’t remember taking such an oath, my own view is that we need to be playful sometimes in the study of history and that this course is a good way to do just that, even as we do some serious learning along the way. . . .

Our plan is to launch the hoax, whatever it might be, before the end of the semester.
The last day of classes at George Mason University, where Kelly teaches, is 6 December. So you’ve been warned.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania teachers behind All About Explorers are well ahead of this game. Check out that site’s biography of Samuel de Champlain before reading about the site. (Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link.)


Anonymous said...

Astonishingly irresponsible.

My doctoral work was done at a university which had the motto, "Truth, even unto its innermost parts." Indeed.

What would be wrong, if the man feels that this is an educational enterprise, with keeping the experiment within the bounds of his class -- requiring them to determine what is wrong and what is right with each other's pseudowebsites?

I am bewildered by his effrontery.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Very irresponsible.

As a non-scholar type of historian buff, and relatively new to this passion of history, I am constantly on guard for truth vs. myth. As an amateur, it's often impossible to know what's truth or not. I don't think we need to be intentionally misled.

The power of the internet makes this idea dangerous. This sort of stuff was pulled off long before the internet was around and its damage still is evident today. Just ask the cherry tree that George Washington chopped down.

Mills said...


Your two unhappy readers will be unhappy to know that my students are almost done with their hoax and will release it into the wild sometime next week.

I sympathize with their (the readers') angst over this, however, if they could have observed my class all semester and seen the depth of learning that occurred in this course, I suspect they would have been won over to my side. This has been, without a doubt, the most enriching teaching and learning experience in my 15 years of college teaching.

Your readers will soon have a chance to read more about what actually happened once the hoax took off, because a reporter will be with us on "launch day" and will publish an extended piece on the course once the hoax is exposed -- as all hoaxes eventually are.

Your readers will also be glad to know that perhaps the most generative debates in my course were over the issues of ethics and law. For instance, my students concluded, entirely on their own, that certain topics were out of bounds. For instance, they decided that because so many people depend on the Internet for information about medical conditions and their treatment, that our hoax could in now way have anything at all to do with medicine or medical treatments.

Thanks for noticing the post.

J. L. Bell said...

once the hoax is exposed -- as all hoaxes eventually are.

Oh, you are the confident one, Prof. Kelly! You’re sure there’s no hoax still alive in our history books and unrecognized?

For myself, I thought your class project was interesting, and I was a little surprised at the vehemence of the reaction from readers. It’ll be interesting to see how the reporter’s story is received.

Mills said...

Yes, I think they are all eventually exposed...some just take a few centuries. At least, that's the lesson my students came away with...that once historians get onto a topic and begin to research it in earnest, the factual problems inherent in any hoax eventually surface. I'm sure this will happen to my students' hoax as well.

J. L. Bell said...

The weak spot of that outlook, I think, is that we have so few historical sources from some periods or on some aspects of life that there may not be enough contextual evidence to expose “factual problems.”

A lack of supporting evidence might make some historians suspect a hoax, but entrenched information usually stays entrenched until people can find strong counterevidence. In recent periods, and in public affairs, such evidence is much easier to come by than in the deep past and in private lives.

As a result, it’s no doubt harder to create a successful hoax about America in 2005 than about America in 1705, or Rome in 105. And a hoax about Rome in 105 created in 360 has a big head start since it’s deep embedded in our understanding of that earlier time.

All the hoaxes we know about have been exposed, to be sure. And that produces the appearance of a 100% exposure record. But the real denominator of that fraction should be all the historical hoaxes that have ever been created, and we can’t really know how many of them have ever been created.

Mills said...

In this particular case I know the hoax will be exposed, because if it hasn't been exposed by the first day of classes in the spring semester, we'll expose it ourselves.

The hoax has now been live for more than a week and for a brief period of time, meaning a couple of days, it made a very tiny splash on the Internet -- picked up in blogs, on social networking sites, etc. Now traffic on the hoax website has dropped to virtual zero. For that reason alone it will be necessary to expose it because, we learned this semester, hoaxes about something few people actually care about can live forever.

Mills said...

And now the truth can be told: http://lastamericanpirate.net

J. L. Bell said...

Quick link to the beginning.