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To start of I would like to make it clear that I am not a historian or academian of any kind. I'm only interested in history as a hobby.

I was just browsing to buy an audiobook in area of Ancient Middle Eastern History. Hopefully, something that would cover Sumer, Egypt, Akkadia, Babylon, etc. Once I came across revisionist material and material based solely on Bible as evidence I realized that this search would be much harder than what I might be capable.

So my primary question is, “How, if at all, is published revisionist history publicly addressed by scholars and academia?”.

I am trying to understand, if popular books sold to an average reader are based on unvetted and speculative sources how are they to find genuine information to learn from.

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    Revisionism isn't a synonym for bad history. – John Dee Sep 17 '17 at 2:05
  • Check the Wikipedia article on Historical Revisionism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_revisionism – Lars Bosteen Sep 17 '17 at 2:53
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    On unvetted and speculative sources:There as many books as they are publishers (a blogger is also a publisher, to some), hence, the real issue is credibility of the publisher. For general books (popular), it depends on the author, for specialist book (usually by University Press - Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, etc) it doesn't quite matter who the author is. Being published by academic press is validation. Use book reviews to check opinion of fellow historians? – J Asia Sep 17 '17 at 5:50
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    I changed it to pseudohistory since that's closer to your meaning. Revisionism means any interpretation which challenges (revises) the orthodox interpretation. It's a word hijacked by denialists, unfortunately, but it does have a distinct neutral meaning. – Ne Mo Sep 18 '17 at 10:41
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The usual general attitude of professional historians to revisionist history is ignoring it. Except some publications specially written to refute it.

Your last sentence with the question is not completely clear, but I interpret it as: "How can a non-specialist tell "revisionist history" from "mainstream history". Usually, by the author's reputation, affiliation, and publisher. For example, a book by a professor of Classics, published by Cambridge (Chicago, Princeton) University press, is unlikely to be revisionist history. One can also search for reviews of the book, and make a judgement.

Remark. History based on the Bible, as a main source, is usually not qualified as "revisionist", because there was time when the Bible was considered the ultimate source of all knowledge:-) Even in modern times such history books exist, and usually they do not qualify as "revisionist". But this type of book is easy to detect once you browse it.

Remark 2. I don't want to imply that all "revisionist" historians are wrong. But before reading their books it is strongly advisable to make yourself familiar with "mainstream" history. There are also distinctions between pseudo-history and revisionist history.

  • I'm torn. This is a slightly better answer than the other one IMO, but Kargathia also makes an excellent point about checking that there's a bibliography section that isn't obviously lacking to begin with. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 17 '17 at 15:54
  • Thank you for the answer. Yes, one of my problems was finding a reputable book with good reviews on Amazon. There are many writers with highly rated books that people like only because they write what readers want to hear. Things that fit their religious or political views, but are not backed by science or actual evidence. – BeZlatan Sep 17 '17 at 15:56
  • Unfortunately, even reputable publishers are only a part of the story. Authors may (too often, do) have their own agenda that leads them to present a one sided view, even though everything they state is factually correct. The only way around this that I know is to read as many different source on the subject as possible, but of course, that does not address the original question since it presupposes a greater interest in the subject than would be expected in an "average reader". – mickeyf_supports_Monica Sep 18 '17 at 14:52
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Check its sources

Outside formally reviewed documents, there is no official quality control to ensure historical accuracy.

Individual books may inspire a debunking if a historian is sufficiently peeved about it.

This is more the exception than the rule: there is no point in going around and dissecting every book for its historical/scientific/etc. correctness.

A quick test to identify the more reliable works is to check its bibliography. If it's lacking, you should not take its contents at face value.

  • You are talking about fiction. Of course, historians do not care much about historical accuracy of fiction. But "revisionist history" is something else. – Alex Sep 17 '17 at 14:37
  • Possibly not the best example, but in the end it's just a book. There is no magical forum admin of life who smites anyone who misrepresents historical events. Not to mention the multitude of historical sources who didn't let boring things as truth or accuracy come between them and a good story. – Kargathia Sep 17 '17 at 14:55
  • There is a sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction history books. In fiction books historical inaccuracies are permitted, and no "magical admin" is needed. – Alex Sep 17 '17 at 15:00
  • And in non-fiction it would be lovely to have one, but we still don't. I'll go and change the example, as it's obviously derailed the answer. – Kargathia Sep 17 '17 at 15:07
  • I came across this problem because I'm not well educated in this area but I do love reading about these subjects. While searching on Amazon results I was given had a lot of good reviews. But upon closer inspection these were books written from religious point of view or political, as in Europeans stole our history. I guess had I studied any such subjects I would be better at vetting these books and information. My background is just in art. – BeZlatan Sep 17 '17 at 16:06
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It usually depends on how well the revionist history is backed up by evidence and how this evidence is interpreted, but this is by no means the only factor. Any historical work which wants to be taken seriously by scholars must back up arguments with evidence and not obviously distort or deny facts (e.g. claiming that the earth is only 6,000 years old). Scholars often just ignore anything that doesn’t meet these requirements (this is what is often termed 'pseudohistory').

Much revisionist history results from newly available evidence (e.g. documents released by governments after a certain time period) and new finds (e.g.archeological), while other revisionist history is a re-interpretation of evidence previously available. There are also many cases where historians have a different viewpoint, often because the evidence is inconclusive, and will seek to counter the arguments presented by another scholar. This is often done initially through peer reviews and articles in journals.

Scholars also check how evidence which may run counter to the revised history has been dealt with – was this evidence acknowledged (and if so, how) or was it simply ignored? The importance of bibliographies has already been noted by Kargathia. I would add that one should also pay attention to how extensive the bibliography is. If only two or three sources were cited, were they written by people with qualifications in their fields of study? Do they all support the same theories or interpretations, or do they present contrasting views? The extensive use of footnotes is also something to look out for (but they are rarely found outside the academic world). When writing a PhD thesis, students are expected to use footnotes to cite sources (among other things) – this makes it much easier to check specific evidence.

One should also look at the evidence itself and consider if the person recording events had an agenda. Was he aiming to entertain as well as inform his audience (in which case expect at least some exaggeration)? Did he have a sponsor (in which case unpleasant facts about the sponsor will probably be left out)? Even the objectivity of the ‘Father of Scientific History’ Thucydides has been questioned. A document may have been written at the time an event happened but that does in itself necessarily make it reliable evidence. For example, 12th century chroniclers give a generally unfavourable impression of William II but, given that they were all monks and that William II’s relations with the church were very poor (they didn’t approve of his lifestyle either), is it any surprise that he got a lot of bad press? In recognition of this, modern historians have reviewed some of the previously held views on this king and come up with other interpretations.

Archaeological finds, on the other hand, present a different set of problems. There have been some notable forgeries (the most famous perhaps being Piltdown man) and the significance of archaeological finds are often hard to gauge without supporting evidence or context.

Be aware also that, while there are many great documentaries on TV and YouTube, there is also a lot of rubbish - everything from sensationalism and exaggeration (to garner more viewers) to outright fabrication. It can be hard to tell sometimes what's reliable and what isn't, but if you read widely you'll begin to gain the knowledge and insight which will enable you to judge for yourself.

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Question: How, if at all, is published revisionist history publicly addressed by scholars and academia?

The truth is nearly all history is revisionist -- because every historian has learnt their history from someone else and added his/her own view, with the exception of first-hand (direct) experience.

On 'publicly addressed', historians look at book reviews like everyone else (usually in journals, not popular press, if it's for specialist books).

One has to be careful walking into the debate about whether any scholarly work is Politically Correct revisionism because it is often abused. It often speaks more of the accuser than the historian whose work is being subjected to criticism. Book reviews from fellow historians are particularly useful in such cases. I don't think most everyone in History SE would qualify as a historian, but witness how often such claims are made (in comments).


Longer Explanation:

This is one of those seemingly simple, yet elusive, questions. Allow me to start with two simple definitions:

  • What is History? - Past events, processes, etc. For example, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire

  • What is Historiography? - What historians write, about past events, about history. For example, Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

We do not know what happened in the past, until we learn of it from someone else. This someone is usually a historian. How does the historian know history, say, of the Roman Empire? If we think of Gibbon's Roman Empire, his historiography would have to be based on the work of others because he was not there. Obviously the The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is revising history when it differs from the then prevailing historiography. It would be pointless otherwise.

So, isn't Gibbon revising history by adding his own perspective if it is based on new discoveries (or even new interpretations) of archaeology, historiography, linguistics, etc.?


For an average reader (meaning unfamiliar to the topic), with the additional issue of unvetted and speculative sources, the idea of learning history from popular books is not recommended, i.e. should not buy popular books to learn history.

Having said this, there are many popular books that are written by respected historians, archaeologist, etc. But you would have to know this author is in fact a respected historian (or archaeologist).

  • You seem to be answering another users question "what do academics call work without citations", by using the term popular books. It's an important distinction. – John Dee Sep 17 '17 at 23:40
  • @JohnDee - Don't understand your point. Which paragraph are you referring to? – J Asia Sep 18 '17 at 6:20
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A historian named Deborah Lipstadt published some books "outing" David Irving as a Holocaust denier in his work. She then successfully defended herself in court when Irving sued her in London for "defamation."

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Well, the historical process, by nature, is always under constant revision; that is to say, the interpretation and understanding of prior events and their impact on past societies, as well as the present-day, has always been, is (and I believe), will continue to be, the subject of revision.

The problem with so-called, "Revisionist History", has been and is still largely associated with the historiography and historical pedagogy of the past 25 plus years-(primarily at the college and graduate levels). It has been the rise and onslaught of Political Correctness that has debased and trivialized the practice of historical research and education-(and, rather cynically, hides underneath the veneer of Multiculturalism).

There has been, since the early 1990's, a deep politicization, indeed, a radicalization of how history is written, but also, how it is expressed and taught in colleges and universities. The Politically Correct history that has plagued contemporary American historical education and publishing is essentially rooted in the wild social philosophy of Post-Modernism and its Dogmatic relativism which began in the 1960's with its Pioneer, Michele Foucault. In other words, "the rules have changed" whereby so-called traditional historical education would focus on U.S. History, Western Civilization and the secondary or parenthetical study of non-Western civilizations and cultures. However, since the early 1990's-(or perhaps earlier, i.e., "The Closing of the American Mind"), it has become the reverse or the same model still exists, though is now the subject of rabid hysterical critiquing and near vilification. In the Politically Correct age, Western civilization, in particular, has, in a way, become a type of pinata whereby its most vocal of vocal critics symbolically "smash it to pieces" as a way of catalyzing a new historical narrative..........(meet the new Iconoclasts).

This iconoclastic approach towards historical understanding and teaching is less concerned with historical veracity and more preoccupied with the promotion of a radically activist agenda. The politics of revisionism is the weapon of choice for the Politically Correct Activists and the sad truth is that they have been winning since the early 1990's and even into the present-day.

Revisiting and revising history is nothing new, nor should history ever remain exempt from re-visitation and revisionism. With the fantastic advancements in technology, fields, such as Archaeology, Genetic Anthropology and History itself, can examine the past with greater accuracy and refinement that is truly unprecedented. The aid and assistance of technology-(though far from perfect) has provided and equipped our age with a more objective interpretation of the past. However, the pioneering and fantastic success of technology cannot necessarily prevent the determination and perseverance of agenda seeking activists who have and will continue to undermine the historical process through their own process of radical revisionism and activist historical education.

Politically Correct revisionists are a major presence and they will continue to present a serious challenge to historical education and discoursing.

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