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History

When someone makes a claim about something that happened years or even centuries ago, how can a reporter verify the story?

Sometimes, independent verification is impossible - which is why hoaxes about history are so difficult to defend against.

The hoaxers' motives vary considerably. Some of the tales simply appear to be practical jokes. Some are designed to make money, such as on the sale of historical documents. Historical quotes that are falsely attributed to someone tend to be contrived to help make a point, then unwittingly repeated by others.

The 20th century saw several prominent hoaxes about ancient man: Claims about remains that were said to come from the evolutionary "missing link" from a prehistoric giant. These archeological frauds tend to be perpetrated for pride - either individual or national - as well as to make money.

Historical pranks and false quotes are particularly well-suited to be spread via the Internet, from which they are often picked up for use in print and broadcast by journalists and in speeches by public officials. Many of these are simple, seemingly harmless claims that provide convenient historical anecdotes for contemporary stories, columns and speeches. As credible sources cite these tales and quotes, more journalists tend to accept them as truth.

Verification is especially difficult with historical hoaxes in the same way that is difficult for scientific hoaxes: Confirmation often requires expertise and time that few journalists have. Particularly inconvenient is that the original sources - such as the signers of the Declaration of Independence - are dead.

That is why attribution of claims is especially important, as is seeking out experts who might know that the stories are bunk, or at least provide a voice of caution to balance the hype of new historical claims.

Key Factors

Credibility: History hoaxes gain credibility in two primary ways. The simple claims - such as quotations and "whatever happened to" tales - get repeated so often, including by public officials (like presidents) and journalists, that they become solidified as accepted fact. More complicated and significant claims - like the discovery of ancient fossils - tend to be perpetrated by people with backgrounds in historical research, who often mange to fool other historians into anointing their claims as legitimate. These sources appear to be far better equipped than journalists to pronounce a historical claim as accurate or not.

Confirmation Obstacles: These can be as severe as for any type of hoax. For starters, the original sources - the people who allegedly made the statement, wrote the documents or belonged to the bones - are dead. Journalists rarely have access to the historical material in question, and if they did, they wouldn't know what to do with it. Researching a historical claim requires expertise and training that the vast majority of journalists don't have. For those who do, the process can take months or years. Eventually, independent historians are called in to investigate significant claims. But initially, the people making the claim usually have a monopoly on the pertinent information.

The "We Believe What We Read in the Papers" Syndrome: The reporting of the crime by other news outlets adds credibility to the story and makes it difficult for any news outlet with doubts to ignore it or play it down.

No Doubting Thomas: While other historians can express words of caution about a historical claim, it's rare that any historian not involved in the claim has done enough research on it to say that it's false. There may, however, be chatter among historians expressing skepticism about the claim.

The Hoaxer's Investment: While the sources of simple hoaxes tend to remain anonymous, the significant claims are made by people who have some standing in their fields or communities, and often put themselves under national or international scrutiny with their discoveries.

Red Flags

Unconfirmabilty: You can't trace quotations or incidents back to documented historical sources, such as books, dissertations or articles in reputable trade publications.

Profit: The people making the claims are getting money or glory as a result.

Peer Reviews: Prominent people in the field have not yet confirmed the claim. This is hardly fool-proof. Historians have been fooled by elaborate hoaxes.

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