For much of my life I have been curious about the world, not so much wanting to know things as to understand them and, at various times I would attempt to satisfy that desire – usually by devouring every available book on the subject. I would read every book at the library that seemed useful and, since I traveled a lot at the time, I would visit every bookstore within reach in every city and buy every book that seemed to know things I didn’t know. I once had a library of many thousands of books.
As one example, I was at one time fascinated with gemstones and pearls – for no good reason that I can recall, but I followed my pattern and read and bought everything I could find. Certainly, I acquired knowledge during that process. I can easily detect flaws in a cut stone or a string of natural pearls and I am competent to challenge Tiffany on the tepid color of what they sell as emeralds. Still, in the real world I am an amateur, perhaps knowing a bit more than an average layman, but of little or no consequence to anyone in the field. Again, it wasn’t so much a search for knowledge as a quest for understanding. I wasn’t so much looking to know everything as to “understand” the world of gemstones and pearls. Nevertheless, the process served its purpose and would qualify as research.
But there is a pitfall here. When we are researching the natural world, we are mostly in a context of fact. The sciences, geography, the physical and material manifestations of nature, are largely if not often entirely factual. They don’t lie to us. There is little room for bias or opinion in what happens when we drop a bowling ball or in questions of the formation and growth of crystals or pearls. Thus, reading books written by experts or professionals can teach us all we want to know and give us all the understanding we desire.
However, things change when we enter the world of man, or at least that part affected by man, because we are no longer dealing with factual manifestations of nature but have entered a world of interpretation and opinion, perhaps as many different of these as there are men to express them. And now, the traditional method of research to acquire knowledge will fail us because we are no longer being taught but indoctrinated.
As an easy example, we can consider the book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer, published in 1960 by Simon & Schuster in the US, the winner of awards and promoted to the ends of the earth like few books in the history of publishing. There may be few people of at least two
generations who haven’t read this book, and for many it may be the only book they have ever read on the subject.
The problem is that we were not reading a book on the history of Germany and the Wars; we were instead reading an instruction manual of 1,249 pages telling us what William Shirer wanted us to think about Germany and the Wars. And that is not the same thing. Shirer’s book is biased at best, with a story line scaffolding unrelated to Germany. It isn’t quite a fairy tale because it does contain many facts, but it also twists many facts, omits many others of great consequence, weaves threads that barely exist into thick carpets, states idle opinion as fact, and interprets all of it to fit the pre-determined story line. It was Shirer who propagated the now-ridiculed idea that the Germans used Jewish fat to make soap, and he was almost entirely responsible for the delusion (obtained from Wiesenthal) that
the Nazis claimed the Germans were a “Master Race”, a claim he must have known was a complete lie. In some ways, it is closer to a work of fiction than to factual history and Shirer closer to a snake-oil salesman than an author.
This is not unique to Shirer. Every history book is guilty of these accusations to some degree, and virtually all interpretations are clouded by ideology or preference or simply personal belief. They needn’t be deliberately dishonest to contain these flaws; being written by a human is often sufficient. If we consider Carroll Quigley’s tome “Tragedy and Hope”, we find the same issues. I have great respect for Quigley, and I would say that 75% of that book is accurate and valuable. But the remaining 25% is almost as bad as Shirer. It seemed to me that when directly addressing the issues of Germany and the Wars, an automatic pilot assumed control of Quigley’s mind and inserted a framework of “Germany bad” into which all facts now required insertion. Similarly, Noam Chomsky, another individual with my respect, and who has written much of great value to humanity, also has great blind spots.
I have read many books that resemble a Master’s or Ph.D. thesis in that they are simply a survey of the available literature, telling us what many others have written on that subject, but in many cases contributing little to the store of knowledge or understanding. This wouldn’t be so bad if all the disputed elements were included along with many of the so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ butthis process is proscribed by the institutions. Thus, in a search for truth in history, these are the worst places to begin.
There is another complicating factor in that we humans often have a tendency to believe that if we know something, we know everything. We needn’t look very far to find a writer of one good article to suddenly believe he can write with authority on any topic. It works in reverse too, in that we too easily believe that if a person knows much on one subject, they must be an expert on everything. It is both ludicrous and painful to watch a news anchor sincerely requesting the opinion of a Steve Jobs on the Amazon rain forest – simply on the basis of the man having designed a cool mobile phone. And what does a 16 year-old Greta what’s-her-name know about anything?
What do we do now? If I am a beginner and want to learn about the history of Germany, where do I turn? Every accepted history book on the subject will have multiple serious flaws and I am in no position to know what they are or where they lie. Worse, if I read one book on any historical topic, Shirer’s Third Reich, for example, I may be colored forever by what I first read and it may prove exceedingly difficult to change my mind later in spite of discovering irrefutable evidence that contradicts my early-formed opinions and beliefs. I have no way to defend myself.
Fortunately, my interest in history was oblique rather than frontal, and I accidentally acquired much of my early education not from reading all the accepted and politically-correct textbooks, but from browsing second and third-tier websites, reading brief articles – especially those with reader comments, and similar sources. Eventually I’d seen enough of that and began doing independent research on small specific topics that interested me – such as the possibility of prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, my interest awakened from the persistent references to that prior knowledge indeed existing at the highest levels but not communicated to Pearl Harbor. None of this information appeared anywhere in respected history texts, and probably not in disrespected ones either, yet it has proven to be true.
I followed this developed pattern from that point onward, deliberately avoiding the accepted textbooks on a subject of my interest and instead pursuing other sources first. I will admit quickly that many, or even most, of those sources are at least partially if not entirely rubbish, items written by flakes, conspiracy theorists, amateurs, the uneducated, the great unwashed, the simple-minded and others similar. As well, much of it, and especially including reader comments, consists of deliberate misinformation. But not all, and in this simple fact lies a great salvation.
From perusing all these secondary and tertiary sources, I would learn which historical facts were generally accepted, and which were in dispute, and on most “facts of history” I would also encounter multiple frames of reference, hundreds of differing opinions and interpretations, and some genuine gold nuggets. Often, these nuggets would consist of little more than a brief comment in passing from an interested reader, but they would awaken me to an aspect of an historical event that I didn’t know existed.
And from all of this, it was eventually not difficult to identify the ideologues and trolls, and to sort out the rubbish from the rest. I might still not know the truth of an historical event, but I would have many facts, knowing which in dispute and which not, and I would generally know the framework of an event, one which had inadvertently been vetted by potentially thousands of people, the intelligent among them. Now, when I read Shirer’s book, it becomes immediately evident to me that he mixes opinion and fact, that important accepted facts are simply omitted from his tale, and I can see quickly that, however learned the man may appear to be, I am in fact being propagandised instead of being taught history. I am now able to defend myself.
These comments may seem strange to an average reader, but their wisdom in application is well-proven. If we look at the comments on websites such as this one, probably 95% are either off the topic or badly-flawed in some way, but we can also recognise the few intelligent and reasoned comments that are free of bias and opinion and that add not only to our knowledge but our understanding.
This latter point deserves explanation. I categorise knowledge and understanding as two very different things, similar to one seeing the trees or the forest. There are many books written on Germany or the War in the Pacific where the author clearly has a great deal of knowledge of the subject but, equally as clearly,doesn’t really understand anything about what happened or why it happened the way it did. As I wrote at the beginning, I was not so much on a search for knowledge as a quest for understanding. There are at least hundreds of thousands if not hundreds of millions of people who know more about Germany and the Wars than do I, but my overall understanding of those events might not surrender to so many of those people.
In this above context I could mention David Irving, an historian almost without equal, at least in some respects. And yet while his knowledge is admittedly extreme it is clear there are some things he didn’t understand very well. I don’t fault the man. He adhered rigidly to original documents, reporting faithfully what he discovered and documenting it beyond reproach, yet due to that same rigor he occasionally became so focused on the trees he was missing the forest.
As one example, from his documents, he concluded that about 150,000 to 200,000 people died in Dresden, but he missed many factors outside his ‘original documentation’ that should have led him to conclude the toll was many times higher. For one thing, the Americans bombed every town within traveling range of Dresden, driving refugees to that city, and bombed every alternative road and railroad that might have permitted passage in other directions. There is ample evidence that perhaps 600,000 German refugees flocked to Dresden in time for the final attack, and many reports not in Irving’s original papers that they strafed every column of refugees heading to Dresden but didn’t arrive, including ambulance convoys. They even strafed all the animals in the Dresden zoo. It is true that the final number of fatalities is in dispute, but it is arguably very much larger than Irving indicated. If he had dwelt more on the overall picture of the night-bombing and incineration-bombing, and consideredall the surrounding factors, he might have come to a very different conclusionalbeit one not so firmly documented as all his other pages. I would argue the man had, at least in some instances, knowledge without understanding.
It is very easy for us to find a history book on almost any topic that catches our interest, succumb to reading it and, for whatever reason, convince ourselves that we have read “the definitive work” on that subject and to then stubbornly close our minds to even the most glaring of contradictory facts, insisting to the death that we know everything about that topic when in reality much of what we “know” is either irrelevant or just plain wrong, and may omit some of the most important elements that entirely change the picture. It is not easy for any of us to maintain an open mind, especially on historical topics which evoke emotion – as most are prone to do.
I cannot end without admitting that what I have presented here is a digital image, a black and white portrait of information, while our real world is analogue – infinite shades of grey. The world of science is largely, but not entirely, factual. The world of physics, especially dealing with relativity, is sometimes overloaded with opinion and bias, as can astronomy be sometimes. And in the world of man we can identify works of minimal bias that provide trustworthy foundations for our knowledge and understanding.
Still, the generalisations hold, and for both readers and writers this requires
caution. Neither can believe everything they read, but the onus is on the researcher and writer to do one’s best to retain honesty and integrity, to not classify opinion as fact, to recognise and admit theories that are in dispute and, most importantly, to either search for truth or not search at all. In my view, it is unconscionable for an author or a respected media columnist (or a famous and admired actor) to then use that platform of respect as a shill to propagandise and indoctrinate trusting readers with tales that are factually false. I could name some very big names here, and they wouldn’t like it. And for readers, the task is to avoid the temptation to look only for articles or facts that agree with our predilections and to face the possibility that we think may be wrong. As someone wrote, “It would be better to not know so many things than to know so many things that are wrong.”
Let’s close with one live example from the COVID-19 world:
Several authors have published articles on this platform eulogizing Sweden as the poster country for virus control, passionately praising the Swedes for their penetrating discernment and good sense in leaving the country open, and using this as irrefutable proof that quarantines and isolation are counter-productive. Simultaneously, a great many commenters offer Sweden as proof that lockdowns are detrimental to the public health.
But here are the facts:
Country Population Infections Deaths
Sweden 10,000,000 350,000 8,000
Denmark 5,000,000 120,000 1,000
Norway 5,000,000 40,000 400
Finland 5,000,000 30,000 500
I have rounded off all the numbers for ease of reading; the roundings are inconsequential to the result. You can see clearly from the statistics that while Sweden has twice the population of the other three Nordic Countries, it has between 3 times and 10 times the number of virus infections and between 8 times and 16 times the number of deaths. The other three countries imposed quarantines and other measures while Sweden did not. So, on what basis can Sweden be used as an ideal for anything? It cannot be. On this basis of comparison, Sweden is a disaster.
What conclusions do we draw from this? Mainly that neither the writers nor the readers are interested in the truth, but are instead focused only on selling an ideological point of view on the uselessness of quarantines, undeterred by the fact that their premises are not only false but ridiculously so. Few are unaware of the true statistics, and none apparently care. And yet this is the kind of “research” that makes its way daily into the MSM and annually into the history books. It is all indoctrination, propaganda, and salesmanship, its relationship with the truth tenuous at best and often totally non-existent – as in this case.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 28 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English-language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has
been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. His full archive can be seen at https://www.moonofshanghai.com/and http://www.bluemoonofshanghai.com/ He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LARRY ROMANOFF is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’.
Copyright © Larry Romanoff,Moon of Shanghai, 2020