The Curious Phenomenon of Academic Telephone: Alternative Facts in History

By Aroop Mukharji

In the four years since former White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway popularized the term “alternative facts,” the division between believers of alternative facts (things that did not happen) and real facts (things that did happen) has widened and intensified. The rotten fruits of this division were on sharp display at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, when right-wing extremists attempted to overturn the results of a fair election through terrorism.

In time, alternative facts risk becoming alternative histories. As someone who studies history, I cannot help but wonder (and worry) about the era that I write about, the late 1890s and early 1900s. What alternative facts and alternative histories are out there, and why?

As I thought more about it, I became less curious about “alternative fact entrepreneurs,” people who, like Conway and former White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer, knowingly promote alternative facts and histories. They might be the most consequential, but they are also the easiest to catch. Perhaps future historians will wonder about the true size of the inauguration crowd on January 20, 2017. But I have faith that they will just look at the pictures.

For me, what are far more difficult to capture are the alternative facts that are unintentional. Details that are either misreported, or—maybe harder to find—those that somehow develop and twist over time. And they are out there. Even some of the best scholarship portrays realities that did not exist.

In “telephone,” a children’s game, players sit in a circle and pass along a single (usually silly) message, whispered contiguously from person to person. The last person to receive the message then announces it and the group compares it to the original. Typically, the messages differ despite the best intentions of whisperers to portray the message accurately. As the message is passed along, it often gets muddled or misremembered, particularly in big circles.

Academic work confronts a similar trap. This is especially the case for scholarship that cite secondary sources that cite secondary sources that cite secondary sources that cite… and so on.

Consider this example of a single message filtered through four books. In his 1914 biography of Speaker of the House Thomas Bracket Reed (nicknamed “Czar” Reed), Samuel McCall writes that Reed was uninterested in annexing Hawaii in 1898. McCall writes that “it appeared no more necessary to annex Hawaii in order to conquer Spain or to promote the purposes for which we went to war, than it was to annex the moon.” Here, McCall is opining on Reed’s feelings, not quoting him.

In 1931, Walter Millis directly quotes McCall’s sentence (with single quotation marks), but does not cite McCall formally, and phrases the quote in a way that makes it seem like Reed actually mentioned the moon. Millis writes, “‘Czar’ Reed, it is true, remained obdurate, for to him ‘it appeared no more necessary to annex Hawaii in order to conquer Spain or to promote the purposes for which we went to war than it was to annex the moon.’”

Fast forward seventy years. James Grant, in his 2011 biography of Reed, citing Millis, interprets Millis’ comment to imply that Reed actually spoke those words. He writes, “It mystified Reed why, in order to whip Spain, America had to have Hawaii. We may as well ‘annex the moon,’ he said.”

In 2017, this quote moved one step further away from reality, becoming a private conversation between Reed and a friend. Stephen Kinzer, citing Grant, writes about Reed, “He told a friend that the United States might as well ‘annex the moon.’”

In one hundred years, over the course of four books, McCall’s opinion became a conversation between two friends, a fact of alternative history.

These mistakes certainly do not appear intentional. The three authors—Millis, Grant, and Kinzer—made reasonable interpretations of the book that preceded theirs. Only when you compare the final product (the end of the circle, so to speak—Kinzer) to the first (McCall), can you see the drastic difference.

In this case, the mistake is minor. McCall accurately captured Reed’s feelings toward annexing Hawaii. Thus, Millis, Grant, and Kinzer were correct in their characterization of Reed, even if the words were never actually spoken.

But the consequences of academic telephone can easily be huge. One of the biggest misconceptions of the causes of the Spanish-American War in 1898 is that the sensationalist yellow press pushed President William McKinley to wage war on Spain. William Randolph Hearst allegedly told a reporter, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Except, Hearst never actually said that. In an assiduously documented study, W. Joseph Campbell debunks this myth. And yet, through that quote, the power of the yellow press in the Spanish-American War lives on in the American narrative. Even Jill Lepore, one of the leading historians of our era, endorses the quote in her celebrated history of the United States.

This issue also affects our understanding of peace and conflict. The conflict dataset most widely used by political scientists is the Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) dataset, now in its fifth iteration, produced by the Correlates of War Project. Every interstate dispute from 1816-2014 (where force was threatened, displayed, or used) is impressively coded on a variety of metrics. The reference manual additionally contains descriptions of each of the disputes. But, the case descriptions and dataset have zero references for disputes before 2010. How can anyone know if the facts the MID dataset contains are true or alternative? As we saw above, intentionality does not obviate academic telephone. How can anyone check without investigating every single fact for each conflict on their own? Given the amazing breadth and depth of the dataset, the lack of referencing is a tragedy.  

Accountability and analytical clarity come from citations. To me, footnotes (and citations broadly) represent the very heart of academic historical work. They chart how scholars make their arguments and from what sources they draw their evidence. They lay bare the scaffolding for each claim. At a minimum, a list of references shows where the facts come from. Anyone can make any argument about anything. Citations are the only way to judge if those arguments pass muster. Without them, the reader is simply left to guess or trust. Their absence (and minimization) sets up a game of academic telephone.

As we face ever greater risks of alternative facts becoming alternative histories, it is my deep hope that academics, publishers, journalists, think tanks, and writers meet that challenge with greater, more enthusiastic footnoting and referencing.

Aroop Mukharji is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies. He received his PhD in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter at @aroopmukharji.

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