A Historian Asks: Is it okay to lie about history for a good cause?

Pinocchio, the beloved character in Carlo Collodi's novel, had a nose that grew when he lied. (click for credit)
Pinocchio, the beloved character in Carlo Collodi’s novel, had a nose that grew when he lied.
(click for credit)

Not too long ago, the Fox network aired a reboot of Cosmos. The first version, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was a thirteen-part series hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan. The reboot, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, was a thirteen-part series hosted by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. While both series were mostly about science, they each mentioned the history of science from time to time. While I can’t comment on the first series, I can say without a doubt that the new series was spectacularly awful when it came to science history.

It started off badly when the first episode elevated Giordano Bruno to the status of scientific hero and martyr. The problem is, of course, that history tells a completely different story. Bruno was a champion of all sorts of strange ideas (such as that Satan would be redeemed by God and that Jesus was a magician, not the Son of God), and when he did discuss science, it was clear he didn’t understand it very well. He ended up being a martyr for magic and the occult, not for science. In addition, the serious natural philosophers of the day, like Kepler and Galileo, opposed Bruno.

Perhaps the worst treatment of science history by the new Cosmos was its discussion of Newton. Dr. Tyson actually claimed

Newton’s laws of gravity and motion revealed how the sun held distant worlds captive. His laws swept away the need for a master clockmaker to explain the precision and beauty of the solar system. Gravity is the clockmaker. [Episode 3: “When Knowledge Conquered Fear”]

Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the Master Clockmaker was the reason Newton came up with his Universal Law of Gravitation. Unlike the philosophers of the past, Newton believed that all motion should follow the same basic set of principles. This led to his Universal Law of Gravitation as well as his Laws of Motion. Why did Newton believe this? According to Dr. Morris Kline:1

The thought that all the phenomena of motion should follow from one set of principles might seem grandiose and inordinate, but it occurred very naturally to the religious mathematicians of the 17th century. God had designed the universe, and it was to be expected that all phenomena of nature would follow one master plan. One mind designing a universe would almost surely have employed one set of basic principles to govern related phenomena.

So rather than sweeping away the need for a Master Clockmaker, the laws he discovered were firmly rooted in the belief that there is a Master Clockmaker.

There are other examples of bad history in the new Cosmos, but that’s not the focus of my post. Instead, I want to discuss one historian’s reaction to the bad history in the television series. Dr. Joseph D. Martin is an assistant professor of history, philosophy, and sociology of science at Michigan State University. In a post entitled, “We need to talk about Cosmos…,” he states:

I’ve been watching with interest as the history of science community, particularly on Twitter, has reacted with consternation to the historical components of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot. To a large extent I agree with these criticisms. It is troubling that the forums in which the public gets the most exposure to history of science also tend to be those in which it is the least responsibly represented.

But part of me also wants to play devil’s advocate. First, Cosmos is a fantastic artifact of scientific myth making and as such provides a superb teaching tool when paired with more responsible historical presentations and perhaps some anthropological treatments of similar issues like Sharon Traweeks Beamtimes and Lifetimes.

Second, I don’t know that we, as a community, have adequately made the case that the scholarly view of history we advance is, in fact, more useful for current cultural and political discourse than the naïve view scientists advance. One thing we often see in our research, and parallel work in philosophy of science, is that “right” is often not the same thing as “useful.” I’m interested in generating some discussion in why and how, if at all, we can make the case that “useful” and “right” are and should be the same thing in this case for reasons other than internal professional ones.

That’s a long quote, but read it carefully. He agrees that the history in Cosmos is bad, but he says that might be okay. After all, the bad history portrayed in the series is “more useful for current cultural and political discourse.” As a result, he wants to have a discussion about whether or not it’s okay to use the “useful” version of history instead of the “right” one. In other words, he is asking whether or not it is okay to lie about history if it helps people believe what you want them to believe!

I could understand this if a politician were writing it. I wouldn’t agree, of course, but I could at least see why a politician would be interested in discussing whether or not it’s okay to lie to support a particular agenda. However, this is an academic historian. An academic historian should be interested in only one thing: uncovering the truth about what happened in the past. Nonsense like the bad history portrayed in Cosmos should be an anathema to him!

The answer to his question is obvious: Of course it’s not right to lie about history, no matter what agenda the lie supports. If a historian really has to ask that question, something is dreadfully wrong!


1. Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, Oxford University Press 1980, p. 52.
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18 thoughts on “A Historian Asks: Is it okay to lie about history for a good cause?”

  1. I had the same reaction to the new series, and couldn’t make it past the second episode, loaded as it was with naturalistic-worldview biases.

    The thing that struck me most was the way that suppositions, hypothesis and theories were presented as if they were established fact. The false history is just another side to that same coin, though a far more damning one. I guess there are those who’ll go to any lengths to deny the debt they owe to the Christian worldview.

    I was watching an episode with my kids, and had to stop every minute or so to clarify or correct a misleading or false statement made by Tyson.

    Thanks for bringing this to the fore.

  2. Ah, I was hoping you would make a post about Cosmos at some point! I saw a few episodes of the show, but I was turned off by the obvious philosophical biases that permeated it. I hadn’t heard of Giordano Bruno before watching the show, but when I did some reading of my own about him later, I was just shocked at how Cosmos had misrepresented him so as to paint the church as anti-science.

    Regarding Dr. Martin’s quote- if he is troubled by the fact that “useful” and “right” do not always have the same definition, I suppose I can understand that. But that just means it’s not always easy (or useful) to do the right thing. Is he really suggesting that we favor doing what is useful over doing what is right? I’d like to give his quote the most sympathetic reading possible. Maybe he’s just complaining that the right thing isn’t always the most useful thing.

    1. I understand your desire to give Dr. Martin the benefit of the doubt, Keith, but I don’t think that’s possible here. Notice what discussion he wants to generate:

      I’m interested in generating some discussion in why and how, if at all, we can make the case that “useful” and “right” are and should be the same thing in this case for reasons other than internal professional ones. (emphasis mine)

      He is wondering if they can make the case that what is useful is the right thing to say to the general public, but not the right thing to say among professional historians. To me, that makes it clear he is saying that professional historians search for what really happened in history, but to the general public, they communicate whatever is useful.

      Now please note he says he is playing “Devil’s advocate,” so he doesn’t necessarily believe this. He is just asking the question. My point is that the question has such an obvious answer that it need not be asked.

  3. I just had a conversation about this very topic – oh, the convenience.

    I do a good deal of reading; I enjoy learning thoroughly, and there’s nothing quite like a good book to me. Nonetheless, as I become more and more informed about everything, particularly about science, and all the scandals and controversies surrounding it, I have started wondering how much of the information presented in various books and graphs and such I can take for granted. In other words, how much is speculation (or even lies) being presented in a manner so that you take it as fact? It’s a very disturbing thing, that you study these books and articles and unwittingly ‘learn’ about things that sometimes don’t have an ounce of truth behind them. It isn’t quite fair, to be honest.

    But then agendas are more important than honesty, I suppose.

  4. “A lie is a lie. Just because they write it down and call it history, doesn’t make it the truth. we live in a world where seeing is not believing where only a few know what really happened. we live in a world where everything you know is wrong”- unknown

  5. Jay, As always I so respect you articles that are excellent!

    This has been one of my biggest problem with history and science and any other subject that is written for the purpose of an agenda, and not actually factually. I work very hard to get original documentation, but it is impossible in one lifetime to research original documentation and verify research on every point of history or science.

    Personally, I lean toward doing the work on history, but still it is so huge. Every point of history could take a year or more to research to verify using original documentation.

    I wish more historians and scientist had integrity, and not a bias or agenda.

  6. Lawrence, I think it’s good that you’re watching the show with your kids. As Dr. Martin pointed out, it could actually be a great teaching tool in the right circumstances. Tyson’s habit of presenting theories as facts is shared by a lot of people in a lot of contexts, and it’s good to learn how to recognize it for the posturing that it is.

  7. That’s one assistant professor who hopefully will not be getting tenure. Very frightening.

  8. Dr. Martin’s comment reminds me of the reasons people give me for supporting alarmist global warming theories. I have had some disturbing discussions with people in which they tell me that they don’t know if man-made global warming theories are correct, but cutting back on fossil fuel consumption is the right thing to do anyway, so for that reason alone global warming theories are helpful and should not be opposed. (!)
    I don’t care what good you think may come of it, it is ALWAYS wrong to use bad science to promote “good” behavior. ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.
    Key people are being silent accomplices by not speaking up when they know better. Others are being noisy accomplices by repeating things that they don’t really know are true.

  9. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…
    Not sure where that saying came from, but I used to hear it from my mother. It seems to apply here.

  10. Jay,

    Not to sound overly cynical, but I suggest that this is exactly what we should really expect from those who think the world is just a machine.

    That pure philosophical naturalists would have ethical scruples about telling the truth about history perhaps says more about the world that they have come out of (namely, a world influenced by Christian ideas) than anything else.

    I have recently contended that the whole idea of seeing the cosmos as a machine is a mistake because it creates a greater temptation to become wholly pragmatic in all our doings (and machine-like ourselves in our dealings with others)….

    If you would, check out this post:


    You might also find this one interesting:


    Really appreciate your blog and the intelligent voice you bring. I read you and Todd Wood regularly.


  11. Lindy,

    I can relate to what you’re saying. I’ve barely shaved off the top of the ice on many topics, such as: philosophy, theology, and science. Lately I’ve felt it is important to learn the truth about the biographies of historical thinkers. However, to find the truth about these figures I feel like I could spend a lifetime on studying even ONE of them, let alone all of them. It’s daunting! Especially these days when there is so much information to sift through. How have you gone about researching original documentation?

    Your comment reminded me of something that Lewis said in Mere Christianity. “Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority…A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.” I think that that is so true. How many things, as an individual, have we really experienced so as to know them to be true without outside influence? Even when we look at the data, as Dr. Wile strongly encourages, we are looking at what others have experienced, not what we ourselves have experienced. So even in that way we are relying on the authority of the scientists that performed the experiments and recorded the data.

  12. Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the TV program itself, so I’m talking in more general terms.

    Part of the problem here, of course, is the question of who determines the definition of useful. If the use to which you want to put your presentation is to malign a group you happen to disagree with (but of course, could be right) then what you’re doing may be inherently unethical even without lying to accomplish it.
    Surely useful coincides with both appropriate, and factually correct (to disambiguate interpretations of “right”) when your aim is to educate people about what happened in the past given that you think the past may be a predictor of the present. If you find yourself having to lie in that instance to get the tale to fit your worldview, it’s far more appropriate to question your own view!

    On the other hand, I’d have some sympathy with the example David H raises. After all, it is certainly a defensible position that the things we’re doing to the planet will mess up the climate, in ways that will be broadly bad. It may make sense, when talking to people who do not have the training or indeed the time to sift through argument and counter argument and counter argument with charts and tables, to simply say “This is the problem. Do something about it.”

    There is of course a difference between telling someone something that you know to be false and telling them something you think is probably true, but glazing over some of the unlesses and caveats.

    A particularly interesting question of this sort is in medical ethics. Is it better to tell a patient “This medicine will make you better” than to say “It is very likely, unless you have a rare resistant strain, that this medicine will make you better, but there’s a 1 in 10000 chance that it’ll give you a headache”, especially if the second makes them (a) far more likely to have a headache because of the nocebo effect, and (b) more likely to stop taking the medicine if they (even coincidentally) get a headache, possibly leading to complications in their illness, resistance to the drug, etc. Giving them more factually correct information is actively harmful toward the aim of better public health.

    Extending this, it isn’t hard to imagine a situation where a doctor could make someone healthier (or prevent them from making themselves worse) with a straight lie. While I would think that’s out of the grey and into the black, I know some people would think that honesty surely doesn’t matter when the use of the lie is so great (and indeed, selfless).

    1. Those are good thoughts, Josiah. I agree that it is defensible to glaze over counterarguments, especially when you think the person hearing (or reading) doesn’t have the ability to sort through them. However, that’s a far cry from what Cosmos did with its blatant mischaracterizations of history.

      The medical issue you bring up is much “grayer” in terms of how one treats it. You are certainly right that the nocebo effect is real and can lead to negative health consequences. At the same time, however, when it comes to medicine, I think patients need to be fully informed. In the cased of a headache side effect, the consequences aren’t great, but let’s up the stakes a bit. Let’s suppose the known side effect is something different, like a small chance of causing damage to the heart. If a doctor doesn’t tell me about this small risk because of the nocebo effect, I might ignore any chest pains I got, passing them off as gas. However, if I am told about the possibility of heart damage, I’ll take any symptoms of heart damage much more seriously, which might save my life.

      In the end, even if it risks the possibility of making them less like to get better, I think patients should be given full disclosure. In my mind, health care is ultimately up to the patient, not the doctor. Nevertheless, I see how this can be a very difficult thing for doctors to deal with.

  13. A little late to the discussion, but I ran across these blog posts on the subject of Bruno and thought some might be interested in reading them. They are rather long but interesting reads – as are most of the other entries on their blogs. (By the way, the authors agree that Cosmos got it wrong.)




  14. I am from an engineering and science background. So take my comments for what they are worth.

    Science per se, is NOT about discovering the “Truth”. It is about creating workable models (theories) by which we can gain an understanding of the universe about us. These models should help us to discover new things. The first feature of all of the models developed is that they provide a means of falsifying the model. That is, the theory/model should provide possible experiments to be undertaken that will either enhance the theory/model or show that it is wrong.

    Many of the models in use today in the various areas/fields of science do not have that feature. For example, climate models are used for predictive purposes and yet they do such a bad job of predictability that they should be thrown out. Error in the range of 20% are NOT acceptable. Errors in the range of <1% show promise. Moreover, in every discussion I have had with scientists who promulgate the anthropogenic climate change model, they have refused to answer the energy equation problems with their models. Simply put, it requires a very specific amount of energy to melt ice and the amount of energy required for their "flamboyant prognostications" is of such a magnitude that we could release the entire world nuclear arsenal and destroy all life on the planet and still be 5 or 6 orders of magnitude too little to do the job. Am I saying we shouldn't be looking for alternative technologies that don't pollute. Not at all. We have one planet and we need to look after it.

    In terms of the reality of the universe around us, every science theory/model can be likened to a photograph, oil painting or drawing of what we see. They miss the real details.

    In terms of actively misconstruing history (lying about it), this will simply end up invalidating the theories and models that subsequently arise. Instead of keeping it to the facts, they will make it mythological in nature and hence make it ineffective for moving forward with our understanding.

    The procedure should, this is our model, we are making the following assumptions and simplifications and as such the model only has application in these specific areas. Any conclusions that arise in areas that the model is not applicable can be investigated but are expected to have no reality.

    Unfortunately, many of these "so-called" scientists seem to quite readily descend into myth and lies, instead of facts.

    The model for the Big Bang has been updated so many times with "unexplainable" modifications to get it to approach some semblance of matching the observable universe that it can accurately be likened the old "Everything orbits the earth" model in use till the times of Copernicus and his ilk where they changed the model to the planets revolving around the sun.

    The standard model for sub-atomic physics has so many starting unexplained conditions to try and explain the smallest observations. However, the accuracy for explaining the binding energy of nuclei is far less than a number of other models which are essentially geometrical in nature. Go figure. There are alternative models/theories that have far fewer initial assumptions and explain more of the observable properties of matter.

    Black holes, neutron stars, dark energy, dark matter are also examples of things predicted by certain models. But when looked into in finer detail, one makes the observation that these entities will not be found ever. Black holes can't form because of time dilation – from our point of view it would take forever for a black to form (part of the underlying model they use). Neutron stars cannot form because neutrons are unstable unless in the presence of a specific range of protons. No stable neutron entity consisting of four or more neutrons has ever been observed and based on the models uses cannot exist.

    The fundamental feature of all models is that they ignore (for simplicities sake) various details to try and get a workable entity. When I did my engineering all those years ago, it was stressed very heavily, that models are used to get a workable answer BUT all models have limited uses. Change the basic starting points and the models become unworkable.

  15. Hill Strong,

    Thanks for your comments here, which certainly sound right to me. One thing I find interesting: the modern naturalistic theory (model?) of the cosmos posits no teleology and yet it seems very confident that one of the functions (purposes?) of the cosmos – or parts of the cosmos – is to serve as a clock whereby we might be able to accurately gauge its age. Interesting “model”. It seems to me a little bit more epistemolgical humility – and respect for practical engineers for yourself (who certainly are not saying truth is unimportant)- is in order.


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