Literature & Scholarship

Forgeries, Lies, and Deception in History

Lies loom large over the historian’s craft. Historians devote considerable time to parsing the tensions among words, intentions, and behaviours. Reconstructing the inner lives of those who lived in the past is a notoriously difficult task. It is doubly so when you know your informants are deliberately leading you astray. And yet deception hasn’t really figured as a category of historical analysis. My recent book asks, to what extent do our conceptions of lying, fraud, and deception have a history? What would such a history entail?

Michael Pettit’s How the Lie Was Told offers an enticing glimpse into his latest book The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America, a sort of history of lies and deception in modern America.

Deception has attracted attention before. Recently, the Piltdown man hoax has received renewed attention. See Rebekah Higgit’s The Piltdown Man and Other Phantom Species or Joanna Cordon’s Piltdown Man or the Natural History Museum’s Piltdown Man—Greatest Hoax in History of Science?. Whereas it took 40 years to determine that the Piltdown Man was a hoax, the Moon Hoax was more quickly revealed a clever deception yet continues to attract attention. See Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon.

Scholars have looked more generally at hoaxes. For example, a century ago Daniel Hering devoted considerable attention to hoaxes in his Foibles and Fallacies of Science: An Account of Celebrated Scientific Vagaries. Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics explores the ways modern criticism has grown out of earlier scholarly efforts to detect forgeries, forgeries such as those detailed in Ingrid Roland’s The Scarith of Scornello. The tools have evolved, but scholars are still revealing forgeries and hoaxes as detailed in the two volume Galileo’s O and summarized in Nick Wilding’s upcoming lecture at International Antiquarian Book Fair.

What interests me about Pettit’s book is how it promises to move the study of forgery beyond the easy for-profit motivations that we typically assume explain a forger’s actions and connects deception more broadly to developments in modern psychology. I look forward to reading his book.

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