Well, actually: Mythbusting history doesn't work

By Anna & Leila 

It’s hard to do history in public, but it’s even harder when actual historians have given public history a reputation for aggressive fact-checking and incessant pedantry. These fierce internet warriors call this practice ‘mythbusting’ and galavant through Twitter lopping off the hydra-heads of “myths” about historical figures and events in valiant defense of their chosen discipline. And it’s a real bummer. The seemingly noble goal of correcting misinterpretation and educating the public is actually a vain campaign of ego that is ultimately ineffective and does real damage to the public perception of the profession and interest in the past. Mythbusting is mean, petty, and worst of all- boring.

The fundamental disconnect in mythbusting is that professional historians and relatively well-read armchair professors will always know more about the rich context surrounding the bite-sized historical facts that circulate on social media than the general public. They are operating at a huge advantage because they have simply wasted more of their time reading long, boring books than everyone else. This inequality means that historians are having a different conversation than everyone else. Doing history in public should be about finding common ground with those we want to engage, instead of trying to turn everyone into a historian. It’s okay to think and care about the past in different ways, and the role of the historian should be as a facilitator and conduit to the past, not to make more historians. Please don’t do that, there aren’t any jobs as it is.

Mythbusting in the history of science has its own specific patterns and problems related to the larger-than-lifeness of figures, like Galileo or Newton, and the aura of revolution that surrounds their theories. This is very fertile ground for myth-making and tempting, if often low-hanging fruit for the heroic history gatekeepers. No, Galileo didn’t mutter anything insolent or defiant about the motion of the earth as he was sentenced, and no, Newton almost certainly had very little violent contact with fruit of any kind. But it really - really- doesn’t matter if people on the internet believe these things. What might possibly matter about these myths is how they were formed, how they are sustained, and the reasons that people value these stories and find them interesting. And trying to unpack these myths would in fact be injecting some nuance into the public perception of history, but that’s not what mythbusting is about.

Often mythbusting is directed at characterizations of women and firsts, inventors, or discoverers. This framing makes women’s history especially vulnerable to mythbusting because in science and technology there are not truly solo discoveries. Mythbusters then use this to diminish the importance of women’s achievements by “putting them into context” and “adding a little nuance.” On the surface, this might look like to nuance that we’re asking for in public conversations about history, but in practice, it simply reproduces the erasure of women from history. We put women into the categories of firsts and discoverers because this is often the only way to generate public interest in their stories. And these categories are only exciting because they are what men do. The nuanced no-solo-firsts argument is almost never advanced in the case of men, even though it's just as true. If there must be mythbusting then we demand that it be equal opportunity mythbusting instead of the selective use of these tactics to undo all the work feminist historians of science have done to recover the stories of women. But we’d prefer no mythbusting on anyone. Instead, we need to find ways to make history interesting and engaging without having to rely on the categories of solo firsts that help to generate these myths in the first place.

A frequent accusation that comes with the territory of mythbusting is that of hagiography, a dirty word used in history to describe uncritical fluff work about people who have gotten too much attention anyway. When the subject is a woman, however, the playing field becomes uneven. Even straight biographies of women are slapped with the accusation of hagiography. By flinging that accusation around, at, say, a conference in front of a room of people, it is a tactic to silence women’s voices, both those of historical actors and the scholars, often women themselves, who try to recover them. Hagiography is not good history. But the act of recovering women’s lives and voices in and of itself is not hagiography, and the accusation that it is drips of sexist attitudes and a resistance to diversify the historical narrative.

When the likes of Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are brought up, a common response is a historical version of “what about the men?!” The men in this case being William Herschel and Charles Babbage. A couple of things need to happen before we recognize the menz when we’re trying to have a conversation about women. One, on Darwin Day, everyone goes around saying “What about Alfred Russel Wallace?!” or “Hey! Remember that thing he said about black people and women?!” And two, we recognize these women without invoking the men in their lives. William Herschel and Charles Babbage have done fine for themselves without the presence of these two particular women, and history has treated them quite favorably.

The mythbusting isn’t equal opportunity. Being on the receiving end of this, we can confidently say that there is a real reactionary pushback against the incorporation of more women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities into the history of science. White men have always been visible in history-- hell, the construction of historical method has been built around them. Knocking Darwin down a few notches is not the same as telling Rosalind Franklin to stop whining. Mythbusting a post about Galileo isn’t the same as doing it about Ada Lovelace. The first can stand to not be talked about for like three minutes and the other is only just becoming a known figure. Mythbusting stops the conversation, which is less about facts and more about representation. A better question to tackle might be, why is it so important to the current community of women in STEM to recognize Ada Lovelace as the first computer programmer? The answer to this question, of course, leads us back to that unequal playing field-- to that historical narrative that idolizes discoverers, inventors, and creators, which have mostly been recognized as men.

Of all the reasons we’ve given for mythbusting being a problematic way to approach history in the public sphere, the most troubling is that the practice is often used as a pretext for bullying and harassment, discrediting authors, and silencing people. Our objection to mythbusting and our writing about historical actors like Ada Lovelace has recently become a reason to discredit our publication, which is unapologetically feminist, and the work that we do, which is also unapologetically feminist. It has become a reason to discredit and silence our writers, mouthy women who also happen to be credentialed historians of science. The internet and social media have become important and necessary mediums to communicate historical information to the public, and we want to harness that platform to bring the stories of underrepresented people into the public sphere of history. If we are constantly fighting within our own community and battling online harassment from its members, we are facing unnecessary obstacles.

If mythbusting actually worked, the Galileo myth would have been the first to go down fighting. But it hasn’t; it is alive and well in the public imagination. If you care about communicating history of science to the public, if you care that scientists listen when we say science is socially constructed, if you care that history of science influences public policy, then it’s time we all center what is important and give a friendlier and less antagonistic face to the discipline.


Please read our comment policy before commenting.