Why honing your bullshit detector matters

Review: Vivien Horler

Fake History: Ten great lies and how they shaped the world, by Otto English (Welbeck)

The trouble with fake history – like fake news – is you end up not knowing what to believe.

Everyone needs a bullshit detector, but even quite good ones can let you down from time to time. Otto English (the pen name of one Andrew Scott) is a British blogger, author and journalist who says we get our history from dimly remembered school classes, things that happened to our families or “the generally agreed notions” of what we all believe is true. And very often they aren’t.

So by the end of this book, after the debunking of scores of wonderful but apparently untrue stories – he says the better the story, the more likely it is to be false – you start to doubt yourself.

In the second last chapter, he tells an incredible story about Donald Trump. In a speech on Independence Day in July 2019, he claimed that during the US War of Independence in 1775, George Washington’s troops had had air supremacy and taken over the airports.

The story is believable because we all know Trump is a liar and is capable of saying anything he thinks will serve his purpose. I liked the story so much I WhatsApped it to my sister, only to read a footnote at the end of the last chapter saying: “PS: One of those stories I told you about Donald Trump in Chapter 10 is a deliberate lie – sorry.”

I’d been caught out; I’d read more than 300 pages of English’s rebuttals and still managed to fall for a good story. I ruefully mentioned all this to a friend and she said: “No, he really did say that – google it.”

So I did. And there are the videos of the Orange Wonder saying that Washington’s army “rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do”.

So what was English’s lie? It may be the bit about air supremacy – Trump doesn’t seem to have said that in the speech – but I don’t really know.

Still, Fake History is a great read. English has taken 10 generally accepted myths – ranging from Churchill was Britain’s greatest prime minister, to ancient people thought the earth was flat, that Britain could have lost the war (the book is pretty British-centred), curry comes from India, Hitler was a failed artist, Genghis Khan was a pitiless barbarian, and the good old days were good – and debunks them.

In his wide-ranging narrative he touches on many other historical topics and debunks some of them too. There’s a great origin tale about chicken tikka masala, for example. On a cold night in 1971 a Glasgow a bus driver walks into a restaurant called Shish Mahal and orders a “chicken dinner”.

Shish Mahal doesn’t do “chicken dinners”, so gives the bus driver chicken tikka instead. But the bus driver is unhappy – in his experience all food comes with gravy. Mr Ali, chef and owner of the restaurant, heats tinned tomato soup, adds some yoghurt, and serves the meal as “chicken tikka masala” – and a new dish is born.

Except it’s not true: the late food historian Peter Grove and his friend, restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab, made the story up over a bottle of wine. Turns out Wahhab, who ran Tandoor Magazine, became a source of stories for food journalists. But no one really knew the origin of chicken tikka masala, so the pair invented the story and Grove then repeated it in his The Real Curry Restaurant Guide.

Does it matter if we believe stuff that simply isn’t true? English believes it does. “Fake history, like fake news, poses a threat to us all. It distorts our collective world view – it shapes our modern politics to the ultimate detriment of all. And as such we must all take responsibility to fight, to activate our inner bullshit detectors and to query what we are told and ask these critical questions: Is that true? Did that really happen? And Who benefits?”

Good advice for us all, in a book that is a deliciously entertaining read.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for August.

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