Red flags for pseudo-history?

by PolyNeoYeo

Let’s say I find a history book at the store. It looks interesting. I read it, it has extensive citations and references. Being an amateur with not enough time to check the citations or references fully, are there any red flags or trends to look out for when reading a book to know it’s hogwash?


Generally speaking, any book that claims that reveal "never before seen/know" history or claims that historians have been lying, keeping the truth from you, etc. etc. should be read with a very skeptical eye. This doesn't mean that no new history (as it were) appears in books, but even when that happens, historians are building on the work of others or otherwise expanding what's known.


Mostly bad histories don't have extensive citations- citations, footnotes, bibliographies, are a lot of work, and a bad history will be attracting readers by other means. An extensive bibliography is also, therefore, a good sign. We all have biases, but a bad historian, someone who is trying to row to a desired objective, will typically read and use mostly sources they agree with, won't read things they don't like. If you run across, say, a history of the Mexican-American War and the reference list is lacking in Mexican sources, features books published by something called The Texas Freedom Institute, you can suspect it's been writ-to-a-purpose. There are other clues, of course; does the book have an academic publisher, like Oxford University Press? Is the author someone who's done good books already? Some years back the political commentator/entertainer Bill O'Reilly put out a book( he likely didn't do a lot of the grunt work writing it) purporting to show that Gen. George Patton was assassinated by Stalin. It was quickly slammed by the historical community as being very far-fetched: but, given the author, that could have been predicted.

This is all pretty common-sense stuff. But I should put in a plug for using a Citation Search as a way to look for good things, discard bad, if you're researching a question and you really want to find good sources.,cited%20the%20text%20you%20specified.


A more minor point than what has been stated here, but there are many things in history that simply cannot be stated definitively, but pseudo-history often deals in absolutes.

We forget, sometimes, that we currently document our lives a lot more extensively than many people often did in the past, so many aspects of history are still a mystery in the sense that we can't know for certain. We can make educated guesses, based on what we have, but there's often no way to state things definitively - but pseudo-history often does. Historians tend to be more cautious.

As an illustrative example from my own field: we have extremely limited information about a pre-Christian pagan Irish religion. We have some archaeological evidence, we have some names that may be the names of former gods. But we do not have any description of beliefs, we do not have any descriptions of religious practice.

Yet you will find an enormous amount of pseudo-history discussing the exact pagan Irish beliefs, details about a pantheon of gods and the roles that they filled in this belief system, and specific practices carried out by the Irish. There are tendrils of truth running through these pseudo-histories, but they present tenuous evidence as definitive proof (and often fill in gaps with their own imagination.)


One pattern I watch for is a sequence of argument that goes like this: establish A as a possibility. Build on A as a fact to establish B as a possibility. Build on B as a fact to establish C as a possibility. End by triumphantly stating Z as fact, without a single solid fact having been used along the way to that conclusion. Like this:

p.10: We know from his diary that Joe Schmo saw a doctor on 15 June 1888. Going by his vague mentions of symptoms, it's possible that it was for disease X.

p.50: We know that Joe Schmo had disease X, and medical books of the time show that medicine Y was sometimes prescribed for it, so there's a possibility that he was prescribed medicine Y.

p.100: We know that Joe Schmo was taking medicine Y, and one of its possible side effects is heightened aggression, so he may have had that side effect.

p.150: It's possible, going by anecdotes passed down in his family, that Joe Schmo had a STI when he was young.

p.200: Since we know Joe Schmo suffered from an STI when he was young, it's possible that he picked it up from a sex worker.

p.250: Since Joe Schmo picked up an STI from a sex worker, it's possible that he held a grudge against sex workers.

p.300: We know that Joe Schmo was in France in 1888, but there's a gap in his diaries from this date to that one. It's possible that he took a trip and didn't bring his diary along.

p.350: Since we know Joe Schmo was travelling between these dates, it's possible that he went to London.

p.400: Since we know that in 1888 Joe Schmo was in London, had a violent hatred of sex workers, and was suffering from outbursts of rage because of his consumption of medicine Y, Joe Schmo was clearly Jack the Ripper, QED and mic drop.

Establishing something as a possibility isn't the same as establishing it as a fact, and blurring over the difference is one of my major red flags for hogwash.


This may not always be practical in a bookstore, but looking at books online, I do a few things:

  1. Look for blurbs. Are there supportive quotes on the back cover from respected sources? Other historians, reputable publications, etc. You may not always recognize the names of historians, but the more blurbs there are, the more reliable the book.
  2. Look for other books by the same author. Have they written other books? Do those books seem legit? As a part of this, look at the author’s biography. Are they a car salesman writing a history book, or a professional historian?
  3. Look at the publisher. If it’s self-published, I avoid it. If it’s a major publisher, that doesn’t mean it’s flawless, but it’s probably not going to be super crazy.
  4. Search for book reviews. A quick google search of the book with the word “review” will be a good indicator. If it’s an obscure author on an obscure topic, you may not find any. But that could be telling. Look for reviews from major publications like the New York Times, rather than some blog. If it’s a big seller with a bad idea, reviews will say so.
  5. Generally ignore Amazon user reviews. I’ve found some awful history books with 4-5 star ratings on Amazon. Lost Cause pro-Confederacy books have a lot of fans on the internet.

Generally, if you’re not convinced, skip the book and look for another one of the same topic. I find that reading one book on a topic is not a good way to be a critical reader. I usually need to read 3-4 books on a topic before I can read one and say “yeah, I don’t agree with the author here.”


One piece of low-hanging fruit is simply to do a web search for the author's name and for the title of the book. Look particularly for the author's professional background (e.g. professors and other professional historical researchers tend to be less likely to be cranks); honors, awards, and recognitions (pay attention to the nature and source of the honor: e.g. a Royal Society fellowship or a Nobel prize is a much better recommendation than an award from the International Flat Earth Society); titles and subjects of other works they've written; and whether or not they're noted for "controversial" political views. Reading or even skimming published reviews of the book can tell you a fair amount as well.

I often add "" to the search as well, since many high-profile authors (both good and bad) often get their merits discussed in threads on this subreddit. For example, a search here on William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich will tell you that while it's very engagingly written and has a lot of good content (particularly Shirer's first-hand accounts from his time as a journalist covering many of the events leading up to the war), it's very dated, disconnected from mainstream scholarship even at the time it was first written, and has some major methodological flaws. And many of the threads also recommend higher-quality alternatives, such as Richard Evans's Third Reich trilogy.


Can provide some concrete examples: Tom Holland and Dan Carlin.

Recently read Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind and the historiography he employs is terrible. The central thesis is christianity has influenced western ways of thinking- overtly and more subtly- in all facets of life. That’s a bit of an obvious take, so he does a sweeping overview from the time of Christ right up to the #MeToo movement.

This sort of history fits firmly within the enlightenment period epic conjecture history genre, where an author would try to look at the history of a nation and point out continuity and features common to said nation at every major milestone of its history. In essence, to identify the “character” or “spirit” of a nation in its overt and subtle forms, from major treaties to battlefields to national heroes and martyrs. Revisionism, in short.

Holland argues legislation, our notion of human rights, and even secular atheists draw on Christian frameworks and assumptions in their ways of thinking because everyone in the west is from what was ostensibly a Christian nation. There’s no sociocultural nuance or exception. Indeed, there’s little time set aside to characterise what “Christian” even means at any given point other than obvious theological doctrine and organisational structures. But this is the problem when you’re writing a book that spans across numerous continents and thousands of years and try to shoehorn it all into your central thesis. It relies heavily on conjecture to make connections. On the surface however, it seems like an impressive piece of scholarship, not unlike 18th century histories.

Carlin on the other hand never establishes what he’s discussing in the current literature and research. A great example is his “king of kings” episode about the Persian empire. I recall him repeating the “Spartan myth” about how they were elite warriors in the ancient world in the lead up to Thermopylae- something Iphikrates and a number of scholars have debunked time and again as ancient propaganda. A thorough look at another piece his work and its problem with sources from IlluminatiRex can be found here.

In short: a red flag to me is when a non-expert like either of the aforementioned individuals write or speak to a significant chunk of history, for starters. If the reviews it has aren’t from academics in the field, you may also want to do a quick search to see the critical response.


The responses here are great, so I'll offer an answer from a different perspective. There are two great podcasts I'd recommend. The first is Our Fake History by Sebastian Major ( He explores, "What's real history, what isn't, and what's such a great story it just needs to be told."" He's a great storyteller and has a clear passion for history. He teaches it too and has a deep knowledge. He explores historical myths, misconceptions, and pseudohistory. I reccomend it because he looks at a lot of the things you might come across, not knowing if it's real or reliable; listening to him over time is not only fascinating, but will give you an idea of what to look for in deciding how accurate a given work is.

The swcond is Skeptoid by Brian Dunning ( He looks skeptically at all things pseudoscience, urban myth, and woo. They're bite-sized episodes but very informative; there's a blog as well, with thorough citations. The podcast is great because he often refers in a meta sense about how to apply critical thinking skills and the common red flags to identify when someone is less than scientific. He has a subscription model now, and I think only the 200 most recent episodes are available for free, but there's something like a decade of podcasts to go through. Anyway, you're already in the right track in even asking this question and not taking any book at face value -- good on you!


I'm not a historian but I'm an academic in another field, and what I'm about to say pretty much holds in general.

As an amateur, you're often not going to be in a position to assess the validity of the content you're reading. What you have to look at instead are credentials. Does the author have a PhD in history? Do they work for an accredited academic institution (and to a lesser extent, which one)? These are the first metrics you, as a layperson, should use to assess whether something is trustworthy.

Of course, even if it's trustworthy doesn't mean it's right. But it's probably at least in the right ballpark. If you want to know more about its strengths and weaknesses, start looking at works that cite it (the "cited by" feature of Google Scholar is very helpful here). You can often find reviews written by other academics that will highlight any major shortcomings, and the bare fact that something has a bunch of citations is already a good (though not infallible) sign of broad reliability.


Another Historian here: I work as a local historian so I deal with this a lot. Local history is full of amateurs writing about their home town, without the methodological background needed to write solid history. My community also has the final home of famed pioneer Daniel Boone, so I work a lot in famous history, which is full of myths.

As has been said and I will reiterate, you need to interrogate your source: does the book make sweeping claims from minimal sources? What sources is it pulling from? Are they primary sources combined with academic sources? Does the book speak in absolutes? Does it claim to speak of things nobody has ever heard of (this is always humbug. Even if it's not indexed, an archivist has seen your source long before you did). Does the author have a reputable background? Is the publisher reputable? (Penguin, university presses, History Press are all good). Does the book include diverse voices in the story such as American Indians and African Americans in stories of the trans-mississippi west?

A point I will add is, books on historical myths keep the receipts. For instance the 2020 book Forget the Alamo debunks the story every American has heard. But the authors, who are journalists rather than historians, do a good job of laying out directly where their information came from. And good myth making books tend to follow a certain format: what the myth story is compared to the facts, where the myth came from (i.e the UDC for the lost cause, the DAR in stories of the revolution, etc.) And why the myth matters. And this book has a lighter tone than many academic histories so there are still bits you have to understand may not be perfect. But myth making books keep the receipts for the story. In an exhibit I wrote, I debunked the founding myth of my community, but I also have color images of the documents that disprove the myth there on the wall for anyone to see.


The more something says that it is true or based on 100% real facts the more likely it is to be hogwash. Like ''The true unseen side of the Crusades!'' is a bit of an extreme example, like I would assume it is a comedic parody about them (or gay erotica if I went into the wrong section), but it is the same type of shit that clickbait youtubers would use to get attention.

Historical books tend to be more factual in it's presentation, even if they go for a more comedic or bombastic spin on it the author will. If you can easily grasp what era it is, the region and what the book will talk about then it is much more plausible. Fake shit always aims to keep things like that vague despite it's statements of ''100% true bullshit''.

The trickiest parts would be the books who actually covers new discoveries. You can style your book about the downfall of Rome in however many ways you can but ''new'' ain't one of them. But if let's say Odin's temple ruins was discovered in Sweden, then that would probably break some new titles and be a ripe playground for scharlatans. Which would naturally also have fewer citations than something has been well researched for decades or even centuries.

Historical fiction, even if not that historically accurate will mention that it is fiction and maybe some small details about what stuff it is based on. Like ''Set in industrial revolution's Stockholm'' or something like that.

If you are really unsure about a book then I would recommend writing down the name and check it up online.


I feel like I should respond to this as an actual Historian or as someone who has a history degree with a methods education into the masters degree level and a certificate of library sciences. In layman terms, I am a total nerd for History Methods.

Day one of your first methods class you should learn HISTORY IS NOT TRUTH. History is a science where arguments are made based on facts and what we can glean from them, based on philosophical traditions such as Phenomenology, Historiography and others.

The main problem with your query is you are making a wide assumption that Historians go out of there way to lie to you. Any book that has been published has an editor. Part of the editors job is to Abstract every chapter of the book and check the sources against the Historiography of the subject. Which vets all the sources and removes any sources that may create a cursory argument or may not be reputable. So this work is already done. If you don’t like a source, well you just don’t like it. There is no hogwash or trickery happening.

Many arguments in history are disputed and refuted. It’s part of the science. But they remain part of the historiography. This is how we get revisionist history. To further complicate it there are many types of Historians. For example I am a cultural historian. There are also economic historians. Cultural and Economic historians agree about very few things. Let’s say our subject is “Madness in Civilization” (those who know, know!) A cultural historian and Economic historian are going to have complete opposite stances on this subject. It doesn’t make one right and the other wrong.

If you personally want to vet a source I would suggest reading abstracts from university presses and see what the Historical community feels about a source (book/film) and collect those and use them as an argument as to why you feel they are not a reputable source. BOOM! You are doing history.

Please and thank you.


If a book has citations and references, it is a good sign that the author has taken care to back up their claims with evidence from other sources. However, it is still important to evaluate the reliability of these sources, as not all sources are created equal. Here are a few red flags to look out for when evaluating the reliability of cited sources:

  1. Outdated sources: If the sources cited in the book are old or out of date, they may no longer be relevant or reliable.
  2. Low-quality sources: Some sources, such as blogs or personal websites, may not have undergone the same level of review and scrutiny as more reputable sources, such as peer-reviewed journals.
  3. Biased or unreliable sources: Some sources may present information in a biased or one-sided manner, or may be known to be unreliable.
  4. Lack of diverse sources: If the book relies heavily on a single source or a small number of sources, it may not provide a well-rounded or balanced perspective.

If you don't have time to vet out the citations fully, you may want to consider seeking out additional sources of information on the topic to help you evaluate the reliability of the book. You may also want to consider consulting with a librarian or other information professional for guidance on how to evaluate sources.


I think the biggest/most important point I've seen here is dealing in absolutes. We need to keep in mind that all science, history included, is a constantly evolving and advancing understanding. As such, we can look at countless times in history where something we knew to be the case turned out to be completely inaccurate.

With technological advances and more of a focus on historical research, we have interpreted a LOT and come a very long way in our understanding, but this tends to create a notion that what we know today is 100% certain and final. So, it is imperative that we make a conscious effort to remind ourselves that there is still more data out there, interpretations must be adjusted as new information emerges, and there is still a very real possibility for data to emerge that completely reshapes our current understanding, just as it did in the past.

So, I am less concerned about "new" information or theories, or (to an extent) limited sources than most. My biggest red flag is 100% definitive statements. If someone approaches data from a different viewpoint in a truly scientific manner, I love the idea of new or updated theories and perspectives, and I think it's both healthy and important to be open to them. The moment ANYONE, be it a modern established scholar, a historical figure, or someone broadly considered as a lunatic or pseudo-scientist starts saying "it 100% happened this way and anyone who says otherwise is wrong," they should lose a LOT of credibility in your eyes (or, at a minimum, should warrant substantial further investigating).

I would add, though, that this same skepticism and reasoning should be applied equally across the board, not just to people we assume might be outliers. As scientists, we have a responsibility to remain open minded and update our stances and conclusions as new information becomes available, regardless of how firmly planned our personal opinions may be. Any established and credible scientist, historian, etc, who is unwilling to look at new/different data and give genuine consideration to the subject again, rather than just sticking to their guns, should also be considered a red flag.

As a final note, I think it's important to note that even if something is pseudo-science, pseudo-history, or pure fantasy, we should read it and give it consideration. That doesn't mean you should pick up any book that spouts nonsense and take it as fact, but it is important for us to continue to expand how we look at data, to take in different viewpoints and opinions, and to keep ourselves out of our own echo-chambers. You might read 50 books from 50 different people and decide they're all nonsense, but experiencing those different perspectives might just make it so that when you read book 51, you're able to see it in a new light and pickup something that others may have missed.


I recently came across such an experience. When you read the book 'Buddhist Swastika and Hitler's Cross' you're bound to feel the author is making complete sense. In this case though, the author was honest enough to continue insisting that he was speculating about things.

I had to thoroughly investigate his claims through some additional sources to finally conclude that his speculation was incorrect. I think some red flags which i have noticed are as follows:

a) connecting dots through speculation without hard direct evidence.

b) Poor references. Just because a reference has been provided, doesn't mean it's a good one. I've sometimes seen completely random websites provided as references.

c) Basic smell test: This one is really hard and will only come with time. I remained unconvinced of arguments presented since they went against conventionally accepted history. For example, in the book I mentioned it was speculated that Hitler probably called his symbol 'Hakenkreuz' because he saw Christian cross in it. This went against every other source that suggested that Hitler wasn't into religion at all.

d) Opinion vs fact: This one is getting sophisticated by the day. Sometimes opinion can be a fact as well. For example: "Hitler was a 2 faced man with one opinion in public and another in private". If you read this, can you confirm it through multiple sources or just accept it?