It’s been a wonderful yet strange journey, the strangest of all my journeys writing popular history. I started out thinking that I was just writing the story of a fascinating bushranging couple, then found I had to deal with all the absurd Thunderbolt conspiracy claims. Recently there have been the parallels with Malcolm Naden's exploits while on the run from the police, parallels that are leading to radio and press interviews. Its amazing the unexpected pathways I've had to follow.
But back to the Thunderbolt conspiracy theory. It never occurred to me that I would have to fight so hard to debunk it. The facts were not open to interpretation. The evidence was simple and clear-cut. As evidence has a loud voice, I thought everyone would be able to hear it – and indeed would want to hear it. The truth matters of course – doesn't it? So I was appalled to discover that a certain crowd refused to hear it. They were deaf to all the evidence relating to the major issues – like Fred Ward’s death in 1870. They were even deaf to the evidence relating to the minor issues – including the name of the investigation into his killing. The brick walls were up and NOTHING penetrated.
I couldn’t understand this reaction. Sure, I had encountered the error-ridden output of poorly-skilled researchers before, having worked in the family history industry for nearly 30 years. I had also encountered the blinkered attitude of those determined to have an important ancestor, irrespective of the evidence showing otherwise. But I had never encountered this degree of blinkered ineptitude. What was going on?
Then I received an email from one of my blog readers who apparently did not want to be named on the website (but I am happy to name him if he is willing for me to do so). He asked if I had heard of the "Dunning-Kruger effect" and said that it explained the behaviour of many myth-promoters. He sent me the Wikipedia summary of this phenomenon. It states: "The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority."
Rationalwiki provides a deliciously simple explanation of the Dunning-Kruger effect but it is probably best if I don't repeat it here for reasons that will be obvious if you follow this Link.
Suddenly it all made sense. It was the only logical explanation (well, either that or mendacity – and I will give them the benefit of the doubt there).
As it turned out, knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect proved a valuable addition to a talk Dr David Andrew Roberts and I gave a couple of nights ago when we explored the Thunderbolt controversy. We presented a simple summary of the claims made by the Thunderbolt conspiracists and the evidence showing that their claims were errant nonsense. Then we focussed the spotlight on the conspiracists themselves.
We dissected their actions, revealing, among other things, that these conspiracy claims are a form of “pseudohistory” – that is, "a seriously suspect interpretation that postures as historical revisionism, involving the denouncement of well-known and firmly established historical facts and themes, which are refuted in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary". Significantly, most pseudohistory is pervaded by claims of ... yes, you guessed it ... "Conspiracy!". Either the revisionists are unmasking a conspiracy or they are fighting to reveal knowledge and truths that have been conspiratorially suppressed (sounds familiar, doesn't it).
We examined the strategies used by the conspiracists and found that they were typical of pseudohistory practitioners in general, involving "the selective use of facts, the misrepresentation of facts, and indeed the invention of facts to advance misleading and preposterous assertions". We examined their propagation strategies which were also typical of pseudohistorians generally: "the misrepresentation of other people's arguments, the avoidance of key truths via the complication of simple and often tangential facts; false claims of scholarly credibility; appeals to the broader public via the media; the bullying and badgering of critics" and so on. And we mentioned that in some countries the production of false history – particularly pseudohistory in its ugliest form, that known as "negationism" or denial (as in Holocaust denial) – has been criminalised, while in other countries, particularly the US, publishers have been successfully sued for advertising works of fiction as being factual, this being considered a type of commercial fraud or false advertising. Finally we set the conspiracists' behaviour against the problem facing society today in terms of a crisis of truth, where "fact and fantasy are separated only by a click of the button".
Here is a link to the Podcast of our talk. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed giving it!
My job is now done:
- I have told the true story of Fred Ward and Mary Ann Bugg in my book Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady;
- I have documented all the evidence and debunked all the myths in timelines and articles published on this back-up Thunderbolt website (hard copies of which are available in relevant record offices and libraries);
- David Roberts and I have submitted the results of our research on the Thunderbolt conspiracy claims for peer review. Our paper Exposing an Expose: Fact versus fiction in the resurrection of Captain Thunderbolt was accepted and recently published in the scholarly, international Journal of Australian Studies;
- David and I have also submitted an article on Mary Ann Bugg to another peer-reviewed scholarly journal, and it has been accepted and will be published later this year;
- And, finally, David and I have accounted for the behaviour of the Thunderbolt conspiracists themselves in our talk History or Myth: Captain Thunderbolt's History Wars.
Now it is time to move on: more books to write; more history to correct (the next book is the story of a murder!). But before I go, I would like to thank all of those who have supported me (you know who you are) and those who have emailed me saying “At last! The truth!” Your support means a lot to me.
I would also like to thank the Thunderbolt conspiracists themselves for their many letters to newspapers and other public statements (particularly those in which they shoot themselves in the foot – a perfect example of Dunning-Kruger in action!). As anyone in the publishing industry can attest: controversy sells books. Although the conspiracists are determinedly deaf to the voice of evidence and reason, they seem to have forgotten that the rest of the world has ears and CAN hear it. So by keeping the name Thunderbolt alive in people’s minds, they have provided free publicity which has helped sell many books. My publishers are very happy indeed.
I will publish some more blog posts when the article on Mary Ann Bugg is published and the docu-drama The Empty Grave is released. But until then, adieu.