Problems in the Field of History: Psychology, Attribution, and Forgery


1 – Introduction

2 – Part 1: To Err Is Human

3 – Part 2: Attribution & Forgery

4 – Recommended Reading


I’m presenting the information here in a two part course. The first part dwells on human error and what we can do to prevent making mistakes. I cover false information, some of the things that bias people, and what we can do to avoid believing in nonsense. The second part focuses on attribution and forgery, and the issues those raise in historical research. I briefly explore some problems of attribution, the current state of historical records, and then the history of forgery.

For those who are still hungry after the presentation, more info can be found in the citations and recommended reading.

Overall, this presentation is like a flight of wine that will allow you to sample what I’ve been making. What I make in the future could be influenced by what you want more of.


Part 1: To Err Is Human

People make mistakes. We make conclusions that are verifiably wrong and sometimes, even in the face of evidence, will refuse to admit that we did anything wrong. Regardless of how many errors you’ve tallied in your lifetime, a large amount of literature exists on the subject. Some of it is listed in the recommended reading portion of this article.

1 – False Information

2 – Don’t Stumble

3 – Stay Guarded

4 – Cover All Bases

5 – Conclusions

False Information

False information is that information which is not true. It has been problematic for people from all walks of life. It is often broken down into two categories: misinformation & disinformation. Misinfo is created accidentally, disinfo is not. Disinfo is the intentional creation of false information.

All this is problematic for people who want to believe as many true things, and as few false things, as possible. It’s problematic for a president concerned about weapons of mass destruction and it’s problematic for the historian concerned with creating a narrative that represents the past as accurately as possible. With new means of communication, it’s an issue for more people than ever before. The internet allows information to be communicated faster and wider than anything that preceded it. Still, it can be communicated through in-person conversations, in a classroom setting, podcasts, lectures, news, through a megaphone, etc.

A study published in 2018 showed that fake news on Twitter spread faster, farther, and deeper in every single category of information than its true news counterpart. It analyzed ~126,000 news stories from 2006 to 2017 and helped put the fake news problem into perspective. My experience with fake news on Twitter and other social media sites might not be as comprehensive as that study, but I have run into my fair share of fake news being shared in the realm of history. To a greater extent, the same applies to the wider category of false information. Many scholars have fallen victim to the allure of online pseudo-knowledge, myself included. I’ve messed up and shared false information on multiple occasions.

The goal, for me at least, is to be wrong as little as possible. To achieve this, I have to 1) admit that I was wrong, 2) identify the cause, and 3) in planning for the future, do what I can to minimize or eliminate the cause. All three of these have variables, which I’m not allotting time to cover here.

Don’t Stumble

Here are some things that can influence us to believe false info:[2]

a – repetition

b – things that are easy to process

c – names that are easy to pronounce

d – non-probative photos: photos that don’t substantiate a claim

More notes:

a – repetition

Example 1:

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
– A quote often attributed to Mark Twain. There’s no evidence Mark Twain ever said this.[7]

Example 2:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
– A quote often attributed to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels but not one that we have any evidence of him making.[8]

These are examples of quotes that through repetition have fooled thousands, if not millions of people. This ties into historical attributions too. We know that entire works have been falsely attributed to other people. These works are sometimes called pseudepigrapha. This is one of the complications that historians face. How do we know what the ancient historians originally wrote? I explore this question in part 2.

b – easy to process information

Some studies indicate that the level of effort needed to process information can affect whether or not you’ll accept it as true.[2, p.79] In these cases, some of the things that had a notable impact were: the color of the font against the background color, the style of the words, and a speaker’s accent.

The degrees to which these things will impact someone varies. Nevertheless, it’s good to be aware that these have been seen impacting judgements.

c – easy to pronounce names

You might be influenced to believe what one person says over another because their name is easier for you to pronounce.[2] This can bias you when comparing sources. For instance, this might bias you to have more confidence that Smith is more reliable than Höflmayer because Smith is easier to pronounce than Höflmayer.

Numerous studies indicate groups where everyone knows each other’s name work better than groups where nobody knows each other’s name. This is mentioned in Tugend.

d – non-probative photos

Non-probative photos are photos that do not show evidence for a claim. These can influence you to believe a claim is true, even though they do nothing to evince the claim itself. For example, “eating a cheeseburger once a week increases your chance of heart disease by 50%” might be more believable to you with a picture of a fresh, juicy cheeseburger than without. I made that claim up about disease up, so regardless of the image, if it is true, that’s by coincidence, not competence.

There are many more biases than these. Early on in my content creation I had a project called Think Well, it was dedicated to exploring cognitive biases and fallacies. I’ve since put that project on the back burner. To offer something for the viewers here though, one list that I’ve gone back to many times over the years is energyskeptic’s 250 cognitive biases, fallacies, and errors.[4]

Stay Guarded

As pertaining to false information, Dr.’s Shwarz and Jalbert proposed skepticism as the best defence.[2] When you hear something new for the first time, practice a bit of skepticism to help prevent getting swept away by the news. I agree with their solution here. Especially for historical claims, I think skepticism can go a long way in the quest to establish new realms of knowledge. It can help eliminate the “I don’t know” type answers. Questioning how we know things, or don’t know things, is a worthwhile pursuit. It sheds light on our epistemic foundations.

I have some recommended reading listed for skepticism.

As for making mistakes, having a checklist might just be your panacea. Checklists revolutionize industries, saving lives, money, and embarrassment. The above list of 4 things that influence us to believe a statement is a checklist to help not fall pray to them. Next, I provide a checklist of things people use to evaluate whether or not a claim is true. It’s covered in more detail by Shwarz and Jalbert. They mention that people rarely use all five “truth tests” for making judgements.

Cover All Bases

a – compatibility – how’s it fit with prior understandings?

b – coherence – is it logical?

c – credibility – who said that?

d – consensus – what do other people think?

e – evidence – what’s the evidence?


1 – False information can be problematic, especially when it goes undetected.

2 – There are things which can bias us to believe false information is true.

3 – There are steps we can take to avoid being biased by those things. These steps include:

a – being skeptical at the time information is first received

b – making lists of things to be aware of that can bias us

c – checking info with all five “truth-value” points

Part 2: Attribution & Forgery

1 – The Sin of Mislabeling

2 – The Problem of Attribution

3 – Josephus

4 – A Short History of Forgery

5 – Conclusions

The Sin of Mislabeling

“It is indeed an error to collect a forgery but it is a sin to stamp a genuine piece with the seal of falsehood!”

This saying has gained some popularity in forgery studies, the field of scholarship dedicated to studying forgery. It is contested who said the above quote. I don’t have time to get into that here but I do have an article explaining it:

I want to focus on the meaning of the quote here.

Whoever said this is making the claim that it is worse to label genuine objects as forgeries than it is to label forgeries as genuine objects. I’ve tried to wrap my head around why this would be the case but so far I’ve always ended up with an even scale. Both actions are wrong, potentially equally wrong. I’ll explain.

Whether you label a forgery as genuine or something genuine as a forgery, you’re mislabeling it. I figure maybe the latter was considered worse because people aren’t suppose to say a genuine object is fake but forgeries are suppose to trick people. Fundamentally though, an object is getting mislabeling, hence why I call it “the sin of mislabeling”. Both actions are wrong.

I bring this quote up here because 1) its a good quote to be familiar with when learning about forgeries, as it brings the element of giving a voice to an otherwise speechless object and 2) because it’s another good example of how quickly the past can become obscured and history contested, as shown in the two quotes earlier.

The Problem of Attribution

These problems of attribution are not limited to modern quotes. There are examples throughout history of works being attributed to people other than those who wrote the works. This includes everything from a few words to entire books being wrongly attributed to a person. One common term used to refer to these works is “pseudepigrapha”, that is, works baring a false name. Forgery is another term commonly applied to works sharing this feature.

I will mention that there have been many discussions about what constitutes a forgery or pseudepigraphy, but I don’t have time to get into all the details here. If you want to learn more about all that, I do have an article dedicated to that discussion on my website.[1] Both these terms commonly refer to works intended to deceive, that is the author of them has made an effort to pull the wool over someone else’s eyes. In this sense, both forgeries and pseudepigrapha are forms of disinformation.

These deceptive works (forgeries, hoaxes, pseudepigrapha, fictions) pose serious problems for historical scholarship, especially in the realm of attribution. The Graeco-Roman histories are the backbone of Western chronology. It’s these histories that serve as the fundamental sources for determining the birth of Christ, which is the basis of our current calendar, as well as many other famous events in history like Caesar crossing the Rubicon and the conquests of Alexander the Great. Unlike some sources found in archeological excavations (papyri, clay tablets, inscriptions), the surviving works attributed to Graeco-Roman historians are removed from their authors by hundreds of years, sometimes even over a thousand years. This is problematic because of the distance between the alleged author and the copies we have.

I’ll be using Josephus to illustrate what I’m talking about here. I choose him because 1) he’s one of the most well known ancient historians, 2) I’ve spent more time studying him than I have others, and 3) he’s maybe the most popular go-to historian for people who argue for a historical Jesus. On this last point, there are only two passages containing references to Jesus, and both of these are at the end of Josephus’ Antiquities, specifically in books 18 and 20. The authorship of both of these has been contested, one more than the other, and so the problem of attribution is common here.

Josephus is far from the only ancient historian far separated from the literature attributed to him. Herodotus, the father of history, is separated from his works by hundreds years. Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and scores of other authors are positioned hundreds, sometimes over a thousand years away from any of the works attributed to them.

While these works have been long studied, comparatively few of these studies have been spent on assessing the surviving evidence. By this I mean exploring the answers to crucial yet basic questions like:

a – what are the surviving pre-modern records for this work? (manuscripts? papyri? tablets?)

b – when, where, how, why, and by whom were these records created?

c – what evidence do we have for those answers?

d – what is the early printing history for this work?

e – what pre-modern references exist for this work?

f – for more information, apply questions a-e to answers to e. For example, the earliest reference to Josephus is from Irenaeus. Apply questions a-e to the works of Irenaeus. To my knowledge, there is no work today for any ancient historians that attempts to cover all these questions. Some of these questions have been tackled on their own in various publications, but there is no one standard work for any one historian that answers all of them. In my opinion, this lack of scholarship is a problem for anyone who wants to claim knowledge, rather than belief that appeals to tradition, about what any ancient historian said.

I argue that the above questions provide a way out of this tenebrosity, this darkness. It just takes time, effort, and funding to explore each of them. These questions can help satisfy the question, “how do we know Josephus wrote the Antiquities?”, but I’m not sure we can know that, at least not with our current abilities and understandings. Maybe a more productive question would be, “why do we think Josephus wrote the Antiquities?”, or “what evidence is there for Josephus being the author?”.


Josephus is commonly believed to be a first century Jewish historian who authored a number of works: the Judaic Antiquities, the Judaic Wars, the Life, and Against Apion. The Judaic Antiquities is commonly believed by scholars to have been written in Greek in the 90s CE and to be one of the fundamental sources for ancient Judaic history. Although he grew up in the Jerusalem area, when he wrote this, he was living in Rome. Therefore, C1st Rome is the origin point for this work.

a – what are the surviving pre-modern records for this work? (manuscripts? papyri? tablets?)

The earliest surviving copies that I’m aware of are found in Latin MSS, of which there are at least 84. The earliest of these dates to the late 8th century, some 700 years after it was allegedly originally written. However, this date is contested and the Vatican’s website places it in the late 900’s or early 1000’s, some 900+ years later than its supposed original. The Greek MSS start popping up in the C11th with one exception that has been dated to the 9th, 10th, and 14th centuries.[9] Here’s a graph representing the distribution of the Latin MSS across the centuries:

C8th: 1* (1.19%)

C9th: 8 (9.52%)

C10th: 2 (2.38%)

C11th: 7 (8.33%)

C11/12th: 3 (3.57%)

C12th: 34 (40.47%)

C12/13th: 3 (3.57%)

C13th: 11 (13.09%)

C13/14th: 1 (1.19%)

C14th: 6 (7.14%)

C15th: 8 (9.52%)

b – when, where, how, why, and by whom were these records created?

The when is somewhat covered above.

c – what evidence do we have for those answers?

d – what is the early printing history for this work?


e – what pre-modern references exist for this work?


The Problem of Forgery

Forgery has long been a problem for historical studies, but also a motivation for developing methods of detection. Many scholars have commented on how forgery goes back as far as we can see into the past, with literary forgery being one of its oldest forms. I have citations for this part of the presentation in my article linked in the references.[5]

In addition to the long history of forgery, I’ll quickly mention here that forgery is alive and well today. This is why a healthy dose of skepticism is good when hearing about allegedly newly discovered ancient artifacts and records.

The Ecosystem of Forgery:

Over 30 Years of Forgery Exposed:

Antiques Dealers Arrested and Accused of Faking History:

Spanish Archeologist Sentenced To Prison:

Imaginary Worlds

A minority of scholars for at least the past 300-400 years or so have been arguing that large parts of ancient history are imaginary, as in they never happened and are the product of imagination. There’s no time to get into all that here so I refer you to my article that features a collection of more than 50 of these individuals, ranging from the 17th century to the present. Some of them argued against works which are now commonly considered forgeries, others argued against works which are still commonly believed to be authentic.[10]

Before getting into a brief history of medieval forgery and how it ties into ancient records, focusing heavily on those of Josephus, I want to share two quotes with you.

The first one is from David Lowenthal, a brilliant scholar who is credited with establishing heritage studies as a distinct academic discipline. In the introduction to Mark Jones’ classic work “Fake?: The Art of Deception”, David stated:

“Riddled with the inconsistency of compelling yet conflicting preconceptions … all ‘olden times’ are potentially fraudulent.”
David Lowenthal (1990)

He’s not arguing that they are fraudulent, but he is recognizing that them being fraudulent is still a possibility. It has not been ruled out. This is where I agree with him. While I’ll be focusing on forgery, this is not the only thing that can give way to so-called “fraudulent” history. There’s also the possibility of the received evidence being wrongly interpreted. Either way, it’s possible that popular conceptions of ancient history are missing the mark.

The second quote comes from Lynn Catterson’s article where she argues that the Laocoon, a statue popularly attributed to the C1st BCE, some 2000 years ago, is a Renaissance forgery created by the hands of the famous sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564), some 500 years ago. In reference to this, she says:

“If detecting a forgery is not easy in the first place, exposing one that has been honored as an original for hundreds of years is a far greater challenge.”
Lynn Catterson (2005)

I think she’s justified in saying this, even if she’s wrong about the statue’s origins. I’m on the fence about her argument, but I do find it fascinating, if not compelling.

The reason I bring this quote up here is to draw attention once more to psychological aspects of arguing that there’s reason to doubt, if not condemn, traditional historical narratives. As noted by Shwarz & Jalbert:

“…the deck is usually stacked in favor of accepting information rather than rejecting it, provided there are no salient markers that call the speaker’s cooperativeness into question.”[2, pp.73-74]

These salient markers can be any of the red flags that might pop up when running information through the five “truth-value” checks mentioned in part 1.

All this is to say that olden times are questionable, them being entirely fraudulent has not been ruled out, and arguing for this in current academic circles is an uphill battle swimming against the stream. With that said, let me take you on a brief trip through medieval forgery in order to give you a greater perspective on why I think we should all practice more skepticism when confronted with historical narratives.

A Short History of Medieval Forgery

a – Before 1300 CE

b – After 1300 CE

a – Before 1300 CE

“…medieval people … forged to an extent unsurpassed by any other age relics, legends, charters, chronicles, seals, precious stones, etc.”
Otto Kurz (1973)

“Creative memory was at its most creative in the ninth century, when churchmen forged unprecedented and monumental runs of entirely false charters.”
Constance Brittain Bouchard (2015)

As a reminder, the C9th is when the earliest MSS of Josephus’ Antiquities have been dated to without contestation.

The C10th gives way to ecclesiastics forging the histories of their religious houses. No corner of Europe was free from forgers mimicking older styles. For example, in France, fake deeds of the Carolingian kings were making their way into the texts, and in England, archival records were being forged in huge quantities. How many of those C9th Josephus MSS could really be from the C10th or later? I’m not aware of any studies into this question. I’m not even aware of anyone else who has asked this question.

Writing about 10th century England, and mentioning how it only became more popular in the following century, Julia Crick with the University of Exeter noted,

“Not only was there a campaign to recopy documents from before the Viking Age, but these documents were manipulated: interpolated, redrafted, improved.”
Julia Crick (2010)

The situation wasn’t much better in the East. The number of Chinese forgeries began to skyrocket around the same time. The Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) gave way to a huge increase in art forgeries. Fakes of every kind were being produced in larger and larger quantities from the 1000’s onwards. People who were still alive were having their works forged. It was no small enterprise.

By the mid-C11th, no European literary institutions had abstained from imitating scripts of old. All of them had engaged in this practice. Anthony Grafton, one of the most influential scholars in forgery studies, commented on how approximately 66% of all documents given to the clergy prior to the C12th were fakes. I will mention that no citation was given for the origin of this statistic, so skepticism is encouraged about its accuracy.

This is the era in which our earliest MSS of Josephus date to, and not just Josephus, but many of the “ancient” authors.[11] Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Varro, Tacitus, and more all have the earliest of their MSS dating to this period and later. What’s the strongest case that can be made to argue the received literature reflects the original? This is a question I’m keen to explore in more depth given the time and resources.

b – After 1300 CE

The Ottoman Empire began around the turn of the C14th and calligraphic imitation was not uncommon throughout the entirety of its existence. From the outset, these imitations bordered on forgery, if not were wholesale forgeries themselves.

Forgery did not disappear with the start of the Renaissance.

“The Renaissance marks not only the rebirth of classical learning, and the rediscovery of lost classical texts, but the rise of (complementary) classical forgery, with its irresistible temptations to charlatans and scholars alike.”
Arthur Freeman (2014)

This is the period to which most of the surviving MSS of “ancient” authors belongs. I’ll give a 30,000 foot view of some of the forgers active in this era.

Six Forgers

Unless indicated otherwise, the info here is based on my “Brief History of Medieval and Early Modern Forgery”.[5]

Amerigo Vespucci (1452-1512), the man who North and South America are named after, has long been accused of being a forger of travel narratives. In fact, the letter which eventually had the two continents named after him is argued to be a forgery. If true, no other forger can lay claim to such an amazing prize for their forgery.

Trithemius (1462-1516), sometimes called the “father of bibliography”, was a German Benedictine abbot who forged a thousand years of history. It was published in 1515 and based upon entirely fictitious sources.

Erasmus (1466-1536), one of the most famous Renaissance scholars, and considered one of the brightest of his times, forged a work and attributed it to St. Cyprian, an ancient bishop and early Christian from the C3rd.

Onofrio Panvinio (1530-1568), regarded as the father of history and calendars by his peers, resorted to forgery to argue for his ideas about Church history.

Pirro Ligorio (c.1512-1583), now sometimes dubbed as “the prince of forgers” created around at least 3000 forged inscriptions, some of which still plague unwitting scholars to our present day.

Matthew Parker (1504-1575), Archbishop of Canterbury, boasted about his team of forgers and offered his services to his contemporaries. One of the forgeries attributed to him is the creation of a man named “Matthew Westminster”. This fraudulent creation was finally put to rest in 1890, after a long life of some 300 years.[12, p.1078-9]

And on and on it goes. Without any serious studies into forgery, I don’t see how we can even begin to approach certainty about what happened in the ancient world according to the “ancient” authors.


Attribution can be tricky. Forgeries can be problematic. More studies need to be conducted in this field if we want to really understand what happened in the past.

Recommended Reading

All of the references after this portion are recommended reading too.

Fake News/False Info

Greifeneder, et al. The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation (London, 2020). Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.

This bibliography:


Jones, Mark, et al. Fake? The Art of Deception. First Edition, University of California Press, 1990. Accessed 19 May 2021.

This list:

This bibliography:


Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. 1st ed., Picador, 2010.

Tavris, Carol & Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.

Tugend, Alina. Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. Reprint, Riverhead Books, 2012.

Skepticism/Critical Thinking

Feder, Kenneth. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. 8th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2014.

Levitin, Daniel. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking with Statistics and the Scientific Method. Dutton, 2019.

Pigliucci, Massimo. Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Edition Unstated, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Schick, Theodore, and Lewis Vaughn. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. 8th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2019.



[1] – Sorensen, Stephen. “Establishing Semantics for Mimesiology and Illusology” (19 May 2021). Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.

[2] – Greifeneder, et al. “The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation” (London, 2020). Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.

[3] – Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146–1151. doi:10.1126/science.aap9559. Accessed 27 Dec. 2021.

[4] – energyskeptic. “Over 250 Cognitive biases, fallacies, and errors” (20 Sept. 2021). Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.

[5] – Sorensen, Stephen. “A Brief History of Medieval and Early Modern Forgery” (30 Sept. 2021). Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.

[7] – Quote Investigator. “It’s Easier To Fool People Than To Convince Them That They’ve Been Fooled” (23 Dec. 2020). Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.

[8] – Reuters Staff. “Fact check: Joseph Goebbels misquote on “converting intellectuals” resurfaces” (8 Jul. 2020). Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.

[9] – Sorensen, Stephen. “The Texts of Josephus’ Antiquities” (6 Apr. 2019). Accessed 2 Jan. 2021.

[10] – Sorensen, Stephen. “People Who Question/ed History” (11 Jun. 2020). Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.

[11] – Sorensen, Stephen. “Ctruth Transmission Studies” (2 Jan. 2022). Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.

[12] – Robinson, Benedict Scott. “‘Darke Speech’: Matthew Parker and the Reforming of History.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 29, no. 4, 1998, pp. 1061–1083. Accessed 16 June 2020.


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