Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary: Holes in the Poles and the right to be wrong

They appeared in the doorway, two middle-aged men in dark suits, white shirts, dark ties. Dick, my boss in the office of U.S. Presidential archives, asked how he could help them. “We know,” one said, “that ships from outer space have landed on the White House lawn in every Administration since Taft and you are hiding the records.” No, Dick replied, space ships had not landed on the White House lawn, there are no records of such events, and the archives was not hiding such records from the public. “You lie,” they said. After a little more discussion, the men explained that there are holes at the North and South Poles that lead to sub-tropical paradises where space ships fly in to refuel. That led Dick to suggest that they talk with the archivist who handled the records of polar explorations. They did. That archivist had just participated in an expedition to Antarctica; he told them he had been to the South Pole and there was no hole there. “You lie,” they said.

 Many people are concerned about fake information posted to social media (see  and items below in the technology section). But at least as worrying is the trend to believe things that are demonstrably wrong, disbelieving government (space ships did not land on the White House lawn), experience (I was at the South Pole), or professionalism (we did not hide records).

 A core human right is the freedom of belief. But does that entail the right to be wrong, to believe an untruth in the face of truth? A representative of the British Red Cross Society said that since the August 2018 outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo its workers have heard “more than 33,000 individual rumours, observations and beliefs related to Ebola,” such as “The Ebola virus doesn’t exist; it’s a virus that was made to eliminate the Congolese.” How, he asked, “do you fight a disease people don’t believe in?”

 The Wellcome Global Monitor polled people in 144 countries on beliefs about vaccines, which again and again have proven effective. It found that in France one in three people think vaccines are unsafe--the highest rate in the world--and nearly one in five believe they aren’t effective. “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), reluctance or refusal to vaccinate is now one of the top ten major threats to global health. One manifestation of this is that even people in high-income countries, with good healthcare systems, are dying from easily preventable diseases.”

 To be sure, there is an enormous difference between believing in holes in the Poles and believing that Ebola does not exist. The critical test for the right to be wrong must be whether acting on the belief hurts others. Believing in space ships is unlikely to harm anyone, but failure to treat a communicable disease surely can. There are limits to the right to be wrong.

 Archivists know that the records we manage contain both truths and untruths, and when we provide a certified true copy of a document we only assure the recipient that it is a true copy, not that the information in the document is true. But we do hold records that are demonstrably true: that a treaty exists, that a person was appointed to a university post, that the efficacy and safety of a vaccine was tested before it was put on the market. And we hold records showing that an action or transaction was based on false information, prejudice, and fear. Our task is to ensure that the original record is protected, knowing that a copy of it can be manipulated in many ways and its information can be believed, disbelieved or ignored. But if you do happen to have a reliable, original image of a subtropical paradise at either Pole, let me know.