I usually look forward to getting the Skeptical Inquirer every other month, but I’m starting to think that they need (a) a better copy editor and (b) someone to fact-check their articles. For a publication devoted to truth, there was quite a bit of questionable material in the May/June 2012 edition. I’ll confine my critique to material directly related to ancient history.
Dozens of websites have been promoting the following piece of text, allegedly from the Mayan prophetic books of Chilam Balam, as proof that the Mayan calendar was delivered to the Maya by extraterrestrial beings:
I have read one of the 14 books of Chilam Balam, and I can't recall anything like this appearing in the text. A keyword search of the two translated manuscripts of these books turns up no mention of "white men" except when the texts, written long after the Spanish conquest, refer to the arrival of the Spanish and even encounters with the French. Nor are there references to flying vessels or flying rings, either.
What is perhaps most telling is that no one gives the full source for this "quotation." Most web writers simply call the source "Chilam Balam" without noting that the title denotes 14 separate books. No one gives the specific volume cited (the Chilam Balam of Tizimin, the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, etc.), so there is no way to find out which this refers to.
If a Google Books search can be believed (and this isn't always the case with their weird new algorithm that sometimes returns results lacking the search terms), the first mention of this fake quote came from 1970's Not of This World by Peter Kolosimo. The author, however, had a still different "translation": "Creatures arriving from the sky on flying ships ... white gods who fly above the spheres and reach the stars." This is the English version. Kolosimo wrote in Italian, where the line is rendered «Esseri scesi dal cielo su navi volanti... dèi bianchi che volano su cerchi e toccano le stelle».
That line doesn't appear in any Chilam Balam texts I have access to either. I checked Kolosimo's text in the original Italian and found that he gave no source for his "quotation." We should simply accept it on his word. The Italian text of the alleged quotation does not appear in any indexed book, so it seems that it was not a standard Italian translation of any book of Chilam Balam that Kolosimo used.
Kolosimo was an Italian author, the Italian Erich von Daniken, whose Not of This World won Italy's highest literary prize. Nevertheless, what we seem to have in this case is a modern paraphrase of a 1970 English translation of an Italian translation of a Spanish translation of the Maya original--or maybe Kolosimo just making stuff up. There's really no way to know. And we know how well it worked out when Pauwels and Bergier tried it with the Mahabharata. At so far a remove from the original source, no wonder Kolosimo and his followers could make it say pretty much anything.
This week H2 has been running a promotional spot for a rerun of Ancient Aliens (S03E05) in which Giorgio Tsoukalos rhapsodizes about the way an Amazonian cult outfit (below right) looks so much like an "astronaut suit" (below left) that it must be proof that the aliens visited:
As most of you know, I like to give alternative theorists the benefit of the doubt and actually listen to their evidence before explaining why their theories don’t make any sense. But they don’t make it easy. Have you seen the way Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos has been inflating his credentials? He is routinely identified as the “publisher of Legendary Times,” even though this is (a) only a newsletter and (b) apparently produced very irregularly. According to their website, the last issues were published in 2010—though as with everything in the ancient astronaut world, even this isn’t clear since the website stopped being updated regularly. There is no evidence of any issues after 2010 after a Google search. I’m not sure what kind of credential it is to be the publisher of a title that no one is allowed to know if it still exists.
Anyway, Tsoukalos has also taken to promoting himself as the “author” of something called Gods or Ancient Aliens?, implying that this is a book, since that is typically what authors write. So, since, as I said, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to alternative theorists, I figured I ought to read this book to see what evidence it provides for the ancient astronaut theory. I Googled it, and… nothing. Just as searching for Legendary Times fails to turn up the magazine, a search for Gods or Ancient Aliens yields no book. Instead, all I can find is a 90-minute “dynamic, fast-paced powerpoint [sic] presentation” and a rash of fake (I hope) OkCupid profiles for Giorgio Tsoukalos copying his promotional text about being the “author” of Gods or Ancient Aliens.
Is that all it takes to be an “author” in the ancient astronaut world? I suppose after having redefined “science” as “opinions” and “facts” as “lies,” ancient astronaut theorists can also redefine “author” as someone who pastes together quotes for a PowerPoint presentation.
But it cheapens the title of author for all of us—including, heaven help us, ancient astronaut theorists—who actually do the work of writing actual books.
Yesterday marked a century since the sinking of the Titanic, and this was apparently news to far more people than one would reasonably expect. According to a British newspaper report, hundreds of Twitter users were shocked to discover that the Titanic was a real boat and not just a 1997 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
It should not surprise anyone, really, that large numbers of people are ignorant of history. Last year, a survey found that only 58% of Americans knew that the U.S. declared independence in 1776, and a full quarter of all Americans don’t know which country the U.S. declared independence from. An earlier survey found one in five Americans does not know the earth revolves around the sun
But these results aren’t limited to America. One in five British teenagers thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character, and more than one in four thought the same of Florence Nightingale.
This is why cable TV shows like Ancient Aliens are so dangerous. I’ve been asked more than once by very smart people why I bother writing about Ancient Aliens since no one could actually believe the silly things the program says. It’s true that highly educated people won’t be fooled by Ancient Aliens, but many highly educated people also tend to forget that those without formal training in science, history, and logic do not approach controversial claims in the same way. If you don’t know the Titanic was real ship, how can you decide whether aliens really landed on earth? If you can’t distinguish clearly between fact and fiction, what chance do you have to fairly evaluate what a TV program tells you is true?
Ancient Aliens airs alongside legitimate historical documentaries on H2, and for the casual viewer, there is no real way to differentiate between one show and another, especially given H2’s marketing that quite clearly equates Ancient Aliens with their other offerings, like 10 Things You Don’t Know About, whose promo spot ran paired with an Ancient Aliens’ promo all day yesterday.
The essential point is that skeptics, historians, and archaeologists must be careful not to assume that the general public shares the same intellectual framework or background knowledge as they do. Sometimes you have to explain why the Titanic was a real ship and why Ancient Aliens is a lie.
To celebrate the release of the new paperback edition of my horror criticism anthology A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, here's one of the dozens of rare and fascinating pieces you'll find within. Be sure to order your copy of the book today for more articles like this one on Irvin S. Cobb, an author whose story "Fishhead" was an inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."
My 2008 anthology, A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I, is now available in an affordable paperback edition! I just received my copies of the new version, and it looks great. The cover is below. Be sure to order your copy today. If you've been hesitant because the hardcover cost too much, now you have options!
Sir Daniel Wilson wrote an interesting series of ethnographic studies in the late 1800s, some of which focused on alternative history. Wilson examined claims about Atlantis, and he found them wanting, especially in the way they were used to support claims that Native Americans were not responsible for the pyramids of Mexico and the temples of Peru:
But Wilson reminds us that not all alternative claims are equally fallacious. The above passage was from his paper "The Lost Atlantis." His next article was about Vinland, the legendary colony of the Norsemen on Canada's Atlantic coast. At the time, its existence was questionable; that the Vikings had discovered America around 1000 CE was about on par with claims of Phoenician voyages. Both Atlantis and Vinland were known only from late mythic sources (Plato and the Sagas, respectively); both were supported by vague evidence relying heavily on supposed connections to Native American myths and rituals.
Wilson carefully evaluated the evidence, and showed that unlike the Atlantis myth, the stories of Vinland made specific, testable claims that were verifiable. The sagas made specific geographic claims that conform to known geography; old maps place Vinland where it ought to be. By contrast, the geography of Atlantis is completely fictitious; its story bears no relation to any known facts of ancient history. Wilson tentatively concluded that Vinland really existed, along with the Norse voyages. Half a century later, the remains of the colony were found.
No remains of Atlantis have ever been found.
Journalist Chris Mooney has made something of a career of framing questions about science through the lens of partisan politics. His breakout bestseller The Republican War on Science (2005) carefully documented how the Bush administration pushed an ideological agenda and worked to marginalize scientific findings that contradicted the assumptions in that agenda. Several more books on the same theme followed. His new book is The Republican Brain: They Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality. While the book itself is more subtle than its title, I have to take issue with the concept.
There is nothing inherently Republican about disliking science, nor can the supposed neurological traits of the conservative—rigidity, fear, aggression—be correlated to efforts to ignore or suppress scientific findings. (Mooney uses conservative as a synonym for Republican, though this is not strictly speaking true.) At best, conservatism can be correlated with specific reasons for suppressing or ignoring certain types of science, especially politically-inconvenient science such as global warming and evolution. Conservatives continue to support applied science, including technology, oil exploration, and nuclear power in large numbers.
Conversely, liberals, whom Mooney identifies as open-minded, tolerant, and enamored of ambiguity, are no firm supporters of science either. Liberals have embraced such pseudoscience as homeopathy, astrology, ancient astronauts, and anything New Age. Liberals, according to surveys, may trust science more than conservatives, but this depends on what we define as science. Liberals are more likely to think that non-science is actually science or an “alternative way of knowing.” They’re still advocating for beliefs that aren’t true at the expense of science. They just don't think that's what they're doing.
This is why I dislike partisan claims that one ideology or another is to blame for America’s retreat from science and reason. Had this book been written 40 years ago, it would have been called The Democratic Brain and complained about how liberals were pushing anti-scientific social welfare policies and advocating for alternative medicine. Mooney has previously written about alternative medicine, so he is not unaware of this problem, but overall the thrust of his writing matches the thrust of his politics.
The fact is that despite the euphemistic term “political science,” politics is not a profession governed by reason, and self-identification with a party or ideology virtually guarantees embracing some anti-scientific ideas since ideologies of any stripe are defined by adherence to dogma, the very opposite of science. The short version is this: People support what they like and oppose what they dislike.
In the pages of eSkeptic, Robert Sheaffer and George Michael (no, not the singer) have been sparring over Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record (2011), which Michael found compelling. Sheaffer correctly noted that Michael took a highly uncritical look at the book and was far too easily impressed by the credentials of the men whose testimony forms the bulk of Kean’s book. Michael defended Kean based on her sources:
Michael is right; these are by and large good men (and they are almost all men) who report fairly what they have seen and felt. But that doesn’t make them right. History provides us with a very close analogue to this situation that is highly informative.
Flash back 200 years. In the early nineteenth century, scholars were trying to ascertain the origin of large earthworks found throughout the eastern United States—the so-called “mounds.” Scholarly opinion was divided between those who thought (correctly) that the mounds were Native American constructions and those who attributed them to a lost white race whom the Native Americans had massacred a thousand years ago.
Into this controversy, military men and politicians provided credible, eyewitness testimony about the earthworks that most east coast elite scholars and members of the public could not visit. These men included Revolutionary War heroes, high-ranking American generals, respected militia captains, prominent members of the clergy, and two presidents of the United States: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. All of these dignitaries asserted that their eyewitness investigations of the Native Americans and the mounds proved incontrovertibly that the mounds were the work of a lost race of white mound builders. What’s more, the military men said that their expertise proved to their satisfaction that these mounds were fortresses and defensive works built for the great race war between the red and white men.
None of this was correct. There was no lost white race; the mounds were not fortresses—they were temple mounds, burial mounds, and religious works. But the credibility and the testimony of these military men—who were acting in good, if misguided and racist, faith—contributed to scholarly acceptance of an absurd claim with no grounding in reality. They did not lie; they simply were unable to see beyond their anti-Native American ideology during a period when America was actively at war with Native Americans.
In short, even the most credible of observers interpret events through the lens of their own experiences and preconceptions. This is not a replacement for actual scientific evidence.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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