Get this: I—despite having only this blog as a forum—have annoyed Ancient Aliens star Philip Coppens enough that he deigned to blast me on his blog yesterday, and in flattering terms! He discusses me after complaining that Ancient Aliens Debunked filmmaker Chris White had the gall to respond to Coppens’ criticism of him after Coppens had specifically insisted that any such rebuttal was inappropriate, offensive, and “blablabla.” Coppens, you will recall, previously stated that he would no longer respond to criticism because he considered it an effort to goad him into personality-driven conflict, which is beneath him. That lasted a week:
Well, that is what happens when all the facts you use are wrong. The superstructure erected atop those false facts fails if all the supports are faulty. There is no point in talking about how lovely the tablecloth is when the legs are being sawn out from underneath your table. I fully cop to examining the ancient astronaut theory one claim at a time to show which claims are wrong (so far all of them). If you have no facts, all you have left is an emotional appeal to what “feels” right to you.
But I also resent the idea that I search sources “briefly.” Unlike Philip Coppens, who demonstrably has no experience with most primary sources and relies mainly on secondary works, I have read the primary sources, at great length, often in the original languages. I have also translated many of these works when they are not available in English to lay bare the sources used for the ancient alien “theory.” To dismiss all this as “brief” web searches is a pernicious misstatement (seriously: check my Library and see if this is a “brief” web search), and entirely typical of Coppens’ rhetorical strategy of deceptively and dismissively minimizing the knowledge of his critics while the emperor himself has no clothes.
In his blog post, which was put up on his website yesterday, Coppens routinely employs the tropes of conspiracy fiction to imply (or directly state) a widespread, purposeful, and evil attempt on the part of “Academic Science” to rewrite history in service of a nefarious elite. This, presumably, is not in Coppens’ mind either offensive or inappropriate despite, as he pointed out to me, the fact that one cannot know the inner workings of others’ minds. Instead, we have one standard for Philip Coppens and his work, and another standard for everyone else.
Now why is it that Coppens feels no compunction about critiquing me, Chris White, and Doug Heller in conspiratorial, apocalyptic terms but feels that any critique of Philip Coppens comes from a place of hate? Consider this: I will link to Coppens’ work, quote from it, and even publish his rebuttals to me so readers can judge for themselves. Coppens won’t tell his readers anything about my critiques of him, or even link directly to me.
I will return to the “debate” assertion momentarily. But first: I don’t believe he is out to “deceive” for “evil purposes.” I think that he and his colleagues are wrong, and I think that they are aware of the rhetorical shortcuts they use and the factual errors and logical fallacies they employ in making their case. If they are not, then they are much poorer writers and researchers than even I given them credit for. He might also note that, like him, I too am left-handed (the horror!), though sadly, my thinning hair will not stand growing it out to the lengths of Coppens or Giorgio Tsoukalos.
Coppens does not understand much of how science—or historiography for that matter—work. He mistakes the act of criticism (and, yes, even the opposition of staunch defenders of particular points of view) for suppression of other ideas. But history isn’t a zero-sum game. New ideas contribute to the conversation about the past, but it is the act of criticism, of examining what evidence withstands scrutiny, that sharpens ideas to fine points, discards bad ideas, and drives knowledge forward. This is why he is so angry about Chris White’s rebuttal to Coppens’ attack on White’s Ancient Aliens Debunked that Coppens violated his own promise to drop the matter to post even more complaints about how evil skeptics are trying to disprove him point for point.
Now, I’m not sure what the purpose of that sentence is, but here we have crossed from science into rhetoric, which is Coppens' apparent area of true interest. What is a “well-balanced dialogue” if it does not address in equal measure the points of the opposing advocate? Apparently, “well-balanced” means only that one must agree with Coppens on at least some points to prove that the conversation is moving forward. (No such concessions are required of Coppens, in his opinion.) But the ancient alien question is not a Marxist dialectic. Thesis plus antithesis does not automatically generate a new synthesis. Science is not like rhetoric or politics; you do not simply take the most extreme position in the hope that your opponent will compromise enough to nudge the political center slightly your way. Facts don’t work like political compromises. They aren’t opinions. Science is not a debate; it is a method of inquiry.
This is essential to understand, and I cannot stress this enough. Coppens calls me and other skeptics “zealots” for refusing to compromise on the truth, for examining evidence against known facts, and for refusing to accept emotion and speculation for science. He does this because he cannot understand that science is not rhetoric, that knowledge is not the product of the weight of opinion dragging some fictive “accepted” truth back and forth across an imaginary goal line like a tug of war. Nor, for that matter, is a criticism of his ideas an attempt to destroy him as a human being. As I’ve said before, I’m sure he’s a lovely and charming man in person, but I believe he is flat out wrong about his ideas, and overly-reliant on secondary sources in his books.
Coppens flatters me, however, by failing to do the “Google searches” he recommends for me to educate myself on his pet issues: “Yet, [Doug] Weller, Colavito and others believe they are the ones protecting science from evil intrusions and feel they are the proper scientists and defenders of science. They are, alas, the new inquisition.”
Let me end by addressing Mr. Coppens directly:
A simple Google search, Mr. Coppens, will reveal that I am no scientist. (Here, let me help you since you didn't bother.) My training—just like yours—is in journalism. (My degree was actually a dual major in journalism and anthropology/archaeology.) My books—just like yours—are works of journalism and criticism. My work includes—just like yours—ghostwritten and edited volumes for others (like you, both fiction and nonfiction), original research, and criticism. Like you, I have also published fiction in addition to nonfiction. Like you I have also investigated ancient history, but unlike you I have generated new knowledge in so doing.
Unlike you, I’ve never run a magazine, but like you I’ve also been published internationally in foreign-language publications. While you mention in you biography being discussed in several books, I too have been cited and discussed in many volumes—and scholarly papers and dissertations—by others; and, while you have appeared on many TV shows, I have provided research assistance to help shape several cable TV documentaries.
As I previously mentioned, I’m not “ignorant” of the subject matter, as you accuse me of being. I have read more widely and deeply in ancient history than you ever will. As I said, I even translate sources that aren’t available to make plain the shaky foundations upon which your hypothesis quakes. I have visited “mystery” sites (like America’s Stonehenge) and found no alien evidence. I have an undergraduate degree in archaeology/anthropology and have actually gone out and dug stuff up.
Now, if all that doesn’t qualify me to talk about ancient history, pray tell, what qualifies you? I have always said (and you can Google this to find out) that the past belongs to all of us, even you, Mr. Coppens. Everyone has the right to read, write, and think about our history and heritage. If you disagree with me, let it be on facts, not insults; evidence, not invective; and logic, not rhetoric.* But if you want to tell me to shut up because I’m ignorant and unqualified, I have only two words to say to you:
* Confidential to Philip Coppens: I’ve also read both Aristotle’s Rhetoric and the works of Cicero (in Latin), and I used to be on the debate team, so it’s probably not a great idea to try to outduel me using nothing but rhetoric.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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