Since it’s a federal holiday here in the United States, I’m going to keep today’s entry short. Let’s begin with a very quick note that a self-described ancient astronaut theorist named David James, who bills himself as the CEO of DJWorldWide Technologies, Inc., is asking for $3,000,000 on IndieGoGo.com to prove that Puma Punku was built by space aliens. According to his request for funding, James plans to use that three million to fund an expedition to Bolivia with a team of geologists, conduct tests and a survey at the ancient site, and develop a “dating method for non-carbon based materials, which up to now has not been developed.” James has clearly not done his research; various methods are available and in regular use.
His reasons for undertaking the project are depressing. He summarizes that Ancient Aliens episode on Puma Punku, including meaningless claims that native Bolivian folklore claims that the site was built in a single night (Yeah, so? British lore said Stonehenge was built overnight by Merlin the Magician), and the false claim that the site is built out of rock nearly as hard as diamonds. But this is the most depressing part: “This is a very personal project for me. I have been studying the Ancient Alien Theory for almost 30 years.” It’s sad because his other claims show that he has rarely if ever ventured beyond ancient astronaut books and TV shows to study the archaeology and geology that underpins our understanding of history.
At any rate, there’s little to no chance that Bolivia would approve an ancient astronaut field trip to test Puma Punku for alien residue.
This actually leads nicely into something I had planned to discuss anyway. One of the major arguments my critics put forward is that Ancient Aliens and its ilk are just television shows, entertainment, not to be taken seriously. No right thinking person could take it seriously, not when facts are so easily found. As we see from David James, this is clearly not the case, even though the facts about Puma Punku and methods for dating rock are well-known and easily found.
So I thought it would be fun to share this video from the BBC’s Panorama, which aired on April Fool’s Day in 1957.
The segment was a hoax that claimed Swiss people harvested spaghetti from trees, and they backed it up with the borrowed authority of respected news presenter Richard Dimbleby, who narrated the segment and presented it on air. More than half of all Britons watched the broadcast.
The hoax succeeded because in the Britain of 1957, spaghetti was as unfamiliar and unusual as aspic is in America today. Viewers were taken in by the hoax in droves, and hundreds of viewers called the BBC to ask how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC, taken aback by the reaction, eventually began to tell callers to plant a sprig of spaghetti in a can of tomato sauce “and hope for the best.”
Now, in theory, it should have been easy to find out whether spaghetti grew on trees. Viewers had access to encyclopedias (though as Sir Ian Jacob, then BBC director-general, discovered after being fooled himself, the Britannica had no entry for spaghetti!), the ingredient list on the back of boxes and cans of spaghetti, cookbooks, libraries, etc. But the fact is that while undoubtedly many viewers took advantage of these resources, a good number did not and accepted the story at face value, of which a subset called the BBC itself for more information on the apocryphal trees.
Now you might say that a few hundred callers is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of viewers, but those who called about the hoax were likely only the most motivated among a much larger group taken in by the broadcast. We know this is likely to be the case because letters and calls continued for weeks (despite a confession from the BBC that the segment was a joke), and when Johnny Carson and Jack Paar re-aired the segment years later in America, they too received letters and calls from viewers who took the joke seriously.
As silly as the claim is, it provides a good parallel for the faux-documentaries we see on cable television about ancient mysteries, conspiracies, and space aliens. In both cases, the subject matter is exotic enough that most of the audience will not have firsthand experiences with the material (especially the underpinnings of archaeology) and therefore will have little grounding for recognizing when claims may be untrue. Like the spaghetti hoax, shows like Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, Mermaids: The Body Found, and others trade on the perceived credibility of cable channels like History, H2, Discovery, etc. Similarly, their claims are easily disproved with research, but a distressingly large percentage of the audience cannot or will not research beyond the televised claims and therefore accepts some or all of their ideas—however false—as true. Many will recognize the claims as false, but a large number will accept them at face value.
If it was possible in 1957 to convince a fair number of Britons that spaghetti grew on trees, is it any wonder that television has done such a good job convincing a specific subset of viewers that a conspiracy is suppressing the truth about history?
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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