I’ve noticed that there is a pretty steep drop off in blog readership on Friday, particularly when Ancient Aliens is set to air later that same day, so I’m toying with some ideas for how to repurpose Fridays to make them more useful or at least rebalance the work-to-readership ratio. I’m not sure yet what would work best. One possibility is to highlight other blogs’ interesting or important posts. I’m going to try that today with a look at a recent interview with an archaeologist and skeptic.
Archaeologist, author, and skeptic Rebecca Bradley is promoting a new edition of her new(ish) books The Lateral Truth: An Apostate’s Bible Stories and the novel Cadon, Hunter, and as part of the publicity she took time out to talk with Jonathan MS Pearce at the Patheos blog about her path from religious fundamentalism to ancient astronautics to archaeology. It was interesting to see the way progressive disbelief led her from one stage to the next.
Bradley says that she was raised in an Evangelical family but never had a strong belief in God. Her path through the skeptical stations of the cross surprised me in that it resembled more than a little my own. She says that at fourteen she became a fan of Tolkien’s fantasies and at fifteen those of ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken. By the time she went to college, her belief in ancient astronautics had faded, but left an interest in real archaeology that turned into a career.
My own progression was similar, to an extent. I never liked Tolkien, and to this day I have difficulty getting myself to care about long pages of made up names, but my love of Edgar Allan Poe and eventually H. P. Lovecraft served the same purpose. I discovered Erich von Däniken a little earlier in life, around thirteen (if I recall correctly), but like Bradley I quickly found myself underwhelmed by the failed promise of his manufactured mysteries. Bradley, though, puts it beautifully:
By this point, too, I had outgrown von Daniken and his ilk, largely because their books promised so much and delivered so little—like the billboard outside a freak show that promises a human alligator, and delivers a guy with a skin condition. Anyway, archaeology was much more fun, and made more sense.
At fifteen I passed through a Graham Hancock lost civilization phase, a bit of a way station on the route between ancient astronauts and reality, and that lasted until I was about eighteen, more or less. The through line is the same, however, and suggests that the “mysteries” of fringe history are not in and of themselves the force that drives people to become interested in ancient history as much as they are the most prominent popular expressions of interest in ancient history. In other words, people who would be interested in the deep past end up coming to it through fringe history because the media makes fringe history the most accessible and at times the only inexpensive and comprehensible way to explore such an interest outside of academia. In certain period, but especially the 1970s and now, it can seem like fringe ideas are the only ones someone is likely to run across by accident.
In communication theory, this is called selective exposure, and is comprised of four parts: involvement, proximity, utility, and reinforcement. By foregrounding fringe history, the media create proximity and through repetition generate reinforcement. When other people are also exposed to the same ideas, sharing and discussing them creates utility for the information and involvement in the audience. Thus, even when non-fringe material also appears in the media, it has less of an effect because it does not hit all four parts of selective exposure and thus may not seem as prominent or popular as fringe history, even if the total number of hours of programming are larger.
Anyway, I wanted to call your attention to this excellent summary of the problems with fringe history. Bradley offers a very nice summary of the division between rhetoric and reality in fringe world:
One of the lines they peddle is that archaeology is a fortress of orthodoxy, where nobody dares to contradict the establishment, or think outside the box, or even to look objectively at the data—which would be the sort of barrier you’re asking about. Nothing could be further from the truth. You only have to look at how dramatically our picture of the past has changed over the last century, in response to more data, more sophisticated analytical techniques, and fresh theoretical approaches. Whereas the pseuds, in contrast, are still trotting out theories that were debunked decades or even centuries ago, thinking that they’re new and fresh.
5/20/2016 10:54:19 am
The trouble with fringers is that they "think outside the box" before they even have a clue what's 'inside the box'. Good luck with that.
5/20/2016 11:16:13 am
For fringe world, "the box" is apparently a global conspiracy to suppress its truths. Therefore, those truths are proof of thinking outside the box. Circular logic has always been one the fringe's strengths.
5/20/2016 12:15:59 pm
In the real world, "the box" is a working knowledge of the field about which you are researching and about which you are speculating. I rather doubt that any of the fringe archaeological authors have even skimmed a first year textbook in archaeology so that they even know what the 'establishment' thinks.
5/23/2016 07:37:56 pm
Ken, "the box" of real history is real scholarship. Fringe history has its own, separate box, and most fringe historians really don't stray outside the Box 'O Idiocy. It's COMFROTABLE in there. Safe and cozy and catering to their every prejudice without the need to do uncomfortable things like thinking and work.
5/20/2016 03:11:31 pm
Take care- the word has a fairly long history with a slightly different meaning on the other side of the Atlantic:
5/20/2016 05:26:52 pm
Dunno. This skeptic had the 'not particularly religious family, started reading Tolkien' aspects, the latter at the prompting of an English teacher to whom I will be forever indebted though not as much for the books themselves as the encouragement to read _everything_, and teaching us the basics of evidence-based debating.
5/20/2016 12:30:46 pm
I was interested in Science Fiction - from Lovecraft to Wyndham. On the same shelf in the bookshop lay the works of Erich Von Daniken. I began reading the Ancient Astonaut theory and came across W. R. Drake's book "Messengers from the Stars" that contained a paragraph about Allegro's book "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross". After reading Allegro's book I happened to stumble across a comprehensive theological section in the local second-hand bookshop that sold works for next to nothing. I managed to read most of the essential titles and thought those books did not answer any of my questions. Most of the questions about Christian origins were given in humanist books. This was all during the mid 1970s.
5/20/2016 04:01:25 pm
You sometimes contribute interesting material to discussions here. Can you really not see the difference between Jason & Rebecca's narratives of questioning more and more, leading them to an interest in archaeology, historiography, and skepticism, and your narrative here of finding an answer you liked and then seeking out more sources of confirmation, so that now you're "perfectly confident" in your current ideas?
5/20/2016 01:40:29 pm
A great example of science being open to new ideas even when they don’t come from inside the establishment is the recent work of Kathleen Martinez, a criminal lawyer from the Dominican Republic who has made astounding discoveries in Egypt related to Cleopatra’s possible burial site. PBS aired a Secret’s of the Dead episode the other night that is a textbook example of how to overturn orthodoxy with careful and intelligent research. The episode was called “Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb” and I believe it’s available online.
5/20/2016 04:57:08 pm
Thanks for sharing the apparat and background. But..
5/20/2016 05:30:03 pm
I'm probably not a representative visitor then since I generally come here every morning to see if there's anything new or any interesting comments, with the exception of Saturday that I usually skip to get a two for one deal on my Sunday morning reading.
5/20/2016 06:20:23 pm
I grew up and still am a practicing Catholic. I remember reading Bible stories and watching In Search Of as a kid. I read Tolkein and the Iliad in 5/6 grade. Somewhere around middle school I bought a book called Kingdom of the Dwarves that had me convinced there was an dwarf kingdom in England. In HS I knew I was headed for engineering school but had an interest in archaeology and wondered if I could combine the two. In fact I picked RPI as my college because it had an archaeology dept (it closed my freshman year). Even though I read and watched some fringe stuff I also read Discover and National Geographic. Over time I went from accepting what I read at face value to subjecting it to review.
5/26/2016 03:05:39 pm
Thanks for posting this; I thought her interview was really interesting, as it is to read the parallels with you.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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