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.
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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