Washington Post Ends Debunking Column for Lack of Interest; Plus: A Classic "Scientific" Take on Atlantis
There was an odd sort of rhyme this week between J. Hutton Pulitzer’s Roman sword scandal and the Washington Post’s decision to end its column debunking hoaxes and false claims on the internet. Pulitzer had claimed that a Canadian man had found a “Roman” sword off Oak Island many years ago, only to see his claim undone by the internet’s ability to bring together people who know things, exposing the sword as a likely reproduction made for the tourist trade when several other copies turned up online, including one for sale on eBay in Italy. The Post, however, was entirely in harmony with Pulitzer—who refused to back down in the face of evidence—when its internet hoax columnist explained that it would no longer debunk fake stories online because the people who share fantasy and myth as truth won’t read or accept fact-based evaluations. “At which point does society become utterly irrational?” asked columnist Caitlin Dewey. “Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?”
As someone who spends a lot of time evaluating weird claims about history and responding to readers who are convinced that they are alien hybrids, reincarnated Atlanteans, or possessed of divine knowledge, I think we can safely say that many true believers are already living in an alternative reality. The difference is that the mainstream press has finally started to notice that this alternative reality is bleeding over into issues they care about, particularly politics.
This week Kristan T. Harris of the conspiracy radio show The Rundown Live (on which I appeared earlier this year) posted a video to YouTube presenting the latest edition of his ancient esoterica series “Dat Mystery School,” this time focusing on the allegation that the pyramids of Egypt had been built by giants. The video, and its accompanying article, are based on an excerpt from a long, rambling lecture recorded by famed occultist Manly P. Hall on “Atlantis and the Gods of Antiquity,” though I am not certain when between 1928 and 1990 it was recorded. He sounds old in the recording, so I’d guess closer to 1990, but it would only be a guess.
J. Hutton Pulitzer Threatens "Consequences" for Using Photo of Now Almost Certainly Fake "Roman" Sword
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so I will report that after my blog post about J. Hutton Pulitzer’s claims regarding an allegedly “Roman” sword found sometime in the past several decades off the coast of Oak Island in Nova Scotia, Pulitzer contacted me to demand that I remove my use of the small portion of a photograph of the sword which appeared in the Boston Standard newspaper for violating his copyright. The image in question was included in a side-by-side comparison of two similar swords created by Andy White, who also received the takedown notice. The comparison used a small portion of the Boston Standard photograph in a photo composite.
Many of you have undoubtedly heard the big news coming from Treasure Force Commander J. Hutton Pulitzer that a Roman sword was discovered at Oak Island, suggesting that the Romans reached Nova Scotia at some unspecified period in the past. The claim appeared in an obscure British regional newspaper, the Boston Standard of Lincolnshire, which is a very odd place to announce the discovery of a major artifact. But that’s par for the course with people like Pulitzer, who try to inject unsupported ideas into the mainstream by filtering them through small and obscure publications with lower editorial standards in the hope that it will legitimize their unconventional ideas. It’s hard not to think that Pulitzer chose the Boston Standard because it can easily be confused for a paper from Boston, Mass., and thus offer greater prestige. However, since the author says that Pulitzer spoke to the parent company, Johnston Press of Edinburgh, that might not be the case.
Today I’d like to discuss Matthew Nisbet’s article in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 2016), which is keyed to the upcoming X-Files revival and claims that skeptics shouldn’t worry that the X-Files is having a negative effect on popular perceptions of science. According to Nisbet, research shows that fans of science fiction have an overall positive view of science and therefore science fiction shouldn’t be condemned for promoting a belief in alien abductions, monsters, and other paranormal phenomena. But when we drill down into the evidence Nisbet provides, we can see how scientists’ own biases toward science fiction have shaped their investigations and, by leaving out key elements of how the public engages with paranormal material, developed an incomplete understanding of popular reception of paranormal claims.
I’m feeling a bit less than inspired today, and part of the reason is likely because of all of the depressing stories I’ve been reading this week. Take this one for example: A recent post rapidly going viral over on Ancient Code, the ad-choked click-bait ancient astronaut website of Ivan Petricevic, claims that the skeleton of a giant, seven-foot-tall “hellhound” had been excavated at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk, and the massive animal may have inspired the legend of the monstrous dog Black Shuck. That’s all well and good except that Petricevic gives no source, and when we trace the claim back to its first publication in the Daily Mail in May 2014, we discover that the dog was seven feet long, not seven feet tall. Granted, seven feet is exceptionally long for a dog, but it’s certainly nowhere close to the dog being seven feet tall!
Professor: Donald Trump Uses "Strategic" Misinformation That Funnels Conspiracies into the Mainstream
In an article in the Washington Post the other day, Paul Farhi explored how Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, is helping conspiracies theories and fringe ideas enter into the mainstream by engaging in uncritical repetition of bad ideas from unreliable internet sources. Prof. Jeffery Hemsley of Syracuse University told Farhi that Trump engages in “strategic” misinformation in order to reflect back to ignorant and biased voters the bad ideas they already believe (or are primed to believe) are true:
In the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 2016), Benjamin Radford has an article on his further research into the folklore surrounding the chupacabra, the legendary vampire-like creature that rose to popularity in the late 1990s. A few years ago Radford proposed that the chupacabra was invented in 1995 by a Puerto Rican woman who confused elements of the movie Species for real life, and Radford maintains that there are no references to the cattle-mutilating monster prior to 1995. In his latest article, Radford reinforces this conclusion and explores some of the latest permutations of the chupacabra myth.
Yesterday I ran across an interesting article in an old magazine, and it provides an unusual look at how the myth of antediluvian giants cast a shadow over the popular and scholarly understanding of paleontology in the years before the acceptance of the theory of evolution. Our article comes from Ballou’s Monthly Dollar Magazine, which its founder, Maturin M. Ballou, billed as “the cheapest magazine in the world,” for August 1860. It appeared in a column devoted to curiosities and records what the anonymous author claims to be the discovery of Bible giants:
I know that I’ve been rather harsh on Micah Hanks’s articles whenever I’ve read them, but one of the reasons for this is that Hanks, the self-described “Mouth of the South” and host of the Graelian Report, consistently casts himself as a researcher of a much higher caliber than he has ever proved himself to be. He also fancies himself to be a much better writer than he has ever proved himself to be. (Disclosure: In April I agreed to his producer’s request for me to go on his radio show to “debate” skepticism and Fortean phenomena, but they never had me on.)
But I come here today to agree with Hanks, though not quite in the way he would like.
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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