A few weeks ago, when Cowboys & Aliens was new in theaters, the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens devoted an hour to “Aliens and the Old West” on July 28. This was, in fact, the first episode of its third season. Not coincidentally, the show used clips from the movie as a springboard for some (very) tangentially related speculation about extraterrestrial visitation in the Old West, lands abutting the Old West, lands on the same continent as the Old West, and places that simply existed at the same time as the Old West. (I’ve never thought of Ohio as the Old West, but what do I know?)
This week, the killer-virus movie Contagion hit theaters, and—surprise of surprises--Ancient Aliens had an hour on aliens and, yes, killer viruses, speculating that extraterrestrials were behind a series of devastating ancient plagues. Needless to say, the hour was complete nonsense (the connection is that ancient people blamed the gods for disease, and the gods were “really” aliens, so aliens cause disease); however, that is merely par for the course with the sorry excuse for a “documentary” series. But unlike the earlier Cowboys-themed episode, the virus edition did not include promotional material for or scenes from the movie Contagion.
The bigger question is this: How can we trust a program that is allegedly presenting serious truths when these supposedly nonfiction truths are carefully manipulated to coincide with Hollywood’s movie release schedule?
In the case of most entertainment programs, this is not much of an issue. When the History Channel does a program on Angels and Demons Decoded (2009) or Indiana Jones and the Ultimate Quest (2008), the viewer pretty much knows what he or she is in for: bought and paid for movie-based infotainment with a few “real life” facts added in.
But Ancient Aliens purports to be an actual, independent, serious documentary series exploring the ancient astronaut theory, which pays lip service to being “scientific.” If we assume for even a moment that there is any merit in the ancient astronaut theory, we should be deeply disturbed by the idea that producers at Prometheus Entertainment and executives at the History Channel are willing to alter, manipulate, and selectively present facts and evidence in service of Hollywood’s promotional agenda.
On Coast to Coast AM on July 31, Ancient Aliens talking head Giorgio Tsoukalos and Coast to Coast host George Noory described the “Aliens and the Old West” program as an official Cowboys & Aliens movie “tie-in.” It appears that money exchanged hands between Ancient Aliens and Cowboys & Aliens to secure the inclusion of scenes from the movie in the documentary program. Cowboys & Aliens was produced by Universal Studios, which is owned by NBCUniversal, a 15% owner of the History Channel.
Now, take into consideration the explicit aim of the ancient astronaut theorists and their organization, the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Organization (AAS-RA), according to Giorgio Tsoukalos himself:
“The A.A.S. R.A. is determined to prove, using scientific research methods, but in ‘layman's terms,’ as to whether or not extraterrestrials have visited Earth in the remote past. […] We work along the same lines as conventional science does, but we take it one step further: the A.A.S. R.A. takes into consideration ALL discoveries and information from ALL fields of science.”
So-called “conventional science” has strict ethics policies designed to avoid conflicts of interest, or to disclose them when they occur. It is the only way to judge whether results can be trusted to be honest and fairly reported, and even then the system does not always work. The National Academy of Sciences defines conflict of interest as:
“any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it (1) could significantly impair the individual’s objectivity or (2) could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization.”
I would think that using a supposedly factual documentary program as a paid advertisement for a Hollywood film would meet the conflict of interest definition as given above. Ancient Aliens did not disclose any financial relationship during the July 28 broadcast (though legal details were provided in the end credits), nor did they acknowledge or explain how closely the program worked with the movie to develop an hour providing “real life” material to support the film’s fictional storyline. Were movie producers involved in selecting material to include? Did they have editorial control over the final product?
As for the talking heads on the show: How much did the ancient alien theorists on the program know? Did producers inform them that their speculations were to be used to promote a film? If so, did this affect their views or cause them to alter their speculations to conform to the Hollywood storyline?
For ancient astronaut theorists who claim that they are true scientists and who claim that those working in the sciences are engaged in a conspiracy for profit to suppress ancient astronaut findings, this kind of conflict of interest in unconscionable. But for “entertainers,” this sort of close cross-promotional relationship is standard operating procedure.
Ancient astronaut theorists and I will always disagree on the interpretation of the facts (and, as I have shown, whether there are any “facts” at all), but now I must seriously question their most basic motivations. Are they honestly deluded, or do they simply weave speculation to order for cash?
If it’s the latter, I’d like to take up a collection to pay them to shut up.
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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