This morning I received a strange email from a concerned reader who would like to know why I have criticized ancient astronaut theorists. My correspondent described himself as a blue collar worker and asked if I had a personal vendetta against ancient astronaut theorists because they “have just as much right” to their opinion as anyone else, as though it were right for them to criticize science in vitriolic terms but wrong for me to criticize them on facts. But what I found interesting was a piece of criticism buried in his missive: “Mainstream archeology appears to try to be keeping it all to themselves unless you are willing to pay outrageous sums to hear what they think, which makes it tough on those of us who work normal jobs.”
This isn’t strictly speaking true. Archaeology magazine and National Geographic are not particularly expensive (I believe you can get Archaeology for between $14 and $25 per year), and it is always an option to visit a library to check out books on archaeological subjects of interest. But it does get to an interesting point about perception and outreach, one connected both to issues of social class that divide the public from academics, as well as very real issues with the availability of non-fringe material.
There is a perception that archaeologists are producing material primarily for other academics, not for the broader public. Academic journals are indeed unduly expensive, and for better or for worse most serious books on archaeological subjects come from academic presses, are difficult to understand, and are incredibly expensive. Otherwise, the general reader has few choices, primarily simplistic books that are heavy on photos of treasure (such as those from the National Geographic or Time-Life series), or sensationalistic fringe history books written by enthusiastic but misinformed or biased amateurs. The middlebrow books that once connected scholars to the public through informed science writing have largely fallen away. There are exceptions: 1491 comes to mind, as does Jared Diamond’s output, but these are increasingly rare. This is the fault of the mass market book industry more than anything else. The industry has ramped up output (almost 300,000 titles in 2011, according to UNESCO) while rates of reading have held steady or fallen and reading proficiency has declined for readers under age 65. The result is that publishers are more reliant than ever on blockbuster titles, which pushes publishers toward sensationalism, while most books go unread.
On television, fringe shows outnumber mainstream science shows for similar reasons: Audience fragmentation across growing numbers of cable channels practically demands outrageous sensationalism to attract increasingly small pieces of the audience. (A successful cable fringe series like the top-rated H2 series America Unearthed attracts only around a million viewers.) But this situation leads to the awful condition that for the viewer who is not college educated in history or archaeology, fringe ideas may be the only ones he or she ever sees on TV. And that gets back to the issue of social class, because despite college education levels reaching at all-time highs, only 31% of Americans 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and just 3% a PhD. And even among college-educated Americans, the number who have studied history or archaeology beyond a basic survey course is probably quite small.
And if you are among the 69% of Americans who don’t have a bachelor’s degree, or the 42% who have never been to college at all, you might be more likely to view academics as a tribe apart, or not to recognize the differences between mainstream and fringe ideas.
It’s a vexing problem and one that calls for more outreach from academic archaeologists and historians to present their research and ideas in an accessible way. But this is made difficult both by the pressures of academic life and also by the fact that the public at large lacks the basic foundational knowledge to evaluate claims—mainstream or fringe—thus leaving the audience to judge claims largely on personality and presentational skill.
One of the people who has attempted to bridge that divide between mainstream and fringe audiences is physicist Michael Dennin, who appears regularly on Ancient Aliens. He gave an interview to OC Weekly magazine this week in which he explained why he appears on a show that has such apparent contempt for science and scholarship. He said he remains involved in the show “because I can help put real science into it, and the show raises really interesting questions.” I can’t imagine what those questions would be.
What I found most interesting though, is that Dennin identified himself as a devout Catholic and said he is writing a book, God Is the Ultimate Superhero, that will attempt to marry Christianity with science. Could this be where Dennin finds his interest in Ancient Aliens, seeing in the show a reflection of his own religious interpretation of science? Dennin doesn’t say, but it’s interesting how his involvement with Ancient Aliens reflects the same Christian influence that also led Erich von Däniken to exempt Jesus from the ancient astronaut theory in the 1970s, and his protégés to continue to do so today.
Last week, for example, Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos tweeted that he believes in God, and that this higher power was distinct from the extraterrestrials he believes were mistaken for every other god in human history.
While the God Tsoukalos claims to believe in could be anything from Yahweh to the clockwork god of deism, the ancient astronaut theory seems to exempt Jesus from hypotheses that would otherwise apply equally to Christ and every other divine or semi-divine being in human history. I think it involves an understanding of the audience for fringe history of all stripes, which tends to draw disproportionately from those with no formal training in archaeology and, like all Americans in general, is largely Christian. In America it is just good business to place God in your belief system, even when doing so unduly and undoubtedly complicates your own claims to scientific legitimacy. Why, exactly, do we need aliens if we have God?
3/13/2014 04:51:25 am
I think another thing that should be mentioned about why these fringe shows are pushed so easy is that advertisers would rather support a show that attracts people who have little education. People who are less formal education tend to be more susceptible to influence from advertising and in turn will purchase or inquire about whatever is advertised. Marking studies have show that people with higher education tend to research more about purchases and make less spontaneous purchases. I know that advertisers would much rather production houses and channels gear all the shows to audiences with High School or lower education simply to increase sales of the products or services.
3/13/2014 05:13:36 am
This is a good point and one that hits on why so many of these shows seem to aim for that demographic of low education viewers who have little interest in digging into the genuine scholarly historical and archaeological material which is probably above their heads....even though magazines like Archaeology and National Geographic easily accessible and written for a mainstream (non-academic) audience. This also hints at why conspiracy theories about government cover-ups and Smithsonian plots to suppress "The Real Truth" about aliens or American history or the Bible appeal to those who feel confused by world events and powerless to change the direction their lives and the world itself are going. Underneath the surface bubbles that anti-intellectual, anti-elite, anti-education mentality that supports the base of working class populism. I think without a doubt this is at least partially at play in all of this and figures into the popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed as well as the larger conspiracy theory movement in general.
3/13/2014 05:32:51 am
Said better than I could get it out. I don't know if anyone read about the story today that a FOX affiliate in Oklahoma cut out the on reference of evolution from the airing of the new COSMOS by airing a short commercial during the 12 second mention. While it is questioned if this is deliberate of not I can say it is not common that programs are interrupted during broadcast with a commercial for such seemingly targeted times, given people who work in master control (the people responsible for broadcast transmission) make mistakes from time to time this one seems very targeted.
3/13/2014 08:00:05 am
Generally agree. While I am sure there are people who would be open to real archaeology and can't get it, and they are indeed who we should be talking to, I disagree with much of Jason's post. Oh, I agree on the class element, to a point. But I think the idea that many adherents in "fringe" beliefs are rationally putting data together, but they only have bad data, simply doesn't match reality.
3/13/2014 08:06:25 am
I think there's a divide between the people who are die-hard fringe believers and/or fantasy-prone personalities and those like my correspondent today who simply lack an easy way of differentiating between mainstream and fringe ideas in terms of quality and evidence. I'm not sure there's a way out of the problem of so many people who believe that academia is a conspiracy to suppress the supernatural and/or paranormal.
The Other J.
3/13/2014 09:54:23 am
"Underneath the surface bubbles that anti-intellectual, anti-elite, anti-education mentality that supports the base of working class populism."
3/13/2014 11:45:29 am
The Other J.
3/13/2014 12:05:18 pm
3/13/2014 05:18:39 am
Sadly this is not a phenomenon that exists solely in America. I have a Masters degree in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York in the UK. While I was living there I did volunteer work, and later paid work, at historical sites that also served as tourist attractions. Quite a large percentage of tourists were mostly interested in the sensational/false history of the sites. On more than a few occasions, I politely debunked some of the tourists' misconceptions of the sites. While some responded well with a 'how interesting, I didn't know that', many became very angry and hostile. One gentleman actually stormed out of the building because I told him a medieval chapel he thought was reserved for lepers was in fact, a private chapel for a wealthy family whose ownership of the chapel was well documented in both the written and archaeological record. It goes to show that those who are 'selling' history to the public don't want to let the truth get in the way of a good story and those that 'buy' this history don't want an academic telling them their favorite t.v personality/author is fallible.
3/13/2014 05:48:02 am
It does look like RICHARD III was the man buried under a car park
3/13/2014 05:58:04 am
John Hawks and staff just taught a really neat anthropology class,
The Snarkster Strikes Again!
3/13/2014 02:15:20 pm
Now you'd be on to something if that had been a hooked X chromosome!
3/16/2014 02:56:52 pm
I recently watched the program about the Richard III discovery, and found its presentation simple yet engaging. Human as well. It was everything AU would like to be. And the program did rewrite a bit of English history - or its aftermath - by using the simple tools of science. Maybe it is a Smithsonian conspiracy after all, one of actual research.
3/13/2014 05:51:34 am
There is certainly a problem in introducing the public to the intricacies of history. However, it should be recognized that this has always been true. In many ways, the Iliad is a sensationalist account of an actual historical event meant to connect with a wide audience. Another good example is the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, which some think was purposely written over the top with information that the author knew was wrong or was making up. (It is very entertaining.)
3/13/2014 06:11:39 am
I don't have the Smithsonian channel because it cost more to get that tier of service. I have watch the recent batch of shows they have made available via Netflix and have really enjoyed them, even the speculative history shows. JAD mentioned the one above about RIchard III lost grave and that was a very interesting episode. I hope they continue in this manner. I also have heard good things about the Military channels show Myth Hunters is quite good at exploring fringe topics, balancing myth and known historical record.
Jason, above: "In America it is just good business to place God in your belief system, even when doing so unduly and undoubtedly complicates your own claims to scientific legitimacy. Why, exactly, do we need aliens if we have God?"
3/13/2014 08:10:04 am
But Gunn, I would say that to those who believe in them, UFOs and Bigfoot and the like are exactly as "real" as God is to a Christian. "Abductees", for instance, have had what is to them a very real personal experience which informs their belief in aliens, comparable to someone being born again and having God reveal Himself to them.
3/14/2014 07:36:23 am
Prone, I would have to respond that unless you experience God in your life, yourself, you wouldn't be able to appreciate how real He may be. The proof of God's existence is meaningful in a Christian who is "walking in the Spirit" and experiencing daily wonders from God.
3/14/2014 08:16:49 am
Well, Gunn, I would simply counter that unless you have been abducted by aliens, you wouldn't be able to appreciate how real they may be.
3/14/2014 09:33:04 am
Modesty has nothing to do with facts, right? Also, Kings was used figuratively, of course, applied because there is a place for searching out hidden mysteries...probably those who have time for it, as suggested in the OT. I've become a King since going on SS, you understand.
3/14/2014 11:10:56 am
I hope you get that I wasn't all the "sincere" as you might have enjoyed thinking, in calling myself a Christian King. Funny you would latch onto such a notion of sincerity. I dunno. Lighten up? It's only a blog?
Discovery of America
3/13/2014 08:42:26 am
Gunn belongs to the community of believers in the Rosslyn Chapel myths and legends - no more than 3 decades old
3/14/2014 07:44:56 am
Rosslyn Chapel continues to harbor many good mysteries to contemplate, not the least that it represents a good bridge of ideology in the transition from Knights Templar to Masonry. It is a time-capsule of history not yet completely known about. It is not fully understood, by any means...plus, hidden artifacts or wealth are possibilities, not fantasies for fools.
3/13/2014 02:23:14 pm
Unloaded Gunn said "I think it would be good for your career, Jason, to turn the faucet off on one side and open it more fully on the other, as others have suggested, too."
3/14/2014 07:57:34 am
patronize 1 treat condescendingly 2 act as a patron toward (a person, cause, artist, etc.) support; encourage 3 frequent as a customer.
3/14/2014 02:18:43 pm
Yes, by your own definition are are "patronizing".
3/16/2014 05:38:28 am
Well, I guess it can be said that at least you tried to make sense here.
3/13/2014 06:27:01 am
I find that a lot of people have the attitude that "conventional" history and archeology is dull. Graham Hancock for example once complained about Archeologists taking out all the mystery and wonder out of certain ancient sites.
3/13/2014 07:32:05 am
"What the above attitude indicates, in my opinion is the desire to have childish, "fantastic" beliefs validated and thus ignore reality."
3/13/2014 02:29:13 pm
I too am drawn to spooky stuff. I tell people that I love reading about urban folklore though I don't believe any of it.
3/13/2014 02:56:12 pm
Well said Silence. These are facts I face everyday with various friends, family, etc. I would venture a guess that many more than would admit feel likewise.
3/14/2014 08:50:26 am
3/13/2014 07:32:18 am
"What the above attitude indicates, in my opinion is the desire to have childish, "fantastic" beliefs validated and thus ignore reality."
3/13/2014 06:40:32 am
I enjoyed this post Jason. Good job! One of your suggestions, consulting a public library for current archaeology news, is becoming increasingly difficult. Government budgets have been slashed since the 2008 financial crisis. If you live anywhere outside of a large metro area chances are good that the public library you use is not buying that much non-fiction any more. Most smaller libraries prefer to buy popular fiction instead to appeal to a wider group of patrons. i think the assumption is that non-fiction subject matter can be found for free on the internet. This, of course, presents its own problems. Many of the armchair-interested that work blue collar jobs have a hard time telling a reputable website from something created and hosted by the enthusiastic fringe. And, frankly, the passion that some of these fringe guys exhibit toward their subject matter can be very contagious.
3/13/2014 06:55:14 am
I distinctly remember being a teenager and going to the local library to look for books on archaeology and discovering that few were newer than the 1960s, some three decades out of date. It's true that a lot of public libraries are ill-served in topics outside of American history and popular fiction, but many will at least have some access to academic journals online. I'd hope that most would at least have JSTOR. And in New York State, residents can sign up with their driver's license IDs to access a selection of library databases and resources online through the NYS Library (though many can only be viewed at the library itself).
3/13/2014 08:26:31 am
There are people who genuinely cannot tell the diiference between mainstream history and fantasy history because the two are so scientific in their presentation - as one person commented at random on the Tony Robinson documentary "The Real Da Vinci Code". Most people are outsiders, not keeping tabs on what's happening, and only looking in once in a while,
3/13/2014 09:07:14 am
It's not just archaeologists and historians who overvalue their work. A subscription to The Astrophysical Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal covering astronomy and astrophysics, is almost $3000/year. Peer-reviewed journals covering information technology are also quite expensive.
3/13/2014 09:11:49 am
And such material is only of interest to history academics
The Other J.
3/13/2014 10:52:40 am
The "right to an opinion" thing bothers me. Opinions aren't worth much more than what they're based on; the supposed inherent right to an opinion doesn't mean much without anything to back it up. (I'm not even convinced we have a "right to an opinion," so much as we have a right to form an opinion. Too often people think they've come up with their own opinion by repeating someone else's.)
3/13/2014 12:10:45 pm
Right of Opinion and Freedom of Belief = FIRST AMENDMENT
The Other J.
3/13/2014 04:58:24 pm
Well, that's you're opinion...
3/13/2014 07:15:38 pm
Your point? I just don't see that J is denying anyone the right to their opinions. Just how would J lose in a court? On what grounds would he be sued or prosecuted? I am not aware that just being intolerant by itself is a crime. The bottom line is that un-evidenced and or poorly supported opinions can be so labeled. After all J is entitled to his opinion that poorly supported opinion is bad.
3/14/2014 03:31:53 am
Kind of off topic a bit but my dad always said the best part about freedom of speech is that it truly gives a person a barometer on how to tell how stupid a person really is.
3/13/2014 02:52:26 pm
The Other J...Please send me your name, I want to quote you and make sure that credit is factually noted. WELL SAID!
This is very insightful, The Othe J. You say, "Even better, this blog more often than not has an evidence-based alternative to the speculative theory."
3/14/2014 09:27:10 am
Gunn, the question of a water route doesn't imply anything about who used it. Dedicated Norse *could* for example have walked across Canada to Minnesota should they be so inclined, but that does not prove that they did so. Before you harp on any longer about water routes you need to first establish some kind of evidence that they were actually used.
3/14/2014 11:44:14 am
Jason, my comments aren't off topic, because I'm responding to a comment from The Other J., in which he praises your review and states what this blog does so effectively. I'm disagreeing with that comment, and I backed it up with ample indication of merit for my disagreement.
3/14/2014 11:50:20 am
I don't quite understand your point, Gunn. Yes, if you really wanted to you could sail to Minnesota from the Atlantic. But you could also sail to Bolivia, or Panama, or the Amazon basin, as some fringe theorists assert that the Vikings and/or Norse actually did. This is the difference between "could" and "did." That was my point: You need to have evidence.
We're not even at a phase of considering evidence. All I want you to see is that it's easily conceivable that Scandinavians (or anyone else, including the French) could have "not sailed!" to Runestone Hill. Paddling would be required once leaving Lake Superior, Jason, clearly, and not difficult to grasp. I thought it was common knowledge that boats on rivers don't sail, they are paddled or rowed.
3/13/2014 02:17:52 pm
There are, granted, few shows that combine science or factual history with entertainment, but they exist. Myth Hunters, Mysteries at the Museum, Castle Secrets & Legends, The Bible's Greatest Secrets and Cosmos are fine examples.
3/13/2014 06:20:34 pm
Well, I was, until I had a career ending injury at work, a blue collar, working class guy. I was a machinist and mechanic/welder. My Dad was very big on making sure I got a good education. He valued getting as much of an education as possible. I also am old enough, 66 now, that when I was in school, we were still taught critical thinking. That is the one thing missing from the school system in the US if not elsewhere. Grade schools and high schools seem to have stopped teaching the young people critical thinking. We were taught to think for ourselves and to question things. Sure, there were certain lessons/subjects where we were basically taught by rote memorizing, but in some subjects we were free to question things and I remember more than a few teachers who told us all that the only dumb question was the one that was not asked.
3/14/2014 03:13:26 am
Take a look at the series titled Rogue Angel. It's pure fantasy that does throw in a lot of facts about archaeology and how it works.
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/14/2014 05:54:46 pm
A not insignificant problem that SOME "academics" create for themselves and (half-wittingly) perpetuate is an attitude of arrogance: "Just trust ME … I know MORE than YOU do … " …
3/14/2014 06:41:48 pm
I find your opening statement to be rather ironic. I'm not trying to be nasty, so, please hear me out.
3/15/2014 02:06:07 am
I find the "Us vs Them" mentality never works for anyone beyond teenagers myself.
Only Me, if I may: a double standard doesn't exist if one recognizes that Wolter purposely focuses on "speculative" material, almost all of which has been "debunked" by the professionals. Notice I didn't put quotation marks around professionals. This is because I, myself, do appreciate the job professionals do...most of the time. There are a few exceptions, as we know.
3/15/2014 04:21:10 am
That's why I found Phil's statement ironic. It isn't arrogance if someone does know more than the layperson, because of their education, training and time in the field. The attitude may be arrogant, but that's human nature.
3/15/2014 04:36:26 am
Well said Only Me
I agree that we see arrogance from both "sides," and it's unpleasant.
3/15/2014 03:17:12 am
I still can't see why Ancient Astronaut types are dignified with the term 'theorists'. How can their 'theories' be proven or disproven? I think they should be termed 'hypothecists' or 'speculators', even though I know it's far too late for that now.
3/15/2014 05:49:10 pm
Coming a little late to the party here, but...what is Colonial Williamsburg if not archeological outreach? The Gettysburg Historical Tour and battle reenactment every year? Plymouth Plantation? Jamestown Settlement? Heck, the tiny little Wilmington Western Railroad and tiny little Pea Patch Island? Every city you go to has some sort of bus-tour of historical sights of the city.
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/16/2014 09:14:22 am
I completely agree with "Varika" (above) on the problem with the WAY "history" is presented and taught … (I apologize to "Varika" for giving the *kiss*of*death* …)
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.