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?
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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