First, some good news: Apparently, after more than two weeks, Weebly has fixed the blog comments problem! Now, on to our topic for today...
The national and international media are the easiest to access and the easiest to study. When the New York Times runs a story about Atlantis, for example, those of us who observe fringe history see and share it. But it becomes easy to forget that the major national and international media are only a fraction of the media that the average American sees and consumes. Especially here in the United States, local media does as much to shape the way people think about fringe topics than national outlets. One’s local newspaper and local TV newscast are, according to surveys, perceived as more trustworthy than national outlets.
The trouble is that local news tends to be terrible, happily reporting stories about Bigfoot sightings and haunted locations. In Georgia’s Moultrie Observer last night, columnist, publisher, and editor Dwain Walden threw together a low-information column in which he reported on his impressions listening to talk radio conversations about ancient astronauts and watching parts of a weeklong marathon of Ancient Aliens leading up to tomorrow’s premiere of the show’s first new episode of the year. His reaction was informative, but depressing. He begins by describing the Nazca lines and then commenting on them:
I must admit, I am curious about this archaeological phenomenon. They were only discovered in the 1930s when commercial aviation became more prolific. They can only be seen from the air, which might imply some heavenly connection. As well, some of these theorists have connected the Mayan civilization to ancient aliens. The Mayans just disappeared one day. […] But I don’t have a strong opinion on this ancient alien thing. Ancient alien conversation is way over my head, all pun intended. When they talk about “worm holes” I can only think of those wild plums that grow on the pasture fence row. […] My question has always been, if we were visited by ancient aliens, then why didn’t they return?
I’ll leave aside the question of whether a newspaper publisher and editor ought to try Googling a subject before opining about it. Instead, I’m interested in the way Walden’s views represent an all too common combination of curiosity, apathy, and easy acceptance of what people depicted as “experts” on TV have to say.
Note that Walden finds himself intrigued by the Nazca lines, and presumably the concept of archaeology in a broader sense, but not enough to move himself to do much by way of research on the topic beyond repeating what he heard on Ancient Aliens. For example, the Nazca lines, while perhaps best appreciated from the air, can be seen from the surrounding hills and their shapes and forms were in fact discovered in 1927 by archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe, who observed them while hiking. Similarly, the Maya didn’t “disappear” like the crew of the Mary Celeste; their descendants are still living in Mexico to this day. Classic Maya culture collapsed in a relatively short period, but Post-Classic culture continued on, down to the Conquest.
While we can (and should) fault a newspaper editor for incuriosity, I’m fairly certain that this degree of interest, which falls above mild curiosity but somewhat below engagement, is typical for a wide range of occasional History channel viewers. It also makes the viewer more likely to accept what the TV is saying at face value. It is perhaps interesting that Walden does not believe that the aliens have returned. Are UFOs a step too far for him, or did he miss that episode of Ancient Aliens?
I am intrigued by Walden’s statement that he lacks a firm opinion on whether space aliens visited ancient earth because he finds the subject matter “way over [his] head.” This, I think, is the key to why the public accepts ancient astronaut claims far more than the evidence should allow. Ancient astronaut promoters make use of seemingly esoteric subjects like worm holes, quantum theory, and other complex concepts that the average viewer (and most experts in other fields) won’t understand at the level needed to see why these “experts” are wrong. But by pretending to have mastered complicated science and deep history, they promote themselves as experts and, in conspiracy with TV producers and networks that promote them as equals to scientists, appear as trusted guides to material that few without advanced education in the field will understand.
It reminds me of an email I received last week from a very angry woman who demanded to know how I could criticize ancient astronaut theorist Jason Martell. “He’s an expert,” she wrote, whereas I was just some guy with a website. The difference, apparently, is that Martell is on television and therefore credible. But, insecure in her own views, my correspondent delivered several personal insults and concluded by informing me that I could not reply because she wrote from a temporary email address that would expire within the hour so she wouldn’t “have to deal with any negativity” coming from me.
This woman is clearly an extreme case—not only a believer, but one willing to act on her beliefs. The scary part is how many more people are like Walden, just curious enough to wonder but not enough to check the facts, open to the ancient astronaut theory largely because it’s easy to access and easy to understand. That, perhaps, is the far greater damage Ancient Aliens causes, much more than its effect on the very narrow spectrum of true believers.
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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