You can already hear the excitement in the alternative science and fringe history world over an exceedingly positive review of Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods by Jon Epstein of Greensboro College because an honest to goodness academic not only endorsed the book with a full-throated celebration of Hancock’s claims, but also because he has blasted archaeology for refusing to engage with Hancock or to embrace findings from disciplines outside archaeology, such as geology, astronomy, mythology, etc. Epstein, a sociologist, and the Department of Sociology and Political Science will host Graham Hancock for a lecture and panel discussion on November 23, and his book review is actually a thinly veiled celebration of Hancock’s battle against archaeology. Get a load of Epstein’s praise of Hancock, whom Epstein seems to hero-worship, and his condemnation of academia:
Graham Hancock is NOT a scientist, and has never claimed to be one. He does, however, possess an honors degree in sociology from Durham University where he trained with criminologist Stanley Cohen, a major intellectual figure in British sociology, and where he learned the techniques of social science research. What he is, is an investigative journalist. An investigative journalist armed with the training and knowledge of how to do thorough research.
The whole review is like that, but longer. Despite admitting to be unqualified to assess Hancock’s claims, Epstein found them convincing, and his allegations that “something a bit like a conspiracy is at work in science” (as he says in Magicians) to be “thoroughly professional.” Now as it happens, I am every bit as qualified to evaluate Hancock’s claims as he was to make them (seeing as how I was the Distinguished Graduate in Social Sciences in my graduating class), and I have laid out in great detail reasons why they are unlikely to be true, and why is research is laughably bad, to the point of outright ignorance of his sources. But that isn’t my purpose here.
Epstein is a professor of sociology and criminal justice, so you’d think he might have had at least some of the tools to look into Hancock’s claims beyond simply accepting them. Epstein claims that he has spoken to archaeologists who have dismissed Hancock as a crackpot, but he says that he has never found one who has read even a word of Hancock’s work.
I have found, again without exception, that not one of them had actually read as much as a single word of his work. Not a single word. Worse, I was told by a world famous, highly credentialed, respected and well placed member of the archaeological establishment that they didn’t need to read it to know what it is: dangerous nonsense that disrespects science. I replied that I had no idea it was that insidious, and thanked her for her time.
Clearly, our professor has never spoken with archaeologists who have read and reviewed Hancock’s work, not least Ken Feder, who reviewed Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods in American Antiquity a few months ago. That said, while it is always best to criticize from a position of knowledge, this is a bit like asking quantum physicists if they’ve spent their time contemplating Deepak Chopra, or doctors if they’ve studied the latest homeopathic findings. How likely is someone to reach a startlingly new but brilliant insight when not conducting original field research, new archival research, etc?
Epstein went on to blame this condition on two factors: the conservatism of archaeologists, who are slow to accept new evidence, and inductive logic, which Epstein feels forces archaeologists to make more conservative estimations of ancient times. Epstein prefers deductive reasoning in which large general principles are expressed, and the evidence for them is then fitted to the theory. He gives the example of the Sphinx: Inductive logic, he says, leads us to date the Sphinx to 2500 BCE because of specific details: its location near Khafre’s pyramid, its inclusion in Khafre’s funerary complex, a statue of Khafre found in its temple, a possible portion of Khafre’s name found on a stela set up 1,000 years later. Deductive logic, he says, is very different. Starting with the principles that it last rained heavily in Egypt 5,500 years ago and that the Sphinx shows signs of water erosion, it is therefore 5,500 years old. I assume that most readers can see that there are problems with this dichotomy. He gives a second example, claiming that his knowledge of sociology tells him that the Inca lacked the “prerequisite social organization, division of labor, innovation and technology” to plan and build Machu Picchu and other Incan sites. Therefore, deduction proves that an unknown people were responsible, even if they left no trace of their presence anywhere.
But here’s what gets me: Epstein accuses archaeologists, many of whom are underpaid and overworked, of succumbing to politics and letting ideology blind them to new ideas, but he doesn’t note that Hancock’s motivations can’t be described as entirely altruistic. As Hancock himself told the Daily Mail back in October 1998, his Fingerprints of the Gods made him a millionaire—and that was in British pounds. In American dollars, he became a multimillionaire. Surely, if ideology can bias archaeologists, cash money might have some impact on Graham Hancock. By his own admission, Hancock turned to writing fringe literature to revive a career he saw skid into the rails after devoting years to crafting propaganda for the dictator of Ethiopia and losing himself in a marijuana-induced haze of paranoia. His books tended to track trends: Sign and the Seal followed the Indiana Jones movies, while Fingerprints of the Gods built on the wild popularity of the Mystery of the Sphinx documentary. His Mars Mystery came out right after the peak of the X-Files-induced UFO and ancient alien trend, and now his comeback is tied to trendy catastrophic climate change and Walking Dead-style apocalyptic longing for the End Times.
It’s hard to think that there isn’t a little more to Hancock’s ideas than mere interdisciplinary genius.
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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