One of the problems skeptics face in countering the insidious nonsense of the ancient astronaut theory is that skeptics treat the suggestion as though it were subject to the rules of science, and therefore they criticize it using physical evidence—radiocarbon dates, archaeological site reports, the laws of physics, etc. This approach is understandable since most skeptics tend to come from math and natural science backgrounds. But it isn’t effective outside the field of science.
As anyone who has perused the pages of Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic has undoubtedly noticed, most articles in those publications would not be out of place in Popular Mechanics or a medical journal. I love science as much as the next skeptic, but I feel that skepticism needs to be broader than science—it needs to embrace the humanities as well, and to speak to people in a language they can understand rather than the rarified jargon of the academy.
The ancient astronaut theory is not science, and it does not believe in science in any real sense. Despite the lip service it pays to science, the theory uses scientific evidence only as decoration for a philosophy—an ideology—that is essentially a product of the humanities. No amount of scientific reasoning will change the minds of the true believers because they are immune to evidence. They cannot be reached, and there is no fact that will make them change their minds. Scientists and the science-literate, on the other hand, need no convincing to realize that the ancient astronaut theory contains no evidence and withstands no scrutiny. Skeptics do not need to preach to that choir because no persuasion is necessary.
The real battle, then, is for the hearts of those who are curious about the ancient astronaut theory, or merely intrigued by the Ancient Aliens documentary. Almost by definition, the majority of those in this group are not scientifically literate or they would already have rejected the theory. Reasoned appeals to scientific methodology, burdens of proof, and rules of evidence are simply meaningless in this context because the ancient astronaut theorists pay no attention to them, and it is simply not possible to rebut the ancient astronaut theory while simultaneously teaching the scientific method and inculcating an understanding of the history of science—all in the space of a few sentences or sound bites.
There are genuinely people who believe that an unidentified “they” would never allow TV to broadcast statements that aren’t true, and these people, who take it on faith that the talking heads on TV are honest, will not see past the false equivalence of talking heads. They will not place greater faith in a “scientist” versus an “ancient astronaut theorist” so long as the media pretend such titles are equivalent, and therefore even-handed discussions of facts, evidence, Occam’s razor, and probability will do nothing to counter enthusiastic citations of “ancient texts.” The dispassionate recitation of a scientist reads as boring, while an advocate’s passion translates into an emotional connection with TV viewers.
And this is where the humanities come in. First, too many science-based skeptics have conceded vast territory the ancient astronaut theorists (AATs) by allowing them to spew nonsense and lies about ancient literature. Understandably, most skeptics are more comfortable with the hard facts of natural science than the more subjective world of literary interpretation. But more than half of the “evidence” for the ancient astronaut theory comes from literary sources, and letting AATs defined the terms of the debate gives them far too much power.
Second, countering AATs’ claims is not a case of simply presenting scientific evidence and conclusions and trusting the audience to come to the right conclusion. No, one must actually use the tools of rhetoric, criticism, and the whole panoply of the humanities to present an effective case, one marked by the same enthusiasm and passion as the AATs demonstrate for their fake theory. This is not a rejection of science but a recognition that once the scientific evidence is in, it requires strong communication skills to deliver the message effectively.
One of the most effective tactics for countering AATs has nothing to do with science and everything to do with the art of rhetoric. My preferred method is to, for the sake of argument, presume all of the AATs claims about ancient texts are true and then, through remorseless logic, show how their own published or broadcast beliefs, which they cannot very well then deny holding, produce paradoxes and contradictions that undercut or demolish their own ideas. Many audiences don’t understand science, but they certainly understand when AATs tie themselves in knots trying to explain away their hypocrisy and contradictions. Understanding science is challenging; understanding when someone is making things up or lying is a lot easier.
For example, I recently demonstrated how Ancient Aliens “theorist” Giorgio Tsoukalos’s claims about aliens and pyramids produced an impossible dilemma. In a tweet attempting to explain his position on pyramid-building, Tsoukalos made three claims:
1. The beings called the “gods” were actually extraterrestrial beings.
2. Pyramids (and by extension other ancient buildings) were not built by these aliens but were instead built with the intellectual aid of aliens.
3. Ancient texts, taken at face value, prove the first and second claims.
Someone working from a natural science background would approach such claims by arguing about archaeological evidence, the probability of alien intervention, etc. But, as is obvious, the nebulous claim of “aid” makes it impossible to effectively refute these assertions based on physical evidence. (The aliens, for example, might merely have run a seminar on pyramid building, for example.)
But working from a humanities perspective, it’s far easier to expose the lies at the heart of the ancient astronaut theory, presuming one has a good command of the relevant ancient texts.
As I showed, the ancient Babylonian text, the Enuma Elish, taken at face value states that the “gods,” whom AATs identified as aliens, were responsible for the physical construction of the temples and great ziggurat of Babylon. They molded the bricks and stacked them into buildings.
Now, AATs have a problem: Claim 3 cannot be correct since another “ancient text” offers a different view. Claim 2 is now contradicted as well by a plain reading of the text under the assumptions the AATs themselves agreed upon. If the AATs wish to keep their theory intact, they need to choose one of two paths: recant their belief that ancient texts are literally true (impossible) or admit stated claims are wrong and accept against facts that aliens built the ziggurat, which can demonstrably be shown to be the work of human beings. To be fair, we have not proved Claim 1 is wrong. But here we can apply scientific evidence, and not just as decoration. Is there any scientific evidence for extraterrestrial artifacts in Babylon? Of course not; and now the evidence is all the more convincing because it comes on the AATs’ own terms.
This is why, pace C. P. Snow, the use of all the tools of the humanities is such an important complement to scientific facts when it comes to public communication. In the case described above, we are now in a much stronger position to ask Tsoukalos and the AATs whether they are ignorant, liars, or hypocrites—in short, are they just making things up out of whole cloth? Yes, this come close to an argumentum ad hominem, but the subject of the attack is not the personal character of the AATs but the intellectual underpinnings of their theory. And this line of attack—more than dry discussions of date, rocks, and probabilities—makes for an easy argument to follow and one that provides the requisite entertainment value needed to hold the attention of the media that put on such intellectual freak shows as Ancient Aliens.
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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