J. Hutton Pulitzer and Scott Wolter Celebrate Forensics as Key to History; Plus: A "Fortean" Approach to Religion?
Yesterday J. Hutton Pulitzer, newly minted “forensic historian,” posted a blog explaining why forensics is to henceforth be the gold standard in investigating history. Scott Wolter tried to support his XpLrR partner with a blog post of his own explaining what “forensic geology” is, but like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, they managed to be on different pages and failed to link to one another’s blog posts, or to post their joint responses to their XpLrR.tv website, resulting in an off-brand, off-message rollout for the pair’s corporate partnership.
Wolter’s blog post was a simple recitation of his work history, familiar from several earlier accounts, but it was interesting for him to realize that his audience doesn’t understand what “forensic geology” is despite three seasons of America Unearthed and various media products and appearances where he trumpets his expertise in concrete stability as his qualification for investigating history. He shouldn’t feel bad, though: Audiences have many, many people in them who exhibit surprising lack of attention to detail. Just yesterday a librarian contacted me because a prisoner was looking for my address. Why might that be, I inquired. Oh, oops! The librarian had confused me for Giorgio Tsoukalos.
Pulitzer’s blog post is the stupider of the two, though it repeats most of the same material in lionizing Wolter as a forensic science “superstar” and (ridiculously) as the man who investigated “more archaeological sites in America than any one (sic) else.” (I could name a dozen people who could run laps around him!) It starts with an uncredited borrowing of the U.S. Commerce Department’s logo for forensic science, followed by Wikipedia’s definition of forensics as referring to the “application of science to criminal and civil laws.” Indeed, the word “forensic” refers specifically to the application of a field to criminal investigation, from the earlier use of the Latin forensis to refer to that applicable to places of assembly (the forum), where trials were held. What does this have to do with history? Not much, but Pulitzer thinks it is extremely relevant.
Pulitzer said the connection comes through the documentary series Forensic Files. “For me it is a way to understand the various Forensic Sciences and then understand how those same tests can be used in my world of History Hunting,” he writes. Pulitzer confuses “science” with “forensics” and doesn’t understand that the tests he lionizes are the science, and the use of them for criminal investigation is the forensic part. Using them for another purpose negates the forensic aspect, rendering his self-bestowed title of “forensic historian” faintly ridiculous for a man who has never testified as a forensic expert in a court of law. (Wolter has testified occasionally as a forensic expert.)
Unfortunately, while Pulitzer reiterates his love for Forensic Files he fails to make a case that forensics—i.e., criminal law and investigation—has anything to do with ancient history; rather, Pulitzer comes across as a man who thinks “forensic” means generically “scientific” and that TV is also reality. The other definition of “forensic,” referring to rhetoric and public speaking, might well be accurate for him, however.
I’d also recommend that Pulitzer reconsider his “forensic historian” label. While there are a couple of guys who uses the term to describe investigating historic crimes like Jack the Ripper or (sigh) Kennedy assassination conspiracies, it’s most prominently used by (and trademarked by) Holocaust deniers to “investigate” why Nazi war crimes never occurred. My guess is that Pulitzer borrowed the title from a book by Robert C. Williams: The Forensic Historian: Using Science to Reexamine the Past (2013), which describes how scientists applied techniques developed for investigating crime to evaluate more ancient human remains, as well as crimes just old enough to be historical.
In service of my evaluation of Pulitzer as ignorant of the history he claims to investigate, I also want to take a moment to point out that Pulitzer proudly posted to Instagram a macro claiming his pride that his German-American ancestors assimilated into American culture and making ahistorical claims about Italian-American immigrants. Pulitzer, who said “I made this meme. This is me. This IS my statement” in taking credit for it, writes in the macro that “Legal Italian immigrants did not wave Italian flags coming into America. They did not riot and try to stop the legal election process. They did not try to make America speak Italian. They learned English.”
As an Italian-American (and 1/8 German-American), I can tell Mr. Pulitzer that he is a bullshit artist and that his cheap point-scoring deeply disregards the challenges, difficulties, and outright discrimination Italians like my ancestors faced in coming to America. My great-grandparents spoke Italian until the day they died. My grandparents spoke both Italian and English, while their children spoke English only. Assimilation was not a simple process, or an easy one. Italian-Americans lived in segregated neighborhoods at the start of the twentieth century and were excluded from much of public life for decades, largely based on then-prevalent scientific racism, which held that they were an inferior race. (Don’t believe me? Read fringe historian Thomas Sinclair’s statements about Italians in his 1893 “forensic history” of Henry Sinclair.) They were stereotyped as criminals, as lazy, and as lecherous. Police would sometimes decline to investigate the murder of Italians if they thought a white person might have done it.
Pulitzer facetiously compares this to his own postwar experience as the son of immigrants from Germany, but German-Americans rarely faced similar challenges because they were always considered “white” and entered much more easily into American society. Italians only became “white” (or “white” enough) in the middle twentieth century, when scientific racism started to falter and Anglo-Saxons worried that without more provisional whites they’d lose their ethnic majority.
All of that was sufficiently depressing that I almost didn’t want to go into the topic I originally planned to write about today, but it’s worth a brief mention. Over at the Daily Grail Jack Hunter of Paranthropology magazine has an article excerpted from a new anthology of Fortean writings he assembled. (Disclosure: Hunter published my article on the ultra-terrestrial UFO hypothesis several years ago.) In his article, Hunter lionizes Charles Fort and argues that there can be a “Fortean” approach to the study of religion.
In a nutshell, then, what I am suggesting is that we extend Fortean agnosticism into the domains of ontology, and question the very foundations of what we understand as ‘real.’ In other words, we should not assume that we already know what is really real. Fort’s intermediatist philosophy goes some way towards achieving this kind of ontological destabilisation. According to this perspective nothing can be said to be wholly real, just as nothing can be said to be wholly unreal. This opens up the ontological flood barriers, a process I have referred to elsewhere as ‘ontological flooding.
To cut it short, he would like religious studies departments to adopt the Fortean postmodern view that there is no such thing as objective reality (or at least that we are unable to understand such a reality) and therefore study anomalies, the miraculous, and the supernatural as inherent components of a reality that humans experience. How that differs from studying the belief in such supernatural events, regardless of their objective reality, I am not certain, other than Hunter would like to believe in the magical and therefore would like to force epistemology to accommodate it.
But what I wanted to talk about is the same kind of overconfidence that Hutton Pulitzer represents, where personal interest and belief run roughshod over sober appraisal. Consider Hunter’s overwhelmingly positive—and inaccurate—summary of the glories of Charles Fort:
Over the course of four groundbreaking books published between 1919-1932, Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) meticulously presented thousands of accounts of anomalous events that he found documented in scientific journals, newspapers and books at the New York Public Library and the British Museum. In conducting his wide-ranging textual excavations, Fort uncovered impossible numbers of extraordinary reports of fish and frogs falling from the sky, poltergeists wreaking havoc on unexpecting (sic) families, spontaneous human combustion, unidentified flying objects, levitations of people and things, mysterious disappearances, apparitions, and so on.
Clearly, Hunter thinks Fort was up to something good. (He also praises Jacques Vallée for similar “accomplishments.”) But as I have discovered in reviewing Fort’s research, he is vastly overrated as a researcher, and even as a copyist. In many instances, his version doesn’t quite match his sources, and he rarely traced material back to primary sources, or attempted to confirm the accuracy of articles he cited. At times, he seemed to almost willfully misread sources. Anyone who wishes to hold Fort up as an example needs to deal with the fact that so much of his material isn’t “mysterious” or “anomalistic” at all but rather part of the failure of human perception, in this case Fort’s own.
Recognizing this would, ironically, support the idea that it is very hard for humans to recognize reality while blinded by ideology, so there is an upside to it for Fortean researchers!
Lastly, I do want to mention one small production note: Hunter’s anthology, Damned Facts, is decorated with public domain images from the British Library, the same place where I get the images that decorate my website. The copy of Hunter’s book I reviewed did not color-correct the yellowed scans from old books, nor did it rotate the scans to straighten them. It was a bit distracting.
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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