J. Hutton Pulitzer Claims Punctuation Is Destroying History ... Oak Island Sword ... Blah, Blah ... Dinosaurs
Many of you will remember the claims that self-described History Heretic and former Treasure Force Commander J. Hutton Pulitzer made for a bronze souvenir sword with a Hercules hilt alleged to have been discovered off the coast of Oak Island many decades ago. Pulitzer had claimed that the sword was Roman in origin, one of twelve produced for some occult purpose, and he disputed tests conducted by Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia that suggested that the sword is unlikely to have been manufactured before the early 1700s, and mostly likely not before the 1880s. Pulitzer has now released a 200-page report in which he attempts to challenge those tests. The 3 GB document comes with audio, video, and what Pulitzer describes as “learning.” Like most of his productions, it’s a bit slapdash, riddled with typos and layout and design errors, and a vehicle for his own conspiracy theories against academics—and punctuation.
(As with everything involving Pulitzer, it’s not clear whether the report is the final version, and Pulitzer promises that a future release will compress the report to a more manageable file size.)
I viewed the document but unfortunately do not have a link for you to download the massive amount of material. I will leave it to those with expertise in metallurgy to evaluate Pulitzer’s claims about the testing done on the sword. For our purposes today, I’d like to focus on Pulitzer’s “Introduction Letter” (his term), and the strange claims he makes in it. As will become clear, Pulitzer has a very hard time distinguishing between facts and inferences, observations and conclusions. For him, they are all the same, and all part of a vast conspiracy marked by “emphatic” use of punctuation.
“The system tells us with emphatic defiance,” Pulitzer writes, “that ‘they KNOW what happened 15 billion years ago or even 1000 years ago to an exact!’” (sic). Pulitzer, who seems to advocate a postmodern understanding of epistemology while remaining ignorant of both polysyllabic words, asks “How is it that mankind can issue any statement for others or regarding others with an absolute period on the end of the sentence?” He goes on to declare war on “periods” on behalf of “question marks,” blithely unaware that in denying that scholars can truly know the past he therefore undermines any case he hopes to make for his diffusionist worldview. He can never turn his question mark into a period since by his own admission facts are essentially unknowable.
But that’s not the worst of it by any means. One the second page of his introductory letter, Pulitzer calls evolution into question by demanding to know how a mere man could discover a few fossilized bones and therefore declare (with “the emphatic ‘period’”) that the bones belonged to “your mother Eve, out of Africa, from which we all beget” (sic). Never mind that no one has ever made that claim, and that Pulitzer is conflating the discovery of presumed human ancestors such as Lucy (an australopithecine) with “mitochondrial Eve,” the presumed originator of the genetic line of Homo sapiens. In both cases, though, the connection between modern humans and ancient ancestors is a conclusion drawn from observations, not a statement of absolute fact. This can be seen in the continuous debate about how best to organize various fossils on the human family tree, not to mention continuing questions about how to demarcate fossil finds into species.
Pulitzer’s polemical anger at inferences is best exemplified by his second example of how punctuation is shutting down creativity. This one involves Jurassic Park, that well-known science documentary:
We have all seen the Jurassic Park movies and we all now know what species extinct for millions of years look like. Or do we? Once again, find a few bones, maybe a fossilized outline in sediments and amazingly we know the dinosaurs (sic) skin color, eye color, eating habits, growls, snarls, and roars. This is what this dinosaur looked like. Once again there’s that emphatic “period” at the end of the sentence.
Do I even have to spell it out? The Jurassic Park movies are not science, and their artistic impression of dinosaurs was at times intentionally inaccurate. Even though we have fossil impressions of dinosaur feathers, the movies purposely omitted them for fear they’d look ridiculous. (Jurassic World addresses this briefly by noting the dinosaurs in-movie were designed to look like people’s misconceptions of them.)
But the broader point is that Pulitzer misunderstands the contingency of knowledge and also denies that inferences can be drawn from observations. The skeletons of dinosaurs allow us to make inferences about how the muscles would have attached, based on what we know about modern animals. This, in turn, suggests their original appearance, something that impressions of the soft tissues left in fossils confirms. Fossils also can tell us what the texture of dinosaur skin would have been since a few samples of that texture remain. No one knows the color of dinosaurs’ skin, but studies of the melanosome pigments in some preserved fossil feathers allow for the reconstruction of the feathers’ colors. This is a terrific bit of detective work. Melanosomes provide different colors to feathers based on their shape, so even though the original colors don’t survive, the fossilized shapes can be correlated to the original coloration. Thus, scientists concluded that Anchiornis looked like giant woodpecker, with a red crest, while Sinosauropteryx was bright orange! Pulitzer would have us deny these conclusions, while simultaneously arguing that his own inferences about the “Roman” sword are “100% confirmed” because he believes that all of the above is mere academic posturing. He claims that “hard science” will find the “truth” that theories cannot.
It’s also important to note that no one claims that these conclusions are “100% confirmed.” They are inferences drawn from observations, and while they remain the best available, they are not unassailable, and nearly everyone recognizes that new evidence can overturn current conclusions. Pulitzer doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about this, and he doesn’t recognize that even if we accept his “hard science” at face value, he still requires inferences and hypotheses to explain it. For example, even assuming he is correct that the “sword” is from the second century CE and made from bronze from central Europe, that does not prove that the Romans made it (and not, say, the Gauls, or Scythians, or space aliens), nor that it was taken to America in that century (and not, say, in 500, 1500, or 2000), nor that human beings carried it there (and not, say, ocean currents, or eagles, or, again, space aliens). In other words, Pulitzer doesn’t recognize his own inferences as inferences. That’s what makes it so galling that he includes a photo spread showing the sword to be “Roman” by comparing it stylistically to dissimilar genuine Roman bronze depictions of Hercules—you know “hard” science!
This is to be expected since Pulitzer simultaneously argues that his report is not meant to lead the audience to a conclusion while purposely prejudicing it through rhetorical sleight of hand. Thus, while claiming to fairly and objectively investigate “both sides” of whether the St. Mary’s University study of the “Roman” sword followed scientific protocol so readers, acting as “a jury of peers,” can make up their own minds, he phrases his inquiry as “irrefutable evidence of […] educational bias [and] institutional malice.” He also calls it “bigoted.” You know, fair and balanced!
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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