Yesterday I posted my massive, 10,000-word review of Graham Hancock’s new book Magicians of the Gods. I wanted to pick up on something that I thought was a bit interesting in Hancock’s posturing because a blog post linked through the Daily Grail today about pseudoscience and pseudo-criticism echoed the same point. That point, namely, is Hancock’s anger at mainstream scholars for not agreeing with him, and abstracting from that a conspiracy to suppress the truth.
In Magicians, Hancock interviews a number of scientists, scholars, and archaeologists. These include the late Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who excavated Göbekli Tepe from 1994 until his death in 2014; Daniel Lohmann of Aachen University, a historian of architecture who studies Baalbek; Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, an Indonesian geologist working on Gunung Padang; and Allen West, from the Younger Dryas impact research team, among others.
I should begin by noting—because Hancock does not—that “Allen West” used to be known as Allen Whitt, before he changed his name in 2006 following a 2002 conviction in California for posing as a state-licensed geologist in order to charge large fees for geological work, according to the Pacific Standard.
That is, however, only a sidelight on my point: Many different scientists, scholars, and archaeologists were happy to communicate with Hancock, patiently explain their evidence and reasoning to him, take him on tours of various sites, and discuss Hancock’s ideas with him. Of the group I listed above, Natawidjaja was 100% on board with a lost Pleistocene civilization, while West was 90% in agreement, Schmidt was open-minded but skeptical, and Lohmann disagreed with Hancock completely. But despite the fact that so many people were willing to work with Hancock and show him their research, even giving him special access to restricted parts of ancient sites, Hancock nevertheless concludes that there is a conspiracy to suppress the truth. And what truth would that be? Just those four scientists represented at least three radically different views of ancient history, which the broader scientific community are evaluating and debating, albeit with skepticism toward those views that contract the majority of previous evidence.
The two scientists who have the most radical ideas—Natawidjaja, who believes Atlantis was in Indonesia, and West, who believes in a Pleistocene comet—are the two who are most in agreement with Hancock that archaeologists and other scientists, as a whole, are close-minded and refuse to accept new ideas. Not coincidentally, they are also the two who have the most interest in discrediting opposing points of view. Oddly enough, Hancock doesn’t count them as part of his conspiracy, but sees them as freedom fighters. Lohmann, however, he views as a hidebound defender of orthodoxy, even though Lohmann’s arguments contain the same types of logic, evidence, and reasoning as West. In other words, Hancock isn’t making a meaningful claim when he declares a conspiracy; he is merely calling names the people who disagree with him because he cannot argue based on evidence. Many scholars, of varying views, went out of their way to engage with Hancock, but those that disagree with him are somehow qualitatively different from those that agree.
This brings me to the Sept. 9 blog post on the EstoterX blog. In it, the author defends fringe historians from the label of “pseudohistory” or “pseudo-archaeology.”
Contrary to the argument made by disciplinary advocates when they deign to address a wider audience than the six or seven people that read arid journal articles about rarified minutia, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the use or abuse of scientific epistemology or sober historiography. It is all about marking territory in its most excretory sense. In short, a pissing contest.
Our author considers Graham Hancock and Erich von Däniken to be “brilliant and engaging writers,” and as a literary critic and journalist, I can say that von Däniken is a terrible writer, at least in English translation. Hancock can be engaging as a writer, but has been increasingly sloppy of late, as I noted in my review of his current book. Anyway, the author is very upset that the professoriate enforce a regime that denies tenure to anyone who dares stray beyond minutia to look at the big picture and speak directly to the public.
When accusations of “pseudo-” scholarship are shouted, it is often because someone has made honest intellectual inquiry at a broader scale, looking for larger patterns across broader spans of time. Do their conclusions always make sense? Of course not. Then again, recent meta-analyses of the published results of psychological experiments have indicated that only 36% were actually reproducible when tested, casting doubt on any conclusions drawn from them as well.
Let’s leave aside the illogic that psychological experimental methodology has nothing whatsoever to do with historiography, or the difference between small and large scale examinations of the past. The author has confused a large number of different points and mashed them all together into a wide-ranging defense of fringe history as a tonic to too much specialization. This gives fringe historians entirely too much credit. They are decidedly not doing any real historiography; they piggy-back on the work of scholars and fail to follow through on their own ideas. As I pointed out in my review of Hancock’s book, he didn’t even bother to read the ancient sources he cited and therefore missed important connections that would have actually strengthened his claims, had he bothered to investigate as a historian would.
But the role of the fringe historian isn’t that of a meta-scholar. Our author, in complaining about specialization and academics who write scholarly literature no one reads, is arguing against a system that has been in place for more than a century. Our author, in arguing that popularization is important, is really lamenting the decline and fall of the middlebrow as it applied to history and archaeology. In the middle twentieth century, middlebrow writers—mostly journalists, popular historians, and some celebrity professors—sought to engage the general public in big-picture views of history, and to popularize academic work in the field in an engaging but serious way. Kenneth Clarks’ Civilisation (1969) for BBC2 was perhaps the high water mark for this approach, and it inspired a decade’s worth of similar attempts to bring scholarly perspectives to a popular audience. The very existence of fringe documentaries like In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) was a funhouse mirror version of this mainstream phenomenon.
But that was only possible under a particular set of cultural, social, and economic conditions. The middlebrow interest in history and archaeology was a phenomenon of an aspirational working class and middle class. For reasons too complex to describe here, the bottom fell out of the middlebrow in the 1980s, and with it the market for popular but still serious reflections on history and archaeology went with it. For a while, that left a polarized marketplace in which complex, specialized, and difficult academic tomes sat alongside vulgar appeals to aliens and Atlantis, and very little occupied a middle ground between the two poles. Today, however, there are more history books published than ever before—and many of them would fill this niche should anyone read them. (The Book of the Month Club, that middlebrow paragon, has a History Book Club devoted entirely to such texts.) But the explosion of media choices has cut the market for history books of any kind down to nearly nothing, and the wildest, the wackiest, and the ones that appear on cable TV stand the best shot of making a profit.
Our blog author has created a false dichotomy by contrasting the fringe with academia and berating the latter for what they never intended to do. The fact is, there are lots of good histories aimed at a popular audience. Tom Holland’s volumes on Roman history are a good example. What our author should complain about is that the mainstream media, in pursuing sensation over all else in order to attract readers and viewers, promotes extreme fringe claims, which, by being extreme, gain attention and thus sales. These sales then create an economic incentive to promote even more fringe claims. The lack of engagement our author sees between academia and the “real world” isn’t just a product of the tenure system but a product of the economics of television and publishing, where profit and responsibility are often mutually exclusive.
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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