Well, that was unusual, and a little embarrassing. Yesterday afternoon (Pacific time) in his more than three-hour podcast, Joe Rogan hosted skeptic Michael Shermer, amateur geologist Randall Carlson, and journalist Graham Hancock, along with a pair of additional guests in the third hour, to debate Hancock’s claim that a comet destroyed an advanced civilization at the end of the last ice age. Shermer more or less blew it. He spoke above the level of the audience, threw kitchen-sink arguments at Hancock, and, worst of all, focused so heavily on the negative that he came across as a scold. The problem is that he is no expert in archaeology, so he spent more time discussing the burden of proof than the origins and development of Hancock’s claims. He couldn’t quite speak to the awe and wonder of the past; instead, he spoke of academic conferences and the proper way to debate new facts. Even when he tried to speak to the amazing antiquity of Göbekli Tepe, he couldn’t quite match Hancock’s fluidly British debate team polish. Skeptics need spokespeople who can speak with passion.
Shermer was not happy that I found his end of the debate lacking and attacked me on Twitter, and later apologized for what he called a “raw moment”:
Such is life. Shermer disapproves of book reviews that consider the book as an artistic production of the author as much as it is a list of facts to be confirmed or refuted. It is a choice, but the artistry of the volume is not ad hominem since it does not speak to the facts, only to the tone, an important consideration in evaluating whether a book is any fun to read. Otherwise, really, we are just collecting and evaluating facts. Here, then, we differ too on how to evaluate the Joe Rogan Experience debate. He would like us to judge on the facts, but as Aristotle outlined, logos is only one pillar of rhetoric; ethos and especially pathos are important in governing audience impressions. It is pathos where Shermer tends to be weakest.
Hancock, on the other hand, was eloquent but idiotic, and painfully quick to anger at the least provocation. I was frankly surprised that he couldn’t hold his cool for more than a few minutes at a time. When asked why we have no ancient metal tools or writing from the lost civilization, Hancock suggested that after the comet, the surviving people chose not to use metal or writing after the disaster to undo the destroyed civilization’s sins. (He later clarified that he thought that the ancients believed themselves “to blame” for the comet.) Shermer, blind to Hancock’s storytelling, couldn’t engage him in the idiocy of this warmed-over Atlantis story and instead said that the explanation was “OK” before moving on.
Part of the problem is that Hancock happily toggled between two different conceptions of “civilization” and Shermer didn’t call him on it. Sometimes, Hancock spoke (reasonably, if improbably) that in some locations monumental architecture and perhaps cities could have existed earlier than we thought. At other times, he spoke of a world-bestriding civilization that could reach from the Americas to Europe to Asia and beyond. He cites the two interchangeably, but Shermer allowed him to speak of Atlantis and a single Stone Age city as though the latter would prove the former.
Their discussion of Göbekli Tepe (“a gigantic fucking mystery,” as Hancock called it) was embarrassing, mostly because Shermer couldn’t point to other evidence of carvings before Göbekli Tepe, even though Ice Age art is well-known, and often beautiful. (He mentioned Venus sculptures, but did not go beyond this.) The cave bison of Tuc d’Audoubert, for example, are beautifully carved. Göbekli Tepe’s art is not ex nihilo, though it is more developed. Shermer flailed around basic questions about the origins of agriculture and whether hunter-gatherers are able to undertake construction in the absence of state-level societies, and he got tangled in a ridiculous argument over whether the Lascaux cave paintings were “more impressive” than Göbekli Tepe. That is a subjective call and offers no argumentative benefit. It did, however, let Hancock crow about how there is no “evolution” in the development of Göbekli Tepe, which implies, he says, an origin in Atlantis. This leads Shermer down the garden path to a pet subject, human evolution, and thus into questions of consciousness, a Hancock favorite. At every stage, Hancock sounded better informed because he knew his material better and that he had the righteous indication of the passionate.
In a particularly uncomfortable section, Hancock quotes Marc Defant’s Skeptic magazine review of Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods and lists each and every error he found in the piece, which is scheduled to run next month in Skeptic, two years after the book was published. According to Hancock, the unedited and un-vetted version of the review contains errors, and Shermer was taken entirely by surprise. The review was perhaps snarky but Hancock makes it seem as though there were innumerable errors; here, though, Hancock and Defant are both partially right. Defant misunderstood Hancock’s intended meaning, especially when referring to the introduction of metals, but Hancock never concedes that he intentionally obscures how much he believes in the claims from the ancient texts he cites. This lets him use the “evidence” as it suits him, and to retreat behind the claim that “I’m just quoting” when challenged. Almost two hours later, Defant appeared on the show to defend himself, and without facts, they essentially say “Yes, you did,” and “No, I didn’t” to one another. In this same section of the argument, Shermer concedes that he knows “very little” about Hancock’s claims about the age of the Sphinx and the Orion Correlation Theory, which Joe Rogan correctly notes is foundational for understanding Hancock’s worldview.
I’d love to hear what Hancock thought of my review of his book. (We know what Shermer thinks.)
The most interesting takeaway from this section of the debate is that Hancock is still fuming-red angry over criticisms made of the Orion Correlation Theory two decades ago. He spent an inordinate amount of time arguing about Ed Krupp’s (wrong) claim that the Orion correlation is “upside-down,” a mistake that he fought about for years in the 1990s.
Shermer seems a bit slow to pick up on the lines where he could attack Hancock, and he lets Hancock humiliate him with ad hominem attacks. Shermer fumbles a question about whether there is any record of the Sphinx before the New Kingdom. The correct response is: well, if they didn’t mention building it, why didn’t anyone bother to note its existence either? Hancock dismisses Shermer’s entire discussion of Egypt with a disingenuous but perfectly executed “oh, dear” when Shermer conceded he had never traveled to Egypt. Hancock suggests (wrongly) that one must visit the pyramids in order to understand why the pyramids give the “impression” of being too grand for Egypt. (He says Giza was laid out in the Ice Age.) The right way to attack here is to point to Hancock’s faults--you mean you never read the primary sources you cite secondhand? Oh, dear. But Shermer lets himself look the fool because he lacks the expert’s understanding of the material, falling back instead on generalizations about argumentation.
A section followed discussing the comet, climate change, and catastrophe. Personally, I would have dismissed this entire line of argument as irrelevant to the question of a lost civilization. I would not care whether the comet actually hit unless or until we prove that this civilization existed in the first place. Any cosmic, geological, or other natural event does not imply the existence of a human culture for it to destroy. The comet question is interesting in its own right, but not in terms of whether Atlantis existed. Similarly, Hancock’s attacks on the midcentury Clovis-first model of the peopling of the Americas (one that hasn’t been widely believed for decades) ought to have nothing to do with the lost civilization. Shermer’s lack of knowledge about the anthropological and archaeological literature of the past 20 years leaves him—to my shock—defending the Clovis-first paradigm! Even an exasperated Graham Hancock can’t believe what he’s hearing and has to school Shermer on the fact that even Hancock concedes that mainstream archaeologists no longer believe in Clovis-first. “I’m not going to put a label on it,” Shermer said when asked point blank whether he believes in Clovis-first. On Twitter after the show he tried to explain himself, and it seems that he was confusing Clovis-first with more recent suggestions about the timing of first entry into the Americas.
Joe Rogan actually gets it right when he tells Shermer that he is criticizing for the sake of criticizing and is speaking without having done the research. Because Shermer is not an archaeologist or a science writer specializing in archaeology, he lacks some key information.
It actually made me angry when Shermer let pass Hancock’s anger about decades-old paradigms when, if he were sharper and better informed, he would be able to attack Hancock for working within his own outdated paradigm—Ignatius Donnelly’s, whose books Hancock essentially all but plagiarized—and the fact that this fringe paradigm has had 135 years to prove its case and failed to do so. Shermer, lacking expertise on Hancock’s specific influences, flails about by comparing Hancock to other fringe writers, which Hancock correctly notes proves nothing about Hancock. “We’re not talking about them,” Rogan said. “We’re talking about Graham Hancock!” “If there are other alternative theories,” Hancock said, “it’s not my problem.”
Shermer made the mistake of assuming this was a debate of skeptic vs. believer instead of a discussion of the detailed evidence that underlies an unusual and improbable, though not prima facie impossible, claim. He came to debate the scientific method dispassionately and didn’t realize Hancock was arguing emotionally about the very meaning of history itself.
Hancock disingenuously denies being a “doom and gloom” prophet of destruction, which is silly since he twice made prophecies about the coming end of the world. He waves this away by saying that he is a reporter so he is only reporting the ideas of others. It’s a convenient excuse when he doesn’t want to take responsibility for ideas; when he does, suddenly he’s a warrior advocating against the mainstream. It seems the only thing he really stands for his anger at mainstream science. Case in point: When asked about his references to the Nephilim or Atlanteans as the “Magicians of the Gods,” he denied that he called them magicians, saying that this was the wording of the Sumerians, speaking of the Apkallu, and therefore not his responsibility despite literally naming his book for them.
When Marc Defant is brought on in the third hour, he and Hancock argue quite a bit, and Defant ends up apologizing to Hancock for using intemperate language, specifically this line: “By the end of the book, the only ‘message’ I am left with is that Hancock has a real knack for conning a hellacious number people into buying his books.” Defant said he did not realize that the public would read his draft article, which he intended to share with his students. (Seriously?) The edited version, he said, does not contain the material Hancock criticized.
Finally, almost three hours in, Defant asks what any of the comet in North America claims have to do with Atlantis in Europe, Egypt, or Indonesia. The response is that Carlson, amateur catastrophe geologist, isn’t making those claims, so they won’t answer it. Defant and Carlson argue about geology, and I don’t much care about this except that Carlson proposes that my childhood home, the Finger Lakes of New York, were produced by “subglacial mega-floods” rather than being scoured by retreating glaciers as I had always been taught. This has nothing to do with lost civilizations, but it does touch on something personally relevant to me. The discussion of geology went on for most of the third hour, with another scientist, one who works on the impact hypothesis, coming in to discuss cosmic impact geology, and I tuned out because I don’t care about the issue unless and until the lost civilization is proved. The second guest declined to comment on the lost civilization but suggested that the extinction of the megafauna created a religion. He declined to say how.
As the show passed the three-hour mark, they showed no sign of stopping, or of getting off the comet geology question. Reader, I gave up. An hour of listening to the intricacies of comet impact geology was too much for me, and as it approached 8 PM ET, I just got too bored and didn’t want to listen to any more.
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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