Late Saturday night Anthony Bragalia, a ufologist who heavily promoted the so-called Roswell Slides as genuine evidence of extraterrestrials, apologized for his involvement in the fiasco after photo enhancement of high resolution images of the slide confirmed that a placard seen in the photograph states unequivocally that the body in the image is a human child mummy. The mummy had been unearthed in 1894 and displayed at the Mesa Verde Park Museum after 1938, when S. L. Palmer, Jr. returned the corpse, which had rested in his father’s collection in San Francisco as a morbid curiosity.
While the politics and motives behind the Roswell Slides misrepresentation don’t interest me, I was interested to see that Bragalia’s apology offered a heartfelt mea culpa to Native Americans for being part of an effort to exploit a Native body:
I must offer my sincerest and deepest apologies to the Native American people of the Southwestern United States. One of their children, a dead child from well over a century ago, was made a spectacle. Whoever you are, you deserve to be extended dignity and respect. Your people, the Ancestral Puebloans, honored you by preserving you. I played part in disturbing your eternal rest, and for that I am so very sorry. Though I did not seek nor receive any money from any of this saga, and though my efforts were sincere and my offense unintentional, I am making a substantial donation to an American Indian children’s charity and encourage everyone else who played part to do the same.
Bragalia says that he was fooled into thinking the image was an alien because of the “amazing coincidence” that the photographer had visited the Mesa Verde Park Museum in the southwestern United States in 1947, the year of the alleged Roswell UFO crash, and because he has no idea what child anatomy looks like and therefore considers a completely normal child body to be “extremely unusual” in appearance. At any rate, this is one of the very few times I can recall a promoter of pseudoscience apologizing not just for being wrong but for being offensive.
Bragalia further noted that the Roswell Slides fiasco would cause him to change his research methodology, and he plans to avoid knee-jerk accusations against skeptics of his claims.
We know that few fringe figures will follow suit, but in researching gigantology yesterday I came across a fascinating paragraph that seems to have a lot to say about fringe history methodology. This will take a moment of explanation to make sense.
Yesterday I presented a paper read by Claude-Nicolas Le Cat at the Academy of Sciences at Rouen in 1768 on the subject of giants. I later learned that Le Cat’s text was far more widely reprinted than I first thought. I found it published not just in encyclopedias and dictionaries, but also in textbooks and popular science tomes, and—stripped of its author and date—as testimony to the truth of Genesis 6:4 in a Mormon newspaper. It remained in circulation from 1768 down to the end of the nineteenth century, in what at first glance seems to be progressively less scientific and more religious or fringe contexts.
In gathering more information about Le Cat’s lecture in the hope of finding the original texts behind some of his claims, I discovered that Le Cat had drawn his account in large measure from works from a century before him regarding the controversy over the bones of Teutobochus, presented as a giant in 1613, and over which scholars argued, eventually giving rise to new ideas about what fossils were. The bones were proved to be those of a mastodon only in 1835, though they were long suspected of belonging to some species of elephant. I have published the original 1613 report of the Teutobochus bones in my Fragments on Giants page, and the 1835 debunking on its own page. Anyway, the greatest advocate of the bones’ status as those of a human giant was the anatomist Nicolas Habicot, who produced innumerable pamphlets of excruciating length on the subject. In writing about the early controversy over fossils in her book The Fate of the Mammoth: Fossils, Myth, and History (1994), Claudine Cohen described Habicot’s methodology, which is shockingly similar to today’s fringe theorists’ practices:
… What strikes us as naive and burlesque about his demonstration is the coexistence of so many arguments of different kinds, all located at the same level of truth: anatomical evidence, erudition about antiquity, mythology, and history, the witnessing of curiosities, hearsay, and historical and archaeological evidence, not to mention theological arguments, epigrams, sonnets, octets, and Latin verses penned by various witnesses. In the early seventeenth century, this process of accumulation represented an approach to knowledge still typical of the medieval scholastic tradition, which jointed scriptural truth with scholarly erudition from the ancients, and, in medicine, from those “pedants,” whom Cyrano and Molière would lampoon a few decades later. (trans. William Rodarmor)
This more or less perfectly describes fringe history, which similarly draws on a superficial reading of ancient texts, a smattering of misunderstood science, material drawn from fiction, and a foundational belief in one universal truth to create an argument whose force derives from the variety of evidence rather than the quality of the evidence.
Fringe historians are, perhaps unknowingly, operating in an outdated paradigm, one superseded by modern science centuries ago, but one that seems to have an intuitive appeal, perhaps fostered by literature and popular memory of what “science” was. No wonder they think they’re doing real science or real history when they copy and paste and appeal to textual authority.
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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