In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part six.
Earlier in the interview, Erich von Däniken (EVD) had expressed a distinct lack of curiosity about sites and artifacts that might have proved his case conclusively, if real. EVD displays the same lack of curiosity or interest when Ferris asks him if he stands behind his statement that the Piri Reis map is “absolutely accurate” and coincides perfectly with a view of the earth shot from outer space above Cairo. “I’m not so sure about this, really,” EVD replies, again confirming that he spent no effort checking the information he included in his books. “According to my information it does” (p. 60).
This information is Charles Hapgood’s Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, which EVD uses uncritically. Hapgood had claimed that the sixteenth century Turkish map showed an ice-free Antarctic coast accurately, based upon Hapgood’s “reconstructions” of hypothetical source maps. Hapgood failed to notice his reasoning was circular—the extant map only seems to reflect distortions of perfect originals because Hapgood assumed the existence of perfect originals for Piri Reis to distort.
Ferris gives EVD a copy of the Piri Reis map and shows him that it is missing chunks of South America and that it just doesn’t match a modern globe, no matter what angle one uses. EVD admits that from space one cannot view the Americas from a view centered on Cairo. So how can it be “absolutely accurate”? The mind boggles.
Ferris presses him again on whether he believes today what he wrote in Chariots, that the Piri Reis map could only have been drawn from the air. “No, absolutely not,” EVD replies. He promises that he will be “the first to correct it” in “my next book” if the map is not an aerial portrait of the earth as seen from space. But despite this, EVD would repeat all of his debunked claims about the Piri Reis map—including claims that it shows Antarctica and is astonishingly accurate—in Odyssey of the Gods (1999, English trans. 2000). After a quarter century, EVD did not make the promised correction. We continue to wait in vain.
Next up, EVD admits that the rust-free ancient iron pillar of Delhi is not (a) rust-free or (b) ancient. EVD claims he made efforts to have mistakes in Chariots changed, but due to the overlapping corporate structure of publishers and contracted foreign publishers, it is almost impossible to get a response. I sympathize with him here; Prometheus Books never responded to my letters, emails, and phone calls trying to have mistakes in my Cult of Alien Gods changed.
Now that Ferris has had EVD admit to lying about evidence, distorting evidence, and making mistakes about evidence, he asks EVD if he has ever heard of Occam’s Razor. EVD incorrectly claims Occam’s Razor refers to “which explanation is really simpler” when in fact it refers to which explanation requires the fewest unproven assumptions—a vital difference when dealing with an issue like aliens. EVD says that today we have space travel, so “isn’t it fair to ask if that explanation [i.e. aliens] is simpler” than archaeology’s complex theories of cultural evolution? Here is where the difference between simplicity and few assumptions comes into play: Yes, it is “simpler” to give one explanation that fits every question (“Aliens did it!”), but it requires an unfathomable number of assumptions, ranging from the evolution of roughly humanoid beings on an earthlike planet, to their ability to breach the gulfs of space to reach earth (repeatedly!) unharmed, to their sexual compatibility (!!) with the humans they mated with.
But does EVD believe in truth? No, he believes only in what he calls “indications,” suggestions for an unknowable truth. In this, EVD is a postmodernist, as his next few outrageous statements make clear. Critics, for example, “don’t know what I know about some of the sites. They know only what archaeological books tell them. They have not been there and seen the things I have. […] The archaeologists have a different way of thinking from mine. What’s the truth? I don’t know” (p. 64).
Here we see the postmodern rejection of objective knowledge, suspicion of science, and privileging of subjective personal impressions over objective data. This is even more pronounced in EVD’s next statement: “I am accused of ignoring scientific facts. But scientists believe their facts are facts because other scientists told them so” (p. 64). It couldn’t be that scientists believe results because they are testable and replicable, could it?
EVD then explains that his goal is to inculcate his theory into the minds of the young to win the future—a theory, mind you, that EVD repeatedly insisted was just him “asking questions.” He justifies his view by talking about public debates he came close to winning in audience polls, as though truth were a matter of postmodern opinion. The takeaway is this incredible statement that seems to justify every lie, distortion, and fraud committed by ancient astronaut theorists down to the present day:
“There are only a few of us working on my theory, and it’s like a war we have to win” (p. 64).
This, in a nutshell, explains everything that is wrong with the ancient astronaut theory and why theorists like EVD, David Childress, and Giorgio Tsoukalos can so blithely ignore any appeal to accuracy and truth to blatantly manipulate evidence and make outrageous, demonstrably false claims. They aren’t out for truth; they are out “to win” the “war” with science.
Next time: EVD defends himself against evidence of even more mistakes and lies, and (I hope) we come to the end of the interview.
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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