Yesterday marked a century since the sinking of the Titanic, and this was apparently news to far more people than one would reasonably expect. According to a British newspaper report, hundreds of Twitter users were shocked to discover that the Titanic was a real boat and not just a 1997 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
It should not surprise anyone, really, that large numbers of people are ignorant of history. Last year, a survey found that only 58% of Americans knew that the U.S. declared independence in 1776, and a full quarter of all Americans don’t know which country the U.S. declared independence from. An earlier survey found one in five Americans does not know the earth revolves around the sun
But these results aren’t limited to America. One in five British teenagers thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character, and more than one in four thought the same of Florence Nightingale.
This is why cable TV shows like Ancient Aliens are so dangerous. I’ve been asked more than once by very smart people why I bother writing about Ancient Aliens since no one could actually believe the silly things the program says. It’s true that highly educated people won’t be fooled by Ancient Aliens, but many highly educated people also tend to forget that those without formal training in science, history, and logic do not approach controversial claims in the same way. If you don’t know the Titanic was real ship, how can you decide whether aliens really landed on earth? If you can’t distinguish clearly between fact and fiction, what chance do you have to fairly evaluate what a TV program tells you is true?
Ancient Aliens airs alongside legitimate historical documentaries on H2, and for the casual viewer, there is no real way to differentiate between one show and another, especially given H2’s marketing that quite clearly equates Ancient Aliens with their other offerings, like 10 Things You Don’t Know About, whose promo spot ran paired with an Ancient Aliens’ promo all day yesterday.
The essential point is that skeptics, historians, and archaeologists must be careful not to assume that the general public shares the same intellectual framework or background knowledge as they do. Sometimes you have to explain why the Titanic was a real ship and why Ancient Aliens is a lie.
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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