One of the criticisms I receive most often is that there isn’t any harm in Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, or other pseudoscientific shows, so why bother criticizing them? And it certainly seems that other skeptics agree: Consider, for example, the fact that while Ancient Aliens has 1.5 million viewers—making it the most watched pseudoscientific series on TV—leading skeptical organizations such as CSI, JREF, and the Skeptics Society do not have regular coverage of the program or its claims. By contrast, last year CSI’s Skeptical Inquirer ran a three part series on an obscure DVD that sold only 10,000 copies about Mormon extremist claims about ancient America, but to date has never mentioned Ancient Aliens, so far as I am able to determine.
(Note: Mainstream science publications like Archaeology magazine similarly ignore the program.)
Each organization, however, has run numerous articles and blog posts questioning the nature of skepticism, attempting to define skepticism as a lifestyle choice, and probing the philosophical underpinnings of skepticism, science, and rationality.
This isn’t a knock on these skeptical organizations—there are simply too many false claims to do justice to all of them, and self-analysis is essential for any movement—but it is an acknowledgement that I think skeptics need to step up and address the topics the public is interested in, not just the obscure and arcane philosophy of skepticism as a lifestyle choice if skeptical organizations are to really make a difference.
Let me reiterate: Ancient astronaut believer Giorgio Tsoukalos has a larger audience (1.5 million) than media darling Stephen Colbert (1.1 million). And organized skepticism’s ignorance or avoidance of this fact lets Ancient Aliens’ claims go unchallenged.
Ancient Aliens’ message is spreading. Katy Perry, the famous singer, is the program’s biggest fan and has introduced the program to legions of teenage boys and girls, at least some of whom will come to believe the program’s ideas due to the failures of contemporary education. Just this week, the Canadian-born British hockey star Matt Stephenson of the Sheffield Steelers told The Star (UK) that Ancient Aliens was his favorite program: “it will make you think.”
Last year, film director Ridley Scott used the promotional campaign for his ancient alien movie Prometheus to advocate for Erich von Däniken’s theories as nonfiction. The Canadian metal band “Chariots of the Gods” named itself for von Däniken’s most famous book and told Metal Underground that their lyrics take inspiration from the ancient alien theme:
The band name itself gives for great lyrical themes and ideas. In the books [sic] mythos and also in history itself, every great civilization has influenced the one that came after. Their beliefs and their Gods all come from the same place if you look back far enough. Only the names have changed and this allows us to play with every society’s godly pantheon.
The ancient alien theme is fine as fiction—Lovecraft turned it into art—but when believed as truth, it destroys real appreciation for history, suppresses historical investigation, and degrades belief in the power of human creativity and ingenuity. No one ancient astronaut claim will cause all of this, but taken together the ancient astronaut idea suggests a medieval mindset where humans are helpless before a world controlled entirely by the supernatural and therefore can at best be passive cogs in the system. Any little push in that direction puts a subtle thumb on the scale, and we just don’t know what the effect would be on the minds molded by these ideas.
That’s why I think skeptics need to take their message beyond the skeptical community. And it starts by making skeptical materials more accessible to non-academic readers.
I love Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, but the fact that both try to be hybrids of popular magazines and academic journals means that they just aren’t going to get a mass audience (or whatever passes for one in today’s fractured media landscape). There are times that my eyes glaze over reading each of them—and I have an enormous tolerance for the boring and the obscure, as my blog readers have probably observed.
If I were in charge of one of these publications, I’d bifurcate it into (a) an advertising-supported popular magazine that was newsy, fun, and full of debunking and personality, and (b) an academic skeptical journal that would publish the long, complex, academic pieces that professional skeptics and academic skeptics enjoy, and use on their CVs, but which turn off mass audiences. This would also probably help solve some of the funding issues skeptical organizations face, since they could charge libraries and universities an arm and a leg for the academic journal and could take cash for ads in the popular magazine without compromising the academic side’s integrity.
The point is that today’s skeptical publications are written for skeptics, who don’t need convincing. What skeptics need is content that reaches out to those who aren’t sure and who can be persuaded. I’ve tried to harness the power of the internet to do that in my own province, pseudo-archaeology. Make no mistake: My site’s Library is essentially Google-bait, high quality content designed to meet the needs of readers looking for obscure texts and thus lead them to my books and my blog. Any one page may only attract a few readers at a time (for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh in my Library [which I also licensed to NatGeo UK] receives about 25-30 hits per day), but over a year, that adds up (nearly 10,000 for Gilgamesh), and it leads new readers to skeptical perspectives on pseudo-archaeology.
In looking at the analytics on my website, a few trends stand out. First, readers are coming to my site to find out information about claims they saw on Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed. In the 48 hours following the broadcast of one of these shows, the keyword referrals to my site invariably track the specific sites and claims offered on the programs. And because I’m the only person addressing the program’s claims substantively on a per episode basis, they find me. The single most popular keyword leading people to me is “Giorgio Tsoukalos” and its variants. And these aren’t just a couple of people; we’re talking a very large audience who are looking for the facts behind the weird claims from TV.
(It helps that neither Ancient Aliens nor any ancient astronaut writers have any significant web presence, which means that searching for their own claims leads to me. Heck, I was one of the only people to write a full-length obituary and assessment for the late ancient astronaut writer Philip Coppens [though the Daily Grail and others ran remembrances]; you would think believers, skeptics, or especially Ancient Aliens, might have managed that.)
Readers ask why I bother reviewing Ancient Aliens; now you know: I’m usually the only one offering the information about the show’s claims that readers are looking for, and I’m doing my part to try to keep Ancient Aliens from being the final word on its own silly claims. I’d really like it if that wasn’t the case, and I hope other skeptics will see the value in offering same-day or next-day reviews of the wildly popular but intellectually vacuous programs offered on cable. People are looking for this information; we have a duty to provide it whenever and however we can.
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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