Sociologist Claims "Hubris" of Archaeology Resulted in Conspiracy to Silence Graham Hancock
Regular readers will remember Dr. Jon Epstein, the sociologist from Greensboro College in North Carolina who is a defender of Graham Hancock against the slings and arrows of an orthodox archaeology that he sees as insular and dogmatic. Epstein is back again with new thoughts on the role of Hancock and geologist Robert Schoch in exposing what Epstein has come to believe is a conspiracy to suppress the truth about human history. Epstein says that he is friends with both men.
(Disclosure: After my first blog post about Epstein, he wrote me an email to explain his position in greater detail. I replied, and there the conversation ended.)
In a new article in the Camel City Dispatch, Epstein says that when Schoch and Hancock told him that they believed that there was a conspiracy to silence them, he did not believe them and assumed they were melodramatically raising criticism to the level of persecution. That changed, he claims, when he tried to assemble a panel of historical and archaeological experts to debate Hancock following a planned speech at Greensboro College next month.
Hancock told Epstein that finding panelists would be challenging because of “forces at play” that would prevent any effort to lend him credibility. The speech is currently scheduled for November 23, the day after Thanksgiving here in the United States, which may account for some challenge in finding people willing to give up a holiday weekend to participate in a small forum.
Epstein says that he reached out to a number of professional organizations, and he received a dozen or more responses that universally called Hancock a “fraud.”
These responses that I received were both telling and disappointing and say a great deal about the lack of confidence and oddly dissonant elitism of archaeology as an academic discipline, not to mention the field’s apparent lack of confidence in the general public’s intellectual abilities to recognize the difference between truth and quackery.
If the last point is true, and the public knows the difference between truth and quackery, why, pray tell, would debate even be necessary?
He was particularly incensed by a response from an unnamed head of a major archaeological organization, who told Epstein that he had never heard of Hancock but after reviewing his claims online found them to be sensationalized and a “mockery of archaeology.” He not so subtly implied that Epstein and Hancock should avoid claiming expertise where they had none: “I have worked hard to become a professional archaeologist, and I therefore have enough respect for other disciplines to refrain from claiming expertise in them. I hope others would display similar respect for my discipline.”
Epstein claims that in 30 years of academia he has never seen such a shocking statement of “hubris.” He fails to note, however, that none of this proved an intentional conspiracy to silence Hancock; at best, it proves only that archaeologists dismissed him alongside other conspiracy theorists, from the ancient astronaut theorists to the Atlantis theorizers to the lost white race theorists (all of which Hancock has been at one point or another), all of whom have failed to present new arguments or much new evidence in almost a century.
This is one of those areas where I have difficulty understanding the “hubris,” which Epstein calls “intellectual dishonesty.” Would he be upset if medical doctors refused to debate a homeopath on the value of tap water for curing cancer? Would he let an “alternative electrician” wire his house for power, or an “alternative mechanic” rustproof his car under phlogiston theory? He seems to be reaching for the sort of false balance that mars public discussion of evolution, vaccines—really any scientific question. There are not two equal points of view on the question of archaeological evidence, the informed and the ignorant. Indeed, Epstein seems to use just those very categories to set up his evaluation of archaeology as an intellectual endeavor.
On one side, Epstein places scientists, archaeologists, and historians, who are trained professionals and engage in the careful day-to-day work of assembling the story of the past. On the other side is Graham Hancock, “an investigative journalist who reports on prehistory.” These he sees as equivalent perspectives in answering questions about ancient history. Thus, one must assume, MSNBC’s Brian Williams is as qualified as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, when it comes to understanding military operations and strategy since Williams visited Iraq and reported, sometimes correctly, on war efforts.
Epstein can only maintain this position by arguing two points. The first is that because Epstein devotes significant time to discussing sociology with conspiracy theorists and “self-proclaimed ‘experts’” others should be pleased to give up their time to do so as well, and (crucially) that failure to do so is prima facie evidence that one is beholden to dogma and conspiring to suppress alternative views for fear they can provide no real answer. The second is that archaeology is not a true science and lacks “urgency and immediacy”; therefore, it has no legitimate reason to attack heretics except to avoid exposing the opinion-based just-so stories that make up its body of knowledge.
Epstein doesn’t seem to distinguish between the collection of evidence and the broader narratives that are abstracted from those facts. They are different levels, and the narratives proposed to explain the evidence are by definition tentative and subject to change when new information emerges. This is the area where Hancock might reasonably offer useful alternatives, if and only if he were able to account for the granular evidence with a narrative that offers a better explanation than the current one. Hancock, as an “investigative journalist” isn’t able to drill down to the specifics of how archaeologists generate knowledge—all of the little details about the full range of evidence used to reconstruct facts about daily life—and can only speak to the surface level of information, the narratives used to explain the evidence. Consequently, he speaks of rewriting and reimagining whole paradigms but without accounting for how those paradigms came about or the millions of pottery shards, trash middens, tools, and other evidence used to create them. Hancock and Epstein want to argue that history is a connect-the-dots game where archaeologists have drawn the picture wrong. But they don’t want to do the work to find out how many dots there are, who drew them, or why we think they form a certain picture.
The root of the problem, though, is the question of public engagement, and this is where even archaeologists have criticized their field for turning inward rather than engaging the public on subjects the public is deeply interested in. The recent publication of a series of book reviews of fringe history volumes in the journal American Antiquity from the Society for American Archaeology made this point when editor Donald J. Holly, Jr. wrote:
Some say that by merely engaging with pseudoarchaeology we legitimize it by creating the appearance of a debate (Anderson et al. 2013), and I agree, but would offer that ignoring pseudoarchaeology has a similar effect, as one of the main assertions of pseudoarchaeologists is that there is an establishment conspiracy to bury their work (see Fagan 2006). Thus, no matter what we do, we give them ammunition.
Epstein’s reaction is similar to the latter half of Holly’s analysis, though with the complication that many of those who dismiss Hancock have not read his books. But should they? Each year anywhere from hundreds to thousands of fringe history books are published worldwide, and it would be impossible to read all of them, even if one were to read a book a day. How should a professional devote limited time and resources? Would we ask a physicist to set aside time to read Deepak Chopra? Must an astronomer consult a daily horoscope?
But the question of public engagement remains. How best can scientists and scholars communicate their findings to the public? Debates are not the answer because they are not about facts. When I was on the debate team in high school, one of the exercises we did was to debate an issue and then at the halfway point switch sides. The lesson was that rhetoric and factual correctness have very little correlation. What we need is for the organs of the media to present mainstream scientific views with the same enthusiasm and production values that they currently lavish on extremist hyperbole. But that won’t happen in today’s niche-market world where appealing to 750,000 rabid ancient astronaut aficionados is more profitable for advertisers than reaching a larger but indifferent audience for mainstream science who lack a passionate interest.
10/13/2015 01:35:58 pm
I'm surprised that Greensboro College's theater department isn't sponsoring this panel, being that Hancock is such a drama queen.
10/13/2015 02:39:45 pm
I doubt there's any way to scientifically debate someone like Hancock using facts because he ignores evidence. He's an "investigative journalist" unencumbered with the mundane tasks of digging, cataloging, classifying, and opening his research for peer review. Rather he uses the work of others to develop his theories, regardless of whether or not the evidence supports his claims.
10/13/2015 03:50:18 pm
"What we need is for the organs of the media to present mainstream scientific views with the same enthusiasm and production values that they currently lavish on extremist hyperbole."
5/9/2017 12:13:03 pm
In America, the organs of the media are the genitalia.
10/13/2015 04:53:37 pm
The dismissal that Epstein received from archaeologists asked to debate Hancock and Schoch is as close to peer review as they are likely to get. That is why they and other fringe types criticize the peer review system.
10/14/2015 01:05:57 am
They are cult followers,lemmings.Nothing more.The sheep followers of the Jim Jones types.Don't drink the cool-aide
10/14/2015 01:06:55 am
10/14/2015 05:18:15 pm
Many of the fringeys that I know are people who have been marginalized by society for other reasons, too--from older folk who feel isolated because the Internet has vastly changed how we communicate and they haven't "kept up" to "that kid" that no one ever wants to hang around with to people who set themselves up for "hard knocks" regularly and don't understand why or how. "Here's a secret that The Regular People don't want you to know" really resonates with those people, generally, and so does "I am endangering myself to bring you this information because you are That Special." And the vast majority of people don't even know that's what's going on with these books and things. But it really does come down to the most basic level of "do you trust the people who make you feel unsafe and outcast, or do you trust the people who make you feel special and included?"
10/14/2015 05:52:32 pm
Fine points, V. I had a friend once who felt like quite the outsider, and that led him to drink--and I could always tell when he was drinking, because that's when he'd call me up and start ranting about conspiracies.
10/13/2015 05:55:30 pm
" Almost every one of these people that I know feels some kind of disenfranchisement from the “system” and they seem to find solace in their belief that they know some truth that the mainstream denies." That's it in a nutshell. It's all about being a part of something mysterious or esoteric.
10/13/2015 06:32:25 pm
Of course the bottom line is that Hancock and Schoch have in fact been debated. however the results have been really nasty to their fringe beliefs. People have examined their fantasies and found them to be wanting. Or the tired recycled rubbish that they promote has been dealt with long ago and is frankly not worth reconsidering in the slightest. This being the case there is no particular purpose in scientists wasting their time refuting this stuff.
10/13/2015 07:37:36 pm
"Of course the bottom line is that Hancock and Schoch have in fact been debated. however the results have been really nasty to their fringe beliefs."
Scotty Roberts' Penman Hat
10/13/2015 07:48:46 pm
Off topic, but check it out. Scotty Roberts has done the begging for cash to expand his little scam before.
10/13/2015 07:56:09 pm
"But that won’t happen in today’s niche-market world where appealing to 750,000 rabid ancient astronaut aficionados is more profitable for advertisers than reaching a larger but indifferent audience for mainstream science who lack a passionate interest. "
10/13/2015 08:07:40 pm
It comes down to a question of how many people are watching, who those people are, and how many of them are purposely seeking out that specific content. PBS has a larger audience than the History Channel, for example, and many shows have higher ratings. But they don't generate buzz or attract the right demographics. A general interest science show might attract a bigger audience than Ancient Aliens, but Ancient Aliens viewers are more likely to seek out more of the same and thus are more reliable viewers and a better target for advertisers.
10/13/2015 08:25:57 pm
Thanks for elaborating.
10/16/2015 02:07:51 pm
Also, the pseudo science shows attract more of the audience that the advertisers like, ie un-educated males between the age of 14 and 30 or so. Who are more prone to buy the things in the commercials.
10/13/2015 08:24:20 pm
Epstein should be careful bandying about terms like "hubris" and "intellectual dishonesty" when he is so readily displays the same. He fails to understand mainstream science isn’t a faith system. It is a verified body of work that must be taken into account if you wish to add to that body of work, or if you want to change the conclusions of that body of work.
10/13/2015 09:09:13 pm
If I have but one criticism of the highbrow today, it's the quickness with which one will resort to accusing another of "intellectual dishonesty", subtly implying that anyone who disagrees with me is in denial. A reasonable human being could not simply interpret the same data differently than I do; he must be lying, either to us or to himself. But I'm not going to play that game with Epstein. I'm not going to judge his scruples.
10/14/2015 09:22:01 am
If you're publicly funded (I don't know) then yeah you owe the public a straightening out. For one thing it might attract more money to the field.
10/14/2015 11:34:11 am
Professionals in any scientific discipline may disagree with each other, based on there own examination of the evidence. The difference between true professionals in any discipline is that they actually examine the evidence submitted, unlike Hancock and Schoch, who give it a once over lightly and then reach conclusions. Also professionals reach their conclusions after examining the evidence and not before. You work from the evidence to the conclusion, not from your conclusions back to evidence, ignoring those facts that do not support you and taking as evidence those that do.
busterggi (Bob Jase)
10/14/2015 12:27:43 pm
"How best can scientists and scholars communicate their findings to the public?"
10/14/2015 01:25:13 pm
I understand how frustrating it must be for scientists and scholars to attempt to engage the public on what I'll term the popular level. It must seem like trying to reason with a toddler at times. Still, I think it's important to try.
10/14/2015 05:40:33 pm
Unfortunately, a very large percentage of the population values confidence more than honesty.
10/18/2015 11:59:29 am
There are many popular level accounts of archaeology and ancient history or prehistory that aren't fringe. Those who go for the fringe stuff generally aren't interested. If they were interested, they would seek out the non-fringe accounts.
10/14/2015 05:42:32 pm
I think the public DOES care and IS rational, on the whole. I think the real problem is that the public has not been educated well enough to understand and evaluate scientific information anymore; there is too much of a gap between what's taught in primary school and what's being done in research. It's as if you were being asked to build a car, and the only things you have available are the six basic machines. It's not only possible, it's ubiquitous, because every more complicated machine is made up of combinations of the six basic machines, but you are probably not going to be able to build that car before you have to go to work tomorrow morning. In other words, much scientific information is just not accessible to the adult public.
10/14/2015 07:03:42 pm
This is a great idea.
10/14/2015 10:53:16 pm
A lot of these fringe claims and ideas takes time and research to debunk.Like what Jason has done.People don't have the time for that.It's always one unsubstantiated claim after the other.Misinterpreting,misquoting,and out right lying is the method of "research".It's repetitive and annoying which is why I give the fringys their true title:con artist/snake oil salesmen.No sugarcoating no apologies.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
10/14/2015 11:23:26 pm
My biggest complaint about public education is how the traditional approach to high school fails miserably at preparing students for the adult world. Instead of being taught practical skills, they just repeat the same kind of subjects they got in middle school on a slightly more sophisticated level, with more busywork thrown in. One of the big gaps that high school should fill is how to logically analyze claims, how to judge what information sources are reliable, and so forth. If people were taught that, they'd have a somewhat better ability to detect all kinds of bullshit, including fringe history bullshit.
10/15/2015 03:25:35 am
"Perhaps it's time for scientific teams to include another type of writer--one whose sole job it is to take the academic paper and break down into a format accessible to the public."
10/18/2015 01:53:39 pm
Few more of these ?
Michael K Power
4/26/2016 09:21:02 pm
The past is not transparent. Many breakthroughs have emerged from
11/14/2022 11:06:59 pm
It's awful funny how archeology is now debating how to deal with the obvious facts provided by their own discipline that contradict basic foundations that lead you to disrespect me.
Mayor of Mount Pilot
3/14/2023 03:07:23 am
So, some guys/gals took a pass on traveling to North Carolina during the week of Thanksgiving to debate Graham "psychic powered levitation of pyramid blocks" Hancock at a venue the size of a high school. And that is proof positive of a conspiracy to silence him. Didn't work. I guess the gang at Netflix dropped the ball. I can see them now in a staff meeting being held to account for letting Hancock have a show despite the fact that a dozen or so scholars took a pass on traveling to North Carolina during the week of Thanksgiving to debate Graham "psychic powered levitation of pyramid blocks" Hancock at a venue the size of a high school.
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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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