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.
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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