In the darkest days of the year (in the northern hemisphere, at least), when sunlight is at a premium, it can be easy to despair at the sad state of the world. Consider, for example, the fact that Paul Seaburn at Mysterious Universe got duped by a very obvious hoax and reported that a Sumerian cuneiform tablet shaped exactly like a decade-old cellphone had been found in Austria. This hoax has been circulating since at least 2012 (originating, apparently, on a now-defunct Facebook page), but Seaburn breathlessly reports on it as though it were (a) legitimate and (b) something that just happened, giving only lip service to the possibility of a hoax at the very end of his Weekly World News-style report. That’s par for the course with fringe folk, who don’t care about facts or details as long as a claim supports their fantasy.
It was worse in Israel where actual archaeologists at the Antiquities Authority wasted six months of time and resources looking for the origins of a mysterious golden object allegedly pulled out of an ancient grave near Jerusalem, an object they dubbed “alien” for its resemblance to supposed ancient astronaut technology. Despite the fact that the object appeared even to my rather untrained eye to be too perfect to be anything but a machine-made piece of modern manufacture, experts puzzled over the object month after month, subjecting it to a battery of tests, before a Facebook user identified it as an faux-Egyptian New Age “Isis Orgone Beamer” manufactured by a company named Weber in Germany just hours after the Antiquities Authority posted a photo of it to Facebook on Tuesday. (I’d link to the company’s page, but the excitement over the story crashed their servers, and the site was down as of this writing.) Authorities are now investigating whether the object was intentionally buried to “energize” a grave or whether someone was trying to pull off a hoax.
“Orgone,” in case you care, is an imaginary universal life force proposed by quack Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s and named after an orgasm. The Isis Beamer allegedly emits this undetectable orgasmic energy to help users meditate more effectively.
The important takeaway is that fringe history once again wasted real time and resources thanks to some bizarre combination of Egyptomania and New Age “energy” festishism that produced a useless fake artifact.
Such depressing news is part of the reason that skeptic Sharon Hill announced the suspension of her Doubtful News website for a long hiatus, just days after the Washington Post ended its own internet debunking column. Hill expressed her frustration and exhaustion with keeping up with the tide of false claims and pseudoscience circulating on the internet in a blog post yesterday. “Honestly, it’s because I don’t have the motivation to keep up with the onslaught of questionable claims that are in the media,” she wrote.
Hill explained that Doubtful News did not make a profit because of Hill’s choice not to run “crappy ads” all over the site, an issue I’ve struggled with as well, made worse by the fact that in many cases the website owner doesn’t get to control the ads, which are programmed by third party algorithms, leading to the perception that site is endorsing products and services at odds with its mission, or, worse, which actively harm the public.
I sympathize with Hill’s burn out, and I would venture that the broad remit she gave Doubtful News—covering so many topics across the whole spectrum of science, history, and the occult—made her project that much more overwhelming. No one can be an expert in all things, and there is simply too much material for even a dedicated researcher to cover alone.
But I’d like to call your attention to Hill’s call for action because it is both correct and incomplete and worth discussing:
Many of us are jaded by the tsunami of terrible news sources and ridiculous stories passed off as news (or worse, journalism). It is my opinion that a continued effort should not be from a few part-timers like me but that it should be a primary job of the skeptical/critical thinking organizations to focus on good information, counteracting misinformation and doing this IN REAL TIME with news feeds, original pieces, expert commentary and online resources.
This is a point that I’ve made more than once, and one that has fallen on deaf ears. Skeptical organizations are, for the most part, stodgy and overly focused on debunking the greatest hits of the 1970s—roughly speaking, the stuff that was popular when its leadership (and core membership) were young adults. Aside from coverage of the latest medical quackery—a subject of clear interest to aging Baby Boomers and their elders—so much of the material in Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic is often decades past its relevance. In the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer, for example, the cover story is about why lie detectors aren’t accurate, a fact the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1998 (U.S. v. Scheffer). Another story on the cover is a hard-hitting examination of Deepak Chopra’s book on Quantum Healing, released in 1989. And I previously discussed how the magazine’s big-think research piece on the “X-Files Effect” was recycled from a 2013 book chapter, itself reporting on decades-old studies, most from 1985 to 2001.
The Center for Inquiry, parent of Skeptical Inquirer, has tried to do better with online articles about more recent material, but one of the things I’ve learned from writing this blog is that readers want information about what is happening right now, not what happened 10, 20, or 40 years ago. When new readers come to this blog, it’s almost always because they are trying to learn more about what they saw on cable TV last night or the latest viral news story. To be effective, skeptics need to be covering what is current. Historical subjects are important—don’t get me wrong: I cover plenty myself!—but they are the deep dive that contextualizes what’s happening now. How useful would Consumer Reports be if it took 10 years and just now reviewed the 2005 Honda Civic? Why should readers expect less of Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic?
But here I differ from Hill in that I don’t think that this job should be limited to skeptics; indeed, I think that interested and relevant parties should be doing this kind of work in every subject area. For example, Archaeology magazine would benefit from devoting space on their website to reviewing and debunking bad archaeology in the news. It’s a logical place for readers to look for that kind of expert opinion, certainly more logical than expecting readers to go to a dedicated skeptics’ website and hope they trained their eye on that subject that week. Similarly, the American Historical Association can and should speak on behalf of real history in the face of pseudohistorical claims.
But they don’t. And the question is: Why?
Do you remember when the History Channel put out the Young Investigator’s Guide to Ancient Aliens, a book teaching young kids how to stop thinking critically and aspire to be like Giorgio Tsoukalos? Well, when that book came out, I asked the James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Society, if historians had an opinion on what I would describe as a misuse of history. Grossman told me that he doesn’t comment on controversial issues, even though he did previously comment, in his official capacity, to endorse the History Channel’s efforts to launch a for-credit college course under their brand name. “History Channel and other purveyors of popular histories play a vital role in stimulating and nourishing American's interest in the past,” he said at the time. (The History Channel donates money to the AHA.) Nor, mind you, is the AHA high-mindedly refusing to wade into matters of public controversy to avoid taking sides on matters of public import. The organization filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court last year arguing for a specific historical interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the role of marriage. That seems to me like taking sides. Pray tell, how much more controversial, really, are extraterrestrials that the leader of the AHA would blanch at the thought of commenting on Ancient Aliens?
I do not mean to suggest any wrongdoing on the part of Grossman or the AHA. Rather, I mean to suggest that organizations that should be advocating for public education and would be ideal focus points for setting the record straight on false claims don’t do it because they are beholden to powerful interest groups. The History Channel employs historians, gives money to historical causes, and serves as a major outlet for popularizing historians’ work. It’s part of a conglomerate whose tentacles stretch through the Hearst and Disney empires. Whenever an organization takes a stand for or against a claim, they risk upsetting not just the claimant but all of the corporate connections that claimant has, with unforeseen consequences. No one wants to risk saying the wrong thing or upsetting the wrong executive. And that’s probably why it falls to skeptics to say what’s wrong with crazy claims, and to have to beg for donations to do so.
I thought that one good thing might have come of this, though, when I saw that History had quietly removed the Ancient Aliens kids’ book from their online store. Sadly, that was only because they moved it to the new (and horrifying) Ancient Aliens Official Store webpage, which manages to exploit ancient and indigenous cultures’ heritages in new and offensive ways. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
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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