As regular readers know, the Viceland TV channel recycles the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens by having rapper Action Bronson and his friends get high and talk about reruns of the program. In an interview yesterday with corporate cousin Vice (the website), executive producer Jordan Kinley described how the program came to be, and why Ancient Aliens allegedly serves an important function. According to Kinley, even though hypotheses presented on the program are likely untrue, they demonstrate why we (as the public) should distrust official narratives because our history is “manufactured.”
Seeing these counter-theories presented, you kind of realize that you have an emotional connection to the [original] theories. You feel kind of lost when someone questions the historical narrative you’ve been taught. I don’t believe much of what’s talked about in the original show but I think it’s a good time for people to realize that some of our history is manufactured. Some of it is manufactured to be accurate, and some of it is manufactured to excuse horrible things that have happened.
Kinley seems to find in Ancient Aliens an entry point into questions of historiography, but doesn’t take the final step to ask what horrible things—racism, conspiracy-mongering, outright fraud--Ancient Aliens itself exploits and promotes, or to what end. It goes without saying that Ancient Aliens is bad historiography, and it is interesting that Kinley buys into the notion of “manufactured” history without pointing a finger at who, precisely, is doing the manufacturing. In many places the government does try to distort history through the school systems—from official propaganda in government-written textbooks in other countries to culturally convenient lies designed to appease textbook buyers on American school boards—but in the age of the internet, where information is easy to find, at least here in America, it is much less clear how history can be “manufactured” except through the willing acquiescence of an incurious audience.
Meanwhile, Graham Hancock is on another anger bender after the TED organization for issuing a warning about his most recent TEDx talk for failing to meet the organization’s “curatorial standards.” In a TEDx event two months ago, which is not sponsored by or controlled by the TED organization, Hancock promoted his most recent book, Magicians of the Gods, by summarizing its content, including allegations that a comet strike during the last Ice Age caused the end of a lost civilization synonymous with Atlantis. I reviewed his TEDx talk back in June and found it to be illogical.
The TED organization placed a warning beneath the video: “Please be aware that this talk contains outdated and counterfactual assertions, and should not be understood as a representation of modern scholarship on ancient civilizations.” It added a similar warning into the video itself as a superimposed YouTube annotation.
TEDx is an initiative of the TED organization that helps to organize TED-style events for local communities. It is not clear exactly who placed the admonishment on the video of Hancock’s talk. The note claims that it came from “TED,” but the TEDx subsidiary organization posted it from their account.
This is the second time the TED organization has reacted negatively to a Hancock TEDx talk. A few years ago they removed a previous Hancock speech on mysticism and consciousness because it failed to meet scientific standards.
Hancock, as you might guess, is crying foul, claiming that “TED is a tool of the dominator society that seeks to keep us all asleep, and that believes itself to be the fount and guardian of all legitimate knowledge.”
I wonder, though, what good it does to issue warnings about TEDx talks, especially where the evidence is at best ambiguous. It seems that the TED organization ought to have a “right to be wrong” insofar as no one individual is ever going to have 100% perfect knowledge, and even TED talks that seem correct today might become outdated or even dangerously inaccurate as scientific knowledge grows.
TED Talks have many, many bizarre or embarrassing entries that skirt the borders of truth or utility. Paul Zak, a “neuroeconomist,” once gave a talk on how oxytocin creates stable and happy societies. It’s a gross oversimplification of neuroscience. A guy named Joe Smith offered a TED Talk on the most efficient way to use a paper towel. Tori Amason offered an ambiguously evidenced set of claims about how “success partners” can lead individuals to achievement, and Barbara Frederickson asserted that positive emotions cause our minds to open up. That last one had some selective science behind it, about as much as Hancock’s speech. Eric X. Li gave a talk propagandizing for Chinese communism, arguing that the system is adaptable, meritocratic, and above all legitimate. it should take only a few seconds to recall all the people who would dispute those claims.
TEDx Talks are even worse. I saw one from a “holistic radiologist” arguing that dreams serve as premonitions of cancer.
None of these talks received a warning or censorship.
With Hancock’s speech there are two related issues, and it is unclear which of them upset the TED organization. The first is the question of whether a comet hit the Earth around 9600 BCE. This is a scientific question over which there is disagreement. While most scientists do not currently support the extreme interpretation of the evidence Hancock offers, it is not wholly beyond the realm of scientific possibility. Here it seems that Hancock should have the “right to be wrong” and to offer a legitimate, if controversial, interpretation of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. It’s no less supportable than the idea that communism is the ideal government, or that oxytocin will literally change the world.
The second issue, however, is probably the one that got him into more trouble. In the speech he asserted, without evidence, that Atlantis once existed and that he believed it to have been destroyed by the impact of a comet. This is a troublesome claim because it gets into questions of how an organization like TED judges historical claims. While it is generally agreed among historians that Atlantis never existed, there is a long history of scholars accepting its reality, going back to Antiquity. While you and I likely agree that there is no good evidence that Atlantis existed, there is an enormous body of material, much of it from serious scholars, who have made the case for Atlantis existing at various times and places. I don’t agree with those claims, but it’s hard to argue that the scholarly work on Atlantis is less supportable than propaganda about Chinese communism’s utopian benefits.
Would TED censor a talk identifying Atlantis with the Minoan occupation of Thera, a claim that has a great deal of support from archaeologists and historians (despite being almost certainly untrue)?
What sets Hancock apart, though, is that Hancock identifies his Atlantis with an alleged lost civilization whose remains can be found in places like Gunung Padang in Indonesia. Even though many archaeologists deny that the stone structures of Gunung Padang date back to the Ice Age or were built by Atlantis, both claims were officially put forth by a government scientist working under official auspices for the Indonesian government. The claims are almost certainly propaganda, but they are official, much like China’s official economic statistics, which most Westerners agree are falsified. How, we might ask, does TED assess which official claims are false?
Hancock is right that TEDx seems to want to be the judge of truth. It’s a hard role to take because a lot of claims passing under the mantle of truth are ambiguous, and a lot of TED Talks—official ones, not even the independent TEDx presentations Hancock gives—are ridiculous. I’m not sure what the right standard is. An ad hoc system of censoring or warning about a talk because Hancock is a crackpot writer of pseudohistory seems unfair. But on the other hand accepting official or even academic claims at face value seems a poor standard, too. After all, North Korea officially claims that its former leaders rode unicorns and scored 18 holes-in-one on their first golf attempts. Clearly, a TED talk on the Kim family’s divine perfection would be entirely false, official sources be damned.
I’m not sure what the right answer is in terms of determining what is or is not acceptably factual, but it sure seems like the TEDx program is being selective in its outrage.
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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