Washington Post Ends Debunking Column for Lack of Interest; Plus: A Classic "Scientific" Take on Atlantis
There was an odd sort of rhyme this week between J. Hutton Pulitzer’s Roman sword scandal and the Washington Post’s decision to end its column debunking hoaxes and false claims on the internet. Pulitzer had claimed that a Canadian man had found a “Roman” sword off Oak Island many years ago, only to see his claim undone by the internet’s ability to bring together people who know things, exposing the sword as a likely reproduction made for the tourist trade when several other copies turned up online, including one for sale on eBay in Italy. The Post, however, was entirely in harmony with Pulitzer—who refused to back down in the face of evidence—when its internet hoax columnist explained that it would no longer debunk fake stories online because the people who share fantasy and myth as truth won’t read or accept fact-based evaluations. “At which point does society become utterly irrational?” asked columnist Caitlin Dewey. “Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?”
As someone who spends a lot of time evaluating weird claims about history and responding to readers who are convinced that they are alien hybrids, reincarnated Atlanteans, or possessed of divine knowledge, I think we can safely say that many true believers are already living in an alternative reality. The difference is that the mainstream press has finally started to notice that this alternative reality is bleeding over into issues they care about, particularly politics.
Speaking of alternate realities: Yesterday I discussed the recent excitement of the host of The Rundown Live to have discovered that Manly P. Hall once made reference to the claim that giants built the Great Pyramid in a lecture on “Atlantis and the Gods of Antiquity.” This led me to look up the chapter of the same name in Hall’s 1928 book The Secret Teachings of All Ages, a favorite of fringe thinkers of all types because it predigests a number of fringe claims and thus helps remove the need for fringe thinkers to do their own thinking. Anyway, this led me to some interesting material about the lost continent of Atlantis that, by the end, helps undermine the idea of a Smithsonian conspiracy to suppress the truth about fringe archaeology.
Hall’s sources for the Atlantis myth are as plain and obvious as they come, being the same sources that virtually every fringe writer after him would rely upon: Plato, Ignatius Donnelly, and Helena Blavatsky, individually or in combination. It is from Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (repeated in quotation in Secret Doctrine) that Hall learns of the claim that “the Atlantis-race became a nation of wicked magicians,” remembered in myth as the giants who battled against regular humans in Genesis and other myths. He quotes Blavatsky on this point: “The conflict came to an end by the submersion of the Atlantis; which finds its imitation in the stories of the Babylonian and Mosaic flood: The giants and magicians ‘… and all flesh died … and every man.’ All except Xisuthrus and Noah…”
I guess that explains where Graham Hancock got the idea, expressed in his current book Magicians of the Gods, that somehow all ancient cultures referred to the residents of his lost civilization, identified as Atlantis, as magicians, something that doesn’t otherwise appear in the sources Hancock claims to have drawn from.
Anyway, Hall adds nothing to Donnelly and Blavatsky, merely repeating them and endorsing their views, but it is the start of his chapter he mentions something I wasn’t familiar with, a lecture given by Pierre Termier on the lost continent of Atlantis.
Pierre-Marie Termier (1859-1930) wasn’t a fringe crank; he was one of France’s most honored geologists, and in 1909 he had been elected to the French Academy of Sciences. On November 30, 1912, he delivered a lecture to the Institut Océanographique in which he defended the existence of Atlantis on the basis of geology. Having studied the Atlantic Ocean and the rocks therein, he discovered that some of the rocks at the bottom of the Atlantic were made of cooled magma of the kind that disintegrates after 15,000 years or so. This led him to conclude that a large landmass with volcanoes on it had sunk in the Atlantic within the past 15,000 years. His only conclusion was that it had to be the island of Atlantis.
Termier’s scientific defense of Atlantis was one of the last times that a prominent geologist would attempt to give credence to the idea of a lost Atlantic continent. Although Termier would argue in 1924 that the hypothesis of continental drift was untrue, science would prove him wrong and we today recognize that the anomaly he attributed to Atlantis was in fact the result of underwater processes associated with plate tectonics.
Termier’s lecture was published in the journal of the Institut Océanographique the following year, and it attracted enough attention that the Smithsonian Institute here in the United States approached the Institut Océanographique for permission to reprint the piece. When that permission was granted, they commissioned a translation, which was completed in 1915 and published the following year in the Institute’s Annual Report for 1915 (1916). I have posted the text of the translation in my Library.
It was up to the American Geographical Society’s Geographical Review to take up the cause of contradicting Termier’s assertions, which even in rebuttal the magazine’s editors called “brilliant.” In January 1917, the Review published two rebuttals, from Charles Schuchert, a paleontologist, and Rudolph Schuller, a specialist in historical geography. Their pieces I have also added to my Library.
The fact that the Smithsonian published in its official organ a scientific paper claiming that Plato’s Atlantis was real and located in the middle of the Atlantic ought to give pause to those who suggest that the Smithsonian is conspiring to suppress the truth about fringe history!
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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