I’m scheduled to appear this evening on a podcast called The Afternoon Commute at Hoaxbusterscall.com. I’m supposed to record the show at 6:30 PM ET (3:30 PM PT), though I’m not sure if it is broadcast live or only released as a recording. While the host represented himself as a skeptic, it appears from the website that the show has its fair share of unusual beliefs, ranging from the New World Order to moon landing conspiracies. This will be interesting...
One of the things that constantly amazes me is the anger that fringe figures feel toward scientists, historians, archaeologists, and generally anyone who produces knowledge. I used to think that it was an affectation, a sort of rhetorical device designed to give weight and credence to their arguments by casting the fringe writer as the oppressed heretic wrongfully denied his glory. When Erich von Däniken wrote about the potential for oppression in Chariots of the Gods, I assumed that it was simply rhetoric: “Because its theories and proofs do not fit into the mosaic of traditional archaeology, constructed so laboriously and firmly cemented down, scholars will call it nonsense and put it on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned.” But half a century later, fringe figures seem to be much more emotional about their hatred of academia.
We see that quite clearly with America Unearthed host Scott Wolter, who rails against academia and archaeology with venomous bile, and genuinely feels anger that his fanciful notions about Masonic conspiracies dating back to the Sethites and the Cainites at the dawn of time are not taken seriously. But consider Graham Hancock’s equally rabid rant against archaeology on his blog this week, after the announcement that a Mesolithic monolith had been discovered off the coast of Sicily. Hancock believes this monolith’s existence confirms his claim that a highly advanced global civilization was destroyed by a comet at the start of the last Ice Age.
CRASH! BANG! RUMBLE! Do you hear those sounds? Faintly? In the distance? Just audible over outraged yells and howls of protest? Those are the sounds of the house of history collapsing and the furious yells and howls are from the archaeological establishment trying to drown out the truth with their noise.
Who is exactly is howling in protest? The monolith’s discovery was reported in an academic journal—which Hancock acknowledges but, in his blind fury, claims is an anomalous embarrassment to an otherwise censorious archaeological establishment trying to hide the truth about antediluvian civilization. He claims that an unnamed archaeologist declared the find to be “whimsical and void of scientific meaning,” but he gave no source and I can find no archaeologist who is angry that the stone was uncovered. He says that “the establishment is doing it utmost to shout-down this extraordinary discovery”—by publishing it in a journal and talking about it in most major newspapers; you know, hiding it.
Hancock speculates that the monolith was built by the same culture that constructed Göbekli Tepe in Turkey and possibly also Gunung Padang, the likely medieval Indonesian hillside stone site nationalists in that country have claimed is actually an artificial pyramid that predates all other human structures on earth.
Hancock has long conducted a war on science. He has picked fights with former Egyptian antiquities official Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist Mark Lehner, NASA, and others he accuses of conspiracies to hide the truth. It’s almost predictable at this point that he’s crying suppression just in time for the release of his new book in the UK next month and America in November. But there seems to be a genuine anger underneath the self-glorification of himself as a history hero.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the more milquetoast Micah Hanks, who in recent articles has superficially called for more collegiality and civility in debating fringe topics, but beneath the surface nevertheless is upset with those who reach conclusions rather than simply promote inexplicable and ineffable mysteries. “I would,” he wrote a couple of months ago, “like to observe here that, generally, the attitude conveyed by many within the modern skeptical movement toward those who propose such ‘fringe’ ideas tends to be one not only of dismissal, but also ridicule.”
Hanks called out skeptics for being too mean in dismissing even the most obviously untrue of fringe claims, such as the belief in a flat earth: “Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost the idea that discourse in relation to such ideas can occur in a civil fashion, and without having to rely on heavy cynicism and ad hominem attacks to get our points across.” But Hanks directs his upset only at skeptics, not to the fringe advocates who cry conspiracy, accuse scholars and officials of nefarious deeds, or criticize those who agree with the scientific consensus as closed-minded, blinkered, or evil. Indeed, Hanks engaged in just such name-calling himself this week when he wrote about those skeptical of the existence of Bigfoot, decrying efforts to investigate the legendary monster because for skeptics such efforts yield “just another way to fulfill their confirmation bias… This, in place of actual logical deduction, amounts to just being lazy skepticism.” And here I thought we weren’t supposed to rely on “heavy cynicism and ad hominem attacks.”
Hanks takes issue with what he calls “denialists,” whom he sees as people who reject evidence in order to preserve outdated paradigms. For him, the rejection of a fringe hypothesis means that we should look for a different fringe hypothesis lest any potential anomaly be ignored. He illustrates this with UFO sightings, arguing that “denialists” are wrong to dismiss UFO sightings just because there is no evidence they are extraterrestrial:
Conversely, the problem with those “denialists” among us is that they suppose that since there isn’t evidence to support an ET element to any of this using hard data, that this means there is simply nothing to UFO reports at all. I would argue here that many hardened skeptics may, at times, overlook the logical extremities that their argument presents. Also, perhaps their argument is largely against an ET hypothesis, rather than merely attacking ambiguous reports of unidentified flying objects that could be any number of things, based largely on the misinterpretation in the modern era that “UFO” means, without exception, “extraterrestrial.” Here again, I find little in the skeptical argument against an ETH that I differ with, but this may not rule out various observations of aerial phenomenon that appears to be of an unconventional nature.
Here Hanks’s argument is partly right and partly wrong. He’s right that in the realm of human knowledge as a whole, investigating the actual origins of UFO sightings—be they misidentifications, hallucinations, military test craft, etc.—is useful and important for examining data. But if you are interested in whether aliens visited the earth, once you determine that was not the case, it no longer matters to those investigators whether the UFO was a military test or one of Karl P. N. Shuker’s proposed flying invisible jellyfish. The issue isn’t “denial” but rather what question are you asking them to answer? If the question is “Did aliens visit earth?” then the answer is clear: No such evidence exists. If the question is “What are UFOs, really?” then you are on to a different subject.
If we accept Hanks’s own views in their “logical extremities,” he ends up arguing that no question can ever be answered because there are always endless possibilities, that no mystery can ever be ignored or dismissed because some new speculation can generate a new round of investigation. What about time travelers? How about interdimensional beings? Visitors from a hollow earth? Flying invisible jellyfish? Projections from our collective unconscious? Demons in flying chariots? Hanks would like to place the burden of proof on skeptics, but that isn’t how science works, and it isn’t even how the rules of argumentation work.
By the way, a word of disclosure: After Hanks challenged me to appear on his radio show, I accepted his offer (twice) through his producer. Neither Hanks nor the producer ever contacted me again.
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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