On Wednesday fringe historian Graham Hancock was to debate former Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass on the origins and function of the Giza pyramids. However, when Hawass discovered that Hancock would be making reference to the Orion Correlation Theory and using a picture of fringe theorist Robert Bauval in his slideshow, Hawass loudly demanded Hancock remove all references to the work of a man Hawass considers a “thief.” When Hancock refused to do so, Hawass stormed out of the theater and refused to engage in a debate. Instead, both men gave separate lecturers without interacting. Their interaction was caught on tape:
Special thanks to John Hoopes for sharing the YouTube video with me.
What we see here seems to be a case of misunderstanding. From one perspective, Hancock is completely correct that the Orion Correlation Theory exists independent of Robert Bauval, its creator, and must be judged on its merits, however slight. Hawass, however, almost certainly viewed Hancock’s use of Bauval’s image as a personal provocation due to the history that Hawass and Bauval have with one another. Hawass suspected that Bauval was behind the vandalism of two German fringe history believers who scraped part of the ancient paint from a cartouche within the Great Pyramid a few years ago as part of a clandestine effort to prove the pyramid was 10,000 years old. Hawass also claimed that Bauval was secretly advocating a Jewish agenda to strip the Egyptians of credit for the pyramids. Bauval, in turn, announced that he was suing Hawass for libel, though so far as I know the suit went nowhere.
If you haven’t seen the comments on my Wednesday blog post about Nick Redfern and the ant people, be sure to check it out. In the original article, I wrote that the academic literature and Native sources don’t seem to support the claims made for a godlike race of humanoid Gray-like beings living under the earth, keepers of knowledge about coming earth changes, and possessed of flying machines. In the comments, Redfern stops by to take issue with my presentation of his article, and his defense says quite a bit about fringe writing. Redfern admits that he gleaned his information about the Hopi myth of the Ant People from ufological sources and did not consult any ethnographic or Native American primary sources. But more importantly, he fell back on the defense we hear so often from fringe figures: “This was simply a small article, not a multi-thousand word paper dissecting every aspect of the controversy.” Of course Redfern did not suggest there was a controversy at all, presenting only one view of the Ant People. Redfern appeared to suggest that he viewed articles as a lesser form of work that excused accepting secondary sources and ufological opinion at face value because, according to him, he was merely reporting what other ufologists believe, regardless of its accuracy. It is perhaps the weakness in Redfern’s writing that he lards his pieces with so many rhetorical questions and conditional tense verbs that it becomes difficult to determine which parts Redfern means for us to take seriously and what is… I’m not sure exactly: What is the point of reporting something you know or believe to be untrue without indicating its untruth? Entertainment, I suppose.
Just to be clear: My problem with Redfern’s writings is hardly confined to his passage on the Ant People. I have repeatedly taken issue with areas where he seems to make superficial connections or missed out on important information through failing to pursue a story to its logical conclusion. That occurred in his flawed piece on Mikel Conrad’s Flying Saucer movie, his uncritical acceptance of UFO claims, his uncritical and low-research presentation of what an anonymous source told him about government ancient astronaut research, and his silly idea that a horror movie could help us understand underground Bigfoot. (Does Bigfoot eat Ant People? Those tunnels must get crowded with the all the Vril-Ya, Nephilim, Atlanteans, etc. down there!)
It’s the one question I can’t form a clear answer to: Why do so many fringe figures feel that when writing about what ought to be the most important scientific discovery in history—contact with other, unknown sentient beings!—they don’t need to reach for the highest standards of research and reporting? Doesn’t the audience deserve the very best with each piece? We saw this with Micah Hanks and the uncritical book report on a Jim Marrs opus that he passed off as an “article” on alien contact in Texas. Now, granted, I don’t always live up to the impossible standard of perfect accuracy and universal research, but I do try to make every blog post, article, and book the best, most complete, and most informative it can be. Why wouldn’t the people who claim to be working to change our very understanding of reality?
Do check out the entire conversation. I found it most enlightening. And, seriously, I do want to thank Redfern for taking the time to discuss his writing process, despite our differences. It was good insight into how fringe material is assembled.
Our conversation reminded me very much of Dr. Mehmet Oz’s appearance on the Today show this morning to defend his work on the Dr. Oz Show after a group of doctors sent a letter to Columbia University, where Oz teaches, criticizing him for offering bad advice and endorsing questionable medical treatments on his daytime talk show. This was followed by a letter from six Columbia faculty doing the same. In his defense. Oz claimed (and I wish I were making this up) that the graphic design of his show logo was sufficient indication that he doesn’t believe the things he says, because his name, “Oz,” is rendered in a much larger type size than “Dr.” According to Oz, this conveys the message that this is a personality-driven show in which Oz acts as cheerleader for “wellness” products rather than as a doctor offering sound advice. In other words, he is a doctor but doesn’t play one on TV.
In the case of Dr. Oz and all the many fringe claims, I get the sense that no one cares at all about the impact on the audience. The argument that audiences are sophisticated enough to tease out information from graphic design or to distinguish between facts, inferences, and opinions through a complex rhetorical analysis is belied by the facts. Surveys find time and again that the majority of audiences can’t distinguish facts and opinions, and don’t see a clear difference between, say, The O’Reilly Factor and the CBS Evening News, or Ancient Aliens and Nova. The average American reads at only an eighth grade level, and 50% of Americans read at only basic or below basic levels, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Just 15% can read at the level of complexity needed to sustain the argument that an audience can tell when a fringe writer doesn’t mean what he says; in fact a full 1 in 4 adults cannot “locate information in a text” or make “low-level inferences” from written materials. I wish that weren’t the case, but I can’t change audiences. I can’t make them information literate. Communicators hold great power to shape their audience’s attitudes and beliefs, and with that power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. I guess I have trouble imagining cranking out incomplete or questionable material just to fill air time or column inches. But then I also have seen seven seasons of Ancient Aliens, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise!
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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