Flying Pigs and Abominable Beasts

Flying Pigs and Abominable Beasts September 13, 2015

Over the past few months, I have done quite a few posts on pseudo-history and pseudo-archaeology. Without revisiting those topics in any detail, here are a couple of relevant items I recently enjoyed.

One is an older (2013) book that was recently reissued, and beautifully reviewed by Wheaton’s Robert Bishop in Books and Culture (Paywall protected). This is Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero, about the invention of the yeti, Bigfoot and Loch Ness monster. In other words, it concerns crypto-zoology, the study of “secret” or hidden animals. The topics are fun in themselves, but much more significant is observing the mode of belief we encounter in such oddities, and the standards of proof and evidence that true believers employ.

Bishop is especially good on the temptation to believe junk science when it is presented in scientific sounding language that impresses people who don’t understand real methodologies:

It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong. Good scientists, by contrast, practice healthy skepticism toward their hypotheses, evidence, and assumptions, even though they have some reasons for confidence in the theory that they are working with. They throw out weak or questionable evidence and take contrary evidence very seriously. Sure, scientists also have their expectations, but they critically assess the evidence for whether it genuinely supports the hypothesis or not. … Cryptozoologists make a number of unfounded assumptions which they never challenge; scientists hold their assumptions as only provisionally true and return to critically examining their assumptions on occasion and sometimes frequently.

Bishop’s main focus is on trying to educate Americans – and other “advanced” (!) peoples – about the methods of good science and scholarship.

Meanwhile, Forbes offered a great piece by Kristina Killgrove on “What Archaeologists Really Think About Ancient Aliens, Lost Colonies, And Fingerprints Of The Gods.” This in turn summarizes a lengthy American Antiquity piece that is well worth your time. (You can download the whole piece by following that link, even if you don’t have a subscription).

Here is the story. American Antiquity is a flagship publication of the Society for American Archaeology. Dating back to 1935, it is the sacred text of American archaeology, and is highly prestigious and authoritative. Naturally, it disdains fringe or crank pseudo-scholarship. However, this recent issue devotes its whole review section to reviewing and analyzing such works. A thoughtful introduction is supplied by Donald Holly’s “Talking to the Guy on the Airplane,” which recommends that scholars treat pseudo-archaeology seriously. Or at least, seriously enough to present reasons why it is wrong, rather than merely ignoring it. After all, the issue is far more pressing than it has ever been, given the vast proliferation of crankery on the Internet, and on the cable documentary channels.

I suspect there were some intriguing interactions when leading scholars received Holly’s approaches, with a “You want me to review WHAT?!” and conceivably some bad words were employed. But as those scholars admit, ruefully, the exercise was worth it, partly to understand how to respond to such claims, but also to avert charges that “orthodox” scholars are conspiring to suppress daring truths. Throughout, they thoroughly expound the principles of research and scholarship that we have already encountered in Robert Bishop’s review.

This issue therefore reviews various manifestations of pseudo-archaeology – lost ancient civilizations, multiple pre-Columbian visitors to the Americas, ancient Giant races, ancient Aliens … the whole roster.

The following reviews treat various aspects of the subject. I enjoyed this endearing opening:

Do me a favor. Go over to a window and look outside. I’ll wait. Okay, are you looking? See anything extraordinary? Yup, it is pigs flying. So many pigs. That should explain how a Graham Hancock book is being reviewed in American Antiquity. And it is about time. Since its publication in 1995, the book is estimated to have sold more than three million copies and has been published in 27 languages. As archaeologists, we ignore such a phenomenon at our peril.

Or to take another example,

I cannot recommend this book for individuals seeking any understanding of North American prehistory. However, all students looking to become professional archaeologists should be aware of the positions taken in this book and the history of these anti-scientific, conspiratorial perspectives. By being exposed to these viewpoints, they will be better prepared to meaningfully address inquiries like those I encountered about evidence of giants among the ancient peoples of the Americas.

The reviews are informative about the deep roots of crank theories – how for instance lunacies of the mid-twentieth century about supposed pre-Columbian settlers are passed on to the present day in a kind of apostolic tradition of credulity. One fringe book on the multiple early settlers of the Americas bears the enthusiastic blurb “Who didn’t discover America?” In their responses, the various reviewers do a superb job of explaining and reasserting mainstream assumptions and methodologies, as against the “sciencey” pretensions of the pseudo-scholars. The reviewers specifically and repeatedly address my familiar mantra of “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Themes that surface repeatedly include conspiracy theories (why the so-called experts are concealing The Truth!) and also, with remarkable frequency, outright and pervasive racism. Time and again, we are offered alleged reasons why “primitive” civilizations like Africans or American Indians could not really have created the impressive structures or mighty civilizations with which they are wrongly credited. I’m not saying that pseudo-archaeology is always based on crackpot racial theories and notions of White supremacy, and other races have their claims. Most of the time, though, the fringe claims are pointing us to various Lost Masters of the Great White Race.

Another interesting point, made by Jason Colavito, is how so many of these sketchy pseudo works draw on and perpetuate a whole alternative Judaeo-Christian mythology. This tracks back to the Flood, but also the whole idea of the Watchers and the Nephilim, as portrayed in the Book of 1 Enoch (and recently manifested in the film Noah). The enduring power of those ideas never ceases to amaze.

Anyway, this is, in short, a very worthwhile project, and the individual reviews are well worth reading. And it’s also huge fun.

I quote Killgrove’s conclusion, and links:

For more on pseudoarchaeology books, you can read the American Antiquity book reviews here, or check out the fantastic blog by Jason Colavito, the “skeptical xenoarchaeologist.” And if you want to take a class in pseudoarchaeology, Ethan Watrall has put his fall 2015 Michigan State University course online, with all course material freely available to anyone who’s interested.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    Just one gentle word of caution, though. Even at this late date, we should not rule out the possibility that there might still be a few things out there that scientists have not yet discovered. There may yet be a few creatures out there that have not yet been properly cataloged and documented and studied. There may yet be a few rare and short-lived phenomena that have not yet been observed and documented by trained scientists. Most claims of such things might indeed be from the merely misinformed or ignorant, or the product of the deluded or of cranks or crackpots or worse. However, do not totally discount the possibility that even now there may still be a few odd things out there waiting to be discovered. It is possible that untrained laypeople have actually caught a glimpse of such things. Until a trained scientist happens to be a the right place at the right time, such sighting reports will remain enigmatic.

  • philipjenkins

    Your argument is well taken, particularly in the case of cryptozoology. There are quite credible people who hold that supposedly extinct animals might still exist, particularly some of the Australian examples like the Thylacine.
    I hope they’re right!