I have to admit; archaeological hoaxes, frauds, and general conspiracy theories are something of a fascination of mine. I was first introduced to the subject academically via Kenneth Feder’s Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries during my junior year of college, and it’s a book I highly recommend, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the anthropological community’s take on a wide variety of pseudo-scientific subjects.
From circus acts and traveling side shows to desperate nationalism and religious wishful thinking, I continue to be intrigued not only by the methods, but the madness. Our preference for the fantastic speaks to something spurious about us, not to mention the particular nature of the fallacies we come up with. Some of my personal favorites are the Cardiff Giant (the petrified man of Cardiff, New York 1869) and the myths of missing continents (read: Atlantis, and its modern descendant, Ancient Aliens). However, regardless of my feelings about the actual subject matter, I think pseudo-science in general provokes some interesting questions. Two in particular come to mind: When it comes to archaeological hoaxes, how do we know what we know (epistemology) and what is ultimately the motivation that leads to the proliferation of pseudo-scientific theories?
Being a fan of science fiction, I can understand it to a degree. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where ancient peoples constructed spaceships and lasers, where aliens from another world taught men the secrets of the stars, and where lost rituals and incantations could cure every disease known to man? But as a deeply curious person, I have to ask, isn’t the truth of things worth more than a self-serving illusion? Isn’t a real mystery all that more fascinating for resisting explanation in a dreadfully realistic world?
This isn’t the first time someone has asked questions like these. In fact, blogs and diaries of full of exactly that frustration. Unfortunately, the short answer to both is “no.” I many cases, illusion is far preferable to reality and real mystery is not nearly capable of overcoming the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
It’s not that I am opposed to creativity, imagination, and good story-telling, quite the opposite in fact. But when it comes to the understanding of the world we live in, I agree with Feder when he states that ‘the leap of faith one must take to believe in fantastic things is certainly a greater leap than one must take in order to assume that the people present were the people responsible’ (paraphrase).
I’m not sure when we decided that scientists and academics were our cultural and intellectual enemies but I have a suspicion that this is not the first time we’ve set up this false dichotomy. Knowledge is power, as they say, and a lot of it tends to be in the hands of those who typically avoid politics.
But I worry most about the inherent racism involved in theories that espouse anything akin to, “It couldn’t have been these people, it must have been others” who did whatever thing it is they find so fascinating (Us vs. Them at its finest perhaps). And I worry about the willful ignorance rooted in other theories involving everything from evolution to human prehistory (See Piltdown Man, Mound builders, and the “real” discoverers of America). It has become far more important in this day and age for the facts to fit the knowledge, rather than the knowledge to fit the facts.
Part of this has to do with identity politics (i.e., that identity and the politicization of identity is a legitimate path to power). Some of it has to do with the waning power of institutional religious authority (and its attempt to regain it). Some of it has to do with personal fears of inadequacy and inferiority (“Experts don’t know what I know!! My knowledge makes me special!”) and some of it is just plain old racism and misogyny lovingly wrapped up in a new glittery paper. And perhaps even less acknowledged is that some of it is the result of STEM fields on a pedestal. Far too many STEM practitioners have made the mistake of assuming that empirical science is a kind of direct access to an objective reality and that, therefore, those who are “smart” in STEM are “smart” in everything else. At some point, I will even explain further how this has partially driven the rise of the Alt-Right (the computer science major who is convinced that an ability to code translates to ultimate knowledge of social processes and theory). Just don’t get me started on Richard Dawkins again.
Part of studying the past is figuring out where we’ve been and from there, where we might be going. If we’ve done something once, odds are, we’ve done it a hundred times since (“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”, as Seneca says – though I prefer, “History: The Gift That Keeps on Giving”). If anthropology and archaeology leave us with only one educational legacy, I hope that legacy is one of remembrance. The world is forgetting us, bit by bit, so let us not forget ourselves. And more importantly, let’s once again raise up the vanguard and face the world of pseudo-science head-on. What was once a hobby must now become the profession.