Pop pseudo-archaeology – Why we should speak out

Commentator and link contributor to DN, Jeb Card, has an article out on what the public thinks about archaeology, co-authored with David S. Anderson and Kenneth L. Feder. For a long time (too long?) the professional reaction to pseudoscience has been no reaction at all. Is it time to change that? Archaeologists are responsible for how they represent the human past. That means calling out irresponsibility.

The SAA Archaeological Record – March 2013, Volume 13, Number 2 : Speaking Up And Speaking Out: Collective Efforts In The Fight To Reclaim The Public Perception Of Archaeology.

All three of the authors of the current paper have had multiple variations on this experience, and we suspect most SAA members can relate. We have been asked about Atlantis, the Pyramids, how the Mayas and Aztecs of South America (yes, we know) built their sewer systems, about the six-fingered aliens who gave the Maya a base-twelve number system (yes, again, we know), crystal skulls, and many, many other topics. Over the years, we have become increasingly interested in the attitudes of the people who ask these questions and how professional archaeologists should respond to these somewhat unorthodox claims. In our experience, the majority of people who ask these questions are not idle time wasters, nor are they typically out to proclaim a strongly held personal belief, but rather quite the opposite. These questions are often asked in an excited and happy manner. (The mocking questions usually involve Indiana Jones, or one’s state of employment.)The motive here is typically one of real, often pent-up, curiosity. That motorist in Louisiana had it, and we’ve seen it time and again from airplane passengers, college students, dinner party guests, bar patrons, taxi drivers, and even colleagues in universities and museums. With an archaeologist present, they finally have someone whom they can ask about the archaeology special that aired on cable television last month.

Speaking of the public perception of archaeology… Dr. Melba Ketchum is interested in testing the DNA on the Shroud of Turin.
Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 12.03.49 PM

If you check out her page on Facebook, you can find her testing the DNA from cremated remains and from the elongated skulls of Central America. Also, there are several Bible references there. Thus concludes your Ketchum update.

Is a reaction to nonsense needed? Yes. Hence – Doubtful News exists. The public is VERY INTERESTED in this subjects and in the “mysteries” that are presented in the media. They expect scientists to address them. If actual scientists don’t do a good job with this, and just ignore it, there are MANY others who will step in and garner the public’s attention. Some may even be convincing in feeding a warped worldview. Not good. Speak out. Your opinion matters. Fair critique is an important part of skeptical activism.

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  21 comments for “Pop pseudo-archaeology – Why we should speak out

  1. March 30, 2013 at 12:45 PM

    Interesting to see the ‘select bibliography’ presented in that article: plenty of ‘skeptic’ books, but not ONE book written by ‘the other side’ –the Hancocks & Bauvals ‘misinforming’ the public.

    You’d think that in a service of fairness, the author would at least bother to see what the ‘pseudo-archeologists’ have to say, instead of relying exclusively in the way skeptics have portrayed them –such certainty that they don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute seems… unscientific;)

  2. March 30, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    I honestly thought Melba Ketchum had painted herself into such a corner that she couldn’t be less credible, but with one amazing bound…

  3. One Eyed Jack
    March 30, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    ” Dr. Melba Ketchum is interested in testing the DNA on the Shroud of Turin.”

    And she would compare this DNA to what?

  4. One Eyed Jack
    March 30, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    RPJ,

    I agree. Next time you take your car to a mechanic, make sure they consult with the guy/gal that works the counter at your local. 7-11… after all, they both work in the automotive industry.

  5. Gary
    March 30, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    Here is a great site for info on pseudo archaeology.
    http://badarchaeology.wordpress.com/

  6. March 30, 2013 at 1:28 PM

    What did the DNA of paint look like back then? Hmmm. Ketchum is like the Paula Dean of bad science.

    • March 30, 2013 at 6:08 PM

      Travis: I thought the EXACT same thing but didn’t say that. Actually, she might find pollen and spores or people contamination. “Paula Dean” – haha.

  7. spookyparadigm
    March 30, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    RPJ, our bibliography was several pages long, SAA Archaeological Record asked us to cut it due to the nature of the publication (as noted), and I honestly don’t remember how we made the selection. But as to your complaint, you make it sound like we aren’t familiar with such sources. I have an entire bookcase in my office dedicated to such, never mind electronic resources. Just a quick glance notes three of Hancock’s books on it, I know have one or two more lying about, never mind the far more interesting older things (Hancock is more or less a synthesizer and popularizer of older and more obscure ideas for the most part; I was thrilled to run across Wilkins’ Mysteries of Ancient South America last year, and I’ve zealously guarded my George Hunt Williamson Road in the Sky for some time, again just looking over to the bookcase on my right).

    I’ve been meaning to make a comment on Sharon’s recent “mean skeptics” follow up post for Sounds Sciencey, and this is as good a place as any. Paranormal and alternative speculators (don’t really know what else to call them, they aren’t working at the level of theory, and most of the time they aren’t doing serious research and/or hypothesis testing, much of it is back of the envelope speculation, and much of it is often an offshoot directly or indirectly, from deeper religious or mystical roots) love to hate on skeptics, as sort of a way of establishing community and credibility. But you know what skeptics are? They are people who will actually look at what you’re saying and address it. Many are not scientists or professional scholars, though some are.

    They’re the people actually interested enough to look. Most scholars and scientists are even more dismissive than the skeptics, otherwise they’d actually be talking about this stuff. It’s a bit of a professional risk even to address this stuff skeptically, as weird as that may sound to you.

    So by all means, keep complaining about the skeptics, and maybe the supposed desire held by some (something I am very skeptical of) that this stuff will get taken seriously by more scientists might come true. I just don’t think many paranormalists will like it all that much if it does, ala the old “Be careful what you wish for” mantra. For example, see the geneticists a month or so ago, unable to help themselves from laughing when they actually did read Ketchum’s paper and discussed it. Skeptics are the ones who will routinely give such ideas the time of day enough to take them apart. That’s more sympathetic than most professionals, who won’t even waste their time.

  8. RDW
    March 30, 2013 at 4:38 PM

    RPJ, I require evidence. Your suspicions are not evidence. If I were to tell you the world would end tomorrow, would you merely accept my word ??

    • March 31, 2013 at 5:04 PM

      @RDW: What evidence am I exactly supposed to provide in this instance? the bibliography in the aforementioned article is clear as day, and it didn’t provide any references to actual ‘pseudo-archeology’ books. Thus my complaint was I think, fully justified.

      No, I wouldn’t take you on your word if you told me the world is gonna end tomorrow –if you dressed the part of the loonie prophet though (ragged clothes, wild-eyed stare, big sandwich board, etc) I would however politely nod while carefully stepping away ;)

    • March 31, 2013 at 5:25 PM

      @spooky paradigm:

      >”But as to your complaint, you make it sound like we aren’t familiar with such sources”

      You’ll have to excuse me, since I’m no psychic (He!) and thus I wouldn’t be able to tell how many or how little books written by Hancock et al adorn your private library. But the complaint remains: the reference bibliography provided in your article lacked –for whatever reasons– any mentions to actual books that are deemed –again, for whatever reasons– ‘pseudo-archeology’, thus giving the impression of partiality on the authors.

      In any case, this is a common problem on both sides of the camp: true believers only reference the books that agree with their personal belief system, and skeptics are all too comfortable by subscribing to the conclusions of their peers as offered on skeptically-oriented books. That’s why when a skeptic mentions a famous case or event, he or she will more often than not cite skeptic books as a way to explain why said case has ‘already been debunked.’

      >”I’ve been meaning to make a comment on Sharon’s recent “mean skeptics” follow up post for Sounds Sciencey, and this is as good a place as any. Paranormal and alternative speculators (don’t really know what else to call them, they aren’t working at the level of theory, and most of the time they aren’t doing serious research and/or hypothesis testing, much of it is back of the envelope speculation, and much of it is often an offshoot directly or indirectly, from deeper religious or mystical roots) love to hate on skeptics, as sort of a way of establishing community and credibility”

      Tsk tsk aren’t you in danger on falling on the gross generalizations that have been the reason of many complaints in past discussions?

      >”Many are not scientists or professional scholars, though some are.”

      Same could be said about some folks on the ‘believing’ side of the camp. In any case, shouldn’t we then agree that titles and degrees are unimportant when it comes to supporting an argument?

      >”They’re the people actually interested enough to look. Most scholars and scientists are even more dismissive than the skeptics, otherwise they’d actually be talking about this stuff. It’s a bit of a professional risk even to address this stuff skeptically, as weird as that may sound to you.”

      No, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. It’s I think one of the sad consequences of the way the modern skeptic movement took shape into a sort of secular inquisition of dangerous ideas.

      Or, if you prefer, a consequence of the modern skeptic/believer dialectic, in which the culture wars have devolved into yelling contests –with fault to be found on both sides.

      >”So by all means, keep complaining about the skeptics, and maybe the supposed desire held by some (something I am very skeptical of) that this stuff will get taken seriously by more scientists might come true”

      Now it’s YOUR time to be surprised, but to be honest I don’t complain that much about skeptics & debunkers. At worst they are a mild annoyance, and at best –when you find a truly intelligent individual, who politely disagrees with your point of view– they can be a great tool for self reflection, to seriously question why you believe what you believe in.

      >”For example, see the geneticists a month or so ago, unable to help themselves from laughing when they actually did read Ketchum’s paper and discussed it. Skeptics are the ones who will routinely give such ideas the time of day enough to take them apart. That’s more sympathetic than most professionals, who won’t even waste their time.”

      And perhaps both fields should change their attitude. I mean, wasn’t that the point in your article to begin with? ;)

      Saludos,

      Miguel

  9. Graham
    March 30, 2013 at 5:53 PM

    Another good site on pseudo-archaeology is the blog of Jason Colavito, who has been taking on the nonsense served up by the History Channel (“Where the truth is history”, South Park).

    http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog.html

  10. Gary
    March 30, 2013 at 6:43 PM

    Thanks, Graham, that’s a good link. It also shows why so many professionals avoid diving into exposing pseudo-archaeology; they end up being called names and spending a lot of time arguing around in circles.

  11. daran
    March 30, 2013 at 7:36 PM

    A scientific study of the shroud

    No pigments, paints, dyes or stains have been found on the fibrils. X-ray, fluorescence and microchemistry on the fibrils preclude the possibility of paint being used as a method for creating the image. Ultra Violet and infrared evaluation confirm these studies. Computer image enhancement and analysis by a device known as a VP-8 image analyzer show that the image has unique, three-dimensional information encoded in it. Microchemical evaluation has indicated no evidence of any spices, oils, or any biochemicals known to be produced by the body in life or in death.

    http://www.shroud.com/78conclu.htm

  12. Gary
    March 30, 2013 at 9:23 PM

    From Wikipedia:
    Another hypothesis suggests that the Shroud may have been formed using a bas-relief sculpture. Researcher Jacques di Costanzo, noting that the Shroud image seems to have a three-dimensional quality, suggested that perhaps the image was formed using an actual three-dimensional object, such as a sculpture. While wrapping a cloth around a life-sized statue would result in a distorted image, placing a cloth over a bas-relief would result in an image like the one seen on the shroud. To demonstrate the plausibility of his hypothesis, Costanzo constructed a bas-relief of a Jesus-like face and draped wet linen over the bas-relief. After the linen dried, he dabbed it with a mixture of ferric oxide and gelatine. The result was an image similar to that of the Shroud. The imprinted image turned out to be wash-resistant, impervious to temperatures of 250 °C (482 °F) and was undamaged by exposure to a range of harsh chemicals, including bisulphite which, without the help of the gelatine, would normally have degraded ferric oxide to the compound ferrous oxide.[152] Similar results have been obtained by former stage magician and author Joe Nickell. Instead of painting, the bas-relief could also be heated and used to burn an image into the cloth.

  13. Chris Howard
    March 31, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    As a professional chef I could completely believe that Paula Dean was the returned Christ… Bobby Flay, however, is the Anti-Christ. :-D

  14. Chris Howard
    March 31, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    This had always puzzled me, and maybe it’s because I don’t have a great working knowledge of DNA testing procedures, but here goes… Arguing that the shroud is genuinely a funerary shroud, and there is human blood on it, how do we know that that blood is the blood of Jesus, the Christ? Do we have another sample of his DNA to compare it to?

  15. One Eyed Jack
    March 31, 2013 at 4:35 PM

    Don’t hate on Bobby Flay. At least he knows how to cook something that doesn’t begin with, “First we melt a pound of butter…”

  16. March 31, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Although, couldn’t you test the DNA, if it’s there to be tested, and get results that it came from a person from Jesus’ time and ethnic backround and not some Caucasian from the Middle Ages? Interesting result either way.

  17. spookyparadigm
    March 31, 2013 at 8:49 PM

    The article is about the archaeological response to these topics, not about the topics themselves. It’s mostly a followup to the symposium we organized at the annual meetings of the Society of American Archaeology in 2012, where the topic was primarily how archaeologists should respond. As you might note by reading it instead of seeing whether the bibliography is Fair and Balanced, it also largely a description of some of the research and or suggestions presented at the conference. I just went and looked at the full one biblio, it’s not Fair and Balanced, because that’s not the point of the article. Some of the other papers in the session did in fact examine claims, but that’s not the point of the SAA Record piece.

    More importantly, why would that even make sense? What would be the point of citing Hancock unless I’m actually talking about Hancock’s claims, for example, specifically? There are a few examples of that in the article, but they’re mostly throwaway lines. In one case, the Mitchell-Hedges skull, we did include two references, one to Garvin’s book written for the family, and one on Walsh’s analysis of tooling marks on crystal skulls and on the historical record showing the claims regarding the discovery of the Mitchell-Hedges skull to be wrong (namely evidence of its purchase at auction, rather than the claim of a discovery at Lubantuun).

    Instead, one of the aims was to mention a number of approaches archaeologists have already taken, to survey what has been done, and what might work.

    As for the “your” with complaining about skeptics, that was part of the larger secondary message of my post, referring to her ongoing “mean skeptics” writing, which as I know you are aware, stems from friction Sharon has had with a few paranormalists (if you run a press or an internet video/television series, is paranormal entrepreneur appropriate?) who suggest skeptics should cure cancer, and leave the ghost hunters alone because they’re just having fun. Yet at the same time, there are complaints (such as here) that paranormal or alternative claims or concepts aren’t taken seriously. Which is it? Are “you” just legend tripping around in the woods whispering “what was that!?” (especially if you can then get a tv show out of it), are “you” attempting to cut the feet out from under science ala Charles Fort by using poorly reported second-hand sources, or are “you” plumbing the mysteries of the universe despite professional snobbery and quiet conspiracy on the part of the elite academics in the pay of the Man? I don’t care about any particular beef, but I think it is a legitimate question, if for no other reason because it does dictate professional responses.

    Trust me, I’ll make sure to include some citations of “the other side” when this project becomes a longer-form work. :D

  18. spookyparadigm
    March 31, 2013 at 9:16 PM

    “It’s I think one of the sad consequences of the way the modern skeptic movement took shape into a sort of secular inquisition of dangerous ideas.

    Or, if you prefer, a consequence of the modern skeptic/believer dialectic, in which the culture wars have devolved into yelling contests –with fault to be found on both sides.”

    Not really. Perhaps the second one, as any professional who addresses this stuff will end up being challenged to “debates” and such or hectored in correspondence (something long predating the internet, see the British term green ink letters).

    But it it is mostly that even tangential association with woo ideas is bad enough, even if you are pointing out the problems with them. It’s considered a waste of time (as the green ink letters won’t stop, and the ideas won’t go away if you show them to be wrong, though they may change some), and not theoretically interesting.

    I would also argue that while actual study of paranormal communities and believers suggest they come from all walks of life and in fact are usually better educated than the average (in America), there is a distinct classism one can sometimes find in professional academic responses to paranormal believers and claims, that such are a bit guache. This was one of the issues that initially drove me over a decade ago to really start looking into the nature of alternative methods of knowledge production, as I did wonder if they could be seen as scientific heresies, that even if they weren’t correct, they were neglected or shunned offshoots of science. But my sympathy waned. Not because of gentle upbraiding by colleagues or mentors (which did occur). But because I did read the sources, the great secondary literature of occulture to steal a phrase from Justin Woodman (I feel most at home with ufology and alternative archaeology, with some confidence only regarding cryptozoology. I do not feel comfortable speaking much beyond being a layman, about any of the topics connecting to parapsychology in any sense).

    For myself at least, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that this model is not correct, and that while there are some examples that branch off of science, most are instead rehashed versions of older mystical ideas from primarily Western religious or spiritual/”occult” backgrounds, punctuated by seizing upon honest but non-material experiences in some cases, the ravings of the mentally ill in others (I think only a minority of reports of strange experiences fall into this category, but they have an outsized effect on the developing lore of strange fields, especially when there is someone more than willing to exploit these ravings. How much of ufology can be traced through a handful of authors or publishers all too willing to revise and reprint, say, messages emanating from welding equipment, or scribbled into the margins of a book?), and outright falsehoods or hoaxes.

    Given how much of the public engagement with archaeology involves such topics, we don’t think the professional community has a choice but to address them. I now make sure that every course I teach where it is remotely appropriate, pseudoarchaeological topics are discussed and are examined by students (I have my students work in as part of either Team Ancient Aliens or Team Atlantis, and come up with what they’d expect would be the archaeological or other detectable signature of either scenario, and to try and think of ways to poke holes in the other team’s topic). I did a round of 2012 talks last year as my expertise is in Mesoamerica. And I’m working up projects along these lines, including something based off a professional presentation I gave last year on why archaeology has such a spooky image, including looking at a number of reasons archaeologists are themselves to blame, while other reasons seem to be near universal aspects of human engagement with material remnants of the past.

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