Total Drek

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Monday, July 12, 2004

There are many subtle levels of insanity. Most of them, however, can be found in this blog.

I have a certain affection for insanity. No, really, I'm serious, I find unusual or aberrant ways of thinking to be highly interesting. Perhaps this explains my interest in social science generally, or my interest in psychology in particular. Whatever it is, I often find myself taking the time to investigate particular bizarre notions or belief systems that come to my attention. So, as an ongoing feature here at Total Drek we'll be taking a look at some of these belief systems and discussing why they are, or are not, reasonable. At some point, I may even speculate on why such systems continue to exist despite very real problems. You should expect a great deal of profanity when we get around to that.

In some cases, these belief systems may be organized into an extremely coherent form. An example of this type might be the work of Graham Hancock, whose writings include quite a few topics. By "quite a few" of course, I mean, "He has two topics, one of which he's been harping on almost exclusively." First, there is The Sign and the Seal, which regrettably is not about marine mammals and is about the mythical Ark of the Covenant, which Hancock claims to have traced to a modern monastery. Then there is Hancock's magnum opus, Fingerprints of the Gods, which argues that Antarctica once played host to an ancient super-civilization whose learning equals or exceeds that of the modern West. Perhaps most fascinating about this book, Hancock somehow manages to use rather iffy sources with a straight face. Sources like Zecharia Sitchin, who argues that Humans are the result of genetic engineering projects conducted by aliens living on an undiscovered planet in our solar system, Immanuel Velikovski, who applied psychoanalytic techniques to human myths (Yes, you read that right. He psychoanalyzed myths) and used the results to argue that biblical tales can be accounted for through massive changes in the solar system (And when I say massive, keep in mind that Velikovski argued that Venus is actually the leftover core of a comet vomitted out by Jupiter in the recent past. That we have never observed Jupiter vomit anything out, much less a planet-sized comet is, apparently, not an issue), and Charles Hapgood, who more or less is the progenitor of a variant of plate tectonics called "crustal displacement" in which the entire crust of the Earth moves suddenly as a unit. Hancock, of course, continued his lost civilization jag with Underworld, in which he more or less argues that "Ok, last time, I got it wrong, but THIS time, there IS a lost civilization and, ok, maybe it isn't on Antarctica, but it's really HERE. REALLY!!!" I could keep going but, suffice to say, the lost civilization idea has become Hancock's bread and butter.

Unfortunately for Hancock's readers, his "evidence" for the lost civilization is sketchy, at best. In some cases, it is entirely absent or is a misstatement of other work. One example from Fingerprints of the Gods, the 1995 edition, involves Hancock claiming that Peter H. Schultz has discovered evidence for Charles Hapgood's crustal displacement on Mars and that, therefore, crustal displacement is a plausible mechanism on Earth. Well, knowing a little about Mars I was somewhat surprised by this, seeing as Mars is now, and has been for some time, geologically dead. So, I looked up the reference (and by reference I mean "Hancock mentioned it was in the December 1985 issue of Scientific American but neglected to put a proper citation in his bibliography") and read the article. The author (Schultz) asserts that crustal displacement did take place on Mars, but only after the planet had cooled enough that the lithosphere had fused into one solid piece. This mechanism, thus, allows for the redistribution of mass in a planet that LACKS the more efficient mechanism of plate tectonics. Since the Earth is geologically active, as anyone who lives in the so-called "circle of fire" can attest to, crustal displacement is extremely unlikely to occur here. The article Hancock uses to justify his use of crustal displacement theory is, therefore, actually a refutation of it in a terrestrial case. Of course, Hancock only cites the portions of the article that seem to support his case. One is left to wonder if Hancock is either so utterly stupid that he didn't understand Schulz's article (Or, even worse, too stupid to have someone who DID understand explain it to him) or was simply so confident of his readers' complacency that he was willing to perpetrate an outright fraud. So, which is it, Graham? Fucktard or lying-sack-of-shit? I'm willing to entertain either notion.

Aside from the hidden, but present, misstatements of facts in Hancock's books, there are also numerous logical fallacies. One of my favorites can be found in pages 18 and 19 (Yeah, pretty early in the book. I actually started laughing when I found this one) and have to do with Hancock's central evidence for suspecting Antarctica was ice-free and inhabited. He reports on a series of maps, including the Piri Reis map, Oronteus Finaeus map, and Buache map, that purportedly show the landform of Antarctica as it would appear beneath the ice. Moreover, these maps were supposedly drawn before Antarctica had been mapped, or even discovered, by modern science suggesting that, perhaps, some earlier civilization had mapped the continent before its glaciation. Now, leaving aside a number of well-written and thoughtful criticisms of these maps, and Hancock's interpretations of them, we are left with Hancock's argument on pages 18 and 19. He, after describing these maps, writes that:
The big problem raised by the Buache/IGY evidence is that those landmasses [Antarctica and parts of South America] do seem to have been mapped when they were free of ice. This confronts scholars with two mutually contradictory propositions.

Which one is correct?

If we are to go along with orthodox geologists and accept that millions of years have indeed elapsed since Antarctica was last completely free of ice, then all the evidence of human evolution, painstakingly accumulated by distinguished scientists from Darwin on, must be wrong. It seems inconceivable that this could be the case....

Are we therefore to assume the intervention of alien cartographers in orbiting spaceships to explain the existence of sophisticated maps of an ice-free Antarctica? Or shall we think again about the implications of Hapgood's theory of earth-crust displacement which allows the southern continent to have been in the ice-free condition depicted by Buache as little as 15,000 years ago?


Or, perhaps, should we wonder if maybe Piri Reis, Buache, and Oronteus Finaeus just got lucky, unlike the literally hundreds of others maps drawn of the world that do NOT include Antarctica? Perhaps I lack imagination, but doubting the veracity of a handful of maps seems more parsimonious than tearing down the entire structure of modern geology or evolutionary biology. Yet, Hancock fails to suggest this likely solution, preferring instead to depict the problem as a conflict between geology and biology with the maps reserved as unquestionable evidence.

I could go on criticizing Hancock's work, (indeed, I particularly enjoy moments when he views ancient ruins and reports that he "feels as though they could have been built much earlier than orthodox history indicates." Well, I feel that the Eiffel tower could have been constructed by an army of flying monkeys. Graham, I don't give a flying fuck at a rolling donut what you feel. Show me the damn evidence, or shut the hell up) but it's largely unnecessary. Others have already produced useful critiques of Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods as well as various articles challenging Hancock's later equivocation, embodied in some additional fine criticisms of Underworld.

In sum, then, Hancock's theories appear to be chock full of exciting possibilites that are consistently betrayed by his lousy, deceptive scholarship. Nevertheless, his books are well-written and engaging, which no doubt explains their considerable success and Hancock's apparent success in writing them. It is, perhaps, easy to understand then why Hancock continues to advance such theories. Perhaps any standard of reasonable science would contradict his conclusions, but so long as these books continue to sell well, there is a reason to keep writing them. I find it easy to understand Hancock's motivations in this area. One, then, must turn to his readers and ask why they are so willing to accept what he has to say.

Well, first and foremost, it sounds good. Hancock tells a rousing tale and succeeds in breathing life into the idea of a lost period of greatness for mankind. Such ideas have an alluring sort of romance to them, and it is easy to see how readers might want to believe them. Hancock also skillfully bends logic to his will, as in the fallacious argument above, and carefully constructs his argument using partial truths and outright misstatement where necessary. This provides a layer of apparent evidence that conceals the intellectual vacuousness beneath. For the majority of people, who are not trained in the logic of argument that scientists take for granted, such tactics can prove highly effective. Indeed, even scientists may fall victim to these sorts of fables, particularly if their areas of expertise are other than geology, physics or history. My own introduction to Hancock was a result of contact with one such scientist.

Finally, Hancock takes advantage of two parallel tendencies in modern society. The first is the wide acceptance of science as an authority on many matters. Hancock's work uses the style of argument associated with science, full of evidence and data, as well as the writings of "experts" (I, unlike Hancock, have difficulty referring to Velikovski as an expert while keeping a straight face), to convince the reader. Arthur C. Clarke argued that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This is referred to as "Clarke's Law" and it has an application here. To the extent that the average reader does not understand the scientific method, or have a background in basic science, they will regard the products of scientific inquiry as akin to a form of magic. This makes it more likely that they will accept anything that dresses itself in the cloth of science as truth, based purely on faith. The second tendency is embodied in the anti-scientific movement that we see grumbling at the fringes of society. Alternative medecine, herbal remedies, new age philosophy, and a variety of other beliefs cast themselves as opponents of an arrogant, distant, disconnected scientific community that would rather obscure truth and win factional contests than vice versa. Such an anti-scientific stance has even infected science itself, as Brayden describes, though it has by no means triumphed. To the extent that the average person doesn't understand science, it may appear as a foreign, hostile, disinterested, but powerful, force in their life. Such a thing can only seem threatening. So should we be surprised that a man who argues that scientists are wrong about our history, and that it's actually more magnificent than commonly claimed, is so well received? It's a classic underdog story, the handful of revolutionaries who found the truth despite the oppression of the scientific community, and we should take its popularity seriously.

What does all this mean to me? Well, it suggests that despite the very real reasons to pursue professionalism in the sciences, as so well argued by Jeremy Freese in regards to sociology, we need to make sure that our findings are being communicated to the public at large. Does this mean that we should craft a truly "public sociology"? Sweet fucking christ NO! We're not circus performers, people, (though I'm fairly sure they have better dental plans) and most of what we do seems excruciatingly dull and esoteric to people who aren't working on it. Besides, highly professionalized disciplines (such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) have made substantial contributions to the world. It isn't the degree to which the practitioners are public of professionalized, but the degree to which the results of their investigations become public, that matters. What we need to do is remember that just because science is something that makes sense to us, doesn't mean it makes sense to everyone. The very detachment that allows us to do our jobs as scientists, the insulation from regular life that allows us to be effective, may at times be counter-productive by making us appear dininterested and unconcerned with the problems of ordinary people. If you're a scientist you probably believe that your work will help improve people's lives, there's even a good chance you got into science with the hope of helping people. I tend to feel that way too- it's just important to make sure that other people understand that about us.

Whew! Way too much bullshit philosophizing at the end there, but at least I covered it with a vague, pretty much useless policy prescription. Don't we all feel better because we're "remembering that science doesn't make sense to everyone"? I know I do!

So, tune in for our next bizarre ideas day on Total Drek when we ask, "Does God play billiards with the solar system? And, if so, what does it mean if he scratches?"

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