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Alternative ways of looking at the world

Bad Archaeology belongs to a special area of discourse generally referred to as pseudoscience. There are numerous ways of spotting whether a text you are reading is a product of pseudoscience, which can be distilled into a few simple rules. Many of the logical fallacies in the Glossary section of this website are helpful in identifying pseudoscience.

Telling the difference between science and pseudoscience

Before learning how to spot pseudoscientific reasoning, it is necessary to know how to recognise good science. All sciences, whether ‘hard’ (such as physics and chemistry), ‘social’ (such as psychology or anthropology) or ‘humanistic’ (such as archaeology) work in similar ways, keeping to broadly similar principles. ‘Science’, as understood by scientists and philosophers, is not a body of knowledge but a way of thinking following accepted rules. These rules involve logic and an honesty to express doubt about observations and explanations. Good science does not pretend to have the answer to everything, nor does it pretend to find single, over-arching explanations for complex phenomena. Human phenomena – the data of archaeology – are complex to the point of being almost chaotic. Bad science happens when scientists make errors for a number of reasons. They may make genuine mistakes (after all, they are human), but sometimes they can be wilfully blind to contradictory data or hypotheses. They may even distort their data by selecting only those data that confirm their hypotheses.

What is pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience is different. Pseudoscientists use the outer trappings of science – technical language, impressive sounding equipment and a parade of qualifications – to hide ideas that are not based on scientific thinking. They rarely use data that can be checked independently; rather they quote impressive-sounding authorities or unreferenced studies. They favour traditional explanations, especially folklore, legends and mythology. They almost never publish in accepted scientific media – journals or books by academic publishers – but often present their ideas first in the press, on television or, increasingly, on the web. They tend to claim that their particular hypothesis explains away a whole suite of mysteries, real or presumed; this prevents them from admitting that their hypothesis may be incomplete or that there is anything they do not know. They often claim that there is a conspiracy by orthodox scientists to discredit their work, either by outright debunking or by ignoring them. Much of the debunking is then claimed to be unfair or to distort their original arguments. The data are often controversial or have not been published in a conventional manner. They will not seek evidence that would undermine their hypotheses, unlike a real scientist, who uses it to test their robustness, nor will they use new evidence to modify their hypotheses, only to extend it. The pseudoscientist tends to work alone, not as part of a team and never as a member of an established academic department. Their hypotheses may also require an appeal to hitherto unknown forces or cultures.

Archaeology and pseudoscience

When it comes to archaeology, the signs of pseudoscience are often very easy to spot. Most archaeologists present the results of their first-hand fieldwork as part of their research. This is often a springboard for developing wider ideas. Fringe authors may visit sites so that they can be photographed sitting atop the Great Pyramid or being dwarfed by the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, but they are essentially tourists. The data they use to back up their ideas comes not so much from first-hand experience or observation (and indeed, few of them boast any archaeological experience or qualifications), but often from secondary reports. Such reports are generally poorly documented (although some authors have begun to use extensive footnotes, as if this confers an air of academic authority); where documentation is provided, it is almost universally to secondary sources, those not of academic character (such as newspaper or popular magazine articles) or, more rarely, to publications written many years ago. Often, they are content to pile up lists of supposedly inexplicable anomalies without setting them into any sort of context or providing an alternative explanation for them. In this way, they build up the view that academic orthodoxy has got it all wrong, although the fringe authors themselves do not need to show how data that does not appear anomalous fits into their alternative model. Indeed, they do not seem concerned to understand the societies that produced the anomalies: they are providing on the one hand a major overview of a new theory, yet on the other, sticking with details as their data set. The details themselves are often obscure, nit-picking and of dubious evidential value.

Moreover, the allegedly radical new ideas these authors promote rarely turn out to be new at all. Often, fringe authors use ideas that were current in the nineteenth century and go on to claim that they are uncovering old evidence that has long been suppressed by an academic establishment keen to maintain its orthodoxy. Occasionally, they will hint at the existence of a conspiracy that seeks to prevent the public from learning dangerous truths. The existence of this conspiracy is supposed to be known to academia in general, although most fringe writers seem confused about whether it operates explicitly at all levels, from top ranking professors down to junior lecturers, or whether only those at the top are ‘in the know’. In this latter scenario, the conspiracy works by refusing to acknowledge the work of those who challenge orthodoxy, either by the editorial policies of journals or by refusing research funding for ‘dangerous’ projects.

The fringe literature concentrates not on the usual details of archaeology – the potsherds, animal bones and domestic structures – but on unusual and spectacular sites. A favourite is the pyramid, a monument found principally in Egypt and in Mexico, but with examples elsewhere that have been labelled ‘pyramids’, generally by fringe writers. The geometric form of the monument is all that is usually considered, the probable social context of its use is irrelevant. Whilst we may read much about the unusual features of the Great Pyramid at Giza, we almost never hear about the temples, satellite pyramids and mastaba tombs with which it is associated. Likewise, we are rarely given contextual information about Central American pyramids and the functions they performed in the societies that built them. Moreover, the huge gulf in time between Egyptian and American pyramids is usually ignored or, if it is mentioned, suggestions are made that the archaeological dating is somehow wrong. It is often claimed that the Mexican pyramids are actually much older than conventional wisdom would allow.

The data marshalled by the Bad Archaeologist is hugely eclectic in both time and space. Rather than concentrating on anomalies of, say, the seventh millennium BCE in Western Europe, fringe writers will leap between cultures widely separated in time and space. In many ways, this is because so many fringe writers posit a world-wide culture (or an extraterrestrial culture) that was responsible for (or at least influenced) the creation of these archaeological remains. At its worst, this technique will produce meaningless lists of sites and finds, often with no apparent relevance to the argument.

Another feature of Bad Archaeology is that its practitioners sometimes claim direct revelation of knowledge, through channelling, through dowsing and even through direct contact with aliens. This fits well with many New Age beliefs, which often claim that the scientific method is outmoded and incapable of revealing important spiritual truths. Myths are interpreted as stores of spiritual wisdom, rather than as the mundane collections of knowledge useful in the context of a particular society at a particular moment in time.

There is also an underlying racist element to much Bad Archaeological thought: many modern Easter Islanders, Bronze Age Egyptians or whoever do not enjoy the benefits of modern western technology and are therefore regarded as ‘primitive’. As societies evolve – according to these views – it is difficult to explain how the ancestors of these modern peoples were more ‘advanced’, so it is necessary to find superior outsiders who built their impressive monuments. This was explicitly the case with the Southern Rhodesian government’s view of who built Great Zimbabwe: as a white supremacist government, it was officially impossible to allow the local ‘barbarians’ a claim in the monument, so it must have been built by medieval Arab traders, the Queen of Sheba, Phoenician explorers – in short, anyone other than the local population. With Bad Archaeologists, the matter of choosing the ‘superior’ culture is a matter of which particular view is being pushed. Some opt for Atlanteans (even if they are hidden behind the euphemism of ‘the lost civilisation’), some for pre-Columbian Israelites in the New World, some for extraterrestrials.

5 Responses to Pseudoscience

  • mano says:

    One point regarding the racism inherent in the Atlantis/Ancient Astronauts theories I always found rather interesting is how structures like the medieval cathedrals, the Roman Colosseum or the Acropolis never seem to need any exotic explanation. I find these buildings to be quite astonishing feats done by people without our modern tools and engines! But it seems no one questions the abilities of the cultures ancestral to our western civilisation. Or is it that I have missed any wild speculations on the topic so far?

    • Ivan says:

      Claiming Roman structures were result of outside influence is made difficult by the abundance of written records about them. It is also the case with the Great Wall of China, which I think is more or less contemporary with the Colosseum.

      • Sam Paellon says:

        I think there is evidence that ancient aliens helped build Roman buildings.

        The new testament is contemporary with the Roman world and clearly documents people from the roman world interacting with what are clearly super natural beings with other worldly powers.

        Or perhaps its all fiction?

  • Dustin says:

    Isn’t the whole “racism” claim on this in and of itself bad science? Considering the fact that one of the most popular ancient locations for pseudo-science is Stonehenge? The sheer popularity of Stonehenge with the fringe crowd is alone nearly enough to dissuade such an argument.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      If you read the artricle properly, “the whole “racism” claim”, as you put it, is a minor element in my definition of archaeological pseudoscience. I am thinking of how little use writers such as Erich von Däniken or Graham Hancock make of evidence from Europe: their favourite sites tend to be exotic places. I’d dispute your claim that “one of the most popular ancient locations for pseudo-science is Stonehenge”; yes, it attracts more than its fair share of silly explanations but thay are rarely framed in terms of aliens-did-it or more-civilised-strangers-from-overseas-did-it (the latter was once popular, with Phoenicians, Mycenaean Greeks and even Romans getting the credit, but such ideas tend to have fallen by the wayside). I’d suggest that the fringe crowd at Stonehenge (Druids, New Agers and neo-Pagans etc.) is so conspicuous because is such an unusual phenomenon in Europe.

Agree or disagree? Please comment!