Pseudoscience and the Serpent Mound

I recently blogged about the Serpent Mound after a visit to the Ohio archaeological site, sharing a few of the photos I took while there. Today, I get a comment that explores the “alternative” explanations for the mound (as well as other ancient sites). My first instinct was to simply delete the rather lengthy comment that started off in the first sentence talking about “energy,” but I realized that this sort of nonsense needs rebuttal -there are too many impressionable kids and less-informed but curious fans of archaeology out there that will ultimately stumble on to my misinformed guest’s website. So better to tackle it head-on.

The Serpent Mound in Ohio

I also invite any other readers of this blog or the Skeptic’s Circle to comment in response. But without further ado, let me introduce Miroslav Provod:

Serpent mound is a clay mound that is shaped in meandering curves, which form more energy in their inner bents due to the increased density of zones. The condition for it’s functioning is the same as with other megalithic structures – it must be placed into a location with enough cosmic energy (details can be found at http://www.miroslavprovod.com There were many serpent mounds built, but a mound that looks like a snake that is trying to swallow an egg seems to be the most perfect one. It is a mound with four different energetic degrees:
– six locations of a meandering shape of the same energetic value (half of a winding)
– one location of greater energy in the shape of an egg (one whole winding)
– one location of even greater energy in a triangular winding
– and one last location of a different degree of energy in the tail part, which is formed by the combination of the meander with the spiral

There is just so much wrong with this.

The only energies in the mound that can be empirically shown to exist are infrared energy, absorbed from the sun, and the energies involved in chemical and molecular bonding. Each of these energies are well-understood and present in all rocks and earth. There isn’t any special energy, as yet undefined, that has been shown to exist in mounds. In this paragraph, Provod here several pseudoscientific and nonsense terms and phrases. For instance, what does “energetic degree” mean? Energy is something that can be empirically measured and simply refers to the ability to do work. There isn’t anything mystical about that. Provod implies that the shape of the mound affects the mound’s energy, but this simply isn’t the case. The only useful energy in the Serpent mound (or any other mound or megalithic structure) is infrared, which is absorbed during the day and emanated during the night.

For all its useful purpose, the energy given off by the serpent mound is no different than the energy given off by any other hill, rock or field in the area. To state differently is to make baseless, wild, and pseudoscientific claims that cannot be empirically supported.

The energetic function of the mounds could be proved by an easy experiment, during which the energy would be measured by a method, which is described in detail in my article “Dowsing versus aura”. To perform this experiment, we need about 10 metres long hose with water flowing in it and any rock of about 60Kg mass.

There’s no need or reason to “prove” the “energetic function of the mounds.” This is something that is well-understood in geology, physics, and meteorology. The sun’s radiation is absorbed during the day and emanated at night. The effect can be responsible for various weather related phenomena such as fog, dew, or even wind. There’s no mystery. It has little or nothing to do with the shape or size of the mound, though hills in general can act to funnel air currents. The Serpent Mound (along with most man-made mounds) is far too small to have any noticeable effect on air currents beyond the immediate vicinity of the mound itself.

It could be concluded from these experiments that the clay mounds of a serpent shape gave people an energetic place to increase their energy in the same way as menhirs, dolmens and other prehistoric structures.

This is a completely nonsensical, non-scientific, and uneducated statement. There is no scientific basis to make such claims. Indeed, “an energetic place to increase their energy” means nothing to someone that isn’t plugging in an iPod to a USB port. The Hopewell, Adena and other early inhabitants may have held lines of thinking that support these “energy” claims, but these were based on superstition and myth, not empirical knowledge.

IT’S NECESSARY to remind – and I emphasize this – that at the times of constructions of the megalithic structures, the grid of energetic parts wasn’t affected by the civilization sources.

Again, this is a statement that makes no logical or rational sense. “[T]he grid of energetic parts wasn’t affected by civilization sources” means nothing. It is a phrase that holds no value, particularly with regard to first century or earlier civilizations. It certainly hasn’t enough value to be emphatically reminded since this implies that the notion had value to begin with. You may need to restate this in some way that elucidates your thoughts more clearly.

The burial-ground of the rulers of Egypt “The kings’ valley” is situated in a meander of river Nile. There are hundreds of thousands of megalithic structures in the world that are built in the inner bends of water streams, meanders and confluence of rivers.

To demonstrate the pseudoscientific thinking involved with making statements like this, I feel it’s necessary -and I emphasize this- to point out two things: 1) the meandering nature of rivers and streams changes, often within single generations. So sites that are presently situated at the bend in a river may not have been 4,000 years ago. Or they may have been 4,000 years ago but not presently; 3) monumental architecture is most evident in agricultural societies (they had the social/political/economic capitals to build). Such societies nearly always built near rivers and streams because, guess what? They lived there.

There are also a great number of megalithic and religious structures built above the underground springs.

See my paragraph above.

The curvature of any matter works in the same way as a curve of a water flow, but only given that the matter has enough energy.

Again, this is a nonsensical statement. The type of “energy” isn’t defined. Is is molecular? Chemical? Infrared? Moreover, water *is* matter, so therefore the first part of the sentence defeats itself. In addition, what does it mean to say “works the same?” The angle of the curve is the same. The laws of physics each obeys is the same. etc.

In Malta in the Mediterranean and in other places, there were ritual meeting places for people built in an ellipsoidal shape, partly submerged underground. Domes, vaults, apses, circular structures and other rounded structures have the same qualities that strengthen the energy. Some nations, for example the Celts, constructed clay mounds of squared or rectangular ground plan, where the zones were also dense, but in a different grid.

Again, this are nonsensical statements. “[S]trengthen the energy” doesn’t seem to make sense in the context it’s presented. One cannot “strengthen” energy except to add additional energy, i.e. increasing voltage, focusing the sun’s rays on with a mirror, reducing the amount of resistance on a variable resistor to turn the heat up on an oven, etc. The shapes of buildings can “strengthen energy” in this way by making infrared radiation emanated from the ground or a hearth more efficiently used. But I suspect this isn’t the context you had in mind.

People used to supply their body energy by the use of all kinds of megalithic structures.

This is true in the hearth context I mentioned, but nonsense in the context you’re implying. One can benefit from infrared energy by sleeping over the buried coals or near the heated rocks of a hearth. That’s about it, bub.

However, this is just a first finding, which could be compared to a snowball, which eventually grows into an avalanche.

Doubtful. Sorry, but your premises about the nature of “energy” and megaliths are neither sound nor cogent.

It is described in technical literature, how some rocks of various chemical compositions were exactingly transported (pyramids, Stonehenge, Machu Picu and others) in order to achieve proper combinations.

Again, this statement makes no sense. What “technical literature” do you refer to. I suppose it’s true that the sarsens and lintels of Stonehenge were of “various chemical compositions” like diorite, rhyolite, tuff, etc. It’s also true that they were “exactingly transported. But the statement breaks down when you add, “in order to acheive proper combinations.” There is nothing mystical about the combination of the rocks used in the sites you mention. Each of the quarries are known (though there is some very minor disagreement about the origin of Stonehenge’s bluestones) and there exist very plausible and sensible hypotheses as to the functions of each of these sites that are independent of the non-existent “energies” you allude to.

It’s necessary to clarify their interactions and explain the chemical processes of the rocks, which affected the energy.

This is completely pseudoscientific. Inclusion of words like “chemical,” “process,” “interaction,” and “energy” doesn’t automatically imply that you have a good grasp of physics or science in general. You must first use these words in contexts that make sense. Stating that there are “chemical processes” that must be “explained” to understand how builders of monumental architecture achieved the “combinations” that they did is truly not necessary. There is no correlation that has been established to exist nor have the “chemical processes” themselves been defined. We certainly cannot effectively discuss how “energy” is “affected” since, once again, the “energy” also isn’t defined (infrared, molecular, etc.).

Therefore, it’s not only about supplying bodily energy but also about the quality of the energy and it’s transformation onto the cellular membranes in an optimal amount.

Please, feel free to define “bodily energy.” The closest analog in reality that I can come up with is infrared (a.k.a. heat). But how is the quality of heat important to monumental architecture like the Serpent Mound or Stonehenge? What “cellular membranes” is this heat being transferred to? One assumes humans, but depending upon the Serpent Mound or Stonehenge for warmth is inefficient to say the least. It would be a much better use of energy (a.k.a. work) to build a hearth and a subsequent fire.

If we want to continue in uncovering the secrets of ancient past, we must begin with the fact that we can’t bluff ourselves with explanations of the megalithic cultures, which are not logical.

What non-“logical” explanations are being presented other than your own. The explanations suggested for the Serpent Mound are not only plausible but, given the evidence, it is probable that one (or more) are accurate. The site was probably ritual and funerary in use. There’s no evidence that iPods were being charged. There’s even less evidence that humans were getting warmth (or any other energy) from it.

And we must also respect the fact that we have something to do with a civilisation whose technical maturity we don’t understand yet.

On the contrary, we have a very good understanding of the technical maturity of the Hopewell and Adena cultures. They achieved rudimentary ceramic skills. They built thatched homes. They had rudimentary agricultural skills. And so on. All of this survives very well in the archaeological record.

Also, I think it may be favourable to find out, why was this force of nature that goes through history in the religious structures until our age concealed and who wanted it to be concealed.

What do you mean concealed? The Serpent mound wasn’t concealed. Nor was Stonehenge, Nabta Playa, the Maya ruins, etc. Vegetation may have grown over some of them, but there was no intelligent agent at work with goal to “conceal” them.

One of the reasons I’m so sure that Provod simply copy/pasted the text of his “comment” is that he bothered to leave the comment at all, particularly with such a tone of confidence and assurance that his opinion is informed and rational. Mr. Provod, I’m sorry but, while your comments are welcome, this one was neither informed nor rational.

The Year of Pseudo-archaeology

In the last year, there have been a few stories that presented some bad archaeology and, since this is the last Four Stone Hearth of the year, I thought it might be useful to recap these stories with a summary of each that includes the primary assumptions and faults they rely on. I’ve included some stories that you might expect, such as the Bosnian pyramid and the Jesus tomb, but also at least one you might not have heard about. A bibliography with links for further reading will follow this article

The Bosnian Pyramid

For a brief summary of the Bosnian Pyramid debacle that is still playing out, see my previous post, The Bosnian Pyramid: a Brief Summary. This, therefore, will be a brief, brief summary!

The hoopla actually started in 2006 with Semir Osmanagic’s announcement that he had found the largest and oldest pyramid known to man, which was created by between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago –so large and so old it threatened to change the history of Europe and the World as we know it. And it would have. Had it been genuine.

But such is the nature of pseudo-archaeological claims: they provide much sensation and appeal instantly to the significance-junkies and mystery-mongers who want there to be something mysterious and, perhaps, sacred about the emergence and antiquity of man. This is why we see so many products for sale, particularly in the “alternative” medicine (as if there really are legitimate alternatives to medicine) field, that claim to have been “discovered by” or “known to” the ancients.

Osmangic was the guy that wrote a book which put the ancestry of the Maya as the Atlanteans. And, as if this weren’t kooky enough, he placed the ancestry of the Atlanteans as extra-terrestrial. The media (perhaps being the natural significance-junkies and mystery-mongers that they are) picked up on Osmanagic’s press releases and ran with them, without consulting with any genuine archaeologists. In spite of the press claims, Osmanagic is not an archaeologist. Not even close.

The reason the press was duped (and is still being duped in some cases) by the pyramid-claims is that the hill does vaguely look like a pyramid from certain angles (as do many, many hills around the world) and that there is some very interesting geology in the region that gives the appearance of manmade blocks. But the geology has been very well explained and understood, even before Osmangic and his “team” began bulldozing the hillside in what they refer to as “excavations.”

The main problem with this sort of pseudo-archaeology is that it is destroying a genuine archaeological site that has nothing to do with pyramids.

The Jesus Tomb

The tomb itself was actually discovered in 1980, but “rediscovered” in more recent years by Simcha Jacobovici who co-produced the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus with James Cameron.

The assertion is, obviously, that this is the tomb of Jesus Christ, the Christian Messiah who was, according to biblical legend, crucified to death by the Romans only later to “rise from the dead” and ascend to heaven. The implication, therefore, is that Jesus did not ascend at least bodily to heaven and that there were remains left to entomb. Based on the inscriptions found on other ossuaries within the tomb, other implications were that Jesus: was married to Mary Magdeline; had brothers and sisters (some of whom may have been older); had a child; may not have died on the cross; etc.

The producer, Jacobovici, claimed in the documentary that this is proof of the existence of Jesus, making this, too, an implication for those that doubted the historicity of Jesus or for those interested in defending that historicity. However, the documentary doesn’t reconcile a few problems, most namely perhaps, the 600 to 1 claim created by a statistician and used in the documentary. In this claim, statistician Andrey Feuerverger concluded that the odds are at least 600 to 1 that the combination of names appeared in the tomb by chance.

Scientific American had this to say:

Scan The Lexicon of Jewish Names, which includes names from ossuaries, ancient texts and every other source available, and you will learn that the names unearthed in the so-called Jesus Family Tomb were among the most common of that era. One in every three women listed in the Lexicon was named Mary, for instance, and, at that time, one in every 20 Jewish men was called Yeshua, or Jesus. […]“I did permit the number one in 600 to be used in the film—I’m prepared to stand behind that but on the understanding that these numbers were calculated based on assumptions that I was asked to use,” says Feuerverger. “These assumptions don’t seem unreasonable to me, but I have to remember that I’m not a biblical scholar.”

Indeed, one of the biggest contentions about the alleged “tomb of Jesus” is that the names were common. William Dever who, until recently, was the Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, stated in the Washington Post article, ‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt, the following:

“I’ve known about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists, and none of us thought it was much of a story, because these are rather common Jewish names from that period. It’s a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction.”

That article is no longer available online, but there are numerous internet sites that seem to quote it. I’ll include it in the bibliography as I did find it in the Lexis-Nexis database. The quote is accurate.


Adam’s Bridge

Also known as Rama’s Bridge (or Rama Sethu in Sanskrit) via the Ramayana written between 500 – 100 BCE, this tombolo connects India to Sri Lanka and Vedic legend says that it was built by Rama as a means to rescue his consort who had been abducted and taken to Sri Lanka by Ravana. The tombolo itself stretches approximately 30 miles and separates the Gulf of Mannar from the Palk Strait. Believers in Vedic mythology think the tombolo is a manmade bridge (the name “Adam’s Bridge” is the Western name found on early British maps), but science reveals something quite different of course.

The reason this shows up as a topic of psueud-archaeology is because the highest court of the state of Tamil Nadu, where the bridge resides, states that the “bridge” is manmade. This is in response to the Sethusamundram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), which is a goal to link the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka, a project that, upon completion, would cut about 400 km of shipping normally used in the voyage around Sri Lanka. But government officials deem the tombolo as a “divine” feature and one that is religious in significance, preventing progress in their region.

This is a topic that is linked very strongly to the Vedic Creationism of Michael Cremo, the author of Forbidden Archaeology, and I think I remember seeing it mentioned in this “text” if I’m not mistaken, but I no longer own a copy of it to verify. Regardless, Cremo argues elsewhere that man is millions of years old, and as Homo sapiens who possessed “high technology” or “high civilization.”

Adam’s Bridge is a geologic feature and not a constructed one, and it has been studied at length and satisfactorily described by geologists (Nityananda & Jayakumar, 1981). There’s no mystery to the Palk Straits. Tombolos are common in the world and the geologic morphology is ideal for one in the Palk Straits. Moreover, 1 million years ago the dominant hominid species was Homo erectus, who relied on Acheulean tools, hardly the technology capable of constructing a “bridge” across the Palk Straits. Various dating of the tombolo itself has been placed between 3,500 to 6,000 years ago, which puts the formation at a very recent age, geologically.

Bibliography

Cooperman, Alan (2007). ‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt. Washington Post, Section A, A3, February 28, 2007.

Fagan, Garrett and Feder, Kenneth (2006). Crusading against straw men: an alternative view of alternative archaeologies: response to Holtorf. World Archaeology, 38 (4), xxx-xxx.

Garufi, F. (2006). World’s Largest Pyramid? or Hoax? (C. Dowell, Editor) Retrieved September 10, 2007, from Circular Times

Hawass, Z. (2006, June 27). Personal Correspondance with Mark Rose. Retrieved September 9, 2007, from Archaeology Magazine: http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/osmanagic/zahi_hawass.pdf

Headlines India (2007). Ram Sethu man-made, says Madras HC, June 19, 2007.

McGirk, Tim (2007) Jesus: Tales from the Crypt. Time, February 23, 2007

Mims, Christopher (2007). Special Report: Has James Cameron Found Jesus’s Tomb or Is It Just a Statistical Error? Scientific American, March 2, 2007.

Nandini Nityananda and D.Jayakumar (1981). Proposed Relation between Anomalous Geomagnetic Variations and Tectonic History of South India. Phys. Earth Planet, Vol. 27, pp 223-228.

Salt, A. (2006, May 29). Bosnian Pyramids: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Atlantis. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from History News Network: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/25850.html

Tabor, James (2007) The Jesus Dynasty Blog.

The Indian Express (2003). Rama’s Bridge is only 3500 years old: CRS February 3, 2003.

Forbidden Archaeology? The Nampa Image Hoax

Archives Icon In a recent issue of Atlantis Rising, the ragazine that appeals to the significance-junkie, the mystery-monger, and skeptics like me who are fascinated with the first two, Michael Cremo’s latest column “Forbidden Archaeology” highlights a figurine of dubious origin. The article in question is “the mystery of the Nampa image,” Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/August 2007.

According to Cremo, the figurine (dubbed the Nampa Image) was recovered by workers who were drilling a water-well in Nampa, Idaho in 1889. The figurine, about an inch and a half long and made of baked clay was reported to have been recovered by the sand pump from a depth of 300+ feet. Cremo’s account of the “artifact’s” discovery is both credulous and inconsistent. Cremo is critical of Michael Brass, who wrote in his book, The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored, that it would have been destroyed by the drilling equipment upon retrieval as it was brought up to the surface. Cremo’s response to Brass is that a tube was used after drilling through the lava layer to pump out the sand but, previously, he mentions that the figurine was brought up with a “core sample.”

This is a small quibble to be sure, but it is relevant since if it were brought up in a core sample, the figurine would be stable and not bumped about. In the tube of sand pump, it would be subject to the laws of physics and knocked around at least enough to pulverize the fragile clay figurine. At the very least, the abrasive effect of the sand in the pump would have rounded it to the point of being unrecognizable to even the most gullible.

The crux of Cremo’s claim with the figurine is that since it was found in a geologic stratum that was of the Plio-Pleistocene, at a depth of 300 feet, the culture that created it must have been in the region about 2 million years ago. As usual, Cremo is credulous to the point of ignoring any parsimonious or realistic explanation, which makes him the utter laughing stock of real archaeology. Unfortunately, the lay-public, eager for stories of mystery and intrigue, get only a portion of the story when they read his perspective. Cremo says in the article, “scientists will go to great lengths to make up some story in order to explain it away,” and is critical of more parsimonious and possible explanations as “powers of the imagination!” and as “speculative tales.” The irony is deep.

What Cremo misses in his account of the “Nampa image,” the little, fragile clay figurine common to the local Native Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is the voices of reason with regard to the find. More likely, he was aware of them, but cherry-picked which criticisms he would be willing to be counter-critical of. He does make short work of one suggestion that the figurine may have found its way at the stratum naturally through a rock fissure or natural geological process. I agree, the explanation is far from realistic, not to mention the same problem of fragility is encountered as the clay figure makes its way to a depth of 300 feet through a rock crevice or fissure as yet undiscovered or exemplified elsewhere in the Glenn’s Ferry formation.

However, there were many criticisms of the object itself, which was heralded by one George Fredrick Wright, an amateur geologist that began as a Christian Darwinist then later turned to active fundamentalist (and was even an author of some of the essays called The Fundamentals, which started and defined this now obnoxious movement of Christianity). There’s an added irony that Cremo, an ancient-Earth Vedic creationist is using a young-Earth Christian creationist to make his point of an exaggerated antiquity of man. Cremo cites Wright’s book, Origin and Antiquity of Man, but makes no mention of Wrights contemporaries who were critical and nearly unanimously dismissive of his work. Indeed, actual geologists and anthropologists of the period remarked that Wright was pseudoscientific:

Dr. Wright’s last example is the feeblest of all-the Nampa image, a “beautifully formed clay image of a female,” said to have been brought up from a depth of 320 feet (!) in the holing of an artesian well, at Nampa, Idaho. It is sad to destroy illusions; but when this same image with its story was laid before a well known government geologist, and he at once recognized it as a clay toy manufactured by the neighboring Pocatello Indians, the person displaying it replied with engaging frankness, “Well, now, don’t give me away!” (Brinton 1892).

And that “well known government geologist?” This was J. W. Powell, who wrote in Popular Science Monthly (1893):

In the fall of 1889 the writer visited Boise City, in Idaho. While stopping at a hotel some gentlemen called on him to show him a figurine which they said they had found in sinking an artesian well in the neighborhood at a depth, if I remember rightly, of more than three hundred feet. The figurine is a little image of a man or woman done in clay and baked. It is not more than an inch and a half in length, and is slender and delicate, more delicate than an ordinary clay pipestem, and altogether exceedingly fragile.

Hold the figurine at the height of your eye and let it fall on the hearth at your feet, and it would be shivered into fragments. It was claimed that this figurine had been brought up from the bottom of an artesian well while the men were working, or about the time that they were working at the well, and that as it came out it was discovered.

When this story was told the writer [Powell], he simply jested with those who claimed to have found it. He had known the Indians that live in the neighborhood, had seen their children play with just such figurines, and had no doubt that the little image had lately belonged to some Indian child, and said the same. While stopping at the hotel different persons spoke about it, and it was always passed off as a jest; and various comments were made about it by various people, some of them claiming that it had given them much sport, and that a good many ” tenderfeet” had looked at it and believed it to be genuine; and they seemed rather pleased that I had detected the hoax. When I returned to Washington I related the jest at a dinner table, and afterward it passed out of my mind. In reading Prof. Wright’s second book I had many surprises, but none of them greater than when I discovered that this figurine had fallen into his hands, and that he had actually published it as evidence of the great antiquity of man in the valley of the Snake River.

Consider the circumstances. A fragile toy is buried in the sands and gravels and boulders of a torrential stream. Three hundred feet of materials are accumulated over it from the floods of thousands of years. Then volcanoes burst forth and pour floods of lava over all; and under more than three hundred feet of sands, gravels, clays, and volcanic rocks the fragile figurine remains for centuries, under such magical conditions that the very color of the burning is preserved. Then well-diggers, with a pump drill, hammer and abrade the rocks, and bore a six-inch hole down to this figurine without destroying it, and with a sand-pump bring it to the surface, to be caught by the well-digger; and Prof. Wright believes the story of the figurine, and places it on record in his book!

And Michael Cremo places it on record in his book! It’s a lengthy quote, but the full context of the account is important. Cremo also cited F.F. Jewett (1890) who described having done “experiments” on the clay that led him to the conclusions that it “must be of considerable age.” What experiments, specifically, aren’t mentioned. But he goes on to declare that “the accumulation of iron upon the grains of sand” can’t be accounted for “except by supposing to have been the result of slow decomposition of substances containing iron.” Perhaps this was the prevailing scientific assessment of the 19th century, but what, precisely, is Cremo’s excuse for failing to recognize that iron oxidation occurs on clay when intentionally fired this way. A process well-known to archaeology and should be understood even for a pseudo-archaeologist.

The “Nampa image” is a hoax. Pure and simple. It was presented at a time in which hoaxes were popular and people liked the notoriety. A contemporary of this little figurine is the Cardiff Giant, which was just being exposed for its fraudulent nature at around the time the worker in Nampa, ID claimed to find a modern clay doll in the sediments of a time when people simply didn’t live in North America, much less make fired clay dolls.

References

Brinton, D.G. (1892). Man and the Glacial Period, a book review. Science, 20 (508), 249.

Cremo, Michael (2007). The mystery of the Nampa image. Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/Aug.

Jewett, F.F. (1890). Report to the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, vol 24, 448.

Powell, J.W. (1893). Are there evidences of man in the glacial gravels? Popular Science Monthly, vol. XLIII, 324

Defining Pseudoskepticism

One of the points about my blog that I’ve tried hard to adhere to is being skeptical of pseudo-archaeology1 and even of other claims made in the name of science or medicine2. To date, I have at least 37 posts which I’ve given the label “skeptical3” including Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming and Pseudoskepticism from the “Junkman.4” In these two posts, I use the term “pseudoskepticism” as I refer to individuals whom I perceived as pretending to be skeptical about the topic of global warming. Both of the pseudoskeptics featured in these posts were presenting biased and fallacious arguments regarding global warming as a means of meeting the needs of a separate agenda.

The first pseudoskeptic I discussed was a journalist who writes for a blog and syndicates a right-wing conservative column to print and online media. This writer presented a skeptical position on the then recent documentary by Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, but failed to provide any logical reason or critical analysis to inform his pretended skepticism. In searching for a way to describe his position and the illogical arguments he presented via email with me after I commented on his critical article, I ended up with the only term I could think of that best summarized this writer’s position: pseudoskepticism.

The second pseudoskeptic I wrote about was the “junk science” author, Steven Milloy, who writes articles and books that give the appearance of presenting a skeptical viewpoint also about global warming (among other topics ranging from cigarette smoking to pollution). Even Bob Park, author of Voodoo Science and the weekly newsletter What’s New characterizes Milloy as a pretender and a pseudoskeptic that actually seeks only to further the agendas of industries like that of tobacco and oil.

The interesting thing is, when I decided to use the term “pseudoskeptic” to describe these gentlemen and their less-than-genuine positions, I googled the word to see what had been already written about it, thinking I could use comparisons to other pseudoskeptics or see if others had been similarly critical of Milloy. I harbored no delusions that I’d just coined the term and assumed that it was the logical way to refer to a “fake skeptic,” someone who wants to be seen as skeptical but really doesn’t take the time to give fair evaluation to all data or is willing to revise their position on the things they are skeptical about with the introduction of actual evidence.

I’ve been a long time skeptic and avid reader of journals like Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic, and, more recently, Free Inquiry. I listen to podcasts like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepticality on a regular basis. I participate actively in various internet communities and blogs (often under a pseudonym) giving the skeptical voice to topics ranging from religion to ESP to UFOs to archaeology. I’ve a pretty good and fair understanding of what it means to be a skeptic. And, as a skeptic, I find the easiest way to argue a position that includes extraordinary claims of the supernatural, the paranormal, or some aspect of pseudoscience is to demand evidence to support the claim and to show counter evidence of why more parsimonious explanations are both more probable and plausible.

Like most bloggers, I like to look at my stats from time to time to see where readers are coming from and, today, I noticed that there was a hit from a Wikipedia Talk page. Specifically, Talk: Pseudoskepticism where I found a discussion that was far more informative than the actual Wikipedia entry for Pseudoskepticism. I had previously read this entry when I was writing the first global warming post above, but I hadn’t read the Talk page until today. The problem I had with the Wiki entry was that it seemed to favor the pejorative description of “pseudoskeptic” that gets tossed around by woo-woos and cranks that are being criticized by skeptics. Rather than admit that their claims are without merit, they accuse those who dare to be skeptical of not being “open-minded,” not “thinking out of the box,” or as being “pseudoskeptics.” Apparently, they’re good skeptics as long as they don’t question the woo-woo’s beliefs, but pseudoskeptical if they criticize the mystery-monger and significance-junkie.

The Wiki entry begins by quoting the late Marcello Truzzi, a professor of sociology and founding member of CSICOP (now CSI) who later fell into disfavor of the group due to his apparent bias to the pseudoscientific and paranormal. The quote by Truzzi and the characteristics of a pseudoskepticism listed are useful and Truzzi is attributed as the first to coin the term “pseudoskepticism.”

Still, it’s the Talk page that I found some of the more interesting discussions on pseudoskepticism. There is definitely a camp that favors pseudoscience and woo that seeks to slant the Wiki entry to refer to something akin to militant debunkers. But there is also discussion that favors the definition I’ve used in this blog: “fake-skeptics.” One of the discussion threads on this page is about how science should be “agnostic” and scientists shouldn’t have opinions until all data are in:

IMHO, that “neither disbelieve or believe it” thing is a myth used by Truzzi and others to define their own point of view (the neutral one) as the only one allowed in science. This trick allows them to use ad hominem arguments against CSICOP and others whose point of view they don’t like, and I really wonder why skeptics let them do it. [...]I think that scientists should be allowed to believe whatever they want. If a scientist makes a mistake because of his bias, other scientists with other biases can correct him. That’s what the scientific method is all about. But your model, where every scientist has to think in a certain restricted way, is a poor environment for the exchange of ideas because all scientists think the same. The diversity is missing. Your scientists are closer to robots than real people.

The discussion thread that linked to my “Junkman” article above was with regard to colloquial and “mechanistic, literal” usages of pseudoskepticism that varied from Truzzi’s own definition. My article was linked to by one editor and commented on by a second, though only as a point to show that there were uses of the term that may be beyond Truzzi’s. The responding editor rightly pointed out that my article only included the word pseudoskepticism in the title and not within the article itself. I left it up to the reader to infer what I meant in the title by “pseudoskeptic.” I must say that I agree with much of Truzzi’s definition, particularly the characteristics listed by the Wiki entry. However, I find some difficulty with how one might apply these characteristics to a critic in order to define them as pseudoskeptic or not. Does a single characteristic suffice? Must there be 6 out of 11 (as with diagnosing someone with ADHD)? Do some characteristics have more weight than others?

Here’s the list:

  1. The tendency to deny, rather than doubt
  2. Double standards in the application of criticism
  3. The making of judgments without full inquiry
  4. Tendency to discredit, rather than investigate
  5. Use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks in lieu of arguments
  6. Pejorative labeling of proponents as ‘promoters’, ‘pseudoscientists’ or practitioners of ‘pathological science.’
  7. Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  8. Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  9. Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  10. Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  11. Suggesting that unconvincing evidence is grounds for dismissing it

These could all be good habits for the skeptic to avoid, particularly when debating promoters and practitioners of pseudosciences like creationism, intelligent design, psychics, and Bosnian pyramidiots. But in that single sentence I violated the fifth and sixth of Truzzi’s characteristics. For the individual who is even slightly educated in biology or geology, would he then be a pseudoskeptic if he should criticize creationists without demonstrating proof of evolution? Would I be a pseudoskeptic if I remark that it’s far more plausible that the bright light in the sunset sky with a contrail is jet than it is an alien spacecraft leaving “chemtrails?” By Truzzi’s strict definition, I’m a pseudoskeptic if I say that a video of man bending a spoon he produced from his own pocket is unconvincing of his telekinetic powers.

Sorry Wikipedia guys. I like Truzzi’s characteristics… they’re good guidelines for how to avoid creating fallacious positions when debating mystery-mongers and significance-junkies, but the definition of pseudoskeptic is someone who is a fake skeptic. That someone pretends to be skeptical about an issue when he or she actually harbors credulous opinions or has a preconceived conclusion about a topic for which actual skeptics would be apt to criticize. QED.

Related Posts and Links:

  1. Blog Labels: Forbidden Archaeology; Pseudoarchaeology
  2. The Pseudoscience of an “Infomercial” Conman; Review: Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures, Part 1; Review: Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures, Part 2; Yet Another Kevin Trudeau Con; Kevin Trudeau: Pseudo-Advocate for the Consumer
  3. Blog Label: Skeptical
  4. Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming; Pseudoskepticism from the “Junkman.

Forbidden Archaeology? The Nampa Image Hoax


XIn a recent issue of Atlantis Rising, the ragazine that appeals to the significance-junkie, the mystery-monger, and skeptics like me who are fascinated with the first two, Michael Cremo’s latest column “Forbidden Archaeology” highlights a figurine of dubious origin. The article in question is “the mystery of the Nampa image,” Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/August 2007.

According to Cremo, the figurine (dubbed the Nampa Image) was recovered by workers who were drilling a water-well in Nampa, Idaho in 1889. The figurine, about an inch and a half long and made of baked clay was reported to have been recovered by the sand pump from a depth of 300+ feet. Cremo’s account of the “artifact’s” discovery is both credulous and inconsistent. Cremo is critical of Michael Brass, who wrote in his book, The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored, that it would have been destroyed by the drilling equipment upon retrieval as it was brought up to the surface. Cremo’s response to Brass is that a tube was used after drilling through the lava layer to pump out the sand but, previously, he mentions that the figurine was brought up with a “core sample.”

This is a small quibble to be sure, but it is relevant since if it were brought up in a core sample, the figurine would be stable and not bumped about. In the tube of sand pump, it would be subject to the laws of physics and knocked around at least enough to pulverize the fragile clay figurine. At the very least, the abrasive effect of the sand in the pump would have rounded it to the point of being unrecognizable to even the most gullible.

The crux of Cremo’s claim with the figurine is that since it was found in a geologic stratum that was of the Plio-Pleistocene, at a depth of 300 feet, the culture that created it must have been in the region about 2 million years ago. As usual, Cremo is credulous to the point of ignoring any parsimonious or realistic explanation, which makes him the utter laughing stock of real archaeology. Unfortunately, the lay-public, eager for stories of mystery and intrigue, get only a portion of the story when they read his perspective. Cremo says in the article, “scientists will go to great lengths to make up some story in order to explain it away,” and is critical of more parsimonious and possible explanations as “powers of the imagination!” and as “speculative tales.” The irony is deep.

What Cremo misses in his account of the “Nampa image,” the little, fragile clay figurine common to the local Native Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is the voices of reason with regard to the find. More likely, he was aware of them, but cherry-picked which criticisms he would be willing to be counter-critical of. He does make short work of one suggestion that the figurine may have found its way at the stratum naturally through a rock fissure or natural geological process. I agree, the explanation is far from realistic, not to mention the same problem of fragility is encountered as the clay figure makes its way to a depth of 300 feet through a rock crevice or fissure as yet undiscovered or exemplified elsewhere in the Glenn’s Ferry formation.

However, there were many criticisms of the object itself, which was heralded by one George Fredrick Wright, an amateur geologist that began as a Christian Darwinist then later turned to active fundamentalist (and was even an author of some of the essays called The Fundamentals, which started and defined this now obnoxious movement of Christianity). There’s an added irony that Cremo, an ancient-Earth Vedic creationist is using a young-Earth Christian creationist to make his point of an exaggerated antiquity of man. Cremo cites Wright’s book, Origin and Antiquity of Man, but makes no mention of Wrights contemporaries who were critical and nearly unanimously dismissive of his work. Indeed, actual geologists and anthropologists of the period remarked that Wright was pseudoscientific:

Dr. Wright’s last example is the feeblest of all-the Nampa image, a “beautifully formed clay image of a female,” said to have been brought up from a depth of 320 feet (!) in the holing of an artesian well, at Nampa, Idaho. It is sad to destroy illusions; but when this same image with its story was laid before a well known government geologist, and he at once recognized it as a clay toy manufactured by the neighboring Pocatello Indians, the person displaying it replied with engaging frankness, “Well, now, don’t give me away!” (Brinton 1892).

And that “well known government geologist?” This was J. W. Powell, who wrote in Popular Science Monthly (1893):

In the fall of 1889 the writer visited Boise City, in Idaho. While stopping at a hotel some gentlemen called on him to show him a figurine which they said they had found in sinking an artesian well in the neighborhood at a depth, if I remember rightly, of more than three hundred feet. The figurine is a little image of a man or woman done in clay and baked. It is not more than an inch and a half in length, and is slender and delicate, more delicate than an ordinary clay pipestem, and altogether exceedingly fragile.

Hold the figurine at the height of your eye and let it fall on the hearth at your feet, and it would be shivered into fragments. It was claimed that this figurine had been brought up from the bottom of an artesian well while the men were working, or about the time that they were working at the well, and that as it came out it was discovered.

When this story was told the writer [Powell], he simply jested with those who claimed to have found it. He had known the Indians that live in the neighborhood, had seen their children play with just such figurines, and had no doubt that the little image had lately belonged to some Indian child, and said the same. While stopping at the hotel different persons spoke about it, and it was always passed off as a jest; and various comments were made about it by various people, some of them claiming that it had given them much sport, and that a good many ” tenderfeet” had looked at it and believed it to be genuine; and they seemed rather pleased that I had detected the hoax. When I returned to Washington I related the jest at a dinner table, and afterward it passed out of my mind. In reading Prof. Wright’s second book I had many surprises, but none of them greater than when I discovered that this figurine had fallen into his hands, and that he had actually published it as evidence of the great antiquity of man in the valley of the Snake River.

Consider the circumstances. A fragile toy is buried in the sands and gravels and boulders of a torrential stream. Three hundred feet of materials are accumulated over it from the floods of thousands of years. Then volcanoes burst forth and pour floods of lava over all; and under more than three hundred feet of sands, gravels, clays, and volcanic rocks the fragile figurine remains for centuries, under such magical conditions that the very color of the burning is preserved. Then well-diggers, with a pump drill, hammer and abrade the rocks, and bore a six-inch hole down to this figurine without destroying it, and with a sand-pump bring it to the surface, to be caught by the well-digger; and Prof. Wright believes the story of the figurine, and places it on record in his book!

And Michael Cremo places it on record in his book! It’s a lengthy quote, but the full context of the account is important. Cremo also cited F.F. Jewett (1890) who described having done “experiments” on the clay that led him to the conclusions that it “must be of considerable age.” What experiments, specifically, aren’t mentioned. But he goes on to declare that “the accumulation of iron upon the grains of sand” can’t be accounted for “except by supposing to have been the result of slow decomposition of substances containing iron.” Perhaps this was the prevailing scientific assessment of the 19th century, but what, precisely, is Cremo’s excuse for failing to recognize that iron oxidation occurs on clay when intentionally fired this way. A process well-known to archaeology and should be understood even for a pseudo-archaeologist.

The “Nampa image” is a hoax. Pure and simple. It was presented at a time in which hoaxes were popular and people liked the notoriety. A contemporary of this little figurine is the Cardiff Giant, which was just being exposed for its fraudulent nature at around the time the worker in Nampa, ID claimed to find a modern clay doll in the sediments of a time when people simply didn’t live in North America, much less make fired clay dolls.

References

Brinton, D.G. (1892). Man and the Glacial Period, a book review. Science, 20 (508), 249.

Cremo, Michael (2007). The mystery of the Nampa image. Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/Aug.

Jewett, F.F. (1890). Report to the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, vol 24, 448.

Powell, J.W. (1893). Are there evidences of man in the glacial gravels? Popular Science Monthly, vol. XLIII, 324

I Sailing a Raft of Reeds Across the Atlantic Experimental Archaeology?


Not a chance. It’s more like pseudo-experimental, pseudo-archaeology. But, either way, a German man plans to sail his Bolivian made raft across the Atlantic as “proof” that this is the way it was done throughout antiquity. More below the fold.

Forty year-old Dominique Gorlitz thinks that people crossed the Atlantic regularly at around 14,000 years ago based on the skimpiest of evidence. So he plans to sail a raft, most of which was made by Bolivian natives then shipped to the States, from Jersey City, NJ to the opposite shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The raft is being completed by 25 volunteers and did I mention he bases the voyage on evidence?

What evidence, you say? Did archaeologists find a detailed codex in an ancient tomb, which outlines voyages, raft designs, goods traded? Or was an intact raft found in an anaerobic peat bog or below the oxidation level of some deep lake?

Nope. None of this. Gorlitz bases his life threatening voyage on traces of cocaine and tobacco that are supposedly found in Egyptian tombs. And on a spurious cave drawing that is interpreted as Atlantic ocean currents. And the raft itself (pictured above) is designed after a 6,000 year-old northeastern African design. To paraphrase Kenneth Feder, author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, the evidence they’re considering is really cool. But it doesn’t demonstrate ancient rafting skills.

But at least Gorlitz and his volunteers are professional sailors and nautical geniuses, right?

Nope. He’s a novice. An amateur. Indeed, he can’t even swim, according to the linked article! But don’t worry, because he’s quoted in the article as saying, “It’s like kung fu… The less you know, the better.” Right.

Cocaine and tobacco traces in Egyptian tombs is something I heard/read once a few years ago, but I’m not up to speed on this. If nothing else, the Gorlitz story gave me a topic to pursue in a later post here at Hot Cup of Joe under the Forbidden Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology labels. If anyone has information or sources for me to pursue on this, I’d be grateful. I think the topic came up at Hall of Ma’at a few years ago.

Related or Sourced Links:
http://www.1010wins.com/pages/510882.php?contentType=4&contentId=547876
image from: http://www.cruisingworld.com

Biblical Archeaology: Tomb of Jesus?

James Cameron is to release a documentary that claims to reveal the discovery of the tomb of Jesus Christ. He claims the evidence is statistical analysis and DNA… showing the Messiah was buried next to his wife, Mary Magdalene and their son, Judah (the “Grandson of God?”).

Before I read further in the article, my first thought was what were the comparators and controls?

Apparently, construction workers were erecting an apartment complex when they found the 2,000 year old ossuaries in a burial cave on the West Bank in East Talpiot back in 1980. 1980!? The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been pressuring archaeologists to publish or be punished lately, and there are excavations from the 1980’s that are just now finding their reports in publication, but, surely, such a discovery would have found academic publication far sooner than now!

The article linked above cites the IAA as noting that, of the 10 ossuaries found, 6 had the names Mary, Matthew, Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Jofa, and Judah son of Jesua. All very common Jewish names unless I’m mistaken. The article goes on to paraphrase the filmmakers as saying that their find in no way implies that Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected 3 days after being killed. They really didn’t need to, since modern medical science informs us in this regard.

What the article doesn’t tell us is what the comparators were in the statistical and DNA analyses James Cameron and his film crew used (or, ostensibly, outsourced to actual researchers). Presumably, one will need to pay $7.50 (not including popcorn and a drink) to find out.

Robert Park‘s list of the Warning Signs of Pseudoscience lists as #1 “the discoverer pitches his claim directly to the media.” I think this fits. As time goes on, perhaps other warning signs will emerge: a powerful establishment (religion? “mainstream” archaeology?) will seek to suppress the claim; the scientific effect at the limits of detection (we’ll have to wait for the statistical/DNA data sets to see); evidence is anecdotal (so far anyway); the discoverer worked in isolation (since 1980!?).

Or… maybe the data is genuine. I’m not holding my breath.

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