Mistakes Experiments of the Gods
Some days, you just
want to smack a crackpot. It's not very professional, but it's very
human and very satisfying. So on the night of November 23, 2015 I
went to Greensboro College, expecting some serious silliness in the
vein of National Treasure or DaVinci's Demons. Imagine
my surprise, then, to find myself watching a polite and sober
The title of Graham
Hancock's Magicians of the Gods (and before that, Fingerprints
of the Gods) is clearly designed to evoke the fringe classic
Chariots of the Gods in order to sell books. According to
that strategy has been successful, on the scale of tens of millions
So yes, he was talking
about Atlantis, and yes, he did run the crank rhetorical playbook,
selectively comparing himself to paradigm-shifting scientists, but
not to the losers of history (more on that later). He also presented
some really interesting facts that I'd never heard before.
For instance, the
geological evidence for a large impact event 12,800 years ago is in
process—a layer of ash from massive forest fires; iridium dust,
which is more common in celestial objects than on the Earth;
nanodiamonds and shocked quartz crystals, which only form under the
crazy high temperatures and pressures of a big impact.
These are the same
kinds of evidence that paleontologists argued
about for years until the matter was settled by finding the
underwater off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. This is
standard stuff on PBS
these days, but thirty years ago it was a hot topic, angrily
contested at scientific meetings.
Hancock and his sources
believe that no one has found “their” crater, which they
call the Younger
Dryas event, because it landed in the middle of an ice
sheet two kilometers thick, which melted and ran into the ocean. That
sounds mighty convenient on its face. Still, our panel of college
faculty, including a geologist, seemed pretty happy with that part of
the story, and with the moral of the story, which was: We
should give NASA more money to find space rocks that might hit us.
In addition to the
physical evidence for an impact, Hancock also catalogued a large and
growing list of underwater megalithic sites, many of which he and his
wife have personally dived and photographed. Think Stonehenge, but
bigger in some cases, and scattered all over the world—Japan,
India, the Bahamas—in spots that were above water during the
Ice Age, before the glaciers melted and raised sea level to our
current idea of “normal.” The India site was confirmed
not just to scientists and divers but to anyone watching during the
Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, when the ocean rolled back off it before
crashing onto shore again.
speculations got ahead of his evidence when he started citing weird
maps drawn during the Middle Ages. They were
unrealistic, showing the wrong coastlines. Indonesia was a huge
peninsula, as it had been during the last Ice Age, rather than the
chain of islands discovered by the Dutch in the 1500s. Historians
assumed that the maps had been drawn by hoaxers
or crackpots, not by people who had actually sailed to the Orient.
They also had lines of longitude drawn on them, and Western science
did not invent clocks accurate enough to enable longitude until the
Graham Hancock, viewing
these maps, sees remnants of an advanced seafaring society, capable
of accurately mapping the planet, with coastal outposts spread around
the world, destroyed in one day by a comet that smashed into the ice
sheets of North America. That's the leap of imagination that has
captured tens of millions of book-buyers.
It is not
unprecedented, either in SF, which loves lost
civilizations, or in science. Two hundred years ago we
had no idea that dinosaurs existed at all. Fifty years ago we were
completely in the dark about what happened to them, both the big ones
that died out and the little ones that became birds.
Hancock was careful to point out the analogy between his crusade and
those earlier shifts in scientific models, which have grown stronger
with additional evidence.
However, Hancock was
equally careful not to point out any parallels between his ideas and
the large number of archaeological theories that have not panned out.
Take, for instance, Olof
Rudbeck, a medical doctor who discovered the lymphatic
system in the 1600s. Imagine—a whole
other circulatory system, working in parallel with the
veins carrying blood. That's exciting, a positive example of the lone
scientist overturning the conventional wisdom, a central part of
modern mythology and a standard trope of SF. (These discoveries are
still being made. Neuroscience recently discovered a third
system confined to the brain.)
But after his
anatomical triumph, Rudbeck decided that he had found Atlantis in his
native Sweden. His four-volume book Atlantica was a sensation
during the years around 1700. According to Rudbeck's recent
King, at the University of Kentucky, “Even Isaac
Newton wrote to request a personal copy.” Today, however, no
one except King's readers has ever heard of Rudbeck. His reputation
has melted like a glacier until there was nothing left.
This is what I want to
emphasize, and that I hope to see carried forward into the moral
philosophy of SF stories. I think we should celebrate
mistakes, the way science education is just beginning
to do, the way the Lean
Startup Method is doing for entrepreneurs. Science is
a process, a series of events that don't belong to any one person. I
don't deny that humans like heroes and villains. It is an easy way to
engage readers, as professional skeptic Jason Colavito does here,
playing “Gotcha!” with Hancock's historical
scholarship. It’s effective, too—I read Colavito’s
whole review, even though I care most about the evidence that
Colavito spent the least amount of time on (the physical stuff). I
did it myself at the top of this column.
Here's my problem with
that game, as a scientist. Most of us are wrong most of the time.
Most experiments don't work. In fact, the only time we really
learn anything is when our predictions are wrong. So why does
having a correct theory based on current facts make you a hero, and
having an incorrect theory make you a villain?
Can we instead write
stories that celebrate the process of science, where being wrong
Randall Hayes spends
a lot of time being wrong as father, husband and founder of Agnosia
Media. He also helps disorganize a public discussion series called
I did not read this book. My notes are from his talk at Greensboro
the Dream” concerns an elaborate archaelogical hoax.
disclosure: The U of R is where I got my Ph.D. in Neuroscience.
Not in this lab, though.
disclosure: UK is where I did my undergraduate work in Biology.
I don’t know DK.
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