Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
April 2016

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 scientific debate.

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 Hancock's website, that strategy has been successful, on the scale of tens of millions of copies.

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 dinosaur-killer's crater 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.

But Hancock's 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 1800s.

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 “glymphatic” 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 biographer, David 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 is heroic?

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 Greensboro Science Cafe.



Disclaimer: I did not read this book. My notes are from his talk at Greensboro College.







Vinland the Dream” concerns an elaborate archaelogical hoax.






Full disclosure: The U of R is where I got my Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Not in this lab, though.


Fuller disclosure: UK is where I did my undergraduate work in Biology. I don’t know DK.





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