Here is a transcript of my segment on this week’s Skepticality:
A (Sort of) Review of Intelligent Intervention by Robert Steven Thomas
Several months ago, at the Paradigm Symposium, a conference in Minneapolis devoted to the ancient alien hypothesis, during a question and answer session following an especially credulous presentation about Velikovski, I identified myself in front of the crowd as a skeptic with a capital S. After the session, a gentleman came up to me and seemed very interested in talking. His name was Robert Steven Thomas, and he the author of the book Intelligent Intervention: The Missing Link in the History of Human Evolution. After a cordial conversation, he got up to leave. We shook hands and he left the conference hall. A few minutes later, one of conference organizers who had issued me a press pass, came over and handed me a copy of Robert’s book. On the inside cover, it read:
“To Bob. A pleasure to have met you. Please read and the “have at it”! I’d be honored to hear your response. Warm regards, RS Thomas.”
I appreciate the gesture though, to be honest, I’ve been very busy in the last few months, so it has taken me a while to get around to looking through the book. And even then, you know, I’ve done most of my public work examining conspiracy theories. An ancient alien book is a little outside of the scope of my expertise, though I do find the idea of ancient aliens fascinating, if vanishingly improbable.
The book is written around the premise that the mainstream and academic understanding of human history is hopelessly flawed. What Thomas calls the “history establishment” is governed by dogmatism, he argues, and that it “monitors and controls what is commonly taught as history” (15). He uses this, I believe, as an explanation of why one does not see the ancient alien hypothesis in reputable journals, as he launches into a condemnation of the peer-review process. He describes peer-review as a subjective process, based on cronyism, run by people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. “As a result,” he says:
there have been valuable discoveries made in the last half-century that profoundly change history which, regrettably, have not gotten the proper attention and focus they deserve or seen publication in scientific journals because of the inequities in the peer review process. In the majority cases, the personal interest and ambitions of a few select individuals stand in the way of the open scientific discourse and dialog with which they have been called upon to champion and foster. (16-17)
He holds out Heinrich Schliemann, who, the story goes, used a copy of Homer’s Iliad as a guide to find the location of Priam’s Troy in 1870, as an example of an outsider defying the establishment and making great finds on his own. But he seems unaware that there are some real problems with Schliemann’s account of the discovery of Troy. Not the least being that the site he eventually dug at was originally identified as a possible candidate for the location of Troy in 1822—nearly 50 years before Schliemann’s find, that an amateur dig specifically looking for evidence of Troy had been ongoing at the site for seven years by the time Schliemann arrived, that the amateur archaeologist leading those exploratory digs, Frank Calvert, suggested to Schliemann that he poke around in the Mound of Haslarik, that of the several layers of debris found at the site Schliemann misidentified the one that is now thought to be Agamemnon or Priam’s Troy, that in his enthusiasm, Schliemann destroyed much of Priam’s Troy, that the hoard of so-called “Priam’s Gold” that was uncovered did not date from the Early Bronze Age, or that Schliemann privately absconded with the gold artifacts that he found there. Even if Schliemann’s account of the discovery were true, that merely interpreting the Iliad literally led him to the site of Troy, it does not follow that anything else that happens in the Iliad literally happened. Heck, even if he read the Iliad like a treasure map and found Troy, it doesn’t even mean that the Iliad is a good treasure map. Schliemann may have simply gotten incredibly lucky.
Personally, I feel for alternative knowledge scholars, and I suspect that it is immensely frustrating to find their work unrecognized. So, in the spirit of reciprocity for Thomas’s thoughtful gift, I feel I should offer back some advice, three points, about how to adapt alternative messages and methods so that they are more likely to receive a hearing and consideration from academics.
1) First and above all, specialize. A characteristic of ancient alien theorizing is to draw on a vast numbers of disparate and far-flung cultures, finding a few apparent similarities, and positing a common context for those similarities. But in creating a new context for archeological and historical finds, their analyses often fail to benefit from the explanatory power of the immediate context of historical finds. For instance, take the image on Thomas’s cover, a space shuttle juxtaposed with a gold bit of jewelry from the Museo de Oro in Bogota:
This juxtaposition suggests that objects with vastly different contexts share some sort of function. In fact, even the similarities are a matter of perspective. As you can see below, a profile shot of the jewelry shows that it is decidedly un-shuttle-like.
But when you understand that this bit of jewelry was found among a collection of stylized bugs, lizards and birds, none of which is out of keeping for jewelry of the time, suddenly the ancient alien explanation vanishes. It’s not actually an anomaly. A specialized understanding of local context of historical finds is crucial to generating credible hypothesis. As it stands, alternative scholars know a little bit about a lot, but not much about anything in particular.
2) Cite your sources in the text. When I teach research and writing classes, I describe footnotes and bibliographies as, in part, a courtesy to the interested reader. If someone, say a peer-reviewer, is genuinely interested in following up on a point that you have made, we need to know exactly where that came from, and it is your job as an author to at all points to show us all of your work. Depending on how you do it, it may be clunky and distracting, and god knows that it’s a huge pain in the neck to create a good bibliography or index if your research method does not anticipate it, but it is worth it to the reader. When reading Intelligent Intervention, for instance, when Thomas says that an alternative understanding of history is “well-established” I want to know WHO SAID THAT so I can follow up on it. The bib at the back of each chapter is just not specific enough to be useful. When you say that the Indian Vedas say something about a spaceship, I want to know which line in which translation you are using, and I want to know now. Without citation, everything becomes as unhelpful as a bare assertion. Reverse engineering an author’s research is not a reader’s job.
3) Maintain civility. This should go without saying, but I’ve seen so many alternative knowledge authors display such vitriolic contempt for mainstream scholarship that perhaps it is no wonder that they have so little understanding of what it actually says and how they derived their conclusions. Scholarship is not a series of ex cathedra pronouncements about truth, which are, ironically, exactly what unsourced research is. Take, for instance, the opening of the fourth chapter of Intelligent Intervention, “Collective Memories,” which describes as “categorically incompetent” the dismissal of the Great Deluge when “almost every one of the world’s cultures, though scattered around the globe and separated by millennia and vast oceans, all share stories of these same ancient recollections.” Recollections of floods are to be expected all over the world because people all over the world need access to fresh water, which means rivers, which means floods, which means flood stories. An understanding about how orally transmitted stories tend to amplify memorable aspects of their stories at the expense of unremarkable content, easily explains how flood stories of global deluges are so common—the story itself is more memorable. But dismissing the vast amount of research about this process, indeed failing to display any awareness of this literature—is often why such assertions are dismissed. It’s not from ignorance, as alternative theorists suggest, it’s out of genuine expertise. Don’t ever suspect that the other side will ever take you seriously if you start out with “they are incompetent.” You might try, “I think that they are wrong,” then show you understand their argument, and then point out the flaws.
Like I said, I appreciated Thomas’s gift, and it’s an interesting look into alternative knowledge culture. But no matter how good their work is, alternative scholars will remain isolated from mainstream consideration if they don’t address these oversights.