This week, a comic by Andrew Greenstone (Beyond Belief: Exhausted by the unknown at the cryptozoology conference), allowed me to crystalize two of the principles that I think are at the heart of pseudoscience’s appeal, not only to the public, but to scientists as well. The comic is about cryptozoology, but its lessons are highly applicable to pseudoarchaeology and the rest of pseudoscience.
There is always a more complicated explanation
Greenstone’s autobiographical character remarks, after being bombarded with increasingly unlikely stories about cryptids at a conference: “That’s sort of what I liked about cryptozoologists in the first place. When an obvious explanation is staring them right in the face, they’ll bend over backwards to find something that’s totally far out.”
This is in reaction to the story that when Melba Ketchum reported positive sasquatch DNA results on a hair sample drawn from a known hoax bigfoot, some cryptozoologists concluded there must be a real bigfoot that contributed DNA material to the fake bigfoot. Maybe, for example, the fake bigfoot was made at least partly of real bigfoot hair. Is it possible? Yes, yes it is. But very, very unlikely.
As the comic’s tagline brilliantly distills it: “There’s ALWAYS a more complicated explanation”. That is an important insight for understanding the appeal of pseudoscience, including pseudoarchaeology. Not only is there always a more complicated explanation, but a range of more complicated explanations are usually more fun and interesting than the obvious, prosaic, simple one.
It is more fun and interesting to at least keep in mind the possibility that a fake bigfoot is made of real bigfoot hair, than it is to simply conclude that it is, in fact, a fake bigfoot. It is more fun and interesting to keep in mind the possibility, however remote, that an ancient advanced civilization was wiped out without a trace by an ice age, rather than to simply conclude that there is no evidence of an advanced civilization before the last glaciation.
But the fun factor in itself, while important, does not explain the hold that pseudoscience has on the public’s imagination. It especially doesn’t, in itself, explain that many people who later become academic researchers, including archaeologists, first encounter their future discipline through its pseudo variant, and are drawn in by it. It doesn’t explain that many, including myself, keep a life-long interest in engaging with the claims of their pseudocolleagues.
The simple explanation is not always the right one
The twin insight to “there is always a more complicated explanation” is that the simpler explanation is not always the right one. As researchers, we all learn some version of Occam’s razor. Until we can show that it is inadequate, we should favour the simpler explanation. Many of us, to be honest, sometimes fall into a heuristic whereby the simpler explanation is the right one. This is especially true when we are confronted with the claims of pseudos. By training, we retreat to Occam Castle. This does us no favours.
When someone claims that a carving in central America represents an ancient astronaut at the controls of a space ship, we declare that there is a much simpler explanation. It is simpler because it doesn’t require us to posit the existence of ancient astronauts in the first place, among other reasons. But we often forget to grant that there are other possible explanations, however remote and unlikely.
We forget to explain that until our simpler explanations are shown to be inadequate, we should favour them. Worse, we often take a short-cut and declare that the alternatives are false, because the simpler explanation exists. This is not literally what we mean, but it is very literally what we say. What the public hears is that we say there are no ancient astronauts because there is a simpler explanation. This goes against their intellectual instincts, and it should.
Members of the general public don’t have our level of knowledge about our discipline and our subject matter. They often don’t know how we evaluate evidence. They sometimes don’t have a clear sense of why and how one explanation is simpler than another.
However, members of the general public have a very clear overall sense, from daily experience, that the simplest explanation is not always the right one, or even the best one. Ask any plumber, computer technician, or social worker. They will confirm. They will know that when you come up with a simplest explanation to a set of observed facts, you still need to test it, and you can’t just start ignoring all the other possibilities, because your simple, neat and elegant explanation may very well be completely wrong. And then where would you be if you didn’t have those more complex explanations in mind?
The best pseudo strategy is professed openness
That is where the pseudos run both logical and PR circles around most scholars. When dealing with our simpler explanations, the pseudos do one of two things. The less sophisticated operators deny that our scholarly explanations are in fact simpler, because they violate some set of core assumptions in the audience’s mind, for example that primitive people a long time ago were incapable of moving large blocks of stone over long distances. We can fight that one by filling in the blanks in the audience’s knowledge.
The much more effective strategy of pseudos is to grant that yes, there are other possible explanations than the ones they are proposing. They will say they are completely open to all possible explanations, including the simple case. The more skillful ones may even grant that those simpler explanations are more likely to be true than the ones they propose. But they will point out that the existence of a simpler explanation certainly does not rule out the possibility that their more complex theories are true.
In contrast, scholars often will express that since there is a simpler explanation for pyramids than UFO tractor beams, the possibility of alien intervention must be rejected. In comparison then, the pseudo’s discourse appears nuanced and accepting of alternate possibilities, which in the public mind is preferable to academic dogma, and rightly so.
I think that in order to compete with the pseudos for the public mind, we have to be as accepting of possibility as the most sophisticated of them. We have to avoid heuristic shortcuts and express very clearly why we favour simpler explanations, but that this doesn’t mean we automatically reject others. We simply see no need for them at this time.
This forces the pseudos to meet us on our own ground. It forces them to make a positive claim some of our criteria by which we evaluate hypotheses and their simplicity are false and mistaken. We are equipped to answer the questions that result. It doesn’t signal to the public that we reject while the pseudo considers. It signals that the pseudo proposes, and we all evaluate together.
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