Last week, actor William Shatner’s twitter account posted a teaser for an episode of his series UnXplained that dealt with ancient monuments, and presumably whether they were built by aliens. Without getting into the show or the mystery itself, it is worth looking at the tweet as a very classic example of pseudo-archaeological and generally pseudo-scientific narrative strategy.
I am starting to suspect that there might be some sort of PseudoSciComm handbook out there, because the strategies are very consistent, and also quite sophisticated.
Ancient ruins fascinate us. Some archaeological finds are so baffling that they challenge everything we know about the past. Will we ever learn the truth about these mysterious ruins? Or will they continue to present more questions than answers? Tonight on @history
Let’s look at this sentence by sentence.
“Ancient ruins fascinate us”.
True. No argument there. That is the hook that we all have in common if we are even remotely interested in archaeology, whether we are professionals, amateur enthusiasts, or honorable members of the general public. The fascination with any physical remains of the past, not just ancient ruins, binds us together. We all want to know more about where we come from, how we got to be us, and where we go from here.
The line also shows that professional archaeologists and pseudo-archaeologists share an audience. We are talking to the same public, engaging the same basic interest, and competing for their attention.
“Some archaeological finds are so baffling that they challenge everything we know about the past.”
Somewhat agree, although I would phrase it quite differently. Some archaeological finds are definitely surprising. Some of them challenge at least some of what we have so far thought about the past.
Already, we see a significant difference in tone and emphasis between pseudoSciComm and what I would tell an audience as an archaeologist. The pseudo-archaeologists and I are not saying completely different things. But we’re putting it very differently to our shared audience. My phrasing is less sensational and less definitive, which is sometimes a limitation in the competition for headlines, likes, and retweets. But where they go for headlines, I am playing a long game that involves letting people know that I do my homework before I say something.
Surprises, by the way, are not a bad thing in archaeology. In fact, we look for surprises. The more the better. If we were never surprised by what we dig up or observe, we would never learn anything about the past. Far from being baffling, surprises are welcome. They are the engine of discovery for us.
“Will we ever learn the truth about these mysterious ruins?”
Excellent question. We are constantly learning some of the truth about these mysterious ruins. But I also have to acknowledge that there is much we will never know. There are some things that we can suspect. There are some things that we can be pretty sure of. And then there are some things that we are just not very well equipped to find out about the past, like the internal psychological whys of the builders, for example. We’re pretty good with the hows, we’re getting amazingly good with the whens, and we can even tackle some of the systemic-level whys.
In any case, I would be quite skeptical of someone who doesn’t acknowledge, or even who denies the limitations of archaeology and of what we can know about the past. I would be skeptical of someone who claims to provide an all-encompassing answer. I would point this out to the audience I share with a pseudo-archaeologist. In other words, I would turn the tables on the uncertainty question. Awareness of uncertainty is one of our super-powers, it isn’t our kryptonite.
“Or will they continue to present more questions than answers?”
This is closely related to the previous sentence. The two are presented as a dichotomy, but they are not mutually exclusive. We can learn some truth about ancient monuments while still having more questions than answers about them.
There is a potentially infinite set of questions about ancient monuments and about the past in general, and there is a very limited number of those questions we are equipped to answer with anything approaching certainty. So yes, there are more questions than answers in archaeology. That’s a fact, not a problem. It means we can keep studying the past forever, which is great, especially as more past keeps getting created every minute of every day.
The fact that there are more questions about ancient monuments than scientific archaeologists can answer doesn’t mean that the pyramids were built by aliens. It means that archaeologists try not to make claims we can’t support. Like anyone, we can speculate. We can suspect. We can even be pretty sure of something. And sometimes, we can test a hypothesis and make a claim with a high degree of certainty. And we try to mark each of those clearly, and separate them in our work.
I have to note that while doing all this, we have to be careful not to fall into what Cecilia Tomori has recently called feeding the doubt machine, in the context of climate change denial and the anti-vax movement. There is a fine line between feeding the doubt machine on the one hand, and acknowledging uncertainty and the limits of our knowledge on the other.
Where the pseudoSciComm handbook says “point to unanswered questions and conclude Aliens” (on no COVID, or no climate change, or whatever), we have to explain why the questions are unanswered. We have to point out that the fact that some questions are unanswered, doesn’t mean that the answers we have to some other questions are false, and it doesn’t necessarily mean aliens. It simply means we don’t know. But we’re working on it.
It doesn’t even hurt to acknowledge that yes, aliens are a vanishingly unlikely possibility in this case, and that we can’t rule it out with absolute certainty. But the overwhelming probability verging on certainty, based on [points to lots of data] is humans, at this time, in this way, and for these reasons. That’s the intellectually honest answer, and in my opinion, the one that will keep the audience listening to us.
If we simply deny possibility based on our professional authority, we confirm that we are part of the conspiracy, which is fully covered in another prominent chapter of the pseudoSciComm handbook.
We share an audience with pseudo-archaeologists. They listen to us as they listen to them, and they decide what they are interested in, and what they want to conclude. I may be naïve, but I continue to believe that transparency about the limits of our knowledge, and therefore also about its extent, is the best way to keep most of that audience thinking and reflecting about the past in a productive way.
4 thoughts on “William Shatner pseudo-archaeology tweet breakdown: Straight from the PseudoSciComm handbook”
It reminds me of the show from 2019, “America’s Lost Vikings”, where the actor who was on “Fargo”, Peter Stromare, in every episode says, “I’m going to prove Vikings were here.
These shows are so far from scholarship it makes me ill, I can’t watch them more than 20-30 minutes, then I move on.
I’ve never approached any subject with the idea that I have to prove anything, I let the facts move me in the direction they take me.
This is why the world is such a mess, lazy people want to be known for finding things out, but because they want fame and care nothing for facts, they just make it up as they go along, and the idea becomes “truth”.
All the world’s religions started like this, a modern-day model of how a crazy idea can become a religion is the “Book of Abraham”, the Mormons believe to this day.
Though the Vikings show did feature at least one skeptic, Stromare relied too heavily on the unqualified fraud Scott Wolter, who with a simple bachelor’s degree in Geology took an acquired expertise in concrete construction and transformed it into his own branch of “archaeopetrography”. This began with his illogical and notably unscientific methodology in attempting to legitimize the infamous hoax known as The Kensington Runestone and continued with the television show America Unearthed, which is best described as comedic misadventures in simply making up history. There are websites dedicated to thorough debunking of his outlandish, and often times idiotic conjecture. Yet he’ll appear on one show after another of this sort of tripe. You want a real laugh, revisit his gem “Pirate Treasures of the Knights Templar” where this noted geologist confused a block of lead for silver. To this day he will not admit his error. Heck, on that show he even claimed that St. Anthony was the patron saint for thieves… as if there could be such a thing.
“I may be naïve, but I continue to believe that transparency about the limits of our knowledge, and therefore also about its extent, is the best way to keep most of that audience thinking and reflecting about the past in a productive way.”
The problem here is that once partisan politics takes hold of any knowledge gained through scientific inquiry, limitations are no longer recognized nor tolerated. Experts can be bought and sold. Opposing sides dig in and what may have begun as a noble undertaking in discovery morphs into the same sort of dogma common to pseudoscience; an unwillingness to admit error. That’s exactly why advanced study needs to be apolitical… and good luck with that.
Thanks for advising me on this, I never knew about Wolter until you said this.
I was raised in a cult, I saw people bend over backward to try and “prove” things that simply were not true. In fact, it seemed when facts had debunked what these people wanted to believe, they only dug in deeper trying to defend their previously held perceptions all the more harder.
I left one night, when yet another belief had been completely disproven, I was expecting the adherents to be behave like I did and to be repulsed by the leadership of the group. Yet when the facts came out, my father said, “this only makes me believe it even more”.
I had to leave those people then, it was the best decision I’ve ever made but I see humans act out like this about all kinds of subjects.
What’s to be gained by this action? Nothing good comes from being a moron? In fact, these people are enslaved to an idea and a whole way of life, which they think makes them happy but they have no point of reference, because they may be happier living in the real world.
In the case of this show, they destroyed an island clinging onto aq fantasy. Nothing good is coming from “faith” like this.