Listener Feedback: Ancient Mysteries
Today we're going to answer listener feedback pertaining to Skeptoid episodes about ancient mysteries: weird structures, strange artifacts, objects from the ancient world that seem to defy conventional explanation. But to the dedicated researcher, it turns out that a science-based explanation does often already exist.
The basic feedback I get on episodes about ancient mysteries can be paraphrased as "It seems hard to believe that humans did this, therefore they had help from aliens." This is often frustrating, as that's the basic premise my episode was attempting to refute in the first place; it's like it fell on deaf ears. For some reason which I don't fully understand, many listeners go straight to aliens whenever they come across an historical work about which they don't happen to personally know every detail. Pyramid? Aliens. Well-crafted masonry? Aliens. Even if we were to assume that humans were not capable of skilled stonework, why go straight to interstellar aliens? Seriously, why not ghosts from right here on Earth? Atlanteans? The Inner Earth people? How about time travelers? That's every bit as plausible as interstellar aliens.
A perfect example of such an ancient construction was my episode on Puma Punku, a carved stone structure at Tiwanaku in the Andes mountains, which reached its cultural peak around 1500 years ago. Despite being nowhere as old as far more elaborate structures such as the Greek Parthenon and temples at the Giza Necropolis, many have asserted that Puma Punku must have been built by aliens. A typical "aliens" email came from Zach in Erie:
It's really not irresponsible to discredit the alien claims. Those claims are what's irresponsible. There's no evidence for it at all and it requires a new assumption of staggering proportions; that aliens are able to visit our planet and do so for the purpose of carving and stacking rocks. No attempt to make contact; just secretly stack some rocks in interesting patterns, then fly back to their own planet.
Compare this to the evidence-based explanation of Tiwanaku: human stonemasonry, supported by literally tons of evidence in the form of stone tools left all over the site, half-carved pieces of stone still in their quarries, even bronze-nickel alloy chisels. No new assumptions are required. Nothing in the construction of Tiwanaku puzzles pre-Incan archaeologists. I argue that it is, instead, irresponsible to dismiss known evidence in favor of a non-evidence based special pleading of "aliens".
Randy from Harrisburg made a similar argument:
I argue that it is not open-minded to dismiss the version of history supported by all available observation and evidence in favor of an alternate version supported by no evidence. This whole open-minded vs. closed-minded argument is really familiar. Believers in the paranormal (or ancient aliens, in this case) frequently charge that it's closed-minded to reject the alien claims. I suspect this is because most of them have not troubled to research any of the proper archaeology done on whatever specific structure they're interested in, but they have watched a pseudoscientific television show and so the state of their knowledge is that aliens visit us, and that it's unknown how humans could have made stone structures in the Middle Ages. Given these two assumptions, aliens become a perfectly reasonable explanation, and it would indeed be closed-minded to dismiss it. But since both of those assumptions are the untrue inventions of television writers, the alien explanation fails to earn responsible consideration.
Jeff from Houston put it another way:
First, Jeff has a lot of bad information. All the tools necessary to build Tiwanaku were found at the site, and it would be trivial to replicate everything there using modern machinery. Second, even if his bad information was correct, the only possible conclusion is not aliens. Flying monkeys are just as likely. Or, why not an army of Persians, who had just finished building the Palace of Darius at Persepolis: why couldn't they have come over in boats, built Tiwanaku, then returned to Persia leaving no evidence? Are we truly forced to consider aliens to be the only possibility? I think not. In fact, I might even suggest that doing so would be closed-minded.
Even when we talked about the crystal skulls — a series of quartz crystals carved into skulls of varying quality, and which began to be bought and sold in the 1870s — people have invoked aliens as the only reasonable creators. Let's hear from Chan in Melbourne:
Again, more bad information, the kind that you would get if you went only to paranormal books, TV shows, or websites to get details. The skulls are of unremarkable Brazilian quartz, which has no unusual properties. It was neither formed in zero gravity, nor have any reputable scientists asserted that it is a microchip. They were carved in the German jewelry enclave of Idar-Oberstein, and clearly bear the polish marks from rotary machine tooling. The date of carving was unambiguously determined through particle accelerator testing of traces of water occluded within the cutting marks. 14 such skulls were purchased and sold throughout the United States and Europe by dealer Eugene Boban; and the famous one that probably inspired Chan's "opposite sides of the Earth" statement is the Mitchell-Hedges skull whose South American jungle discovery has been conclusively proven as a hoax for pulp adventure writing.
The lesson for Chan is that before you search for unearthly explanations, you should first check for Earthly ones.
The Baigong Pipes are a collection of petrified prehistoric wood and bamboo found along the shores of a lake in Tibet. Some people, presumably mostly those who have read sensationalized descriptions online and have not visited in person, believe that they are ancient metal plumbing, and are thus proof that aliens once built an advanced civilization there. Arthur from Huatulco wrote the following:
The photos were not included because I don't have rights to reproduce any on Skeptoid.com; to me it's more disingenuous to pirate photos you don't own off the Internet. But they're out there. Unfortunately they're not very impressive. None of the Baigong Pipe specimens look anything like a pipe, so I probably wouldn't employ Occam's Razor to claim that's what they probably are. They're petrified wood and bamboo, and they look a lot like petrified wood you may have seen elsewhere. They do not really distinguish themselves in appearance from the surrounding rock except in their general shape. The best examples are irregular, roundish rings of rusty-colored rock, which (with some imagination) could be seen as a pipe that had been sheared off or cut.
Finally, I'd like to bring us completely back down to Earth by answering an email that, refreshingly, has nothing whatsoever to do with insisting aliens are behind just about everything. In the episode about the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism I spent some time addressing the tired old anti-science claim that scientists "fear new discoveries". My basic point was the whole career of being a scientist exists because new discoveries are needed; nobody hires a scientist in the hopes of learning nothing. Max from Boston disagreed with my assertion that "If you want grant money, be a maverick, have something new and exciting," and I suggested looking through the National Science Foundation's list of recent funding awards as evidence. Max said:
I think what happened here is that Max misunderstood what I meant by being a "maverick", so it perhaps wasn't the best word choice. I didn't mean that scientists should go out into crankery realms and try to prove psychic power or perpetual motion. What I should have said is that scientists target gaps in our knowledge, places where it's useful to improve existing theory. That is "new and exciting" to the scientific mind, even if it's not levitation or telekinesis.
Max brought up a couple of other points. Let's say that you're a fruit fly geneticist and you're trying to make one glow in the dark. Your Procedure X fails to produce that result, but Procedure Y does. Now, from a knowledgebase standpoint, the results of both procedures are equally important. However, since X tells us nothing new, you probably file it away, producing the "file drawer effect" that Max mentioned, and you only send Y to the publisher. If you sent them both to the publisher, they have limited room in their journal, and they'd probably choose to publish Y and not X because Y is interesting and X is not. This is "publication bias". The cumulative result of all of this is that the general public only ever hears about certain types of results; and even then only after headline editors have twisted it, sensationalized it, and usually gotten it completely wrong.
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