Look! Scientists trying to be Historians Again! Silly Scientists…

Richard Carrier blogged this today:

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.”

Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist! | Richard Carrier Blogs.

Overall, I agree with him on the initial point that Scientists are not historians or theologians and don’t generally have a grasp on the function of our texts. We run into this problem on occasion when Scientists claim they can pinpoint the date of the crucifixion through tracking earthquakes because one of the Gospels mentions an earthquake, or we can determine how the Reed Sea was crossed because a gust of wind can sustain itself for a long time and permit the waters to part.

Read the whole thing.  It is worth your time.  And woe to anyone who really thought this scientist was on to something…


Is Technology Becoming Too Powerful?

This is a very serious concern.  Reported today on MSNBC:

Stuart Crabb, a director in the executive offices of Facebook, naturally likes to extol the extraordinary benefits of computers and smartphones. But like a growing number of technology leaders, he offers a warning: log off once in a while, and put them down.

In a place where technology is seen as an all-powerful answer, it is increasingly being seen as too powerful, even addictive.

The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.

via NYT: Tech firms warn of gadgets’ power – Technology & science – The New York Times – NBCNews.com.

Have you ever felt a phantom vibration? You may already be addicted to your gadgets.  I know this happens to me a lot.  I’ll be sitting at my desk, writing or researching, and I’ll feel a buzz in my pocket, think I hear a humming, and reach for my phone and realize I left it in the other room, or it is turned off (rarely), or in the room but away from me.  And when I go to check it, nothing–no call, no text, no alert notification whatsoever.  The scary thing is I can recall these sorts of phantom calls happening since I had a cell phone, back in the early 2000’s.  That means that this phenomenon has been occurring for at least a decade and I have been addicted for that long.

The dangers here are not just addiction, trouble focusing, and limited attention span, but also the physical stress these electronics are putting on us.  How many times do we check Facebook a day?  How many times do we look at phones for a text?  We do it so unconsciously; because we crave the social attention we get from updating our status, uploading photos, forwarding along memes.   If you’re like me, you’re one of the 68% of Americans who suffer hallucinations in the form of phantom vibrations.

That is scary.  But one must ask, how do we stop it?  You cannot stop technology since society and technology are so intricately connected–our economics depend on it now; we are forever a part of the revolution and evolution of the technological aeon and we cannot simply ignore it.  So where does that leave us?  We may put our phones away for a bit, maybe step away from the computer–pick up a book, go outside, do something without our technology.  But the fact remains that we have to come back to it.  At some point, we have to come back.  Whether for our jobs, for our family, for our entertainment, for our livelihoods.

So what is to be done?


All 786 Known Planets

Thank you xkcd for this awesome graphic:

Click through to see in full size.

And if you want to get some perspective on how small and insignificant we really are compared to everything, see my post here.

Cool Science Subject of the Day: MIT Discovers the Location of Memories

MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. By triggering a small cluster of neurons, the researchers were able to force the subject to recall a specific memory. By removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory.

via MIT discovers the location of memories: Individual neurons | ExtremeTech.

This is really cool.  But I have some questions and some concerns.  How might memory contamination or corruption play into our visualizations of memories?  And if we cannot quite remember things prior to the memory being triggered, are we sure we are not inadvertently corrupting them ourselves?  Would we recognize that corruption if it occurred?

Joel Watts contemplates the possibility of ‘harvesting’ memories from recently deceased individuals, but I wonder if these possible perceptions and corruptions might undermine attempts to store them beyond our bodies, since our memories are no doubt subject to our perceptions.  Or, conversely, do these stored memories provide exact detail about the events?


Giorgio Tsoukalos on the Preston and Steve Show

As a former resident of Philadelphia, WMMR is my all time favorite radio station, and the Preston and Steve Show is my favorite morning radio show.  I listen to it every morning on my way to work and, while I sometimes may disagree with what they say, often I find they are fair and rational and funny–very, very funny.  But when I heard this morning that Giorgio Tsoukalos was going to be on the program, I was curious because (a) he is either a charlatan or an idiot and (b) his hypotheses are ridiculous and I don’t think respectable radio shows like the Preston and Steve Show should be giving this guy any legitimacy.  More on this below.

So I tuned in during work hours (with permission) so I could listen to the interview.  And lo and behold, Preston and Steve (and everyone else on the program) were giving this guy all sorts of validation.  As someone who is working towards becoming a historian, as someone who spends countless hours fact-checking and researching and learning ancient languages to better understand the social and cultural evolution and development of these civilizations, Giorgio Tsoukalos is an affront to it all.  And people actually buy into his trash.  They buy his filth and eat it up like it were some gourmet meal.

I took some notes and I’d like to share them with you, my readers, below, and then I’d like to say a few more things about this interview.

1. Nazca Lines

Tsoukalos brought up the Nazca lines.  And while he is talking about this he is saying things like ‘well who did they make these images for?’ and ‘they didn’t have balloons to go up there and see these things’ and other nonsense like that.  The stench of this man’s bullscat is sickening.  First, just because we don’t know how something happened doesn’t mean we can just leap to the conclusion ‘therefore aliens’. This is not how historians and archaeologists find answers.  Making this incredible leap it is how we substitute fiction and myth for answers.   It is no different than when a fundamentalist Christian will say ‘we don’t know, therefore god did it.’  It is intellectually lazy because it basically suggests that we should just stop looking for answers and blindly accept the ‘aliens guided the process’ argument based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

What is worse, however, is that we do know something about the Nazca lines and who made them: they were made by people.  Humans who have the ability to conceptualize, plan, and execute an idea.  What Tsoukalos is actually saying is that they don’t believe humans could have conceptualized such a feat and put it to action without some exterior force guiding them.  But again this is silly.

We know that ancient civilizations–even primitive ones–were full of smart people who were both mathematically inclined (i.e., they started to develop an aptitude for advanced math, which of course was part of their evolutionary processes, both culturally and physically, which made them more apt at engineering these great feats).  And we know that they used a large manual labor force to build.  The Nazca lines took years to make with a large labor force and quite likely the engineers behind the process used grid layouts to create them (much like how crop circles are made today).  There is no need to fabricate an alien authority or overlord, when humans are more than capable of developing and using these tools themselves, probably for religious purposes (based on the archaeological and anthropological findings in the area, it seems like this area was a religious  mecca for the Nazca).  This is discussed in more detail below.

2. Cultural Explosion:

Another falsity that Tsoukalos brings up is that there was this supposed cultural explosion around the world.  But he is grossly misinformed (or he is just lying).  Despite what he says, cultures around the world were not ‘jump started’; real archaeologists and historians see a gradual progression of development. Culture did not just spring forth from the ground ex nihilo, but had humble beginnings and took thousands of years.

Again, Tsoukalos is just inventing things here or he doesn’t actually know the facts.  Not only did there exist a gradual progression of development but this development happened at different times, in different ways, through a series of different evolutionary processes.  Let’s just take one example (of the many I could provide), the pyramids.

He has been quoted as saying that the alien astronauts ‘gave us the nudge’ we needed to build them.  But in fact this is just more speculation.  Anyone with a background in Egyptian engineering can show a direct linear progression from what were essentially burial mounds to more complex structures, all the way to the pyramids.

Starting from the top left to the bottom right, the progression of the pyramid was a slow one, taking hundreds of years. Originally, just a simple burial mound was the custom. But as the culture grew and civilization expanded, they built mastabas over them. These mastabas became more complex and grew taller, with step-pyramids and finally the bent pyramid, ending with the pyramid design we are familiar with today.

Again, the slightest bit of research is all it takes to discount his entire theory!  In fact the construction of the great pyramids used the engineering features that worked in earlier pyramid types (like the function of building a wide base at the bottom to a narrow base on top, or using the ‘step’ pattern from the ‘stepped-pyramid’ design to construct the bent-pyramids and great pyramids).  See below:

You can see the ‘stepped’ features in this Bent-Pyramid design, under the smoothed finish.

Again, the same construction features, except with that final ‘pyramid’ shape.

The unfortunate thing about Tsoukalos’ perspective is it essentially presupposes that humans are incapable of cultural evolution which flies in the face of all known human history, which rests entirely upon the development of culture and social groups.  It presupposes that we needed another being (instead of ‘Ra’, Tsoukalos uses ‘alien’, but one might as well use ‘leprechaun’ or ‘fairy’ or ‘snarfwidget’ because they are all speculative, intellectually lazy examples of people just inventing an outside intelligence to take credit for human evolutionary processes).

But then he and his ilk take it to the next level by suggesting that, since pyramids exist on different continents, built by different people, then there must have been some ancient alien presence guiding it all.  But they don’t take into account the various differences in cultural stages throughout every continent.  They presume that since the end result is ‘pyramids’ they all were built around the same time, which is simply false.

Take into account the largest pyramid in the world, the Great Pyramid of Cholula.  Initial construction began in the 3rd century BCE (about 2200 years ago), and was built over the course of hundreds of years, with various phases of construction occurring throughout, finally completed in the 9th century CE (1200 years ago).   This is a relatively late pyramid, despite its magnitude, when compared to the Great Pyramid of Giza which was constructed over 4500 years ago, which is over 2300 years before construction began in Cholula!   And subsequently the majority of other ‘pyramid-types’ from around the world came later and later.  The only exception are the ziggurats of many ancient Near Eastern civilizations, some of which were built as early as the fourth millennium BCE.

But Tsoukalos, et al, will not tell you about the problem of dating; they want you to falsely believe that the pyramids were comfortably built by civilizations across the globe all around the same time.  This is the trouble with these sorts of crazy hypotheses.  They suggest the exact opposite of what is archaeologically known about these structures.

Tsoukalos likes to use the word ‘primitive’; we were just too ‘primitive’ to do anything right.  They insist that we were so unsophisticated and backwards that we couldn’t possibly have built these amazing structures ourselves.  However the record suggests the opposite is true. Indeed, one has to wonder where Tsoukalos learned the English language.  ‘Primitive’ has a lot of definitions, but all of them are fairly technical and specific.  At the point when we started building pyramids, during the 3rd millennium BCE, the Bronze Age, man was far from primitive.  ‘Primitive’ humans may be those humans who lived during the stone age or before.  But at the time of the 3rd millennium BCE, man had already developed a strong cultural structure for themselves.  Written language, beer, agriculture, metalwork, advanced conceptual thinking and story telling, laws, mathematics (base 60), astronomy, and so on.  And perhaps most important, we did not just suddenly ‘appear’ like this.  Man didn’t one day gain these skills sui generis, that is to say, humanity hadn’t just started to gain culture, it was entrenched in it.   That we gained this sophistication over a long period of time and built these structures after a steady, but noticeable, cultural progression is nothing new to anyone who has done the slightest bit of research.

This is most obvious when looking at archaeological discoveries.  We didn’t go from the stone age to the iron age over the course of a few generations–it took thousands of years, mainly with the innovation of new ore smelting techniques (going from the Copper Age, to the Bronze Age, to the Iron Age).  And within these ages are various sub-phases of cultural development.  For example the ancient Near Eastern bronze Age spans as thus: Early Bronze Age I – Late Bronze Age IIB took 2100 years and the progression, while slow, was noticeable enough to determine which stage of cultural evolution occurred at which point and belonged to which designation within said age.  And throughout the world, these stages happened at different times, at different rates, all of which depended upon a variety of factors (there is no such thing as a ‘universal bronze age/iron age’).

This absolutely destroys the case for ancient astronaut theory as laid out by Tsoukalos.  If there had been an alien hand guiding us, you would see something completely different.  The archaeological record would show a universal change at the same time rather than a series of slow progressions over time in various locations.  One would expect exactly what these people are claiming; one would expect to find pyramids being built at the same time, in the exact same manner, in the exact same way, functioning exactly the same way.  But we don’t.  The pyramids in South America don’t at all resemble the pyramids in Egypt; nor do they serve the same function (i.e., Mesoamerican pyramids functioned as step-pyramids with a temple at the top, whereas Egyptian pyramids were burial structures for royalty).  Why?  Because they were not constructed by aliens nor were they built by humans with the guided hand of aliens.  They were constructed by various types of peoples, from all over the world, at different times, for different reasons, to serve different purposes.

3. Ancient Astronaut ‘Reasoning’

During the interview, Tsoukalos states that he is giving us ‘his facts’.  It may be that Tsoukalos is giving us his approximation of facts, within his own delusional worldview, but in reality he doesn’t have ‘facts’.  What Tsoukalos has is a series of speculative claims based upon pseudo-correlations between poor understandings of the past.  His case is so terrible that he has no factual grounding to stand on.  It is just all fiction.

Worse, he doesn’t seem to realize this or he is intentionally being dishonest.  The way Tsoukalos forms his conclusions is quite similar to other pseudoscholarship, like the absurd Hold Blood, Holy Grail people, or the Zeitgeist mythers who draw crazy correlations with limited (or without any) supporting data and then propose these bizarre special-case scenarios and claim, after they are done, that what they have is a ‘fact’.  Bob Price breaks this down beautifully while engaging all the flaws and fallacies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in his The Da Vinci Fraud: Why the Truth is Stranger than Fiction (New York: Prometheus, 2005), 23-4:

Despite their indefatigable research, motivated no doubt by true scholarly zeal, these authors seem unacquainted with inductive historical method.  They proceed instead, as they themselves recount the evolution of their hypothesis, more in a novelistic fashion, just like their recent disciple Dan Brown.  That is, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln constantly connect the dots of data provided by medieval chronicles and such, linking them with the cheap Scotch tape of one speculation after another: “What if A were really B?”  “What if B were really C?”  “It is not impossible that…”  “If so-and-so were the case, this would certainly explain this and that.”  These are the flashes of imaginative inspiration that allow fiction writers like Dan Brown to trace out intriguing plots.  It is essentially a creative enterprise, not one of historical reconstruction.

Indeed, Price hits the nail on the head (even if you don’t agree with everything else he says).  The same should be said for Tsoukalos and his ilk on the History Channel who produce shows like Ancient Aliens.  Tsoukalos’ points seem cogent and reasonable if you have absolutely no background knowledge of the past, if you do no followup research, if you let him guide you along his fictional narrative.  And it is a narrative, don’t let his flashy hair distract you from this.  Case in point:

His whole position is based on ‘possibility’ but ‘possibility’ is a lose term to use when you have no supporting data, and your position instead contradicts every other known fact or data point out there.  Then such a thing is not possible.  Then you’re just wrong.

Tsoukalos and others like him also seem to suffer from extreme cases of pareidolia where they see images that resemble, artificially, modern objects or modern concepts and then presume, from that point, that these must be depictions of modern technology in antiquity.  And they argue, much in the way Price demonstrates above, that since modern technology couldn’t exist in antiquity, these must be depictions of alien technology that the ancient ‘primitives’ simply didn’t grasp.  See the problem with such an argument?

Here are some more ‘arguments’ from Tsoukalos:

Anyone who suggests that ‘we were building pyramids’ at the time that Sumeria was ‘being created’ (even if he meant ‘was being settled’, this would still be wrong since the region of Sumer was settled at least 1300 years prior to the first pyramids) should not be talking about history.

4. Conclusions: Caveat Emptor

I have always felt as though the Preston and Steve Show did their best to weed out the trash from the lot.  Of course I know that ratings come first, and yes Ancient Aliens is a ratings-grabber because, like most bunk controversial hypotheses, they sell.  But I was incredibly disappointed today in the overall thrust of the show.  I was expecting some hard-hitting questions.  I wanted to hear someone go, ‘Ok, come on!  You cannot be serious!  Aliens?!’  Instead I heard a lot of parroted agreements from the team.

Sensibility died a little today.  And the tragedy here is that real historians, who work in museums, or educate our students in academic institutions, or who spend time in far away countries (or even this one) doing digs to discover the truth, are completely ignored by the Preston and Steve show.  Did they bother inviting on a credible scholar of ancient Near Eastern history (like anyone at ASOR?! ) to participate in the conversation?  It isn’t like there aren’t a handful of excellent universities in the area (Rutgers, UPenn, Temple, Ursinus, etc…); they could have invited any number of experts on the show with which to discuss this issue.  Did they invite Bob Cargill onto the program?  Cargill, for those who don’t know, is a scholar who not only opposes ‘Ancient Astronaut theory’ but also appeared in the first season of Ancient Aliens but was cut out of following seasons because, I can only assume, he made more sense than Tsoukalos who produces the show.

I will still listen to Preston and Steve, that won’t stop over this.  Everyone makes mistakes.  But I wish they would do something to make amends for this error.  They should bring on someone to set the record straight.  Thousands of listeners tuned in to listen to Tsoukalos spout his bullscat and many probably will believe what he said without question, because in our society most people don’t bother fact-checking their sources (which is why there are still people out there who think The Onion is a real news source–seriously).  Tsoukalos had a free pass to spread his fiction to those listeners and I believe that Preston and Steve have a duty, an ethical obligation, to rectify this.

And to those who are yet unconvinced of my opinions on ‘Ancient Astronaut Theory’, I issue this caveat emptor: believe what you want, it is a free country.  But history is not a boring subject you fell asleep in during High School.  History the the chronicle of all of society’s memories.  It is a compendium of humanity–what it means to be ‘human’.  As a historian, one is tasked with maintaining these memories–just as your brain is tasked with keeping your memories intact, undamaged, available for use–for your future survival.  History may not repeat itself, but people who fail to heed the past are doomed to repeat it.  What Tsoukalos is doing, what he is suggesting you do, is replace that humanity.  To remove what it means to be human and substitute it with ‘Alien’.  His version of the past will destroy the substance of humanity, and in its place will be little green men.  Think I’m being overzealous here?   Maybe.  But let the buyer beware.

Further Resources:

Evolution of Birds is Due to Drastic Change in How Dinosaurs Developed

Continuing on with my Evolution-themed posts over the past week or so, here is an interesting study which seems to confirm what many of us have long suspected:

Researchers from Harvard University, The University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere have found evidence that the evolution of birds is the result of a drastic change in how dinosaurs developed. Scientists have long understood that modern birds descended from dinosaurs. Rather than take years to reach sexual maturity, as many dinosaurs did, birds sped up the clock — some species take as little as 12 weeks to mature — allowing them to retain the physical characteristics of baby dinosaurs.

The results of the study appeared May 27 in an online edition of the journal Nature. (Ed: read the paper here)

“What is interesting about this research is the way it illustrates evolution as a developmental phenomenon,” said Arkhat Abzhanov, associate professor at Harvard and study co-author. “By changing the developmental biology in early species, nature has produced the modern bird — an entirely new creature — and one that, with approximately 10,000 species, is today the most successful group of land vertebrates on the planet.”

via Evolution of birds is result of a drastic change in how dinosaurs developed.

This is nothing new.  Archeopteryx is quite solid enough to show this.  Also interesting is how Dino DNA is still within modern birds, how it can be tweaked, and how that can bring Dino’s ‘back to life’ (so to speak).  For example:

See also this article.

Macro- vs. Micro-evolution

This came up a few times over the past couple of weeks.  First at the Calvary Baptist Church, during our discussion of evolution vs. creationism, and again in private correspondence.   This text explains the functions of evolution very well.  So I’ll just let it speak for itself:

H/T Bob Cargill on Facebook.

Fun With Perception!

This is pretty cool! Because our range of perception is so small, the wall of this static image looks like it is moving!

Just a Theory?

Here is the trouble with claiming we should dismiss evolution as ‘just a theory’ and that we should ‘teach the controversy’:

The trouble is that ignorance begets ignorance.

H/T Bob Cargill on Facebook.

Some Needed Perspective: Our Pale Blue Dot

Sometimes we need to sit back and take a good look around us.

Milky Way over a lake (location unknown).

To see the vividness of what we are, where we are, of which stuff we are made, sometimes we need a fresh perspective.  When I was living in Portugal, in the small town of Bensafrim, I used to love looking up at the night sky.  There was so little ambient light there, that you grasp the  starscape so clearly it used to take my breath away.

I remember staring up at all the pale dots in the sky, questioning whether someone out there was looking back at our pale blue dot in the same wonderment.

Earthrise: From Apollo 8.

I used to imagine myself floating through space.  I zoomed past the moon, looking back toward the Earth, taking in the immensity of it.

The Mars Orbiter Camera of Mars Global Surveyor took this photo on 8 May 2003.

And then I would keep going.  I would make my way through the solar system, stopping by a few planets here and there.  But always, my eyes fixated on Earth–the place I call home.

The Earth, the Moon, Jupiter, Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa

And maybe I would stop at Mars…

Earth as seen from Mars.

Or I would just keep on going…

Earth as seen from Saturn (via Cassini)

…until I reached the point where Voyager 1 had taken that photo of us as a pale blue dot.

Image from Voyager 1

And when I finally came to rest at this point, the fact that we are so infinitesimal compared to the rest of the universe, I would recall Carl Sagan’s words (from The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean):

Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Cue my serenity.

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