Defense attorney: Why? The burden is not on me – I don’t have to prove anything.
Me: This is an adversarial system. If the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” your job as a defense attorney is to create that doubt.
Defense attorney: Do I have to call witnesses to do that?
Me: Calling witnesses (or not) is a strategic choice that you make. Whether or not you call witnesses doesn’t change the fact that your role is to create doubt.
Defense attorney: So I should cross-examine the prosecutor’s witnesses? You would like to see a cross-examination?
Me: What would be the point of having an attorney otherwise?
Several people in the courtroom laughed. The prosecutor used her very first peremptory challenges to boot me (and the other PhD that was there) off the jury.
An aggressive case is currently being made by the proponents of "fringe" ideas about the human past. By any measure that I can see, the popular acceptance of those notions is growing. These ideas are not new: ideas about ancient aliens, giants, Atlantis, New World visits by the Lost Tribes of Israel, the Phoenicians, the Celts, the Egyptians, etc., have been around for a long time. The mechanisms by which these ideas can be shared, however, have changed dramatically in the last few decades. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, “fringe” notions about the past were presented mainly via traditional print media (books) and broadcast television. While many of the “fringe” notions of today include core elements that can be traced back to those presented on programs like In Search of . . . (1978-1982), the internet, social media, and the rise of cable television have together dramatically increased (1) the number of mechanisms available for spreading information; (2) the access of individuals to those mechanisms; and (3) the speed with which ideas can spread.
It is difficult to overstate the power of social media to facilitate the spread of ideas (both good ones and bad ones) and to allow ideas with very different levels of plausibility to appear equivalent. In essence, changes in our information infrastructure have created the conditions that allow the narratives of “fringe” notions about the human past to be aggressively presented to the public in a way that has never before been possible. The proponents of these ideas have seized on the new mechanisms for sharing information and are making their cases.
How should professional archaeologists react to this shift? One position is that it doesn’t matter: after all, the cumulative, self-correcting nature of science means that bad ideas will eventually be shown to be false no matter what anyone believes at any particular time, right? In other words, it would be a waste of energy and resources to present counter-argument to these “fringe” ideas.
I disagree. As professional archaeologists, I think we have a responsibility to cross-examine. Just like in a court of law, when you make the choice to leave an argument un-rebutted you risk giving that argument the appearance of legitimacy. Is it responsible to put your feet up on the table and passively allow the producers of Ancient Aliens, Search for the Lost Giants, and America Unearthed educate the public about what happened in the past, hoping that the argument collapses on its own and goes away someday?
Five of the eight Principles of Archaeological Ethics of the Society for American Archaeology contain the word “public.” As archaeologists, we are trained to use material remains to construct plausible interpretations of the past: archaeology is the only branch of science that has access to all aspects of human history and prehistory that are associated with a material record. While much of the public is fascinated by the broad outlines of our subject matter, it is not well-versed in the body of methods and theory we use. It is part of our job to educate the public both about how we arrive at our ideas about the past as well as what those ideas are. Shouldn’t we do this not only by discussing our own work with the public but by paying attention to how the public perceives and weighs non-archaeological ideas about the past?
Why does the “court of public opinion” matter? I’ll give you two examples.
First, ideas about the past are relevant to peoples in the present. It is not difficult to identify articulations between “fringe” notions of prehistory and some pretty ugly ideas about race in this country. The white supremacist website Stormfront has discussions about the roles of Celts, Norse, and Welsh peoples in the peopling of prehistoric North America, for example. The nineteenth century concept of the “Moundbuilders,” with all of its racist baggage, is gaining new currency with the uncritical help of programs like Search for the Lost Giants and America Unearthed. It neither ethical nor wise to let these messages go unchallenged, especially given the entangled and troubled histories of race, archaeology, and anthropology in this country.
Second, if you think archaeology is a science that is important and relevant, you should be concerned about how public perception of what we do and how we do it articulates with the growing momentum of “anti-science” in this country. There is increasing disdain for and/or ignorance about what science is and how it works. It is our job to make our own argument about what we do, why it is relevant, and why all ideas about the past are not equally credible or plausible. We should not let proponents of pseudo-scientific “fringe” ideas educate the public about the past. They will make their case, not ours.
My primary work is in the American Midwest. I’ve started spending some of my time and energy engaging with what seems to be the snowballing notion that this part of the world was once inhabited by an ancient “race” of giants. So far I’ve written three blog posts on the subject: one on double teeth, and two (here and here) on an animal tooth that was misrepresented on Search for the Lost Giants as a human tooth from Denisova Cave. At least a few others in the Midwest have also decided that they are not going to sit with their feet up on the table while the History channel “educates” the public. Brad Lepper of the Ohio History Connection has written about the Newark Holy Stone and the Bat Creek Stone, among other things. Katy Meyers Emery, a graduate student at Michigan State, wrote this blog post about the modified skulls that have been interpreted as the remains of extraterrestrials.
I’m sure there are more of you out there who have already decided to lean forward instead of leaning back, and I hope that more of you will commit. It is important. Public perceptions about the past matter. Public perceptions about the role of science in crafting plausible explanations of natural and human phenomena matter. Our responses to the arguments that are being made matter. We should be responding.