Seven Warning Signs of Pseudoarchaeology

In the last article, I presented John Casti’s “Hallmarks of Pseudoscience” (from his book Paradigm’s Lost), reworked to fit pseudoarchaeology. Today, I’ve reworked Robert Park’s Seven Warning Signs of Pseudoscience to also fit pseudoarchaeology.

Park first wrote of these seven warning signs in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2003, but he derived them from examples from his book Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford University Press), which he wrote in 2000. An emeritus professor of physics at the University of Maryland, Park was an outspoken critic of what he called bogus science for many years. You won’t find the list of seven warning signs in Voodoo Science, but it is where he derived the examples.

The items in bold are verbatim from Bob Park’s list; the descriptions are my own.

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.

The pseudoarchaeologist knows his or her claim will not stand up to being scrutinized by actual archaeologists, so they pitch it directly to the media. Or through media like books, videos, etc. Archaeologists, just like biologists, chemists, and physicists, will always get their ideas in front of as many colleagues as they can first. Then they publish for peer review. The idea is that if there is a bias or a hole in the hypotheses, they want to have it falsified. Sometimes archaeologists get married to a particular hypothesis or another and debates can rage on for decades, but the initial argument is made within professional circles. The pseudoarchaeologist already knows his or her work isn’t up to scientific standards and will instead bypass archaeologists and go straight to the public.

The grand claims and rhetoric of pseudoarchaeology work well with an untrained but curious public. Toss in a few jabs about how the big-bad establishment of Archaeology won’t open its doors to the little guy, and you have instant sympathy. An excellent example of this is Semir Osmanagic’s grandiose claim about the so-called “Bosnian Pyramid.” The geologic formation there, known as a faceted spur, has a pyramid look on several sides, but lacks any actual archaeological evidence to support such a grandiose claim. Instead, Osmanagic relies on the nationalist sympathies of the Bosnian people and desire for mystery for people everywhere to point at certain geologic features and spurious artifacts as “proof” of a 25,000 year old pyramid larger than any on Earth. The lie sells it self and the press initially bought in to the whole thing.

2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.

In other areas of science, this is “Big Pharma” or the energy conglomerates. Or the government with their “black helicopters.” In archaeology, it’s the “Archaeological Establishment” (almost always capitalized), a.k.a. “orthodox archaeology.” Rarely does an organization or government come up, but when it does, it’s nearly always The Smithsonian. Readers of pseudoarchaeological magazines and books are left with the impression that The Smithsonian has vast reaches into academia, private CRM firms, and agency archaeologists from the Forest Service to the Department of Defense. Doubtless there are black-hooded squads of archaeologists armed with assault rifles and body armor standing by to retrieve the bones of the next giant found by an amateur digger even as you read this.

The truth is that there are probably less than 10,000 professional archaeologists in the world, many of them working for private CRM firms, others for agencies and government organizations, all trying to keep up with compliance to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (or their own nations’ equivalent laws) as highways, power lines, dams, and the like are built. A relatively small amount of the total archaeologists in the world work in academia and actually excavate for research. And all these archaeologists answer to almost as many different organizations. If ever there were a herd of cats, this is one.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.

In archaeology, the final explanation nearly always involves some assumptions. If I come across a set of foundation stones laid out in a pattern consistent with a livestock barn, then I find horseshoes, galvanized buckets, and hinges consistent with barns of the type and period expected in the region, then my assumption that I’ve located the site of a former barn is pretty sound. But there’s always a “signal to noise ratio” to contend with in any science. Even archaeology. It is possible that my foundation stones are displaced, that the artifacts are moved from their original contexts. The structure might actually be a house remnant.

Pseudoarchaeologists like to take advantage of the newest advances in science, since these are the least understood and the easiest to subjectively exploit to the public. In a recent video that surfaced on YouTube, Brien Foerster, a tour guide in Peru, works with Aaron Judkins, Joe Taylor, and Chase Kloetzke (a biblical archaeologist, a creationist, and a ufologist) to collect DNA samples from the elongated skulls of some long-dead Peruvians. To the untrained public, this was a very science-like process of the highest caliber. They wore surgical masks, had neoprene gloves, and everything. To those experienced in this sort of data collection, the scene was comparable to a family toothbrush (there are some things you just don’t share). Beards were dropping hair. Heads were dropping hair. Judkins had cowboy hat on over his surgical gear. There was much exposed skin. The signal to noise ratio included, by necessity, the DNA of three if not more people of modern European decent. I have no idea what their research question was, but the answer included them all.

4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.

Bob Park would remind us that “data is not the plural of anecdote.” But the pseudoarchaeologist loves a good anecdote. To them, anecdote is the highest form of evidence. They often use rhetoric in parables that speak of “courtrooms” and “juries of peers” and the value of “eye witness testimony.” This is because in courts of law, rhetoric and fast-talking attorneys win cases, not science. People are called upon to “render verdicts” based on what they believe. Unlike science which relies on the outcomes of data and it reproducibility. There are no double-blind tests in the courtroom, but this is the standard in science. Want to get out of jury duty? Tell the interviewer that you’re a person who believes in science, the value of data over anecdote as evidence, and that you understand eye witnesses are terribly unreliable. You’ll be home before lunch and, with any luck, have a half-day off from your job to go to the movies.

Pseudoarchaeologists would be no where without anecdotal evidence. Ask any “giants-are-real” proponent where the bones are. Answer? The Smithsonian hid them. How does he know? He heard it from someone that knows the truth. Burrows Cave? Someone told someone that he once visited it. Therefore, has to be true. This guy never lies!

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.

Atlantis was first described by Plato, therefore it must be real. They thought Schliemann was crazy until he found Troy, right?

Plato used two dialogues, Timaeus and the unfinished Critias as a means to criticize the political state of affairs of his time without being openly critical of his government. In these dialogues, he created an evil nation-state that was on a very large island, just west of the Strait of Gibraltar in the Atlantic Ocean. The island-continent eventually sinks due to a major cataclysm. Since Plato’s telling of this parable over 2300 years ago, many have taken off with it as a truth. So, was Schliemann crazy? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean the Troy he found is the same Troy that Homer wrote about in the Iliad and the Odyssey. That Troy might never have existed at all. The tell Schliemann excavated is known locally as Hisarlik, and it has 10 occupation layers. The layers that would have been occupied at the time of the alleged Trojan War was destroyed by earthquake, not Greeks. And the people that occupied it next came from southeastern Europe rather than Greece.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.

Like it is with most sciences, the big or notable discoveries in archaeology are collaborative efforts of many people, sometimes of several disciplines. Few, if any, archaeologists work in isolation. Watch an episode of “Time Team America” on PBS (you can still find them at PBS.org) and you’ll see what I mean. It takes a team of people, working toward a common goal, to answer a research question.

Even most notable pseudoarchaeologists like to assemble “teams” and the like. But the small guy, the relatively unknown proponent of one or more fantastic claims, often works in isolation. He (or she) often makes an observation and arrives at a conclusion. From there, the only data that is of use is that which supports the conclusion. It could be an observation that hundreds of rock formations look like people and are, therefore, man made. Or it could be that bent trees are evidence of Native Americans marking trails hundreds of years ago. Both might have difficulty selling their ideas to archaeologists who will ask questions like “what physical evidence like cut marks do you have?”, “Have you heard of pareidolia?”, “have you cored the trees to get an age?” This difficulty probably keeps them in isolation, particularly if they’re ridiculed or harshly criticized.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Every once in a while, the pseudoarchaeological claim is so outlandish that other-worldly explanations are called into play. The tiny little figures of gold jewelry created by the Quimbaya culture of little insects, animals, birds, and fish have some people making claims of travel through time or space. This is because some of them appear to resemble “fighter jets.” Of course, airplanes did not exist in the 5th century A.D., so the Quimbaya were clearly using other things as models. Fish, birds, and insects are a far more parsimonious explanation than time-traveling airplanes or space-going aliens.

 

Bob Park is still with us, but suffered a stroke in 2013. At the time he was optimistic that he’d return to writing his What’s New newsletter. I’d like to think that he still has that optimism.

Further Reading

Casti, John (1998). Paradigms Lost: Tackling the Unanswered Mysteries of Modern Science. New York: Avon Books.
Park, Robert (2000). Voodoo Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Park, Robert L. (2010). Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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About Carl Feagans 333 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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