Sunday, 21 October 2018

Para-Archaeology III Some General Points About Public Attempts to Write an Alternative Archaeology

In the two posts above this (here and here) I address the issue of what happens when 'citizens' try to 'do archaeology differently'. This is termed by some pseudo-archaeology, I preferred to use the term para-archaology. This has every relevance to the attempts made by some to present the collection of portable antiquities as some form of archaeology.

As a case study, I presented what is being written by a gentleman (ex-teacher of music theory specialising in Debussy, or is it Delibes?) in Santa Barbara who flatly denies that scholarship and 'conventional archaeology' has as much to say about Bronze Age connections across the Atlantic than his own 'common sense' approach. You can find it all in the posts above, Atlantis and Tiwanaku at the centre of it all, catastrophism - a massive crustal uplifting taking the latter up four kilometres into the sky and drowning Atlantis, giants and gnomes ("I know they exist, we've got startling photos of  the bodies"), and so on.

My childhood archaeological hero OGS Crawford called this sort of thing the 'lunatic frnge' and it was a problem even then - exactly at the same time that my other childhood hero Wheeler was doing the first 'Archaeology For All' outreach. So the first question here is Mr 'Genesis Quest; John R. Clevenger simply mentally ill? Is he doing it for the rewards (money, fame) he could make from the narrativisation of the past engendered ? Or is there something else involved?

I came across the whole Clevenger-Atlantis story as a result of it being inserted into a twitter thread on 'Pseudo-archaeology' where the author of the thread was saying that archaeologists ought to 'engage' with them, but then admitted that he himself rarely does. My interest was piqued, and I decided to explore the issue of this so-called 'citizen archaeology' because, as I said, this is a term used elsewhere for approaching the past through artefact collectng, and raising the question just what it is we mean by using the word 'archaeology'.

So Mr Clevenger had found a lot of what he regarded as 'evidence', that converged and cumulated (as he put it) to produce the picture he sketched out. So, the Bible said 'there were giants in those days' he believes reports that 'giants' bones' had been found (no matter that not a single one has in fact actually been produced), there were stories in ancient written sources that there was a place called Atlantis and (the 'genius' as he put it) Ignatius Donnolly had also written about it, so it might/must be true. Old story talk of gnomes, and photos of two geographically separated semi-decomposed foetuses look rather odd, so they 'must' be gnomes and their pointy heads means they are 'conehead aliens' and so on. No matter that the foetuses are clearly modern aborted genetically deformed babies and not aliens at all (the Atacama one has been genetically tested by specialists, but Clevenger rejects the qualifications of the testers and methods of doing those tests as having as much meaning as what others say about its 'mysterious' appearance and features). If you check out the 'sources' he seems to be quoting (though he gives very few actual references), a lot of this seems to have been taken straight off various mutually-referencing 'fringe' websites and discussion forums. He says himself that "he [Barford] has no idea about the extensive consultations I have carried on with nearly 200 "alternative" researchers around the globe". It is a shame he did not reach for guidance from an equal number of scholars not holding so-called 'alternative' ideas and using the usual methodology of scholarly enquiry and debate.

Mr Clevenger calls his narrative "hypotheses" (as did Von Daniken), but fails then to follow through the implications of the use of that word in the philosophy of science.  His narrative-building is a classic example of inductivism ("this plus this all add up and I say it means ...."). Popper rejects that kind of narrative building in favour of empirical falsification. Popper holds, and a lot of us have to agree with him, that a theory can never be proven in itself, but it can be falsified. That means if a model predicts that Michigan copper will be found in Bronze Age Europe (because the metal trade is what the narrative says the alleged 'global Atlantean empire' was built on) and no Michigan copper is found in Bronze Age Europe, then that part of the narrative - and perhaps all of it is wrong. There are a number of decisive tests one could carry out to scrutinise the narrative as presented. Mr Clevenger does not seem to understand that.

His manner of going about things is well-illustrated by his initial quoting as conclusive 'proof' of giants the story of one  allegedly encountered by US troops in Afghanistan. The moment that story was shown to be misreporting, he changed the 'proof' to the alleged 'giant bones' found somewhere. His "hypothsis" mutates to accomodate contrary evidence. It starts off with a hunch to which cherry picked 'facts' are attached as evidence. Itf one of them fails to support the story, it is simply discarded. 

This mechanism of constructing this kind of narrative is very similar to the way the world is seen in hypernationalist movements and some kinds of religious fundamentalism.

Mr Clevenger charges that academe is the enemy, engaged in a  (socially harmful) cover up, and narrow mindedly refusing to accept what he says is somehow obvious to all, giants and alien gnomes have walked among us. Or somehow academics are scared to talk about contrroversial topics like that as its more than their job is worth. To be frank, while there is insdeed an unhealthy conformism is parts of the academic world, I do not think this is the explanation of why catastrophism has not been a branch of serious academic study in geology, geomorphologhy, pedology and related disciplines since the mid nineteenth century. But Mr Clevenger has read 'a book' ('Allan and Delair's Cataclysm, which eviscerates Uniformity [uniformitarianism], period') that dismisses all that and says that a huge catastrophe happened  9500 years ago, and so another one, the one he proposes 'could' have happened 1200 BC (but is not evidenced in the same way as he thinks the Catastrophist book he quotes says the 9500BC one is). The point is however that the 1200BC one could not have happened, not in the way he says - the evidence of the geology of the mountains around Lake Titicaca - interestingly one of the best investigated by various specialisations - is right against it, not at 1200 BC, not at any time in the recent human past.

Mr Clevenger not only is unaware of this, but even when somebody tries to take him seriously and finds and posts links explaining this, it really looks from his responses following that as if he's not even checked them out, certainly he is dismissing out-of-hand the information they give. That's because they falsify his preconceived loose interpretations of the few shreds of converging pseudo-evidence that he gives priority to. That is not however how scholarship works. Yet, he dismisses contrary facts out of hand, rather than marshalling incontrovertible facts to falsify the opposing views. Like, for example, giving us a link to a verifiable report of sub-fossil marine seashells from a raised beach in Lake Titicaca, for example. He is just cherry-picking and wilfully ignoring what does not fit the narrative that he has already built and which (apparently) makes such perfect sense to him that nothing is going to shake that belief. His preferred narrative is for him a closed system, one that is phrased in terms to render it unfalsifiable, and therefore a matter of faith rather than proof.

Furthermore he's got it in for archaeology anyway, he thinks they all need his (precisely, his) help to sort out what many of them have spent lifetime doing:
I can start releasing what we and I have worked out thus far--basically a global research program guided by these highly controversial hypotheses, some of them original with me, and many arising from decades of "alternative" research, which I prefer to call the New Archaeology.
That seems a little megalomaniac, no? Mr Clevenger identifies a harmful elite, blames them for misrepresentation of the "true" picture of our world, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power.

1) Mental problems?
Catastrophism's not yet dead
Are people who hold 'lunatic fringe' views actually mentally predisposed to this? I have never met Mr Clevenger and can only go by what he writes. The Genesis Project Facebook page is probably a good source. I am not a psychiaiatrist, so I would not know how to diagnose the problem. I will note one thing, the really odd way he uses his story to predict doom and gloom, when they 'find Senor Giganante', 'just imagine the fear that will ensue', when 'Genesis project' prove that the earth's crust can any day suddenly leap four kilometres into the sky (because geological 'uniformity' does not exist says Mr Clevenger)  then people will be horrified. This sounds very much like 'endtimes' rhetoric. Perhaps a little messianic, he reckons that by gaining acceptance of his picture of the world, he's going to induce change in the world, 'as well as humanity's perception of our place in it', in other words he's a music teacher on a Mission for All Mankind. Coupled with the endemic megalomania that seem to be evidenced by the phrasing of the large number of posts on FB and Twitter [update: Mr Clevenger's twitter account, the one he posted his ranting on Prof Anderson's  has now been suspended], I personally get the picture of the irrational ravings of somebody not quite all there... to me anyway. Certainly, nothing the man has said has dispersed that impression.

2) Money-Making scam
Again, the Genesis Project Facebook page is full of posts showing how much money Mr Clevenger, aided by a well-known (at least to him) film producer [one Carter De Haven] is going to make from the three disaster-film-BC scripts he has written on the basis of this Atlantean narrative. He seems to think that all he has to do is write something and submit it and the money will come rolling in. I hope he's right, good luck to him, but somehow I think if it was that easy my horror film about the deserted Texas museum and the zombie flesh-eating Inca mummy (involving lots of gratuitous nudity and cats) would have made me a fortune by now. Mr Spielberg has been hanging on to it quite a while now, I guess he's reading it very carefully.

3) Conspiracy Theory?
Can we see this kind of para-archaeology as an expression of conspiracy theory type thinking? Mr Cleveneger seems to see the reason why he's having such an uphill battle to find confirmation of his "Catastrophist Atlantis of Giants and Alien Gnomes Hypothesis" is because powerful actors (a fossilised academe) is in the sake of preserving its own power and interests conspiring against the revelation of a view that goes against the picture their disciplines paint. He does propose a conspiracy of silence (academics afraid to be seen rocking the traditionalist boat) and involves explanation of events and situations by mechanisms for which the evidence has somehow been carefully hidden from the public by these academics (the ones not party to his own personal Clevenger-School-of-Music-Theory-and-New-Archaeology). He sees hidden evidence, they see lack of credible evidence.  His "hypothesis" is an intellectual (using the word loosely) construct  imposed upon selected observations of  the world to give the appearance of order to events. He then posits that some small and hidden group has manipulated our perceptions of those events obscuring the hidden truth behind them (giants, gnomes, aliens and Atlantis). The proponents of ‘alternative views’ gathered around Mr Clevenger see themselves as the victims of conspiracy by archaeologists and earth scientists.   

Michael Barkun has written about this kind of thing (Michael Barkun,2003. 'A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press). Clevenger's "hypothesis" is a textbook case of the phenomena he discusses, 'nothing is as it seems', 'everything is connected' and when it comes to the lack of evidence, 'nothing happens by accident'. 

Furthermore, like all conspiracy theorists Clevenger and his followers (and the 'alternative pasts' crowd in general) see themselves as having privileged access to special knowledge or a special mode of thought, or secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.  Professor Roland Imhoff of Mainz has shown that the smaller the minority believing in a specific theory, the more attractive it is to conspiracy theorists ("Conspiracy Theorists Just Want to Feel Special" I think this comes out very clearly from Mr Clevenger's writings.   

4) Suspicion of Experts
We are currently witness to a wave of rejection of the value of expertise in knowledge, we live in a Karaoke culture (Rory Bremner 1998, 'We all star in Our Karaoke Culture', New Statesman vol 127, 25th Sept 1998), where everyone has a say and everyone's voice is to be given equal weitght. An ex-music teacher with no training in the field can propose that he personally can show why we need to overthrow 140 years of accumulated knowledge and observations in the Earth Sciences and show that geologists and plate tectonicists have 'got it all wrong' ("he [Barford] and his "consensus" are in fact utterly, and sometimes laughably, wrong").  Yet when he is questioned, it transpires that the man has not even the basic grounding in any of the disciplines he aspires to reform, and is simply unable to detect the difference between good and bad research or any ability to marshal the facts applying to his pet ideas. Is this just conspiracy theory self-delusion or the lovechild of sixties counterculture rejection of authority? Or is it just arrogant stupidity and then the desire to play the victim when he's criticised?  

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