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Rewriting the past and pseudohistory
Chapter 16: Rewriting the Past and Pseudohistory
Table of Contents
Chapter 16: Rewriting the Past and Pseudohistory
I. Examples of Pseudohistory: Holocaust Denial
II. Examples of Pseudohistory: Afrocentrism
III. Examples of Pseudohistory: Aliens and History
IV. How Do We Distinguish Between History and Pseudohistory?
V. Why Do People Believe Pseudohistory
“The Institute for Historical Review is an independent educational research and publishing center that works to promote peace, understanding, and justice through greater public awareness of the past, and especially socially-politically relevant aspects of twentieth-century history” (Institute for Historical Review, 2010).
“The skeptics society is a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors, and teachers, and anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas, and the promotion of science. Our mission is to serve as an educational tool for those seeking clarification and viewpoints on those controversial ideas and claims” (Skeptic, 2010).
Both of these statements sound akin to scientific pursuit and exploration. One site promises to enlighten readers and show them the truth that has been hidden behind popularized deceit while the other upholds widely accepted scientific beliefs; however, both claim to be devoted to logical thinking and reason. So which site displays articles denying aspects of the Holocaust and promotes ideas of an international Jewish conspiracy? To investigate this question we must first understand the fundamental differences between history and pseudohistory.
We are all familiar with history. Chances are you have been required to take a few courses in it yourself, but just in case you have managed to evade the subject, here is a review. People generally think of history as a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events. It consists of all that has come before this present moment. The information is not subjective or open to interpretation; however, it does get mixed up all too often with opinion and subjective interpretation. How can this be? Events either did or did not happen, so there should not be any question as to what occurrences are factual and what are fiction. The only interpretations that could justifiably be made would be ones concerning its impact, morality, or another subjective measure, but some historians do question events themselves. This is where pseudohistory comes into play. Michael Shermer describes pseudohistory as history “without supporting evidence and plausibility and presented primarily for political or ideological purposes” (2002). Some pseudohistorians manipulate and/or exclude evidence to rewrite history in a way that suits their own agendas for discrimination or because causing such a controversy can be profitable.
Who decides how history is written, though? One could argue that the victor determines how historians write history. Others contend that history is a science just like all other sciences and that history is a testable field. For history to be a science, it would have to follow all of the basic principles laid out for scientific exploration. One of the main principles of science is that it bases its investigation on converging evidence. Historical inquiry does in fact follows in this pursuit. Archeological finds demonstrate how historical convergence works and how it aids in the investigation of historical hypotheses. Suppose a group of archeologists found artifacts at a dig , such as clay dishes. They think that they have discovered a settlement from a particular ancient civilization. To support this hypothesis, they need evidence. Maybe, in addition to the clay pots, they find evidence of permanent dwellings such as stone foundations and water wells. In addition to that, they uncover what appears to be a graveyard with multiple generations buried there, not far from the site of the dwellings. A previous dig site not far away displayed similar characteristics (i.e. same style of pottery making and similar building structure). Each piece of information separately does not explain much, but the combination of artifacts begins to tell a story of life during that time-period. If further excavation uncovered writings with similar characters to those used by this ancient civilization, support for their hypothesis would strengthen. The evidence comes together and makes a historical context that would not be accepted with a single fact alone.
Pseudohistory, on the other hand, either does not acknowledge inconsistencies in convergence or dismisses them as flukes that are bound to happen as a part of any investigation. Shermer describes a case of this in Afrocentrism. The writer of
Not Out of Africa
, Mary Lefkowitz, attended a lecture by Dr. Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan, a well-known Afrocentrism extremist, at Wellesley College in 1993. Dr. ben-Jochannan presented the idea that Aristotle stole his ideas from the library of Alexandria. Black Africans used this library to collect their philosophical works and, according to this movement, Western philosophy originated from these ideas. When Lefkowitz asked Dr. ben-Jochannan how this could be, since Aristotle’s death occurred before the building of the library, he dismissed her question (Shermer, 2010). The evidence here does not converge to produce a complete, uniform picture on prior knowledge. It makes a good story, but the time frame is inconsistent. This flaw can be seen throughout pseudohistory, and ignoring these inconsistencies leads to the destruction of true history. In this case, at least, the whole reveals itself in the sum of its parts.
Another problem with people viewing history as a science is that scientists can control laboratory settings, manipulate independent variables, and measure dependent variables to test their hypothesis. The fact that history is unable to perform these types of tests should not be considered a weakness in the field. Paleontology and geology are sound sciences despite their inability to view past events as they unfolded or design controlled experiments. Like other scientists, historians have the ability to test their hypotheses against new evidence and previously acquired data. History is falsifiable, relies on convergence of evidence, can be tested against prior data, is revised with the uncovering of new information, and is modified if the new information does not support the previous hypothesis. In these ways, history shows many of the principles of other scientific investigations; however, these processes are sometimes overlooked and pseudohistory sneaks in to provide false testimony without any scrutiny to the findings.
Not even college courses are infallible from the effects of pseudohistory. Most psychology majors are more than familiar with the story of Little Albert. John B. Watson took a small child and used classical conditioning to make him fear a rat. The child received a white rat to play with and showed no fear of it. Loud cymbals were then crashed behind his head to make him cry in fear, and in some versions, pain from the loud noise was mentioned. After a short time, the child associated the rat with the noise and began to cry at just seeing white rats. He also displayed fear of white rabbits, Santa beards, and all other white fuzzy things. This story may sound familiar, but what if this version were not completely accurate? Dr. Ben Harris describes the exaggerations and misinterpretations in his article “Whatever Happened to Little Albert.” In truth, Albert did not generalize all white fuzzy objects; some objects like a dog, fur coat, and hair that he generalized to the rat were not white. He also managed to generalize to some white objects that were not furry, and the responses were not as strong as some textbooks report. He showed mainly an avoidant attitude toward generalized objects and not the prolific fear some classes hear of in general psychology (Harris, 1979). This just makes for a more memorable story, and it would have been a perfect example of classical conditioning.
Where does this leave us in our quest for truth? First, this chapter will give an overview of some pseudohistoric claims such as Holocaust denial/revisionism, Afrocentrism, and alien pyramid building. Then it will discuss how to tell the difference between history and pseudohistory by citing some common components of pseudohistoric claims and, finally, attempt to explain why some people believe pseudohistory.
I. Examples of Pseudohistory: Holocaust Denial
Most people have basic knowledge about the Holocaust. It was a time during World War II when the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler killed millions of Jewish, handicapped, homosexual, and Gypsy people in concentration camps throughout their controlled territories, but there are many who disagree with these widely accepted and supported facts; these people are called deniers. The term “Holocaust denial” may be misleading, though. Most “deniers” do not claim that the Holocaust never happened, but they disagree with certain aspects of the accepted historical representations. This group has also adopted the name “Revisionists”; however, this term disgusts some traditional historians. James Najarian states that all historians are revisionists, and deniers who use this term are hiding their true intentions by using this ambiguous description. He calls them “a group of right-wing ideologues who operate out of the ‘Institute for Historical Review’…Although few of them are actually trained in history, they put out sham scholarly articles in their mock-academic publication” (Najarian, 1997).
The three main aspects of the Holocaust deniers disagree with are:
1) There was intentionality of genocide based primarily on race.
2) A highly technical, well-organized extermination program using gas chambers and crematoria was implemented.
3) An estimated five to six million Jews were killed (Shermer, 2010).
Deniers claim that, though Jews did die in camps during World War II, the casualties were no more than should be expected during wartimes. They claim that there was never a Nazi policy designed to exterminate European Jewry. They also assert that the solution to the “Jewish Question” Nazis referred to was deportation from the Reich; however, the early success of Germany in the war placed the regime in an unexpected position. There were more Jews than the Reich could possibly deport, and the later losses in the war caused the Nazis to have to confine Jews to ghettos and finally camps. Deniers also maintain that the main causes of death of Jews during the war were disease and starvation. This was supposedly the result of Allies destruction of German supply lines and resources during the war. Deniers admit that some people were shot and hanged and possibly some experimental gassing took place, and they even concede that Germans overworked Jews in forced Labor camps to further the war effort, but this only represents a small proportion of those who died. The Nazis only used the gas chambers for delousing clothing and blankets and the crematoria for disposing of the bodies of people who had already died from other causes. As for the final claim, deniers admit that some Jews were killed, but they estimate between 300,000 and two million Jews died in the ghettos and camps as opposed to six million (Shermer, 2010).
1) Extermination Based on Race
The first argument stated that no plan existed to exterminate the Jews. David Irving, a prominent denier, suggested that any killings occurred because small, local groups of Nazis had no choice with the direction of the war and the inability to deport all of the Jews, and the higher echelons handed down no order to kill off the Jewish population. Irving translates, from Governor-General Hans Frank at a Krakau conference on December 16, 1941, “I have started negotiations with the aim of sweeping them [further] to the east…At any rate a big Jewish exodus will begin…In Berlin they tell us: What’s bugging you—we’ve got no use for them either, liquidate them yourselves!” The statement started out sounding like what deniers claim, that Jews were supposed to be moved out of the Reich, but one wonders what he meant by “liquidation”(Shermer, 2010). Deniers have plenty of pieced together quotes and interpretations that sometimes seem to discredit their claims more than support them. They only use the parts of the quotes that support their claims and then disregard the rest. Liquidation does not mean relocation no matter what dictionary you may use or how it is said. The general meant to have the Jews moved out to concentration camps where guards killed them in mass numbers. Deniers may respond to this by arguing that a discrepancy arises when people translate words from one language to another, or that the meaning of the word may have changed over time. If deniers have considered this possibility, it is very probable that historians as well as others have considered the same possibility. However, they apparently still arrived at the conclusions that have come to be accepted by the majority.
An example of this problem with translation occurs with the analysis of the word “
. This word translates to “exterminate”; however, Irving claims that it means something very different now than it did during Nazi Germany. According to Irving, the correct translation for the time would be “stamping or rooting out”. Shermer calls this “another example of
post hoc rationalization
“(2010). Supporting evidence converges in favor of traditional historical accounts, and Irving provides the counter-evidence for his own belief. In a discourse with Shermer, he quotes Hitler saying, “If the Soviet Union should ever succeed in overrunning Germany it will lead to the
of the German people.” Irving argues that Hitler could not possibly have meant the extermination of 80 million Germans. He maintains Hitler meant that the Russians would remove the Germans from a position of power. Shermer counters with Hitler’s use of the word again to describe how the Nazis needed “to
them [American Troops] division by division”. Now, Irving claims the word has a new meaning. In this case, he claims it means to root out by putting them in camps as well. With already overflowing camps, finding a place for them would have been hard. More examples of the word include the use of it by Dr. Grawitz of the SS Reichsarzt to describe a tuberculosis epidemic, Hans Frank being unable to
lice, or Himmler speaking of Roman emperors who exterminated [
] the first Christians. The evidence clearly converges on one point; Hitler meant to exterminate the Jewish population (Shermer, 2010).
These quotes show that the Nazi leaders intended to exterminate the Jewish people because of their race. Although how historians translate these two words is pivotal to how the events are seen, enough documents from the period suggest that the current translations are correct. Deniers try to pick at the evidence to cast doubt on the facts, but they focus on minor aspects of arguments instead of looking at the entire picture to get a full view of the contexts. In addition, with such an expansive range of words, it would be impractical for a translator to use
in place of
if that was in fact what was meant by the original document.
2) Gas Chambers and Crematoria Used for Executions
The second facet of Holocaust denial concerns itself with the employment of gas chambers and crematoria to kill the Jews systematically. Deniers do not contest that these two structures existed, but they believe they served a very different purpose from what historians attest. They claim that the Nazis used the gas chambers only for the delousing of clothing and blankets. The crematoria were supposedly used only for burning the bodies of people who died of natural causes (Shermer, 2010). The facts in both of these claims tell a different story. The evidence from four separate sources supports the idea that guards made use of both edifices in their extermination of the Jewish and other populations. Original documents that survived the war show large orders for Zyklon-B (hydrocyanic acid gas). There are also orders for supplies to build the gas chambers and crematoria as well as blueprints for the construction of both of these (Shermer, 2010). Zyklon-B was traditionally used to kill insects and rodents; however, Auschwitz began experimenting with it in September 1941 as a more effective way of killing people (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2010). The Zyklon-B would not be enough evidence to claim that people were gassed in the chambers. Deniers point out this fact readily, because the use of Zyklon-B had another reasonable purpose; furthermore, the other evidence in conjunction with the large amounts of Zyklon-B suggests that its uses were more expansive than just to delouse clothing. If Zyklon-B was used only for delousing, deniers must account for the large quantities of chemical and present a reason for having locking doors on a chamber that was not used for keeping people trapped inside. This is just another example of how they can use only pieces of evidence to support their clams.
Eyewitness testimony provides further evidence, and historians have collected information from individuals of many different positions, not just survivors. Jewish Sonderkommando diaries and confessions from the guards themselves describe how the gas chambers implemented mass murder. Photographs taken of the camps, burning of bodies, and aerial reconnaissance photographs of prisoners entering the gas chambers attest to the extensive destruction. The Sonderkommando photos are a set of such pictures depicting some of the atrocities that occurred at concentration camps (Stone, 2001). Parts of the camps themselves still stand for examination. Forensic tests back statements and evidence from other sources (Shermer, 2010). Deniers skew this evidence by showing how the levels of chemicals in the gas chambers was lower than the levels found in places not used for killing. This would pose a problem except for the fact that the amount of Zyklon-B needed to kill a human being is lower than the amount needed to kill lice (Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, 2007).
Another fact deniers use to cast doubt on the existence of gas chambers is the variation of descriptions in the process, specifically the time it took for victims to die from asphyxiation in the chambers. The time ranges from four to twenty minutes in some accounts, but this should give credence to the accounts, not cast doubt on them. If all of the statement were exactly alike, one could infer that the story was concocted; the differences show the complexity of the situation. The speed at which the gas stopped respiration depended on a number of factors, such as size of the gas chamber, the number of people in the chamber, the conditions of the room (temperature, humidity, etc.), the amount of Zyklon-B poured into the chamber, and the observers’ perceptions of time (Shermer, 2010).
Deniers also discount photographic evidence stating that the CIA or other entities have tampered with the photographs to make them appear more damning. Shermer, with the assistance of Dr. Nevin Bryant, analyzed one such photo. Dr. Bryant supervises cartographic applications and image processing applications at Caltech/NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He compared an aerial photo of a concentration camp with one taken at the exact same camp by an SS photographer and determined that the photos were authentic by showing how the two showed the same building from different angles (Shermer, 2010). Deniers try to poke holes in individual pieces of evidence, but the evidence as a whole forms a framework that supports and reconfirms the other aspects of the argument. The time it would take to create such a large number of photos would be astronomical as well. The Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. displays many photos of victims as well as videos so gruesome that they play them behind a wall to keep small children from viewing them without parental consent.
3) Number of Jews Killed
In accordance with their claim that the intent of the “Final Solution” was to deport Jews and not to exterminate them, deniers estimate the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust totaled between three hundred thousand and two million, far below the current estimate of five to six million. The chart below shows the estimated number of Jews who died per country (Shermer, 2010).
Bohemia and Moravia
This summarizes how some historians have estimated the death toll. They took the demographics prior to the war and compared those to the population after the war; however, deniers would point out the fact that emigration could explain these same phenomena (Rassinier, nd). A person could reasonably assume that some Jews had to have escaped the death camps, but according to deniers, about four million of them are missing. This number of people should be easy to account for if they were alive somewhere after the end of the war. The burning of all the bodies creates a problem with determining a death toll by destroying vital evidence of the number of bodies discarded.
Some deniers point to an Israeli conspiracy for exaggerating the death toll for money. It is true that Israel did request money for reparations in March 1951 because:
The government of Israel is not in a position to obtain and present a complete statement of all Jewish property taken or looted by the Germans, and said to total more than $6 thousand million. It can only compute its claim on the basis of total expenditures already made and the expenditure still needed for the integration of Jewish immigrants from Nazi-dominated countries. The number of these immigrants is estimated at some 500,000, which means a total expenditure of $1.5 thousand million.
This suggests that the Israeli government would profit more from exaggerating the number of survivors than those dead. Secondly, most of the money the government received went to the survivors (Shermer, 2010). If you divide out the numbers, the total comes to about $3,000 per individual.
When these previously mentioned tactics fail, some deniers turn to justification of the internment camps. They point out America’s treatment of the Japanese during the same period as validation for the internment camps in Nazi occupied areas. This argument is feeble at best. One wrongdoing does not give good reason for another. Deniers also point out the unfairness of having a Holocaust museum in the capitol of the United States but not an African American dedicated to the atrocities done to them. This is a valid point considering the more direct link to these other events; however, denial arguments themselves also ignore other groups affected by the Holocaust such as Gypsies, handicaps, and homosexuals. This does not justify the lack of recognition, but the pendulum must swing both ways. Almost every group of people has suffered persecution at one time or another. Native Americans suffered under Americans and under settlers from Europe before that. The British unjustly treated early settlers, and the list could go on throughout human history.
II. Examples of Pseudohistory: Afrocentrism
Afrocentrism started as a trend in the 18th and 19th century as a sort of backlash to Eurocentric principles. The group targets college students almost exclusively because, some say, division of this class keeps the lower classes from rising up against the upper class (Furr, 1996). Afrocentrism principals state that democracy, science, and philosophy all derived from Africa, more specifically black Egyptians. It also claims that prominent figures such as Socrates and Cleopatra were of black African descent. UK-Skeptic describes it as being:
In some ways …an understandable reaction to the deep injustices of racism, and the subjugation of Black people in America for much of its history…However, at its most extreme, Afrocentrism is essentially racist; and its thinking flawed. Ironically, its inherent racism has been allowed to go unchallenged in many quarters through fear of any criticism being deemed racist. The claims made by some extreme proponents have taken academic points out of context to promote their own ideological beliefs and perpetuate and promote racial tensions (UKSkeptics, 2005).
The three main points highlighted by extreme Afrocentrism beliefs include: Socrates and Cleopatra were black; Aristotle stole ideas from the Library of Alexandria; and an Egyptian Mystery System was developed.
1) Socrates and Cleopatra were black
One claim of Afrocentrists is that both Socrates and Cleopatra were black. The fallacy in this logic is that the argument “they could have been” does not hold well in academic circles. Socrates could have been many different things, but it is more reasonable to look at the likelihood of his ethnicity. Athenians were a proud sort of people and did not grant citizenship to outsiders, especially not those with revolutionary ideas such as Socrates. In fact, Socrates describes himself as a citizen of Athens, meaning that his parents were both citizens as well. This suggests that Socrates was at least similar in appearance to other Athenians. The statues and paintings of the time do not show strong facial resemblances to Ethiopians, suggesting that the Athenians were Caucasoid (Lefkowitz, 1996). A third problem with the claim that Socrates had dark skin is that the idea is a purely twentieth-century, American belief, and no supporting evidence exists to confirm it. The best support Afrocentrists have for the claim of Socrates’ lineage is sculptural renderings of him with a large nose, wide nostrils, and large lips. This portrayal does resemble Athenian representation of Ethiopians, but like most of Greek art, it displays stylization instead of a true representation (Lefkowits, 1996). This stylization appears in other cultures as well. Egyptian Pharaohs, for instance, are depicted with the same face, crown, and beard.
Scholars have a large collection of information regarding Cleopatra and her lineage. Her ancestry dates back to one of Alexander’s generals. Her people were Macedonian Greek, the Ptolemies. Cleopatra was the name given to women of royalty at that time, but the one we are concerned with is Cleopatra VII. Her grandmother on her father’s side is the only ancestor whose nationality is unknown. She was the grandfather’s mistress and not his wife; however, most marriages were to family members to preserve the bloodline, so it is reasonable to assume that the grandmother was another close relation
of the same ethnicity (Lefkowitz, 1996). Though some of this is speculation, these theories have long been established and are favored by probability. If a new theory is proposed, its theorists must provide evidence at least equivalent to the existing information. Her lineage is supported by the context of the society in which she lived. History cannot exist as a snapshot of a single time or area. It has flow, connecting it to the past, future, and all of the cultural norms of the time. This is exactly what Afrocentrists are failing to do. They focus on Cleopatra, who is the prominent figure in history, instead of her other family members. She was the first in her family to learn Egyptian; if one of her ancestors was indeed Egyptian, her father would feasibly be the first to speak the language (Lefkowitz, 2010). Misinterpretations of Shakespeare’s work concerning Cleopatra have also been used to cast doubt on accepted principles. He refers to her as tawny and black, but these statements are merely a play on words. If he had actually meant the color of her skin, he would more than likely have used the term “Ethiope” (Lefkowitz, 2010). Numerous examples of this type of representation exist in literature. Unfortunately, “black” is often used to describe something as evil or shady. Dr. Molefi Kete Asante contests that these claims do not make up the core of Afrocentric claims (Asante, 2009.). Despite this stance, other sources show certain groups continuing to implement these teachings, such as a Milwaukee school displaying a poster of a black Cleopatra (Price, 1997).
2) Aristotle stole ideas from the Library of Alexandria
The second Afrocentric claim is that the Greek philosopher Aristotle stole ideas for his works from the library of Alexandria. Like the previous claim, this has little to no supporting evidence and, in fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. In a historical sense, it would have been impossible for Aristotle to steal the documents as demonstrated below (Lefkowitz, 1996).
A further review of the books contained in the library shows that most of them were Greek. When scholars examine texts written by the Egyptians and those composed by Aristotle, the similarities are very general and can be seen in most ancient writings. The allusions to the soul and creation found in each text is hardly rare (Lefkowitz, 1996). A number of societies have stories about the nature of the soul as well as the origin of the universe. Native Americans, for example, spoke of the spirit within all things and the earth resting on the back of a tortoise, but they are not being accused of stealing their ideas from Africa. Aristotle could have “stolen” this idea from any number of cultures that preceded the Egyptians. Dr. Asante refutes Lefkowitz’s claims, saying that the city of Alexandria existed long before Aristotle under a different name, and this shows that Afrocentric accounts are completely plausible (Asante, 2009). As you can see, although Lefkowitz concedes that Alexandria was founded earlier, the library was still not built until after his death.
3) Egyptian Mystery System
Lefkowitz explains that, “In order to show that Greek philosophy is in reality stolen Egyptian philosophy, Afrocentrist writers assume that there existed from earliest times an ‘Egyptian Mystery System,’ which was copied by the Greeks” (Lefkowitz, 1996). Proving that this system existed is crucial to Afrocentrist claims because the Greeks would have needed a reason to study in Egypt. George G. M. James describes three levels of initiation into the mystery system in his book,
. He claims that to progress through these ever-increasing levels of prestige one must embrace the principles of science. He establishes this principle as proof for Socrates belonging to the mystery system. Crimes laid out against him as well as other philosophers included “investigating things beneath the earth and in the sky.” James concludes that because Socrates was following the requirement of embracing science he was trying to become a part of the mystery system (James, 1954). That is a big leap to take without more supporting evidence.
There seems to be some disagreement, however, on what Afrocentrism really comprises. While Lefkowitz’s three main arguments are stated above, writer Molefi Kete Asante claims the following, concerning the true nature of Afrocentric belief:
The main point made by Afrocentrists is that Greece owes a substantial debt to Egypt and that Egypt was anterior to Greece and should be considered a major contributor to our current knowledge. I think I can say without a doubt that Afrocentrists do not spend time arguing that either Socrates or Cleopatra was black. I have never seen these ideas written by an Afrocentrist nor have I heard them discussed in any Afrocentric intellectual forums. Professor Lefkowitz provides us with a hearsay incident which she probably reports accurately. It is not an Afrocentric argument.
It seems that there may be two groups referring to themselves as Afrocentrists. One identifies itself as a supportive network that strives to give African-Americans pride and a place in history while the other exaggerates claims to inspire its followers. James could be considered such an extremists by claiming, “Greek achievements were based on a deliberate and systematic plundering of Black Egyptian ideas” and encouraging Black people to refuse to cite Greek philosophers and quit sororities, fraternities, and any other organization that honors the ancient Greeks (UK-Skeptics, 2005).
III. Examples of Pseudohistory: Aliens and History
A final example of pseudohistory is the belief that aliens have visited Earth and have contributed to historical events such as the building of the Egyptian pyramids. The Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association (A.A. S. R.A.) produces articles on subjects ranging from UFOs in ancient times, alien visitation in the remote past, alien archaeology, technology of the Gods, alien references in mythology and ancient scriptures, ethnology (survived alien traditions etc.), evolution/genetics, philosophy, exobiology, and space exploration. SETI or Paleo-SETI is the term used by this organization to refer to the theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth in the past and influenced the development of humankind. The questions this organization tries to answer are: 1) Could the knowledge of apparently highly advanced technology in ancient civilizations possibly be related to alien contact? 2) Did extraterrestrial visitors interfere with or even guide human and cultural evolution? 3) What traces do we currently find on Earth or in our solar system that might indicate such visits? 4) What are the implications and consequences of proving “We are not alone-and never have been? 5) And are we really the pinnacle of creation? These “scientists” claim to have an advantage over other researchers because they take into account all discoveries and information from all fields of science (Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association, n.d.). Scientists, by their very nature, try to be open-minded about novel ideas. Carl Sagan describes searching for extraterrestrials with NASA using true scientific methods (1995). By an odd coincidence, or an attempt to convolute the topic, the NASA program created to search for extraterrestrials is titled the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – the same name the pseudoscientific belief adopted to promote the idea that aliens have already visited the earth.
Most of the information on the internet about alien pyramid building can be purchased, but there is very little free information available. Even the A.A.S. R.A. only displayed their basic idea before directing me toward an online bookstore. One such book explains the evidence for alien theories. Jim Marrs asserts that the dates previously accepted by scholars for the building of the Great Pyramid is wrong. He claims that the erosion of the pyramid as well as the erosion of a sphinx in Egypt could only be caused by rainfall and vertical erosion. No rainfall has been recorded in Egypt in significant levels since 10,000 B.C.E.; the pyramid must be older than that. This would put these structures’ completions seven thousand years prior to the Egyptians. The Great Pyramid was a prototype built before the smaller ones that the Egyptians constructed. Marrs believes that the stones used for the largest of the pyramids are too heavy for even modern equipment, so it would be irrational to think an ancient civilization could accomplish such a feat (1997). The book goes on to quote Egyptologists who concede that the building of the pyramids would have been difficult, but it makes their statements sound as if they support the alien theory, which they do not. Egyptologist Margaret Maitland outlines the alien claim’s faults in her blog. First, alien theory makes it sound like the pyramids sprung up spontaneously out of nowhere, when in fact there was a slow progression from smaller models to the large pyramids of today. Secondly, carbon dating has confirmed the dates of construction of the pyramids around 2575-2450 B.C.E. Third, and maybe most importantly, Egyptians were not primitive, cave dwelling savages. They were interested in science, astronomy, agriculture, writing, religion, mathematics, metal-working, semi-precious stone-working, sophisticated artwork, monumental stone architecture, and the civilization of many people under one ruler (Maitland, 2007). However, there are still people unconvinced by the Egyptian’s capabilities to build the pyramids. They believe that some superior intelligence was required.
A popular supporter of alien theories is Erich von Daniken. He travels the world looking for proof of alien assistance in the development of ancient civilizations (Letztes, 2010). Skeptics claim that von Daniken’s proof was a set of fraudulent pictures of pottery with UFOs painted on them. When he was confronted, von Daniken explained that some people would only believe him with proof (Popa, 2010).
IV. How Do We Distinguish Between History and Pseudohistory?
It would be difficult to evaluate every claim we ever heard; though, this is exactly what we might like to do at this point. So how do we know when we should look closer at claims presented to us? Despite what one might assume, history is testable (Shermer, 2010). I discussed earlier how the convergence of evidence tests hypotheses in history. In some ways, historians tell a story or present a picture of the entire spans of time. It is hard to study individual events because everything is connected to the events that preceded them. Small pieces of information gathered personally provide very little information. People could construe the image by taking it out of context or viewing it from a flawed perspective without all of the available information. To avoid falling into this trap, one must not look at events through the eyes of modern society unless that is where they occurred. They must try to envision the time, the environment, and the people to see if the scenario still makes sense; test it against other evidence from the same period to see if there is convergence with other events; and use the theory of aliens building the pyramids as an example. By themselves, the pyramids are phenomenal. Even after we realize that there were prelude designs, they are still astounding. However, we are not led to believe that they are supernatural.
Along with the subject being testable, it must also follow the other scientific principles such as falsifiability (Shermer, 2002). Pseudohistory tends to shy away from criticism and avoids directly dealing with issues that cast considerable doubt on their claims. Scientists look for evidence that will disconfirm their beliefs so that they may find the truth, wherever that may be. One of the greatest benefits of science is its ability to self-correct. If this did not occur, we would still believe that the world is flat and the Earth is the center of the universe. Each day of investigation brings with it new discoveries and a better understanding of the world around us.
Scientists also believe that knowledge is for all, not just a select few. One does not need to be gifted or enlightened to learn about scientific discoveries; all they have to do is be open-minded and search out the answers. Knowledge that requires a down payment (aside from your college education) may not be the kind that a person wants to obtain.
Another aspect of science is that independent agendas must be cast aside in order to remove bias. The Holocaust denial displays a prime example. The IHR website touts numerous propaganda articles on investigating the “Jewish conspirators”, although many of its supporters claim their intentions are not anti-Semitic. One can hardly overlook the predominant racism in subjects throughout the site as a whole. To be taken seriously, denier scholars should break from these politically motivated organizations and seek confirmation through unbiased avenues. The same could be said for Afrocentrism. Inspiring people to be proud of their culture is a noble cause, but falsified claims can only hurt the cause by spreading ignorance and disgrace. Agenda and scholarship can only exist in separate arenas.
This does not mean that opposition should not exist. On the contrary, falsifiability needs opposition as part of the process. One of the ways in which a theory is disconfirmed is when a better one takes its place. Shermer actually stresses this point by stating how deniers should be allowed to present their side; however, they are just as guilty of ignoring the competitor’s argument (2002). People should regard any argument that does not represent both sides with suspicion. He points out that the better you treat people in the minority now, the better you can be expected to be treated when you are in the minority later (Shermer, 2002). Free speech allows ideas to be discussed openly, and the ability to debate issues gives us a great academic edge over previous eras in history. Just think back to Medieval Europe or Protestant North America. Very little progress was made toward science or even art because ideas had to follow doctrines and rituals set forth by predecessors or higher powers. To advance our understanding, someone must create new ideas.
Be wary of “…”. Rarely do you see a quote without them, but those few dots can conceal a lot of information. A popular quote for Holocaust deniers comes from Arno Mayer in
Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?
Deniers site, “sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable…” Mayer is a well-established historian at Princeton University, so his statement must be valid; however, the entirety of this statement reads:
Sources for the study of gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable. Even though Hitler and the Nazis made no secret of their war on the Jews, the SS operatives dutifully eliminated all traces of their murderous activities and instrument. No written orders for gassing have turned up thus far. The SS not only destroyed most camp records, which were in any case incomplete, but also razed nearly all killing and cremating installations well before the arrival of Soviet troops. Likewise, care was taken to dispose of the bones and ashes of the victims (Shermer, 2002).
While some quotes are taken out of context, deniers completely discounted others. After the war was over and when prosecution of the Nazis began, many members of the regime admitted to the atrocities of the extermination camps. Deniers claim that different military forces coerced these confessions out of their prisoners even though previous diaries and other documentation confirmed the evidence. The importance of converging evidence cannot be stressed enough in the evaluation of history.
The final variable for consideration in how to distinguish between history and pseudohistory is to look for racial prejudices of any form. This can relate to second agendas and splits into two different forms. One of the Holocaust denial’s media engines, the denier newsletter
, published an article in 1994 titled “How to Cut Violent Crime in Half: An Immodest Proposal” (Shermer, 2002).
There are 30 million blacks in the U.S., half of them male and about one-seventh of the males in the 16-26 age bracket, the violent sector of the black population. Half of 30 million is 15 million. One-seventh of 15 million is a little more than 2 million. This tells us that 2 million blacks, not 30 million, are committing the crimes. The Soviet Union had gulag populations that ran as high as 10 million at various times during the Stalin era. The U.S. with much more advanced technology should be able to contain and run camps that hold at least 20% of that number. Negroes not on drugs and with no criminal record would be released from the camps once psychological and genetic tests found no traces of violent behavior. As for most detainees, on their 27th birthday all but the most incorrigible “youths” would be let out, leaving room for the new contingent of 16-year-olds that would be replacing them.
Does it seem logical that one should consult this type of publication for the “truth” about the Holocaust? I hope not. Racial prejudice does not seem to center on a single group. Usually when a person dislikes one culture, the hatred generalizes to all others that are “different”. Race is still such a strong issue that it is hard to navigate around the issue without getting into very heated debates. In most cases, the minority has to be wary of being overrun by the majority, but the reverse can also happen. Majority groups, though not as often, can be coerced into silence for fear of being considered racist or biased. Lefkowitz realized this conundrum when confronting Afrocentric ideas (1996). She would most likely suggest if someone can prove a valid point, he or she should not be deterred from their belief for fear of being called a racist if that is not their intention. She made valid points, but because she was a member of the majority, some accused her of being a racist and blinded by Eurocentric ideas. The line is so minute that it is almost indistinguishable. The wisest course of action here would probably be to remain respectful and open-minded to the ideas of others. Listen to their story and interpretation first. Analyze it secondly, and then decide if your audience would be receptive to your own views. It is like a famous quote by author Robert Heinlein, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time and besides it annoys the pig.” Information should be shared, passed on, and built upon; but an unreceptive audience may be a lost cause for the time being. Some final thoughts on discourse from Lefkowitz are:
Because of the confusion about the purpose of the university (do we enforce social justice, or do we disseminate knowledge?), we have reached the point where academic discourse is impossible, at least in certain quarters, because the achievement of social goals, such as diversity, has been allowed to transcend the need for valid evidence. But once we accept the idea that instead of truth, there are many truths, or different ethnic truths, we cannot hope to have an intellectual community. This is why we cannot each remain in our own separate enclaves without talking with colleagues who share similar interests and concerns.
V. Why Do People Believe Pseudohistory
When people evaluate claims, they bring with them all sorts of previous interpretations and biases. This problem has plagued the field of science for years because people cannot easily overcome it in some situations. This problem also explains a part of why people can believe some of the strange things they do. People come with a wealth of bias and are always seeking information to confirm those biases. It is a lot easier to believe something that follows your previous line of thinking than it is to believe something that challenges it or takes it in a completely new direction. The process can take years or even decades until enough support is gathered.
Some specific reasons people believe in pseudohistory is the uncanny ability of opponents to cast doubt on established knowledge. In the case of the Holocaust, deniers question the credibility of eyewitness testimonies, and reasonably so. Because of the isolation of the camps, survivors do not know much about what happened in other parts of the world during their own incarceration outside of their own, personal experience (Shermer, 2002). Sometimes they get caught up telling their story and misrepresent dates or claim to have seen things they did not. They do not do this intentionally; research shows that all eyewitness testimony is subject to these kinds of flaws. Shermer provides an example of one such case of during a March 14, 1994, Phil Donahue Show filming. He attended this taping to provide counterarguments to some Holocaust deniers’ claims and provide historical evidence to dispute their allegations. The debate became emotional and unfortunately turned away from facts and towards name-calling and slandering. Donahue tried to discount the deniers by linking them to Neo-Nazi organizations. Though this line of logic works to persuade others, it should be pointed out that just because a person has what some might call questionable relationships does not mean that their points are invalid. One should just be more cautious of their motives. The atmosphere, no doubt, roused some horrible memories for the two Jewish, Nazi camp survivors in the crowd. When denier Bradley Smith pointed out that historians had already made a mistake when reporting that Nazis made soap out of dead Jews, the two survivors were outraged. Both swore that this story was true even though tests conducted on existing soap bars have yielded no traces of human fat (Shermer, 2002). Slipups such as this cast doubt on more people than just the parties involved. If one group is caught misrepresenting the facts, whether they intended to or not, people sometimes begin to believe that the whole event was fabricated. This type of all or nothing thinking is another attribute of those who try to cover up the facts.
All scientists have to modify and change their conclusions; this is one of the basic principles of the scientific process. Even after a hypothesis is tested and data is gathered for support, the work is not complete. If that were the case, knowledge would not progress. When most theories are revised, people do not assume that all of the prior theories are wrong; science builds upon itself. Some groups try to lead others in an opposite way of thinking. They try to convince people that if one theory is wrong, anything else related to that theory or person who devised it is also wrong. Where would this type of thinking leave science? What would have happened if we had stopped at the finding that the world is round? It, in fact, is not perfectly round but slightly flatter at the poles and bulges around the equator. We need to modify, change, and adapt where needed and not just throw everything out when something is not exactly right. Going back to deniers using the human soap story to discredit many other aspects of the Holocaust, scholars made an error and corrected it. Deniers would like people to think that just because this mistake was made that everything these scholars say must be mistaken as well (Shermer, 2002). People make mistakes, usually by accident, whether they are scholars or eyewitnesses. Historians simply take the facts available to test their hypotheses. When new evidence comes in, this hypothesis is either supported or revised, and the process begins again.
A University of Washington psychology professor, Elizabeth Loftus, wrote an autobiographical work over her studies of memory recovery. The book, titled
Witness for the Defense
, focused on how unreliable recovered memories can be despite how well a person may
think they remember an event. Of her work, Dr. Loftus states:
As new bits and pieces of information are added into long-term memory, the old memories are removed, replaced, crumpled up, or shoved into corners. Memories don’t just fade…they also grow. What fades is the initial perception, the actual experience of the events. But every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with each recollection the memory may be changed—colored by succeeding events, other people’s recollections or suggestions…Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretative realities (Loftus & Ketcham, 1991).
Her work showed that memories cannot be completely trusted; however, when she was asked to testify to this fact at the trial of a man accused of killing Jews during the Holocaust, she declined. Deniers touted this as a Jewish conspiracy (Dr. Loftus is also a Jew). Her dilemma of choosing between her people and her job became a headline for denier writers. They depicted her as a heartless Jew who would let an innocent man die so that the “myth” of the Holocaust could live on (Shermer, 2002). The trial ended with the jury freeing the defendant. The evidence against him was feeble at best, because many other prisoners of the same camp failed to recognize him. However, Loftus’ refusal to defend was the only action deniers needed. One could now reasonably argue that her decision was based solely on her ancestry.
Another tactic deniers, as well as other groups, use is the piecing together of information to make a whole that does not even come close to resembling its original form. Think about this as a photo mosaic. If you look closely, all you see are a bunch of tiny pictures of different things. Imagine that each of these tiny pictures is an event in history. There may be pictures of different camps; some may be witness testimonies; others may be current cultural issues. When you step though, the whole is something completely different. History comes together the same way as this mosaic. It is an intricate tapestry of events all running into each other, acting upon each other, and influencing each other. Think about your own life as another example. How many times have you done or said something that, by itself, could make you look like a bad person? If no one looked at the whole story, his or her opinion of you might become a little jaded by a single event or comment that may not attest to your character or opinion. A real life example from denier support from David Irving’s book
states, “From Hitler’s bunker at the Wolf’s Lair, ordering that there was to be ‘no liquidation’ of the Jews…the Fuhrer had ordered that the Jews were not to be liquidated” (1977). Two words, no liquidation, cannot be used to discount all of the supporting evidence for mass extermination. In fact, Shermer interprets the whole quote, “Jewish transport from Berlin. No liquidation,” to mean that only that particular transport was to be spared. He supports this claim by also mentioning that that entire transport was in fact killed by a firing squad when they arrived in Riga, Latvia. In addition, if extermination were not a goal of the Holocaust, why would an order even be needed to prevent it (Shermer, 2002)?
Similar to piecing together information would be the practice of fabricating it altogether. Shermer recounts a conversation with Irving about the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Irving quotes Himmler saying, “If people ask me why did you have to kill the children too, then I can only say I am not such a coward that I leave for my children something I can do myself.” Shermer points out that this sounds like a plan of extermination, not relocation. Irving shockingly agrees that Himmler is talking about murder and wiping out the Jews, so Shermer asks him what that could possibly mean other than what it appears to mean. Irving rationalizes that the quote says nothing of millions of Jews; it confirms what deniers claim happened to 600,000 people, including women and children. Shermer notes later that the quote does not even mention thousands (Shermer, 2002). Irving clearly fabricated this number in the context of this quote because Himmler never mentioned a number at all. This also generates a question concerning how some were chosen for relocation while others went to death camps if killing was accepted in some circumstances.
Another problem that we see in all aspects of society is that any action taken against a group can be blamed on the most convenient opponent to garner support. For example, a Japanese magazine published an article in 1995 denying that gas chambers were ever used to kill Jews. After the article hit newsstands, the Israeli government responded with protests and some major companies threatened to pull their advertisements from the magazine. Deniers played this off as a Jewish conspiracy especially after the magazine’s offer to publish a rebuttal column was turned down and the magazine tanked (Shermer, 2002). Could this have been a conspiracy? Yes, it could have been, but there are other likely reasons for this sequence of events. How many times has the media gotten into a frenzy about some celebrity? Products promoted by that celebrity immediately discontinues their ads. When Madonna recorded the song “Like a Virgin”, Pepsi removed all of her commercial endorsements from the air not because there was a huge, conservative conspiracy trying to crush free speech (or was there?) but because a large percentage of the population found the act distasteful and Pepsi did not want those negative feelings associated with their products. Many other examples of this can be found more recently. Tiger Woods was pulled from Nike during the height of his cheating scandal. Michael Phelps was dropped by AT&T and Rosetta Stone after photos of him smoking weed were uncovered. These events could be blamed on a conspiracy, but the truth is that companies spend a lot of money on advertisements and do not want them to backfire because of a bad association. Anti-Semitism occurred in Japan predominantly from 1989 to 1999 and was fueled by the International Historical Review. Most of these feelings have since subsided (Kowner, 2001).
One final reason people are lead to believe pseudohistorical claims is that they are often made to appeal to emotion rather than logic, and people are easily swayed by emotion. If the facts were stated in a bulleted list, the evidence would be easier to argue. Most of the problems mentioned above would be eliminated. It is when we get into interpretations and contexts that things become difficult. Racism, for example, is a very emotionally charged word and has been used by both historic and pseudohistoric camps. Deniers are almost immediately branded as racists (whether this claim is justified or not), and Dr. Lefkowitz has described how her own work on Afrocentrism has been called a racist text by promoting white majority in history (1996).
So how do we judge history the way it should be judged? Be wary of any claims that stray too far past the facts and use a lot of emotional rhetoric. The minority claim is responsible for proving itself to the majority, not the other way around. Be wary of claims made by those who have something to gain by the acceptance of a new way of viewing history, especially if that gain would be financial. Pseudohistory can come from anywhere, as well. Like the example of Little Albert, our own classrooms can be the vessel through which pseudohistory travels. Douglas Allchin, an advocate for eliminating pseudohistory in science, describes myths from seemingly reputable sources:
For example, Darwin did not deduce natural selection upon seeing the finches on the Galapagos Islands. The Church during the time of Galileo
astronomical investigation and many challenged Galileo’s claims
. When Columbus set out on his voyage, educated persons did
believe that the world was flat. The photoelectric effect did not inspire Einstein’s concept of the photon (Allchin, 2004).
Foremost, be skeptical. The consequences of pseudohistory and pseudoscience may not be readily apparent, but the implications can include, but are not limited to, loss of funding for actual research, credit for findings being misappropriated, and less progress being made toward true research that are beneficial to all humankind.
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