The scientific attitude and ancient studies

How do we understand the spread of pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history in modern media? The rise of TV programs like Ancient Aliens has received considerable academic backlash, but do we yet know the root cause of its popularity? A new book from Lee McIntyre helps us understand the spread of these problematic programs.

Joshua R. Hall

I doubt that many of our readers will be surprised at hearing of the booming popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens – on the so-called History Channel. Programs such as this have been around for a very long time and are not going anywhere. Viewer ratings – as aggregated by – have stayed relatively high for that particular show throughout its run. This is despite a negative critical reception as long ago as 2011, the show’s second year on the air. In an article written for Forbes, Brad Lockwood eruditely noted that “all creations of ancient man are credited to aliens, belittling our early ancestors by crediting all of their creations to aliens.”

While it is easy to pick on this show in particular, there are many others like it – though there is even a game based on Ancient Aliens now. All one needs to do is browse through the documentaries section on their favorite streaming platform to find one of these. But, the genre of pseudo-archaeology/pseudo-history extends into print media, as well. Well-known authors such as Graham Hancock spring to mind, whose books sell almost as well as the work of more mainstream scholars. All this content, whether in video or written form, clouds the popular perception of the past, whether ancient or recent.

Why this type of content is so popular, though, is not entirely clear. It could be that sensational claims, such as that the pyramids on the Giza plateau were built by extraterrestrials, are more appealing to audiences. But there may be deeper – and much darker – reasons for their popularity. Anyone who follows archaeologists (and classicists, historians, and all others who study the past) on Twitter will undoubtedly have encountered criticisms of pseudo-history as being centered in racism. There is, of course, good reason for scholars to believe this. If you look at the cultures that are typically featured in these programs and books, they are “non-white”. A surface reading of equating complex engineering in non-white cultures with alien technology comes across as bigoted. “If the cultures of Europe in this period weren’t able to do it, how could these [insert any ethnic group]?”

There is no denying that racist thinking helps fuel the fires of this counter-scientific strand of fake knowledge, but there are other social problems that are part of it. At its core, pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history are driven by what should be classed as either anti-science or non-scientific attitudes towards knowledge. Many works of this type outright mislead audiences through the creator’s ignorance or willfully, sometimes both, using strategies like “Gish Gallop.” Another strategy often used is to shake trust in subject experts in favor of themselves. A distrust of academics has become mainstream thanks, at least to an extent, to these types of programs.

A new book by Lee McIntyre

Directed more towards the “hard sciences”, Lee McIntyre’s recent The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience (MIT Press, 2019) provides an insightful look into the state of scientific denialism in modern culture. This book is divided into ten very dense chapters: there are a lot of ideas in a book whose narrative only runs to 205 pages.

The book opens with a chapter discussing the “scientific method”, being both critical of simplistic versions of this but providing alternative ways of determining if something is or is not “scientific.” This is under the general banner of “demarcation.” Demarcation is the determining of what is science and what is not science (p. 10). Through an interesting – if lengthy – discussion of various views on this, McIntyre concedes that defining the differences between sciences, pseudoscience, and unsciences (as he calls them) is difficult. It is also made apparent that this will be a focus of the book moving forward.

But, within this is an interesting, and important, point for my discussion here. Various philosophers of science demarcate science from nonscience, within which we can talk about two branches: pseudoscience and unscience. The former includes things likes astrology, while the latter subjects like literature and philosophy. While there are grounds for this, based on a definition of science as any field dependent on empirical data, it is a bit of a problem for us in the social sciences and I will return to it at the end of this article.

Chapter two moves on to addressing misconceptions of how science, and by extension the scientific method, works. It opens with an important sentence: “it is a popular myth that science inevitably leads to truth because it uses empirical evidence to prove a theory.” This is tied with the misconception that everything science results in is “just a theory.” McIntyre identifies the core problem with these ideas as being the conception that science is “all or nothing”, that is, either a theory is proven or it is disproven, and that there is no in-between in science.

It is worth quoting McIntyre at length here. He states that “this false idea that science must discover truth, and that a theory cannot be accepted into the scientific pantheon until it is absolutely verified by the data, means that those who do not understand science might feel justified in rejecting any scientific knowledge that falls short of this standard [proven beyond a doubt].” If people regularly reject scientific results because of these two connected – perhaps best viewed as singular – misconceptions, how can we expect wide-acceptance of archaeological or historical ideas that are built on even more dynamic theoretical foundations?

At least when I was an undergraduate, we learned that “the goal of scientific theory building [in archaeology] is to develop theories that can be criticized and then evaluated, to be eventually modified or even replaced by other theories that better explain the archaeological” data (Thomas 1999, p. 35). By this reasoning, archaeological (and I would say by extension) historical “knowledge” is continually evolving based on new data, which includes the theoretical framework in which the evidence is being interpreted.

But, McIntyre provides an argumentative solution to this. It is that within these misconceptions about science lies a key issue, the problem of something being “just a theory.” He uses the differences between a hypothesis and a theory to show how damaging this misunderstanding can be. A hypothesis is “in some ways a guess” (p. 34). These are the thoughts that are thrown around and form the basis of inquiry.

As an example from my own work, I recently came up with this hypothesis: “Greeks and Romans thought about arms and armor in a lot of different ways.” While this is probably a “no brainer” hypothesis, nevertheless it was only after research that I could come up with the theory that “the Greeks and Romans had many different ways of thinking about weapons of war, varying from ethnocentric ideals to a rudimentary evolutionary paradigm.” The latter of these, my scientific theory in the words of McIntyre, “must not only be firmly embedded in empirical evidence, it must also be capable of predictions that can be extrapolated into the wider world” (p. 35). Of course, the latter bit is problematic for historical studies, but the first half of this definition is at the core of what we do in ancient world studies.

We run into problems at this point, though. Because just like in the “hard” sciences that McIntyre is mostly concerned with, critics of the social sciences and humanities will say that our theories are “just theories.” In some ways, it is because of our phrasing. The public, I think, has a hard time parsing “theory” from “hypothesis” by these definitions (and by our professional usage), as is shown in this book. Thus, many casual readers of history and archaeology will assume that when an author writes about a specific theory that it is “unproven.” The dynamic nuance is lost. Again, though, to quote McIntyre at length, this is not a problem unique to the social sciences:

Thus in some sense the critics are right. Science cannot prove anything. And everything that science proposes is just a theory. When we are at the mercy of future data, this is the situation that all empirical reasoning must contend with. And, unfortunately, this is the basis on which some members of the public-most particularly the ideological critics of science-have misunderstood how science works. It is true that science must contend with the open-ended nature of empirical reasoning, yet it is also rigorous, meticulous, and our best hope for gaining knowledge about the empirical world.

Similarly, historical studies do not generally “prove” anything. The objective for many scholars in the field is to argue for new ways of looking at existing evidence, or to use newly discovered evidence – when available – to reinterpret existing evidence or broader narratives of the past. This subtlety, though, is not often translated into popular content. How can a 30-minute episode of a documentary series review the historiography of any topic?

The use of the term “theory” in social sciences can cause further problems because it has a double meaning. Firstly, a theory can be something as laid out above. These are the ideas that we backup with a rigorous study of the evidence. Secondly, a theory can be an overarching framework through which we understand and analyze data. Examples of this can be found throughout modern scholarship.

The use of post-colonial theory, for instance, has led to many new interpretations of aspects of the ancient world by removing the imperialist assumptions that underlay much scholarship in the humanities. Though springing from Edward Said’s Orientalism, this theoretical framework has been widely applied in ancient world studies and have led to interesting, more diverse, narratives of the Mediterranean basin. Some of the papers found in Classics in Extremis reviewed for Ancient World Magazine – were influenced by this.

Perhaps lay readers would be best to follow the concept of warrant as described by McIntyre (pp. 41-46). By this, a theory that makes sense based in the evidence – even if not proven beyond doubt – warrants belief. But, this comes in degrees, and it is warranted to believe another theory if it is “better” than the others. (This is one point that I wish McIntyre would have gone into a bit more detailed discussion. What exactly makes something “better”? In the note to this sentence, he explains a bit: “The principle of conservatism in changing one’s theory is a deeply held norm in science. As we have seen, Popper held that-other things being equal-we ought to give heavy deference to those theories that have survived longer or are better “entrenched.” Quine too has held (on practical grounds) that we may legitimately prefer those ideas that do least violence to our other existing beliefs” (p. 216 n. 36). In many ways, I think this is much less applicable to the social sciences/humanities than it is to the hard sciences. While in those fields radical change in theoretical underpinnings could cause problems in research, for humanistic studies this would leave us entrenched in socially outdated – often bigoted – theories. This does happen in the sciences, though, and should not be a case levelled only against the humanities.)

This is the paradigm under which historical research is currently conducted. Oftentimes when a new, radical in terms of our field, study is released, it doesn’t entirely supplant existing theories, but rather is believed based on how much “better” it is than previous work in view of scholars. In fact, a historian regularly “celebrates [the field’s] uncertainty, rather than being embarrassed by it,” we acknowledge that this is how studying the past works (p. 46).

The scientific attitude

McIntyre’s third chapter talks about the “scientific attitude”, the subject highlighted in the book’s title. This principle is summed up in two principles: 1) We care about empirical evidence; 2) We are willing to change our theories in light of new evidence. There is nothing here that does not apply to archaeologists and historians. Perhaps only in principle two can we quibble about differences. For the hard sciences, evidence is usually empirical, although the author does acknowledge that sometimes social considerations and other non-empirical issues play into this (p. 47). In historical studies, though, new evidence can either be through new data or through a reconsideration of the theoretical frameworks which underpin our knowledge of the past.

One of the most important examples of this is in the notion of the “state.” For nineteenth-century historians, and those working throughout much of the twentieth century, the state was less of an abstract than an absolute. States were entities in their own right, which functioned in many ways like an organism (such as the Weberian conception of the state). However, more recent interpretations of how societies function have begun to look at the state as a network of individuals (e.g. Mann 2012, pp. 1-33). From the previous point of view, the expansion of Rome into the Italian peninsula and beyond was one of central organization, driven by the state. But, because of the latter’s view on individual agency, recent studies, such as that by Nicola Terrenato (2019), have argued that it was aristocratic elites who drove this. Neither of these are necessarily “conclusive”, but as scholars typically operate with “the scientific attitude”, we can determine which is more warranted to believe because both arguments are based in evidence.

This is not the case for pseudo-archaeological claims. These are typically based not in evidence but in assumptions. Let us use the example of Ancient Aliens. The premise of this show – and its arguments – is that a) extraterrestrial aliens exist, and b) they are capable of interstellar travel. While both would be extremely interesting pieces of evidence if they were proven, without actual evidence they are simply fanciful propositions. They are predicated on the existence of aliens in the contemporary imagination, not on evidence of aliens in the archaeological, artistic, literary, or epigraphic evidence. It is for this reason that despite programs like Ancient Aliens providing alternative theories, scholars do not find it “warranted” to put any stock in them, they are not based in evidence.

The two examples of scientific attitude given by McIntyre are interesting and worth readers perusing on their own. This chapter closes with an appraisal of the origins of the scientific attitude, and a defense of it in the conclusion. Its fragility is said to be offset by “the willingness of its practitioners to embrace the scientific attitude” (p. 63). In this I think that there is a desperate call for integrity for those who push pseudo-historical ideas in the mass media. If you are going to claim to be a scholar of the past, you must adopt our version of the scientific attitude. This is not to say that an empirically based perspective is a priori better, but it at least has a significant warrant of belief compared to approaches that eschew evidence for ideology.

Chapter four looks closer at the problem of demarcation between what is and is not science. For McIntyre, there is a general distinction between science (those fields of study which are entirely based in empirical evidence) and nonscience. But, within the latter is another binary breakdown: unscientific and pseudoscientific. The former includes, amongst other things, math, philosophy, logic, literature, and art, while the latter includes astrology, intelligent design, faith healing, and ESP. The difference is that the former do not wish to make empirical claims, while the latter “play in the empirical sandbox, even while they flout the standards of good evidence” (p. 71). There are issues when it comes to the social sciences in this definition , but this is an interesting way of breaking down the problems we face in ancient studies when talking about problematic content.

It could be said that in ancient studies there are two broad branches of study: those based on “good” empirical evidence, and those based in “bad” empirical evidence. By this I mean that the former are based in the careful study of stratigraphy, philology, and social theory, while the latter are based in seemingly random equations of planetary positioning, stellar alignments, and unsubstantiated interpretations of figurative evidence. (It is worth pointing out that within all of these data sets there are what could be called “bad” pieces of data. Scholars typically have to wade through a sea of evidence to determine what is “good” evidence, either through scientific means – when looking at things like complicated stratigraphies – or through extensive philological study – when looking at ancient texts.) In this way, we can break down the problems with the Ancient Aliens-style content.

The scholarly archaeologist who studies how the pyramids of Egypt were built will begin by looking at the evidence we have of labor and social structure in ancient Egypt, whereas the sensationalist will skip this and try to find cosmological or ideological (such as Biblical) explanations for these. Thus, the difference is not necessarily in the argumentation but in the evidence, and the approach to the evidence. Tying back to McIntyre’s scientific attitude, the latter obviously violates the first criterion: we care about empirical evidence.

While it is interesting that such-and-such ancient structure aligns with a specific spec of light in the night’s sky, unless you begin with the most basic evidence – that is the actual archaeological evidence – then you are ignoring a major empirical data set. These latter theories also qualify as pseudoscience in McIntyre’s view – I would argue – because they are “only pretending to care about empirical evidence and are unwilling to revise their theories” (p. 72).

Honesty and reason

McIntyre opens his fifth chapter as follows (p. 81):

For science to work, it has to depend on more than just the honesty of its individual practitioners. Though outright fraud is rare [though present in the pseudo-historical productions popular today], there are many ways in which scientists can cheat, lie, fudge, make mistakes, or otherwise fall victim to the sorts of cognitive biases we all share that-if left unchallenged-could undermine scientific credibility. (Fraud is not absent from any field, take for instance Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent work on vaccines. It has happened in ancient studies, as well. Fake archaeological objects can be found throughout the world, sometimes even in museums (cf. Steingräber 2009). The antiquities market – especially the illicit market – is a source of considerable fraudulent activities, even by established scholars.)

This is a powerful statement and one that should resonate within the historical community. Perhaps more so than in the hard sciences, when one of us makes a mistake or argues from a difficult-to-defend position, we are dragged over the coals. Whether during peer-review or in popular reviews, we are often criticized. And the fortunate solution that McIntyre has, unfortunately doesn’t always work for us: “there are protections against this, for science is not just an individual quest for knowledge but a group activity in which widely accepted community standards are used to evaluate scientific claims.”

It doesn’t seem to matter for our field that “science is conducted in a public form (…) to root out error and bias.” But this is probably because my interest in this book and McIntyre’s ideas is not founded in “science” strictly, but in the study of the ancient world. Scientists generally work with one another. There are instances of pseudoscience breaking into the public sphere, notably the anti-vax movement and even more far-out conspiracy theories like flat Earth and chem trails. But these are (in general) easily refuted. When it comes to pseudo-history, there is much less of a public dialogue. While people like Giorgio A. Tsoukalos – of Ancient Aliens fame – get production budgets and airtime on major television networks, serious scholars of the past must rely on books, magazine/journal articles, and (less frequently) new media outlets to get their points across. This puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting fraudulent claims.

Even then, the results of scholars will often not be as easy to digest for general audiences as those of the pseudo-historians. This is because the hosts of these programs, and authors of these books, often commit one of the “sins” discussed by McIntyre in his section on the sources of scientific error. Any pseudo-historical content will commit at least one of these: cherry picking data, curve fitting, keeping an experiment open until the desired result is found, excluding data that don’t fit, using a small data set, p-hacking (pp. 82-83).

Any of these will result in a smaller, more digestible, data set than used by an argument from a serious scholar. Thus, casual readers or viewers may be biased to believe these because they are simply easier to understand, even if built on top of wobbly foundations. The idea presented in this chapter, as well, that groups are more rational than individuals is heartening when it comes to interpretation of the past. It is probably that most people do not fall for the charlatans of pseudo-history. (Granted, I have no solid numbers of how many people believe in conspiracies like ancient aliens, but I truly hope it is not a significant proportion of the population.)

But do the peddlers of this poorly reasoned information see themselves as selling a defective product? For those of us deep in the field, it probably feels like there is no way they do not. But, McIntyre claims that “most fraudsters do not see themselves as deliberately trying to falsify the scientific record, but instead feel entitled to a shortcut because they think that the data will ultimately bear them out” (p. 131). A lot of those who sell pseudo-historical theories do seem genuine. It is hard to believe that the hosts of some of these programs, or authors of some of these books, are not being sincere to their own beliefs. It could be said that these individuals, though, lack the scientific attitude, based on their treatment of evidence (and indeed what they consider to be “evidence”).

For McIntyre, this may not necessarily constitute fraud, in a scientific way. He argues that simply not having the scientific attitude itself does not constitute fraud, only that by committing fraud one shows that they do not have the scientific attitude. This may seem to be splitting hairs, but there is merit to this. If those people who push pseudo-historical theories believe that the data they cite supports their arguments, they are not necessarily fraudulent.

But I would argue that many do not possess the scientific attitude. This is because they – typically – do not start their studies from the foundational evidence but from somewhere in the middle and then jump to the most outlandish possible evidence. Again, though, McIntyre presents a workable alternative for us. He claims – I think rightly – that the scientific attitude should be a spectrum. On one end is complete integrity, on the other is outright fraud. Between these two things, though, are myriad different degrees of scientific attitude. I would judge most of those who sell pseudo-history as a product to be near the fraudulent end of the spectrum, but it is problematic to claim they are committing fraud full-stop without knowing the inner-workings of their minds. However, it is worth considering that “the hubris of” believing that you’re right “is enough to falsify not just the result but the process” of science (p. 139). In this we may almost feel sorry for those who believe and argue that Atlantis was a lost civilization in the middle of the Atlantic. (This is, in fact, a good example of an assumption that falls apart when looking at the ancient evidence.)

Attitude is key

The penultimate chapter of The Scientific Attitude looks at the case of the social sciences in terms of its wider discussion. In this, McIntyre expresses his belief that in both hard sciences and social sciences, it is “the attitude that informs” the practice of researchers (p. 187). He goes on to critique many of the non-scientific elements – and problems – in social science research, at least that which aspires to some sort of empirically-driven status.

In many ways, these are not applicable to the study of the ancient world, which is at its core a combination of empirical data (osteological data, carbon dating, stratigraphic relations, etc.) and entirely subjective data (art, literature, etc.). But, some of the criticisms can easily be levelled against pseudo-historical nonsense, such as cherry-picking evidence: a popular method for those who believe that extraterrestrials had a major hand in early human history.

But, in the final chapter (ten), McIntyre brings readers around to what seems like the unexpected result of his discussion, that “if fields like the social sciences wish to become more rigorous, they must follow the path travelled by other fields such as medicine: they must embrace the scientific attitude” (p. 201). (I will note that in this sentence I have found possibly the only typo in the entire book. The text reads “travelled by others fields”, rather than “other” or “others’”.)

And it is here that I think we need to start a real discussion about programs like Ancient Aliens, or authors like Graham Hancock. As I noted at the beginning of this article, many scholars put the theories these people sell down to racism and their implicit belief that non-whites cannot have accomplished the things that many cultures around the world have, without the help of aliens or of otherwise unknown emigrants from Eurasia. While this almost certainly plays a part in why these beliefs are so easy to market, and so readily believed, I believe that their foundation is in the lack of the scientific attitude, as describe by McIntyre. While a person with an inherent bias against people of Native American descent will find it easier to believe that aliens helped the Maya build pyramids, to create this argument in the first place requires that you are not grounded in the scientific attitude.

As McIntyre emphasizes throughout his book, though, it falls to the community – implicitly of scientists, and thus in our case archaeologists, historians, classicists – to keep up the standards of the scientific attitude. Thus, we must respond to these public-facing and extremely problematic theories as a community. Although it is easy, we cannot simply dismiss them as products of a systemically racist or otherwise biased society. We must attack them at the core, highlight their deficient approach to evidence, their cherry-picking of data, and the general lack of scientific attitude that pseudo-historians have.

Any response that is more jejune, however plausible, will almost certainly not be effective. But we must find a way to do this that reaches the masses. Some years ago, P.C. Hoffer wrote that “a history that speaks to the millions is a history of those millions” (2008, p. 156). It is our responsibility to identify aspects of history that will appeal to those people that do not undermine the evidence, but translate it into an easily digestible format, thus displacing the pseudo-historical arguments that are so easy to understand, yet founded on either faulty or absent evidence.

But these need to be transparent. One issue that is brought up by McIntyre, and is often discussed in historiography, is the need for evidence to be made explicitly clear to audiences – whether scholarly or popular. There seems to be an underlying notion that historians and archaeologists are hiding “the truth” from the public, as bluntly stated by Meagan Fox in an interview about her television show, Legends of the Lost. Talking about her desire to go on an archaeological dig, she said that “I wanna go and really see the real stuff that they are not willing to show the rest of the world; ‘cos they hide all the real stuff, they don’t show us, because humanity would panic.”

Not only does this show that Fox, and probably many others, lack the scientific attitude when it comes to archaeology, they have a fundamental mistrust of the professional community. But, what would we get from hiding “the truth” from the public? After all, our research funding is at least partially based on discovering new evidence. Certainly, actual evidence of alien encounters with ancient peoples would warrant at least some sort of grant?

Although there are many books that argue for the importance of science, and indeed the importance of having a scientific outlook, McIntyre’s book articulates it in a way that is both understandable and universal. He cites cases throughout that I haven’t had the space to delve into which prove just how important the scientific attitude is not just for researchers, but for policy makers, and to me (by extension) to lay readers. He forces us to celebrate uncertainty – as another reviewer has said of the book – but uncertainty that is nevertheless reliant on evidence. And it is here that we may be able to find a way forward in our own field. A better articulation of the unexplainable, or the poorly understood, in history and archaeology can go a long way to dispelling pseudo-historical claims.