Monday, May 29, 2006

Dreams of the Past

Sven Ove Hansson and I have started work on an anthology of skeptical essays on speculation and fraud in historical and archaeological writings. Ancient spacemen, Holocaust denial, hyper-relativism, basically any kind of pseudoscience about societies in the past. The working title is Drömmar om det förflutna, "Dreams of the Past", and the book is intended for the general reader.

We're planning to re-use some material published by ourselves and others in journals during the 90s and 00s, and a number of very good people have agreed to contribute new work.

So far, most of the pieces we're considering can be tagged with at least one of the following:
  • Hyper-relativism ("Any interpretation is as good as another")
  • Historical forgeries (e.g. the Turin shroud, the Kensington runestone)
  • Dark Ages speculation
  • Right-wing extremism
  • Methodology of scholarship
  • Ancient religion
  • Archaeoastronomy
  • Atlantis
  • Ancient spacemen
Dear Reader, what would you like to read about in this context? Is there a common misapprehension or lie about the past that you'd like to see discussed? Please tell us!

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Blogger fruktkake said...

ooo, this looks fun!
Is it OK if I comment in Norwegian? When I'm writing in English my head stops working...

I kjølvannet av en viss filmpremiere kunne for eksempel et lite innblikk i hva som egentlig skjedde (og ikke skjedde) på kirkemøtet i Nikea være tiltrengt?

Jeg leste forresten nettop en (norsk) antologi, Konspiranoia, med et liknende tema: Konspirasjonsteorier gjennom tidene. Jøder, frimurere og alle de små grønne mennene du kan drømme om.

29 May, 2006 21:44  
Blogger Alun said...

I'll give this some thought. Some ideas are:

They did X this way in the past, so this means we must do X the same way today.

Another fallacy is the belief that many alternative explanations are explanations. The alternative process doesn't usually give one answer, it gives many answers and no way to judge between them.

Also there's a myth that archaeology is one big happy family which closes ranks to outsiders. I recently attended a talk on the Carandini / Wiseman argument about whether or not you can trace Romulus in the archaeology of Rome. The hobbit and the Mexican footprints also spring to mind as debates where people can see a public debate about the past.

30 May, 2006 09:40  
Blogger Martin said...

Fruktkake: Yes, we hope to have a piece on Dan Brown and Baigent & alii.

Alun: Thanks, those are good ideas. The alternative explanation fallacy is kind of built into the definition of pseudoscience. But many alternative authors are extremely confident that they're right...

30 May, 2006 09:58  
Anonymous Johan said...

But many alternative authors are extremely confident that they're right ...

Here is an excellent quote from on the topic of ignorance and confidence.

Sounds like an interesting anthology.


30 May, 2006 17:12  
Blogger Martin said...

Haha, good one!

Sokrates used to say something along the lines that "The only thing I'm really sure of is that I'm ignorant". The more you learn, the greater becomes your insight into the extent of what's left to learn.

30 May, 2006 19:26  
Blogger A.R.Yngve said...

Issues I hope you will deal with in your book:

-Claims that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax
(Question: does the hoax theory connect in any way to the current lack of public interest in the plans for manned landings on the Moon and Mars in the coming decades? Do many think the manned space program NOW is a hoax??)

31 May, 2006 12:33  
Blogger Martin said...

Yep, we're covering Brown's book and anti-Semitism. As for manned space flight, I'm against it. But I think the public's lack of interest is due to it having more pressing Earthly concerns.

31 May, 2006 12:40  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

World War II Nazi Mysticism, and later conspiracy theories! It's an amazing field.

Did you know about the Nazi moonbase? About how Hitler escaped to an SS base under the ice in Neuschwabenland, the German-claimed part of Antarctica, from which he escaped to the Hollow Earth when the U.S. sent the largest Antarctic expedition ever (Operation Highjump), to root him out? How the Aryan peoples originate from interstellar deities who bred by electricity?


05 June, 2006 12:01  
Blogger Martin said...

I'm afraid you misunderstand me. The book will be about pseudoscientific beliefs about the past, not well-established truth for which there is incontrovertible evidence, such as the Nazi moonbase and Hitler's escape to the Hollow Earth.

05 June, 2006 12:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a more serious note, and apart from the wonderful silliness factor of Aryan mystcism, it's probably a good illustration of what happens when a country's leaders are actively and consciously counter-rationalist.

(Kinda like in the U.S....)


06 June, 2006 01:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

08 June, 2006 13:57  
Blogger Martin said...

Oh my, Fomenko, what a nutter. Yes, we have a paper that touches upon him.

08 June, 2006 14:05  
Anonymous Cornelius said...

Martin, you know that we disagree about a few issues regarding the topic covered in your book... but I agree with you that the discussion is important and that more books on this are a good thing.

Here are my two challenges to you as co-editor. This is what I would like to read about:

- Regarding hyper-relativism. Give me at least one example for archaeologists who actually consistently argued that 'any interpretation is as good as any other'. I know of none. To me, it is fraudulent pseudo-science to state the opposite.

- Regarding the ills of pseudoscience. Give me a few good reasons why it is so bad if people 'dream' about the past rather than follow more scientific procedures. In what circumstances does it actually matter to get it 'right'? And in what circumstances does it perhaps not matter so much? Usually historians and archaeologists emphasise 'human curiosity' and 'collective identity' as two important reasons for knowing the past. But none of those require (or benefit from) knowledge about the past to be actually true.
(I deliberately ignore here the question of whether scientific archaeology actually leads to true statements about the past or not...)

11 June, 2006 19:12  

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