The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Knight Templar Who Ate Cincinatti

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the guest of the show’s host was talking about alleged evidence that the Knights Templar had been in North America prior to Columbus (no, I’m not making this up). His evidence came in the form of some petroglyphs (rock art carved into the rock rather than being painted on the rock) that he believes show armored men and that he claims dated to before the 15th century (based on the usual “well, there’s these guys who know what they’re doing, and I’m not going to tell you who they are, but they know what they’re doing, and they say it’s real old!”). I tried looking up the petroglyphs in question and could not find them (though I admit that my web-fu is weak), but based on what he was saying, I suspect that he either found clearly historic petroglyphs (sometimes, bored farmers and ranchers would carve their own rock art), or was misinterpreting prehistoric petroglyphs.

When asked by the host of the show why archaeologists weren’t all over this if he claim was true, the guest replied, predictably, that archaeologists have “too much invested in the story that Europeans weren’t in the Americas before Columbus” and that we archaeologists would be risking our jobs, book deals, and general financial well being if we admitted that maybe there were Europeans in the Americas before Columbus.

Really, only someone who is completely ignorant of the nature of archaeology as a field of employment could make such an amazingly stupid statement.

First off, most archaeologists work in Cultural Resource Management (CRM), like me, and nobody cares what we think about the possibility of a pre-Columbian European presence in the Americas, they just care about our ability to do the field work and write reports that will please the government agencies with which we deal. So advocating an earlier European presence in the Americas wouldn’t hurt us one whit.

Secondly, those archaeologists who are not working in CRM are usually found in colleges, universities, and museums, where they eventually receive tenure. Once they receive tenure, they can go about claiming that the peopling of the Americas happened when Tasmanians floated across the Pacific on giant floating broccolis, and nobody can do anything about it. So, again, they would suffer no harm from claiming an earlier European presence in the Americas.

As for those who don’t have tenure – contrary to what the people behind the movie “Expelled” claim, one is not denied tenure for having unpopular views, one is denied tenure for incompetence. If you can clearly demonstrate that an unpopular view is true, or at least highly likely, that can be a fast-track to tenure – you’ve become a groundbreaking researcher, and everyone is going to want you for your ability to attract both research money and students.

In fact, if one con produce strong evidence for Old-Worlders entering North America after 8,000 BC and before AD 1492, one can expect to generate a bit of controversy, but also generate huge amounts of interest, resulting in a fantastic boost to one’s career. In other words, if there really was evidence of the Knights Templar having entered North America before Columbus, then you could expect that professional archaeologists would be the first to jump all over that – it would be in our best financial and social interests to do so!*

Oh, and if you need evidence of this, consider that archaeologists had long considered seriously the possibility of Vikings entering the Americas before Columbus, based on a range of circumstantial evidence, and had absolutely no problem admitting the case was proven as soon as physical evidence came to light. In other words, we’re fine with old models of prehistory being discarded, provided that there is real evidence that they are wrong.

So, where does that leave our friend and the Knights Templar? Well, the reason why nobody in the professional circles takes his claim (or similar claims about the Welsh, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, ancient Israelites, etc. etc.) seriously is because there is absolutely no evidence to back the claim up. This is a classic case of conclusion-based reasoning – he reached his conclusion first (Templars in North America), and then began looking for “evidence” that backed the claim up, never considering disconfirming evidence, and as such, he feels that he has established a fact about North American prehistory when all he has done is misled himself about what he has available to him.

And this is common in pseudo science. Whether it’s fake archaeology, like this fellow, or claims in favor of homeopathy, creationism, astrology, ghosts, bigfoot, etc. etc., you’ll find that the believer reaches their conclusions first, and then begins to look for evidence that sounds like it backs the conclusion, not usually caring about whether the evidence actually supports the claim (what at first appears to be a confirmation can on further scrutiny be something else), whether the evidence is even real (I often see long-discredited claims cited as evidence), or whether there is overwhelming contradictory evidence (homeopathy, young-earth creationism, and astrology all fall victim to this).

The curious thing is that these people become so married to their conclusions that they seem to be allergic to actual evidence. If you can demonstrate the flaws in their reasoning (and frequently they will simply not listen to any dissenting views – all the while claiming that EVERYONE ELSE is closed-minded), they will generally just shrug them off, disregard them, or accuse you of being a shill for “the establishment” and not an “independent thinker” like them. Suddenly, when the evidence is against their conclusion, it simply doesn’t matter anymore, the hypocrisy is astounding.

And, you know, these sorts of irrational hypocrites can be frustrating to deal with.

*incidentally, this also applies to biologists who could produce any actual evidence that there was a “higher power” guiding our development. The fact that this is not widely accepted by biologists is due to the fact that the claims don’t stand up to scrutiny, not because anyone is actively trying to “suppress the truth.”

1 comment:

ordinaryjanet said...

first, Cincinnati is spelled Cincinnati. I know-I live here and it took me a long time to learn to spell it when I went to school.

Second, the idea of Knights Templar having been in America before Columbus is laughable, and I'm not even an archaeologist. Methinks some people have been reading "The DaVinci Code" and believe it's true and want to seize on any tiny bit of evidence that supports their hallucinations.

Blame your sister for posting a link to your blog and reminding me of your existence.