In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about a book that I love - Dr. Milton Love's Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. I wanted to belated continue that and write about another book that I love: Kenneth Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudo-Science in Archaeology.
Although Brian Fagan is probably the best known popular archaeology writer alive today, Kenneth Feder has written some of my personal favorite books. A Village of Outcasts is one of the best non-technical narrative descriptions of archaeological research that I have read, but Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is a perennial favorite.
This book serves three basic purposes: 1) it is a good primer on the sorts of nonsense that gets propagated as "the REAL TRUTH about the human past" in pop culture; 2) it provides a good introduction in the basic methods used by archaeologists and historians to sort out information and evaluate claims; 3) it provides an entertaining primer in basic critical thinking, dealing more with the sorts of claims that crackpots make as well as the tendency for people to be fooled especially when dealing with claims outside of their area of expertise, rather than focus on the formal names of logical fallacies. The book is entertaining in equal parts because of Feder's enjoyable writing style and because he chooses case studies that are themselves entertaining.
The case studies within this book run the gamut from the Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant to "scientific" creationism to people who believe that human civilization is the reasult of intervention by aliens from other worlds. In each case, Feder gives a fair description of the claim, points towards it's main (or in some cases, original) proponents, and then proceeds to explain what the archaeological record actually shows.
Throughout the book, he never takes the attitude of "the professional archaeologists know the truth and everyone else is fools!" He starts the book by pointing out that he once believed some pretty strange things about physics, biology, and other fields outside of archaeology, indicating that one can be intelligent and still be taken in by some of these claims, and he dedicates page space to explaining how archaeological views have changed over time, showing that archaeologists are open to correction. In fact, it's this last point that he holds (and I agree) really separates science from pseudoscience - if you dismiss disconfirming evidence because you don't like the implication rather than because of the nature of the evidence, then you are practicing pseudoscience. And the book finishes up by discussing actual archaeological mysteries - subjects on which the professionals are well and truly stumped, showing that the archaeologists neither know it all nor claim to, but they simply are willing to put out the time and effort to reach strong conclusions rather than simply promote their pet hypotheses.
I once owned two copies of this book, and would loan one out to friends and family members who came to me with bizarre claims about human history. Unfortunately (for me) one of the borrowers never returned it, so now I am down to one...which might be a good excuse to get the new edition.