Friday, June 18, 2010

Pseudohistory on Parade

Randall Stephens

In November 2009 Ronald H. Fritze wrote an essay for Historically Speaking: "On the Perils and Pleasures of Confronting Pseudohistory." He discussed his work in the trenches of fake history and asked questions about the enduring popular appeal of far-fetched stories and bizarre apocryphal tales. (Note to publishers: find some enterprising author to make a serious case for the existence of zombies and/or vampires in Alexander the Great's army.) According to Fritze:

As pop culture shows us, these ideas fascinate people. They form the premises of movies, television series, novels, and video games. They provide fodder for hours of fantastic chat on late night radio and drive legions of faithful audiences to weekend conferences devoted to the latest hot idea. Pseudohistory can be fun, just like a Star Trek convention or a Renaissance fair can be fun—as long as your pockets are deep enough and your skepticism sufficiently submerged.

But, he went on, there is a dark side to all this; hucksterism at best, a justification for all sorts of nastiness at worst. "Pseudohistory can sometimes bring about very real and tragic history for unfortunate acolytes," observes Fritze. (The history channel is a great purveyor of the lighter side of psuedohistory. They make expert use of the question mark to make documentaries on zany subjects seem plausible. Did Hitler live on in South America? Did ancient aliens roam the earth? Were their whalers on the moon in olden times?)

Here are a few recent, and not-so-recent, pseudohistorical items.

"Looking for alien DNA,", June 15, 2010.

Zecharia Sitchin says he's willing to stake everything he's written about alien astronauts on DNA tests that could be performed on the 4,500-year-old remains of a high-ranking Sumerian woman. It's the latest - and possibly the last - cause celebre for a fringe celebrity.>>>

"APOLLO 11 HOAX PHOTOS: 8 Moon-Landing Myths -- Busted," National Geographic, July 20, 2009.

Forty years after U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, many conspiracy theorists still insist the Apollo 11 moon landing was an elaborate hoax. Examine the photographic evidence, and find out why experts say some of the most common claims simply don't hold water.>>>

Amber Baker, "In search of the ark: Lovelander claims recent discovery points to evidence of biblical craft," Loveland Reporter-Herald, June 10, 2010.

A Loveland man who has written books and produced movies about the search for Noah’s ark said a recent discovery could “turn things upside down.” In April, Hong-Kong-based Noah’s Ark Ministries International announced that Chinese and Turkish explorers had found what the Christian group believes are the remains of Noah’s ark.>>>

Mark A. Chancey, "Lesson plans: The Bible in the classroom," Christian Century, August 23 2005.

J. O. Kinnaman is not a name well known in contemporary academic circles. He has argued (in Diggers for Facts: The Bible in Light of Archaeology) that Jesus and Paul visited Great Britain, that Joseph of Arimathea was Jesus' uncle and dominated the tin industry of Wales, and that he himself personally saw Jesus' school records in India. According to an article by Stephen Mehler, director of research at the Kinnaman Foundation, Kinnaman reported finding a secret entrance into the Great Pyramid of Giza, in which he discovered records from the lost continent of Atlantis. He also claimed that the pyramid was 35,000 years old and was used in antiquity to transmit radio messages to the Grand Canyon. Kinnaman might not be the best figure on which to base material for a public school textbook.>>>


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I hadn't been exposed to this line of the media's use of history until the _Da Vinci Code_ phenomenon. Some friends of mine recorded a 20/20 episode on the subject in which academics/intellectuals/writers and clergy were interviewed (including Umberto Eco!) regarding the supposed 'revelations' in the _Da Vinci Code_. I was horrified at the manipulative way that the editors had made a controversy out of something that wasn't a controversy--that 'use of the question mark' that you mentioned was crucial. They would say "was Jesus Christ in fact married?" and then precede to interview lots of 'authorities', none of whom were saying any such thing. Then they would end the segment by saying "controversy obviously still exists over this topic"--when no reputable authorities were really arguing!
I was horrified about that sort of reporting and when I realized that popular television 'documentaries' are doing this sort of thing, I got a bit discouraged. Maybe it really is all for fun, but it makes it hard to have 'straight' history taken seriously.... My students have a hard time knowing what counts as evidence as it is.


Randall said...

That's interesting about the 20/20 episode. They should have asked: Does this count as real reporting?

There's that false sense of balance or controversy that journalists sometimes cultivate. Sometimes there just is no controversy.