What To Do With Christian Researchers Who Purvey PaleoBabble

[Addendum: 10/22/2013 – I have been in correspondence with one of the researchers mentioned in Jason Colavito’s post. That individual tells me that research is underway in regard to some of the claims Jason criticized, and that I will receive a copy of the results of that research when ready. I will keep readers informed. As per the below, I will insist on those standards of evaluation. “Lab work” is not a synonym for peer review; it’s what peer review evaluates. I will in turn submit what I receive to experts in relevant fields whose own work has undergone peer review, experts to whom I turn to for evaluation of such things, as I am not qualified to decipher scientific tests.]

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Jason Colavito posted a telling essay today. For someone like me, a Christian and biblical studies scholar, it was disturbing. Frankly, it provoked me to enter the discussion. I have the training and am well known in both the “Christian weirdness” community and by scholars (Christian or otherwise) all over the globe (it’s a blessing of my job). I feel responsible to say something — to put people on notice in some sense. I wouldn’t want people to be deceived because I remained silent. It’s a consistency issue for me. I want to be on the record.

So what’s my beef?

I’m guessing Jason and I wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on some things. That’s fine. For one, I believe in a creator, though I’m not predisposed toward the young earth position, mostly for the way it distorts points of science, caricatures evolutionary theory, and imposes a modern context on the ancient text (something that atheistic evolutionists do with great frequency and equal ignorance). Put another way, the reason I’m not in that camp is not because I don’t think God capable of recent creation. I just don’t think the Bible was ever intended to teach us science. The Bible itself makes that clear if we just take it for what it says in its original context.1 Logically, then, I’m not a philosophical materialist. I accept the possibility of what is loosely (and in some cases, inaccurately) called the “supernatural.” That goes with the turf of theism and, by extension, Christianity. These positions have stood up to the best of academic philosophical debate for centuries, so I know I’m on good footing, despite atheist crowing to the contrary. These ideas are also not antithetical to the scientific or logical mind. I personally know too many PhDs in the hard sciences and philosophy to know that lame criticisms of theism from such trajectories have failed to impress many scientists and scholars, Christian or not. Most of what passes for critique of theism and Christianity is actually criticism of caricatures or flawed thinking that circulates among the laity.

I don’t know where Jason is at on any of that and I don’t care. I value his research; I’m thankful for it. So let’s be clear. What disturbed me wasn’t Jason’s comments about creationists. That’s yesterday’s news. I can think he’s wrong about that idea (again, I really don’t know what he thinks) without thinking he lacks integrity as a researcher. What disturbed me about the content of his post was the appalling, absurd ideas that some Christian researchers are apparently peddling as truth — even calling it biblical truth.

I can sum up my thoughts on the sort of research Jason highlights: it’s baptized pablum that lacks any prayer of being correct biblical teaching or coherent thinking. Jason’s post gives specific examples of the way Christian researchers have uncritically adopted the same insane, data-starved ideas as offered by Zecharia Sitchin and Giorgio Tsoukalos.2 All that’s missing is the fawning sycophantia and the hair. Why do they do it? I don’t know. Popularity? Gullibility? Money? Ego? Again, I don’t know. But I do know how to address it. It’s simple — the same strategies that show the non-Christian ancient astronaut twaddle to be vacuous will work on the Christian variety. This is evident since the same unsound thought processes are shared: intellectual laziness and abuse of data.

Here are my tried and true approaches:

1. Insist that any evidence put forth by an ancient astronaut researcher about what an ancient text says comes with specific primary source citation — in biblical parlance, “chapter and verse, please.” I do this consistently, and it usually kills the discussion before it even gets started. If I hear a claim without a reference or some other generality (“it’s in the Babylonian creation story”) my first response is “show me the text.”3 I won’t take their word for anything. Most of the time such citations are merely parroted from something they read in a secondary source (itself of abysmal quality if it’s an ancient astronaut title) or saw in a YouTube video, or heard on a radio show, or just picked up in conversation. Not good enough. Show me the tablet, line, chapter, verse, etc. If you’ve been too lazy or ignorant to look up the material yourself, you’ve forfeited the right to be heard. Parroting ideas isn’t research.

2. When it comes to textual material, translations and interpretations must derive from careful study of the original languages. That is, texts don’t just mean anything and ought not be raped and pillaged so they can be pressed into the service of nonsense. Languages have their own rules of grammar and usage. Their vocabulary is to be understood in the context of the people who produced the texts and their own time and culture — not our modern, foreign culture. You might think this is too high a standard. “Not many people can work in these languages, Mike.” Oh, well. Actually, there are more of those nerds out there than you’d think. If you’re going to pass yourself off as a researcher, teacher, or expert and can’t do this sort of work, you’re deceiving your audience with a false claim of authority. Don’t bellyache about not knowing the languages. Learn them. It isn’t rocket science. And it matters. (I didn’t waste fifteen years of graduate school to function at the same level as an English Bible reader or someone bound to English translation of other ancient texts). Besides, there are many good resources, in print and online, that can provide deep access to primary source material. But that would mean you need to tie yourself to (or get toasted by) the next item.

3. Assertions and conclusions offered must be based on sound research that has been subjected to peer review. Peer review is the practice utilized in scholarly publishing whereby a writer submits his or her ideas and research to a small panel of experts fields germane to the submission. The goal is not uniformity of ideas, but rather to check methodology and content relevant to the argument so that important data are not overlooked (or avoided) and earlier research is taken into consideration. In short, it’s a coverage and coherence filter. Without it, anyone could publish anything anywhere (especially the internet), making it impossible for non-specialists to know whether the material is sound or not. (Or, making it easier to dupe people). Passing the muster of peer review means that your work has stood up under scrutiny. The issue is not “right or wrong,” as peer reviewed publications publish varying viewpoints on any given issue. Passing peer review means that the essay or article deserves a hearing in the opinion of leaders in the field. I insist that the ideas put forth by researchers meet that standard. Every year thousands of articles and books are published under some kind of review. Researchers who avoid that material or refuse to address that material in their own work are either lazy or dishonest.

Frankly, there’s a name for people who refuse to submit their own research to the review of bona fide experts in the relevant disciplines: coward. For sure, peer review isn’t perfect. Flawed ideas get through from time to time. Scholarly journals don’t use angels for reviewers, either, so sometimes something gets denied because of politics. But the *fact* is that there are hundreds of peer-reviewed journals in the humanities and hard sciences to which work can be submitted. The sheer number is a corrective to the occasional mistake or abuse. Rejection is common, because a given journal can only print so many pages – so try another. If your work gets rejected over and over again, that’s a clear sign it’s deeply flawed. But if you never submit it, that’s a clear sign you’d rather pass yourself off as an expert to the unlearned you want to gather as your fan base and audience. On that level, there’s an ethics problem here.

These approaches — these safeguards — have served me well over the years. They are simple, reasonable standards that I strive to follow myself. Sloppy, self-serving research and personal speculations are no substitute. That a researcher has an idea or viewpoint doesn’t mean it is coherent. That there’s a mystery to be solved or a knotty problem in the historical, archaeological record doesn’t mean that we can now throw reason to the wind and declare the thought rattling around in our head to be truth. That the Bible is a book for all humankind doesn’t mean every interpretation of it is equally valid. You can claim the Holy Spirit led you to say XYZ, and I won’t care — because the Spirit is honest. He wouldn’t lead you into bunk (least of all ancient astronaut bunk) or to do careless work. He wouldn’t lead you to be lazy or ignorant. Appealing to the Spirit for your own lack of effort and courage in the above areas is reprehensible. Laying your own lethargy and ineptitude at the door of the Spirit hardly honors God.

For the Christian out there, willfully following flawed research that fails to meet these minimal qualifications common to serious academics is a spiritual issue. Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, it’s an issue of magnitude. It goes to using the intellectual faculties with which we’ve been blessed. It goes to honesty when you claim to be seeking the truth. It goes to having confidence in the God you claim to follow — that all truth will conform to his character and revelation because there can be no such thing as contradictory competing truths (at least in a coherent world). It goes to being an honorable testimony to those who don’t believe in the gospel so that Christ is not shamed by the way you do your work. It goes to fostering relationships of integrity with other researchers who don’t share your beliefs. None of us are perfect, but that isn’t the standard. Honesty and perfection aren’t synonyms. The former is a standard that can be reached and maintained even though the latter cannot. Exempting yourself from the former and making the latter your excuse for doing so is just wrong.

  1. I’d also argue that the actual truth propositions of the Bible are not incompatible with science.
  2. I hope that at least some of Jason’s ancient alien examples aren’t true, but he tries very hard to fact-check. That’s his track record. I will assume what he describes in his post is accurate until that is demonstrated not to be the case.
  3. This is why I made the video showing people where to find all occurrences of “anunnaki” in the cuneiform tablets — to show the ancient astronaut ideas about them are simply made up.

Transporting the Trilithon Stones of Baalbek: It’s About Applied Physics, Not Ancient Aliens

PaleoBabble readers know that ancient astronaut theorists suffer from a fixation on megalithic construction. The “impossibility” of moving stones of great size and tremendous weight appears to them as proof of alien assistance. This argument of course is simply reduced to “since I can’t figure out how it was done, it must have been aliens.” Rather than focus on the absurdity of this logic, I’ve tried to introduce readers to peer-reviewed scholarship on ancient construction and engineering. Egypt’s pyramids have received a lot of attention here in that regard. I want to turn now to Baalbek, specifically the famous trilithon (the three stones at the base of the Roman temple at the site).

There isn’t much written on this that’s available to the non-specialist, and most of what is available isn’t in English. At the risk of directing readers to a source that won’t be much use since it’s in French, I still think it’s useful to demonstrate that scholars have put serious thought into the trilithon, and have come up with workable solutions that have been successful in analogous situations (in this case, something even bigger than the trilithon – yes, ancient alien enthusiasts, the trilithon is NOT the largest object moved without modern machines; keep reading). A very good (and lengthy) scholarly journal article in French about moving the trilithon by ancient mechanical means is available on the web: Jean-Pierre Adam, “A propos du trilithon de Baalbek. Le transport et la mise en oeuvre des megaliths,” Syria 54:1-2 (1977): 31-63 (English translation: “Concerning the trilithon of Baalbek: Transportation and the Implementation of the Megaliths”). Two caveats on the article: (1) It’s very technical. It’s filled with mathematical discussion since its author is quite familiar with analyzing such problems via applied physics; (2) my French stinks. As such, I converted the article to text and used Google Translate, then went through and smoothed things out. I did not do this for the full article (I have better things to do). However, I have given readers important excerpts of this 32 page article. If you read French, then you can check on the translation and send me updates.

On pages 34-37 the author discusses ancient writers who described construction techniques for moving large stone objects. He writes:

“The advantage of this unique publication is exacerbated by the fact that, although written during the reign of Augustus, the treaty made a broad appeal to the art of building Greeks whose author cites the lost works of theorists and the most famous architects. In the context of this brief study, our interest is in the tenth book of Vitruvius, where we find a detailed description of the process and machinery used on construction sites of Greece and Rome and the author mentions at the same time the efficient and widespread job. The transport of megaliths is not forgotten . . .

Vitruvius cites two anecdotes relating to the construction . . . He sank both ends of “column each iron bolts made of Swallow-tailed and are sealed” with lead, having taken the precaution to put in the pieces of wood cross-sectional “dirty iron rings, in which bolts came in as “hubs. In addition, he strengthens his machine by attaching the two “pieces of oak ties, so that when the horse pulling the” bolts turned so easily into the rings, all the “shafts of the columns rolled easily on land to their destination.”

The second transport means for the megaliths described by Vitruvius . . . consisted of wheels twelve feet (approx. 3.60 m) and “locked both ends of the architraves in the middle of the wheels. He put “as bolts and iron rings, so that when the horse” pulling the machine, put the bolts in the iron rings were “turning the wheels. Thus, the architraves, which were in the wheels “as axles, were dragged and taken on the spot.”

He provides the following drawing to illustrate these techniques (Fig 2). Note how the absence of a round shape was no obstacle to moving something like a whole large pillar or obelisk — you simply gave it roundness at the ends to roll it. Very clever.

On page 42 the author introduces what will become for him an analogous point of reference for his proposed solution to moving the trilithon of Baalbek:

“. . . 1,250,000 kilograms . . . is the weight of the great block of granite the Empress Catherine II of Russia (1762-1796) . . . carried to St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) to serve as a colossal base to the equestrian statue of Peter the Great. This is likely the largest stone ever moved by man, one and a half times the weight trilithon blocks [at Baalbek.]”

 

Hope you caught that — an object 1.5 times the weight of the trilithon was successfully moved in the 18th century — no modern cranes. They did it with manpower, not alien know-how. He mentions other large objects successfully moved by human engineers, but this one gets special attention because it was a larger problem than the trilithon.

The rest of the article is devoted to Baalbek’s trilithon. Throughout pages 52-63, the author discusses the physics and engineering problems and solutions. Some excerpts:

“To appreciate the magnitude of the work, and justify the solution adapted to it, it is necessary to give the figures for to the heavier blocks, namely those of trilithon As its name suggests this set consists of three stones measuring respectively, 19.60 m, 19.30 m and 19.10 m long, 4.34 m high, 3.65 m deep. Their average weight is nearly 800 tons. . . . every stone has nearly 10 m in length for an average weight of 350 tonnes . . . After recalling the experiences of St. Petersburg, Luxor, and Carrara, we can obtain a more lucidly clean solution for this megalithic structure and more particularly to the construction of the trilithon.”

 

The author discusses using ox power to move the stones, a solution he will reject because of the lack of space on the site for the oxen:

“To solve the problem of Baalbek in the most comprehensive, we will consider the establishment of one of the heaviest blocks, that is to say one of the stones of 800,000 kg constituting the trilithon; the interventions for elements lighter in the deduction will be logical.

So either one of these stones completely detached from the rock and relaxing on logs. The floor beams receiving the convoy has a rolling flat surface to reduce the weight hauled to 66,600 kg. Knowing that an ox can provide a work of 80 kgm per second, continuously for one hour, we deduce there should be 825 of these animals to transport one of trilithon stones on a horizontal floor. Traditionally, it is estimated that an ox can pull a load 1.000 kg placed on a chariot. If we consider the block of 800,000 kg of the trilithon, it follows that 800 oxen are needed to move it.”

 

The author notes some logistical problems with using oxen before moving to a human solution:

“Certainly the yoke was known to mate the oxen, and in the case normal load, the pole was attached directly to the yoke between two animals, but when it came to transport heavy, each torque cattle was connected to the load by a cable or pole. . . . Xenophon gives us a confirmation on the use of this type coupling in the description he gives us the means employed by Cyrus to ensure the movement of heavy battle rounds . . . Each turn with wheels, was equipped with 8 drawbars which were harnessed eight pairs of oxen pulling front.

Despite the apparent simplicity of this energy source, we prefer to look to the human powered, with which the weakness in muscle is compensated by the extreme technical elaboration of the device multiplier used. In the event of a traction provided by the duration of the capstans, movement is a bit longer, since it multiplies the distance traveled by the load, in favor of the force and must ensure the in place and anchor machinery. The advantage of this method lies in the extremely small number of workers needed and the greater accuracy of the progression, allowing rigorous implementation of blocks the one above and beside the other. . . . Each capstan bar with four men using it would make 24 in total. . . . The force exerted directly by the capstan 24 men and six bar is at 20 kg per man of 480 kg. Taking center force application to 1.70 m from the center of rotation and a radius of drum of 10 cm, this force becomes (by a form winch) 8160 kg. Four cables of hemp, each providing four tons of traction, wind around the drum and by acting on the load through a hoist with two pulleys, generate a power of 16,320 kg of the machine; 13,056 kg reduced power by the coefficient of friction. Six of these machines, involving 144 men and providing traction power of 78,336 kg must allow, with a margin of excess power always useful, the transportation of each block of trilithon.”

 

Since the above is hard to conceptualize, the author includes a drawing of the simple, yet effective solution to moving the trilithon.

Simple, workable, and human. Once again, the ancient alien theorist’s low view of human intelligence and practical engineering prowess is demonstrated.

Satirical Music Video Targeting Nibiru 2012 Mythology

One of the members of the Boston-based rock band, Metaphor for Everything, sent me the link to a new single, accompanied by a note that the song was inspired by my Zecharia Sitchin site. Apparently the site convince one of the band members to leave the ancient astronaut fold. I got a chuckle out of it; some clever lyrics. I also liked the swipe at Harold Camping in it.

And for those ancient astronaut fundies out there who take that material too seriously, the song is a parody of the Sitchin/Nibiru/2012 hysteria — it’s not a suicide anthem.

Ancient Aliens and Pseudo-Academics

I invite you all to read Jason Colavito’s short post entitled, “Ancient Aliens and Credential Inflation.” Claiming false credentials is irritating to an academic, like myself (and as those who know me know, I have a healthy disdain for the snobbery of the academy — but I like lying even less). It’s just so disingenuous. The ancient astronaut crowd is infamous for criticizing mainstream scholars (just read the comments section of this blog!), and yet its most visible proponents want to pass themselves off as possessing graduate degrees and other credentials, the baptism of the mainstream. Pure hypocrisy, with intent to manipulate the audience.

A Case of Credential Envy?

I just read a short but telling post by Jason Colavito on the blog that bears his name entitled, “The Dubious Authorial Accomplishments of Gorgio Tsoukalos.” Gorgio is the star of  the cinematic tribute to non sequitur thinking known as Ancient Aliens. Jason examines Gorgio’s publication credentials which have been used (frequently) to promote the show and his expertise as one of its content sources. Those to whom things like credentials matter will want to have a look at it.

Doctoral Degree for Ancient Astronaut Theorists

I saw two items today that have convinced me that the PaleoBabble blog needs to begin awarding the PhD in Non Sequitur Thinking for ancient astronaut theorists.

The first is this wonderful post from the Skeptophilia blog. Please read it. It is an uncannily accurate accounting of how ancient astronaut conspiracy theorists think (and it’s entertaining).  I loved it since I’ve lived it (too many times). I hereby infer, with all the authority invested in me by virtue of the possession of a sound mind, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Non Sequitur Thinking on the student referred to in Gordon Bennet’s Skeptophilia post. May he wear the mantle well. My thanks to professor Bennet for recommending his student for the degree.

The second item comes from my comments page. Karku asked my thoughts on one Maximillen de Lafayette, whom the commenter is apparently having trouble tracking down in terms of credential verification (what a surprise). Basically, de Lafayette seems to want to be the heir apparent to Zecharia Sitchin’s gold train, and so claims expertise in about everything pertaining to the ancient world, along with authoring hundreds of books and thousands of other items worth reading (!). After yawning and chuckling, here was my short response:

1. It matters not how many publications one has if one is writing only for the uninformed. Rather, when one subjects one’s views to experts in the relevant fields (i.e., subjects one’s work to peer review) and they determine that such writings pass muster, THEN and only then should we care.

2. If Mr. de Lafayette lacks real credentials from real universities, then he is a liar when it comes to his credibility for saying anything about any ancient language. I don’t know if he’s lying. I’m giving you a chance to defend him.

3. Who cares if he “takes Sitchin further” when Sitchin’s material is bogus?  Taking ideas that do not exist in ancient Mesopotamian records is like taking the anatomical study of unicorns “further.”  Caring about his work would therefore be a waste of time.

My guess, of course, is that Lafayette knows even less about ancient languages than Sitchin did, which wasn’t much, as I have noted elsewhere. But maybe he studied something somewhere and can prove it. All this before we even get to the non sequitur nature of his work.

Dogon Debunking from an Unlikely Source

I recently blogged about the so-called Dogon “mystery.” Readers will recall that it has nothing to do with alien contact. I utilized several scholarly articles where anthropologists went back to the Dogon people to check the original reports that made the Dogon so popular with ancient astronaut theorists. Turns out it was bogus (insert surprised look here).

I recently came across an older debunking of the Dogon issue from, of all places, the “Above Top Secret” website. It’s well worth the read. If a source like this can think clearly and critically about the sacred Dogon cow, I would hope that others can embrace the effort that went into the piece. It doesn’t seem like a biased source from people corrupted “by all that establishment book learning.”