Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

I am often bemused at the way some people seem to think. Particularly those who advocate what we might call ‘fringe’ theories.

I took this photo of the Moeraki boulders in 2007. They fact that they are not perfect spheres is evident.

Moeraki boulders, north of Dunedin. It’s been argued that they are weights used by Chinese sailors to raise sail. As I know the natural geological origin of them, that’s not a theory I believe myself, but hey…

These are often portrayed in pseudo-scientific terms; there is a hypothesis. Then comes the apparent basis for the hypothesis, frequently explicitly titled ‘the evidence’ or ‘the facts’. And finally, the fringe thinker tells us that this evidence therefore proves the proposal. QED.

All of which sounds suitably watertight, except that – every time – the connection between the hypothesis and the evidence offered to support it is non-existent by actual scientific measure. Or the evidence is presented without proper context.

Some years ago I was asked to review a book which hypothesised that a Chinese civilisation had existed in New Zealand before what they called ‘Maori’ arrived. (I think they mean ‘Polynesians’, but hey…)

This Chinese hypothesis stood against orthodox archaeology which discredited the notion of a ‘pre-Maori’ settlement as early as 1923, and has since shown that New Zealand was settled by Polynesians around 1280 AD. They were the first humans to ever walk this land. Their Polynesian settler culture, later, developed into a distinct form whose people called themselves Maori. In other words, the Maori never ‘arrived’ – they were indigenous to New Zealand.

This picture has been built from a multi-disciplinary approach; archaeology, linguistics, genetic analysis, and available oral record. Data from all these different forms of scholarship fits together. It is also consistent with the wider picture of how the South Pacific was settled, including the places the Polynesian settlers came from.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop someone touring the South Island looking for ‘facts’ to ‘prove’ that a Chinese civilisation had been thriving here before they were (inevitably) conquered by arriving Maori. This ‘evidence’ was packed off to the Rafter Radiation Laboratory in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, for carbon dating. And sure enough, it was of suitable age. Proof, of course, that the hypothesis had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Aha! QED.

Except, of course, it wasn’t proof at all. Like any good journalist I rang the head of the lab and discovered that they’d been given some bagged samples of debris, which they were asked to test. They did, and provided the answer without comment. The problem was that the material had been provided without context. This meant the results were scientifically meaningless.

I’m contemplating writing a book myself on the pseudo-science phenomenon with its hilarious syllogisms and wonderful exploration of every logical fallacy so far discovered. How do these crazy ideas get such traction? Why do they seem to appeal more than the obvious science?

Would anybody be interested if I wrote something on this whole intriguing phenomenon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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7 comments on “Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

  1. It would be an interesting book the topic certainly is! Why is “confusion” in these days. Is it just to fool all into thinking it’s obvious? Check out (ripping book review: divergent) to see what I mean.

  2. Les says:

    Please, please, please. I’ll make it required reading in my archaeology courses.

  3. It would be extremely interesting. :)

  4. Lemuel says:

    I’d love to see you write more on this! It is an interesting phenomenon. Everybody likes to search for meaning and sometimes that search can lead people in the wrong direction. Additionally, for many individuals these quests become part of their identity – to challenge their theory is to challenge their person. Unfortunately this behaviour isn’t monopolized by conspiracy theorists or ‘fringe loonies’ either but is evident in many facets of society.

    Personally I can see some of the attraction of pseudo-science / archaeology. When I was a child I really wanted Atlantis to be real. I wanted the Yeti to be real. I really wanted to believe that there really was a small population of moa running around in some distant corner of a national park. People find mysteries intriguing and it can be depressing to think that everything has already been discovered, or that the days of explorers and adventurers are over and new discoveries are only the domain of scientists. Fortunately that part at least is wrong, there are still plenty of mysteries to be solved and plenty of ways that every day people can take part in the process. There are so many things in this world that we know so little about. I believe that the answer is to continue to find ways to better engage the public and harness some of their imagination and passion. They just want to be part of the quest for meaning as well.

    • I’ve always hoped there might be a breeding population of moa lurking somewhere in Fijordland or similar, too. There isn’t, of course, but one can dream. I’m definitely looking into what can be done with writing an ‘anti-woo’ book – there is a good deal of fertile ground in NZ alone, and we’re far from alone in our crop of ‘fringe thinkers’. It’s going to have to include the fellow who (I think, from memory) decided the Dunedin Botanical Gardens were part of an ancient ‘pre-Maori’ Chinese city. Personally I always thought they were set up by the Dunedin Borough Council in 1863, and I think the Council probably thinks so too, but hey… :-)

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