As humans, I fear, we suffer from an uncanny ability to intellectualise ourselves into believing things that are really, really stupid.
Take the crackpot theories about secret history that have become popular ever since Charles Fort was a lad. Every country seems to have their variations – ‘ancient astronauts’ building pyramids, hidden past civilisations in the Americas, even Atlantis discovered in Google Maps, having eluded everybody on the planet including Google’s mapping teams.
Never mind that the ‘city’ on the Atlantic floor was actually an artefact of Google’s digital mapping process. Or that the ‘Atlantis’ legend itself has been shown to have come from Egypt, and was really about the destruction of Santorini (Thera) and the Minoan civilisation by volcano.
Here in New Zealand, crank ideas have included efforts to ‘prove’ that that everybody from Phoenicians to Celts arrived before Polynesians (always, wrongly, called ‘Maori’ in these accounts). The ‘proofs’, as far as I can tell, pivot on assigning human patterns to natural rock formations, or identifying boulders shifted by a county council during excavations as an ancient observatory. Literally joining the dots, though in a peculiar way.
Like overseas theories of similar ilk, these tell us more about the people proposing them than anything real. What’s more, some of these ideas – Celtic especially – float on a repugnant racial agenda, underscoring what’s actually going on.
New Zealand is far from alone. All this begs the question. How do these ideas gain traction?
Unconscious incompetence plays a part; often these theories are presented by people who are flat ignorant of the state of understanding of the field – so ignorant they don’t know how ignorant they are. That’s coupled with the assertion that ‘I don’t know myself, therefore nobody can know.’
A friend of mine argues it’s the result of people trying to fit the universe into their heads, it’s just a pity their heads are so tiny. It’s to do with their own sense of place, of identity; with constraining the wild unknowns of the world and controlling them – with, in effect, feeling secure, in their own way.
The other tack these fringe theorists try is claiming deliberate deception, a ‘conspiracy’ among ‘the establishment’ to ‘hide the truth’.
I’m part of that establishment, so any denial I make isn’t going to wash. Apart from one small point. Here in New Zealand, certainly, my experience has been that academic historians loathe each other – most of the ones I’ve run across regard the work of their peers as an assault on their own personal self-worth that must be avenged in kind. There is no chance whatsoever of a ‘conspiracy’ even being agreed on – still less sustained – in this viciously hostile intellectual environment.
Again, I think, the ‘establishment conspiracy’ notion is part of that phenomenon of the fringe thinkers keeping the universe small – of cutting the ‘system’ down to size.
Ultimately I don’t think there’s much point arguing against any of the crank theorists. They won’t accept rebuttals; and for every theory that is exploded – sometimes by simply falling out of fashion – a new idea always seems to arise to take its place.
But I still think it’s a pity. As I always say, the real world – including its history – is wonderful and amazing enough, and still full of great and awesome things to discover, without us having to create fantasies about it.
What do you figure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013