Skepticism and science against superstition
“It’s good to keep your mind open –but not so open that your brain falls out”
Walter Kotschnig, 1940 – usually attributed to Carl Sagan
In the dark years of medieval times, the unsuspecting population of Europe would systematically become witness of a magical phenomenon that filled the all-too-open mind of those who came across it with wonderous images of magestic creatures and sublime apparitions. I am referring, of course, to common mushrooms. Someone would wake up one fine morning to find sprung mushrooms in almost perfect circular formation in his garden, on the same spot where the previous day there was nothing but clear grass. How could one explain the mystery of the sudden appearance of the fungi and, moreover, the apparently intentional circular formation? The origin of the myth that “solved” this mystery will probably remain unknown, but it spread mouth to mouth through international terrains and in perennial durability. It had to be, they said, that while everyone was sleeping, a gathering of fairies would take place in their garden, for a nocturnal meeting of sorts. And, so that they wouldn’t get tired, they forced mushrooms to bloom for them to sit on, in the manner of a round table. I will not be bothered here with how this narrative took form (there is always an impressionable bloke in the tribe), but with how it got retold and took hold of generations to come.
Surely the majority of the population was uneducated, surely life conditions were unfavorable and perhaps did not allow for the luxury of doubt, surely (I guess) everyone was always so tired by their harsh everyday reality and didn’t have time or care to wonder how come, for example, nobody had ever seen these fairies at work. But there were, certainly, also those who -with equally little time, rest and education as the others- were not convinced by the solution to the mystery with a narration of magical creatures that, not having anything better to do, made congress in the middle of the night behind some shack. In reality, as scientists found out later on, mushrooms indeed grow suddenly, in the middle of the night, when the conditions (temperature, humidity…) are appropriate. Initially, the seed grows a root, which grows downward, and then branches outwardly in every direction (with roughly the same rate of growth), until the proper conditions are met for the branches to rise toward the ground and present the mushroom on the surface. As it is obvious, what someone sees on the ground is the mushrooms in circular arrangement. I wouldn’t like to reproach those who believed the fairy myth (not me…), but they rather proved to be gullible dupes, while those who merely said “I don’t know”, probably died in ignorance without ever knowing the truth of the matter; holding, though, an intellectually honorable stance that I find difficult to disparage, as it is this attitude that is a rarity even today, on issues small and big. Which of the two categories would you rather be in?
If this story of mushrooms and fairies sounds childish and irrelevant, the next ones will surely seem more familiar. But luckily today, apart from a higher education in relation to the medieval peasants, we also have access to much more information on the origins of our own myths that helps us debunk them. On the other hand, according to the unwritten law of escalation, the modern storytellers exploit the smattering and the gullibility towards stories that evoke a sense of awe, and utilize pseudoscientific methods to promote their books or blogs.
Erich von Daeniken is one such storyteller who introduced himself as an alternative historian, and it is he who made fashionable the myth of the “ancient astronauts” that still fill both paper and digital pages. As the myth goes, there are monuments, such as Egypt’s Pyramids, that are so complex in their construction and, therefore, so inexplicably made considering the limited technological tools of their time that…surely aliens must have visited Earth and built them for us. In the same manner that the ancient Greeks saw things they could not explain, like thunder, and made myths to limit the frustration of this inability, such as the god Zeus, Daeniken of the 20th century transferred this loosely obstructed inspiration from theology to science fiction. If he wanted to follow the scientific method, he would have to consider the available evidence and conclude whatever he could explain (and say “I don’t know” for the things he couldn’t). But Daeniken did the opposite. He preferred to resort with certainty to the ease of the impressive myth and arbitrarily create a story that, if true, would indeed explain the mystery he was looking at. It should be obvious how simplistic this view of the investigative procedure is, and we should not avoid the comparison with the previous example; if Zeus indeed existed, with the powers and idiosyncrasies he was attributed with, his existence would actually explain the emergence of thunders –it’s just that Zeus cannot be concluded from the available evidence.
The Nazca Lines of Peru are explained away in the same manner; a set of constructions that is not known why or how they were made -therefore: aliens. They were used, he says, by our otherworldly visitors as landing strips, to land their spaceships. The obvious objection to the theory, and before we even address the relative scientific research, is the irrationality of thinking it intellectually unproblematic that starships, which traveled through, at least, our galaxy, were in need of landing strips waiting for them on Earth! Bear in mind that for the aliens to make the journey it would mean they were unimaginably more evolved technologically than us (maybe even able to surpass the speed of light?) -but they need landing strips?. Note that we, humans, have already built airplanes that take off vertically, with no need for any Nazca lines. Scientists, on the other hand, archeologists, ethnologists, anthropologists and astronomers, though they have not yet concluded with absolute certainty on the matter, consider it the likeliest that the Nazca Lines were formed by the locals either so that they would be visible by their gods or in order to point to spots on the horizon where the sun and other celestial objects rested during solstices.
Skepticism and common sense are often enough to deter us from inconsiderately believing whatever we are told. Conversely, those who succumb to these easy and imaginable stories choose to ignore the long and painful scientific research of thousands of scientists throughout the ages and take comfort in something someone irresponsibly says, figuring out solutions while gazing at their ceiling instead of doing the real work, pretending they have access to knowledge the rest of us don’t. So, instead of realizing it’s not possible to discover everything in one day (only in 2014 did we learn how the Egyptians dragged the stones to build the pyramids) and declare ignorance on the questions still left unanswered, they fantasize about fairies and aliens. There is arrogance is this behavior, against those who work honestly to unlock the mysteries of our past, as well as self-complacency, as they cancel out the authority of those who have certainly more knowledge than them. The intellectually honest position to hold is the Socratic one; we should not pretend to know things we don’t know (things we can’t possibly know).
Dimitris Sarantakos in What did we learn from the ancient Greeks? calls Daeniken a “semiliterate noise-maker” as he ascribes to aliens the knowledge of Thales and Anaxagoras, when he writes that “it is a well-known fact that the ancient Greeks did not have such technological equipment, e.g. lenses, and in mathematics they could not count higher than 10,000”. In reality, lenses were in common use in ancient Greece (even Aristophanes mentions them in his play Clouds), and Archimedes speaks of a number that consists of the digit 1 followed by quadrillion zeros…
Unfortunately, the “classic” Daeniken is just an example of those who follow this motif that is reproduced by other modern storytellers who invoke the Masons, the Nephilim, the Hollow Earth, the Atlantis, the flatness of the earth and countless more silliness mixed with Christian Mysticism, the Jews and CIA conspiracy theories. And it is actually them who claim to be skeptics who doubt the “official” or “mainstream” history, while they are nothing but deniers of true science. In contrast, there are indeed those who have made real skepticism a profession -and we call them scientists.
I won’t bother with specific conspiracy theories (that would take many thousands of words) but only refer to certain famous historical mysteries that, even though the scientific community has actually solved, continue to be reproduced.
In 1950, the geographic area within Miami, Puerto Rico and Bermuda was covered in mystery and intrigue, described as a region where airplanes and ships disappear never to be seen again. The story started by a journalist and not long after books appeared with testimonies of the vanished ones themselves, like the pilot of an airplane who, right before it disappeared, appeared to have said “We are entering white water, nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, not white.” Rumors escalated and still persist. However, the “mystery” has been solved since 1975! A researcher from Arizona studied the frequency of ship and plane itineraries within the region, as well as relevant “disappearances”, meaning how often a plane would fall in the sea or a ship would sink. As it was to be expected, the frequency of these kinds of mishaps within the Bermuda triangle was never higher than anywhere else on the planet where there is similar traffic in an area similar in size. Previous claims of disappearances in the Bermuda triangle proved either exaggerated or completely made up. However, the rumored “curse” of the region is still around. In reality, 100 large ships disappear somewhere on the planet every year, usually because of rogue waves.
In the Bermuda triangle there has not been a similar event since 1999 (as far as I can tell).
Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
The statues Moai of the island Rapa Nui provided a source for many theories. The Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch in 1722, who found 2 to 3 thousand indigenous people that did not seem to have the abilities and resources to create the majestic Moai, since on the island there were no trees to be found (which might be necessary to move the statues from the faraway place where they were made to where they stood) and the population was too small for the construction of so many statues of such size. So, the statues, around 1,000 in number, constituted a mystery, as no one knew how they were sculpted (no technology), how they were moved on the spot they were found (no trees), what the reason for their creation was (too much trouble considering absence of resources), and neither did anyone know who actually made them (too few people, and they could not answer the questions). The most imaginative theory was (once more) supported by Daeniken, who again insisted on his alien travelers.
The truth is far from the Swiss storyteller’s fables. Several years ago, with more advanced scientific tools than those available in the time of the sea explorers, it was found that the island was, in the distant past, hospitable to almost 15 thousand inventive people, in an environment full of natural life, including trees. So, what had gone wrong? The Rapa Nui people, divided in tribes, were “ancestor worshippers”, a religion that’s been found in other civilizations as well, and is devoted to the “fathers” of the believers. In this case, the statues were devoted to these “fathers” in order to win over their favor and protection. Their fanaticism, though, reached to the point of paroxysm, and the worshippers exhausted the natural resources of their island in a suicidal match to prove which tribe was the most faithful. Building taller Moais meant the use of more human resources, more food for the sculptors (who performed a rather counter-productive task), more cutting of trees to transport the statues to the sea shore (they probably put trunks horizontally on the ground and dragged the statues on them, rolling them like wheels) and several bloody religious wars among the tribes to reveal which tribe was the most “worthy”. The natural disaster caused by this climate change worsened the condition of the isolated between two vast seas people, with their plights reinforcing themselves (the climate catastrophe drove to lack of food and misery that fanaticized them even more, and so their offerings increased, that led to even more food shortage…), until the last tree on the island was chopped; which meant their demise. It’s one of the many cases where Daeniken (who continues to write today) was proven beyond a reasonable doubt wrong in his assumptions. The events are described in an episode of BBC’s Horizon, called The Mystery of Easter Island.
Most of us might know them from the last installment in the Indiana Jones movie series, but the mystery that surrounds these objects circulates for a century. They are objects that look like a human skull, made of crystal, without any identifying notch (meaning they are made in one piece). They are supposed to originate in the Aztec era, but the Aztecs did not have the technology needed to make such objects. The theories, once again, revolved around them being alien constructions and involved alleged magical properties, and some of them ended up in big museums (like the British and the Smithsonian). But, in 2008, a team of researchers, using new methods of crystallography, discovered small marks, proved to be circular notches, which could be made with instruments used in the West of the 19th century, available at the time when the skulls were discovered. Their “dating” had been made based on testimonies of the discoverers and, given that the material the skulls are made of can be found in Europe and not in the Americas, in combination to several inconsistencies in the narratives of the explorers who presented them to the world, lead us to the conclusion that the objects were made in Europe and were presented as being of mysterious origin for speculating reasons. Many museums have retracted the items they had and the most famous of all (the Mitchell-Hedges skull) has not been put to the test, as its owner refuses to present it.
The shroud of Turin is the one which supposedly covered the dead body of Jesus before it was placed in the tomb, and thus it left an imprint of his figure on it. It was found in 1390 AD, and claimed by Pope Benedict 16 as the authentic ritual shroud of Christ. But in 1988, three universities, after independent examination, reached to the same conclusion using carbon dating: the shroud is dated in the 14th century, meaning exactly the period when it was ‘found’. In 2009 an Italian professor of chemistry made his own similar shroud, using only materials available in the 14th century, proving the hoax to be, at least, possible for those who were still not convinced.
So, let’s not abstain from declaring ignorance, unless we want to risk the danger of appearing gullible. There are still plenty of unsolved mysteries but if we don’t want to be exploited by hotheads and liars, if we want to value reason, if we realize that only with skepticism and the scientific method can we describe the natural world, only then will we manage to disenclave ourselves from all-too-easy answers and superstitions. And let’s reread the Bible while we’re at it.