Saturday, 25 February 2017

Aliens Are Not History: The Credulousness and Despair of Our Times

Remember when the 'History Channel' used to be have shows on about History instead of UFOs, ghosts, unicorns, mermaids, or whatever else is popular this week with people who don't like history? Those were the days.

Why does the so-called 'History Channel' insist on showing hours of pseudo-scientific nonsense?

One of the shows currently infesting the channel and the minds of gullible viewers is 'Ancient Aliens'. The History Channel's own synopsis for show reads:
'Ancient Aliens examine [sic] 75 million years of the most credible alien evidence here on Earth, from the age of the dinosaurs, to ancient Egypt, to the skies over the western desert in the present day US. Ancient cave drawings of strange creatures, an asphalt-like substance in an Egyptian pyramid made from the remains of unidentified creatures, continued mass sightings in the USA, these are just a few of the strange stories that will be investigated.'
In a nutshell, the show parrots Erich (Chariots of the Gods?) von Däniken and his theory that beings from another planet visited our ancestors and imparted their knowledge of astronomy, engineering and mathematics to them. The evidence for this can allegedly be found in ancient monuments such as the Nazca Lines, the Pyramids of Giza, and the statues of Easter Island. It's the usual amalgam of wild speculation, logic Fails, and interviews with people of very dubious authority and hairstyles.

I read some of that von Däniken stuff over 30 years ago, and to a young mind it can seem quite convincing. But that's because you want it to be true. Only ten years earlier you believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. You want the universe to be full of magic and sci-fi wonder. You want there to be Sasquatch and an afterlife and aliens and dinosaurs in Scottish lakes. All that stuff would be brilliant.

Then, one by one, all the great myths of the 20th century were exposed. The Loch Ness monster photo was a fake. The Bermuda Triangle doesn't exist. The Face on Mars was a pile of rocks. The Bigfoot footage was a fraud. Ghost photography - all fake. And so on. There were dissenting expert viewpoints to von Däniken and it soon became apparent that he was talking out of his hat. The great Carl Sagan summed it up beautifully when he wrote:
'That writing as careless as von Däniken's, whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times... I also hope for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods? in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking.' (foreword to The Space Gods Revealed)
In the 21st century the hoaxes seem to be getting more elaborate and taking the form of TV series, but they are still easily debunked by those who know better. A couple of good articles that pull 'Ancient Aliens' apart are 'I remember why I've never wanted satellite television' and 'Ancient Aliens, or Why I Hate the History Channel'. 'South Park' also did a brilliant send-up of the History Channel and Ancient Aliens.

Is the History Channel presenting these documentaries as 'object lessons in sloppy thinking', as Sagan would have hoped? It would seem not. Even though von Däniken has been consistently discredited by scientists and historians, his fantastical theories continue to find an audience, primarily with the same old aim of extracting cash from them. A fool and his money... 

Other so-called 'educational' channels such as Nat Geo and Discovery are getting in on the act with increasing amounts of pseudoscience and pseudohistory content. Even Animal Planet is debasing itself with 'haunted pet' shows and entire series on Bigfoot hunting. It's sad that David Attenborough lived long enough to see this happen. Let's hope he hasn't noticed.   

We can't even invoke that disingenuous last line of defence for paranormal frauds - "it's just a bit of fun". Not only do the people serving this stuff up demand to be taken seriously, but this it is actually affecting the worldview of a lot of vulnerable people. For example, when singer Kate Perry told Rolling Stone in 2011 that she had become obsessed with Ancient Aliens because 'When it talks about the sky people, how everyone comes from the sky and how the Pyramids were used for star observations, it's too much for me. It all seems to connect the dots. It's blowing my mind,' you just know she has millions of impressionable fans taking that opinion on board.

Why are large sections of the TV-viewing western world retreating into an Age of Unreason? Is 21st-century mass communication allowing people to exist in cocoons of their own unreality, cherry-picking sources of information that conform to and reinforce their own worldview, so their mind moves in ever-decreasing circles? We all do it to some extent, but has it allowed certain governments to seemingly give up on evidence-based solutions to social problems (crime, climate change, communications infrastructure, you name it), and yet find wide support for their wilful ignorance? If scientists can be ignored, what chance have historians got? When Australian Education Minister Christopher Pyne launches culture wars to demand children are taught his view of History, how do historians push back? Projects like Honest History will help, but when supposedly authoritative outlets like the History Channel actively engage in dumbing down history it gets that much harder.

The last word here goes to Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews over at 'Bad Archaeology', who summed the whole sorry mess up like this:
'I find it incredible and frightening that a worldwide distributed television channel that bills itself as ‘The History Channel’ can broadcast such rubbish as Ancient Aliens. If it were an entertainment programme, I’d have fewer worries (although it would still make me cross); it is the implied authority of the channel (‘The History Channel’, not just any old ‘History Channel’) that makes the broadcast of this series so potentially damaging... A channel that is making claims for its authoritative status, which offers educational resources, has a responsibility not to mislead its viewers (no doubt its executives think of them as ‘customers’). That responsibility is one that all makers and broadcasters of supposedly factual television have, but one that few of them take seriously: the responsibility to check facts.'

 Why does the so-called 'History Channel' insist on showing hours of pseudo-scientific nonsense?

* This article was originally published in February 2014.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

History and Ghost Hunting

It has become relatively common for ghost-hunting teams to have a someone described as a 'historian' in their ranks, although I have yet to come across a case where that person is a qualified, professional (i.e. 'real') historian. While part of their task might be to get a timeline of 'paranormal' incidents at a supposedly haunted place, invariably they also research any historical deaths associated with the site. In truth, these are perfunctory tasks that could be undertaken by anybody. They certainly don't make you a historian, just as looking at the moon doesn't make you an astrophysicist.

In fact, I would argue that having a 'historian' in the investigation team is often pointless. This is mainly because the usual purpose of their work is to find a dead human to identify as the 'ghost'. That task relies on a speculative process I call the 'False Identity Assumption' - the two-step assumption that unusual phenomena can be associated with the surviving consciousness of a dead person, and that the dead person can be positively identified. It is, in effect, speculation built on a foundation of more speculation, and distracts from what should be the primary aim of observing and recording 'paranormal activity'.

The presence of a 'historian' on the ghost-hunting team is a warning sign of an inherently unskeptical and unscientific approach, that they will readily attribute any unusual phenomena they observe to the 'ghosts of dead people' and then attempt to identify those people. It is the classic 2+2=5 scenario.

This need to link ghosts to specific humans seems to be a holdover from traditional ghost stories, whose subjects (apart from the mischievous 'imps' types) had a human background, almost always with a particularly tragic death incident that lent the story a real sense of pathos. Such an approach is the stock-in-trade of 'ghost tours', where the backstory of the human behind the ghost takes centre stage. This allows the tour guide to flesh out the story (and tour minutes) with some drama. Take away the human story, there is often very little left to talk about. I am not aware of any ghost tour story without a human 'character' involved, although there could be one or two out there. Again, this whole approach is based on the ''False Identity Assumption'.

Now, having said all that, a decent bit of history research can be useful in debunking the stories associated with some hauntings. There are numerous cases in which the murders, accidents and other tragedies claimed to be behind certain ghost stories turn out to be completely imaginary. Unfortunately, cases of genuinely interesting activity can be undermined by attaching fake backstories to them. Sometimes an alleged instance of paranormal activity can become so dependant on the backstory that when that story is exposed as false, it even kills the ghost off (for example, see the case of the  South Brisbane Cemetery 'Lady in Black').

I would suggest that paranormal investigators drop the whole 'backstory' thing - unless they intend to debunk backstories - and focus on testing for unusual phenomena.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Fakelore Finger of the Old Printing Office

During research for an article about the sandstone devils on the walls of the old printing office on Brisbane's George Street, I came across a couple of online reviews of a ghost tour that stops outside that building.* The tour guide - reportedly in a 'prophetic, Lord of the Rings-esque voice' - relayed a rather graphic story of blood and horror there, as you might expect to hear on such a tour. However, when I looked for further details about the gruesome events described in the story, there were no actual historical records to support it. Did it really happen, or was this a case of 'fakelore'?

The Old Printing Office, George Street, Brisbane, has been the scene of dubious historical stories.
Printing Office, George St., Brisbane. (Brismania)

The tour guides are not historians, so these tours are strictly scripted and the story here is quite specific in some details. In the words of one reviewer):
'And in one particular incident here, an apprentice printer (it’s believed) attempted to fix the gut-wrenching noises of a printer against the wishes of his seniors. He stopped the machine, went inside and after a few minutes it started again, as did his harrowing screams. Legend has it, it took three days to clean out the machine and all that was left was his wedding ring finger, ring still intact. Lily [the guide] tells us the printer still exists in Brisbane’s archives, and unlike other printers - which contain black ink stains - this one is still stained blood red.'
Another reviewer wrote that the customers were told about
'...a gruesome workplace accident involving a printing apprentice (spoiler - all that was left was a flayed skull and a finger, still wearing its wedding ring).'
This seems like the kind of tragic - even spectacular - event that should have attracted a lot of media coverage when it happened. My research turned up a host of 'lesser' incidents at the Printing Office that were deemed newsworthy, such as when William Martin had the top of four fingers cut off in 1895. There was coverage of Charles Hampson dying of heart disease in the printing office in 1911, as there was when James Lytton had his hand crushed in a machine there in 1926. There was also mention of the nightwatchman who collapsed and died on the William Street side of the office in 1931.

There were numerous accidents at other printing presses around Brisbane and Ipswich reported in newspapers. A 17-year-old named James Robertson died at the 'Watson and Ferguson' printery in 1893, after being pulled into the machinery. He was pulled three times around the shaft and lost an arm, and suffered several broken ribs and two broken thighs. He also lived long enough to make it to hospital. This suggests that it is unlikely that a printing machinery could reduce a human body to no more than a single finger, as claimed in the tour story.

19th century printing machine.

The following is another example of a lesser accident being reported:
'Sensational Accident. At a Printing Office. Caretaker Falls into Flywheel.
On Friday, William Booth, the caretaker of Messrs. W.H. Wendt and Co., printers and stationers, Elizabeth street, when starting tho gas engine, slipped and fell between the spokes of the flywheel. He was quickly extricated by the other employees, but not before his head was severely cut and crushed. When the ambulance was sent for it was thought that Booth was dead. He was, however, after first aid had been rendered, quickly conveyed to the General Hospital, and after treatment was enabled to proceed to his home. Mr. Booth, who is about 55 years of age, is considered to have had a miraculous escape from being killed.' (The Telegraph, 20 May 1905)
Even the story of a printing worker whose workplace accident left him with no more a bruised hand made the news in 1926. And yet, there is not a single mention of the apprentice-mincing accident described in the tour story anywhere in the records. The reportage on these other incidents shows that it would not have been ignored, so it would be fair to suggest that the incident never really happened. I asked around a few friends, but they knew nothing of any such accident. Which brings us to another big question: Where does this story come from?

Despite the absence of basic information such as names and dates, some quite specific details are provided in the tour story, such as the finger with the wedding ring. Most apprentices were boys and unlikely to be married, but no details of the alleged victim's age or identity are provided in the story. Then there is the old printing machine being stained an unwashable 'blood red', implying that the machine had been soaked in blood that could not be removed. These are minor details of the story, but they must have some origin. How did they make it into a tour script?

Oral History is a possible source, but in the absence of documentary evidence it remains pure hearsay. I have written tour outlines myself and facts are always the starting point for a story, and they are double-checked. The way I see it, if you are selling History to people, as a product, then you have an ethical obligation to make sure your content is based in fact. It is not good enough to simply prefix these claims with 'legend has it' or 'it is believed', without explaining to paying customers that what you just told them probably did not happen in real life. Failure to do so opens the door to 'fakelore'.

The 'devil' outside the Printing office (C. Dawson)

Fakelore is a recent label for an old practice. In its broadest sense, fakelore has been defined as 'inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional'. It can be applied to local history stories and urban myths that have no basis in reality. They come into being via bad research or outright invention and - if left to ferment for long enough - can end up being believed by a lot of people as fact. Once established, these stories can be hard to kill, as I discovered myself when writing about the widespread belief of people from my hometown that hangings used to take place there, despite solid evidence to the contrary.

When it comes to creating folklore, questions of intent are hard to prove. Is this 'finger' story a result of (very) bad research, or invention? Other people have analysed (non-ghost) stories from the same source and also found them to no supporting evidence or identifiable sources. these include tales about an imaginary morgue in one cemetery and non-existent roads in another. This cemetery tour review in the Courier-Mail also questioned the accuracy of information being presented to customers. I have documented a few examples of 'fakelore' myself, such as a cemetery 'Woman in Black' story. In my articles I have asked for any evidence to back the finger story up, but despite several stories being questioned in the public sphere over a number of years, there have been no defending counter-arguments from the tour business.

And so the questions remain.

This case does point to a problem with History tours, in that their content usually escapes the corrective scrutiny that historians apply to the printed word. This particular Printing Office tale is not the kind of data mistake that even professionals can sometimes make, such as getting a date or a name wrong. This is an entire start-to-finish story about an historical event that that simply never happened, and yet it is still being spread via tour stories.

These stories need to be nipped in the bud before they become accepted historical fact, and they should certainly disappear from these tour routines..

* Article originally published in July 2015.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

(Please Don't Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear

This ghost-detecting teddy bear takes ghost hunting industry to new depths.
Know a small child that you really, really hate? Want to psychologically scar them for life? Well now you can, with BooBuddy the ghost-detecting teddy bear.

BooBuddy looks like a normal bear, but he can detect motion, sounds, and changes in electro-magnetic fields and temperature. And when he does, lights in his paws and tummy start flashing and he starts talking to the ghost.

As the BooBuddy website tells us, "Kids will love it, but this is NOT a toy". As though there's absolutely no chance a child will ever end up with one of these singing, flashing teddy bears in their bedroom.

This ghost-detecting teddy bear takes ghost hunting industry to new depths.
Clearly not a toy.

Imagine a child sleeping peacefully in their room being suddenly awoken by BooBuddy, whose stomach is flashing bright green and his paws are red. BooBuddy then starts speaking one of these phrases:
‘Did you make it cold in here?’
‘What was that, could you please say it again’
‘ha ha ha BooBuddy is ticklish’
‘Do you want to be my friend?’
‘Can you make a noise for me?’
‘Would you like to sing with me? Twinkle, Twinkle little star...’
‘Is this your house?’
‘Can you make it colder for me?’
‘What colour is the light in my tummy?’
‘What? Did you just say something? Say it again.’
BooBuddy also attempts to summon more spirits to the child's room:
‘Do you have more friends we can play with?’
This scientifical wonder will set you back a mere $100-150. Here's the promo video...

* Abridged from an article originally published in July 2015.