Dr. Jon Epstein
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
As a sociology and criminal justice professor I have heard more than my fair share of conspiracy theories. This has always been true; the subject matter of my discipline often touches on issues that the more paranoid find appealing. But it has become routine since 9/11. I can now expect to hear about some type of conspiracy, cover-up, or otherwise nefarious activity at least several times a week, ranging from the ridiculous (The Reptilians, a race of humanoid reptiles who are the secret rulers of the Earth, spring immediately to mind) to the extremely unlikely (The “Government” is secretly watching you…an idea most often expressed to me by meth addicts) to the outright racist (The Islamic Center is actually a training camp for ISIS run by the Zionist Occupational Government who control the media to keep people stupid. Yes, I really had that conversation.). My experience with these topics has left me very skeptical, and my training as a sociologist provides me with the insight to understand why the overwhelming majority of these “theories” are simply incorrect. No matter how paranoid you are, it is very unlikely that anyone is plotting against you, at least on an institutional level. Recently, however, I discovered that sometimes, at least, it’s true.
I have had a good life, and I have been privileged to socialize, and in some cases strike up friendships, with many extraordinary people. Among them are writers who concern themselves with the origins of civilization, an area that I have had an interest in for most of my career and which I actively research. Two such writers, geologist Robert Schoch and author Graham Hancock, have expressed to me at different times that they believed that there was a concerted effort on the part of the mainstream archaeological establishment to discredit them. While I consider both men my friends, I really didn’t believe them. I didn’t have any doubt that both men had been subject to intense criticism, condemnation, and scrutiny from members of the archaeological community; that was, after all, a matter of public record. But the idea that they had been “blacklisted” struck me as a bit over the top and melodramatic.
In 2013 Hancock accepted my invitation to speak at Greensboro College and presented his preliminary research for what would become his book Magicians of The Gods. His talk was very well attended and stirred up a great deal of debate on campus, and we agreed that when the book was finished he would return to campus to provide an update. Magicians of the Gods is scheduled for an early November release, and as promised Hancock plans on returning to Greensboro on Nov. 23 to hold a free public lecture. To try to “up the ante,” my department suggested to him that instead of the usual question-and-answer period following his talk, we provide a more traditionally academic event by having a panel of academic experts from fields related to his work (archaeology, history, anthropology, the sciences) engage in a discussion of his work with him. It was our thinking that given the criticisms leveled at him by some academic professionals, finding participants who could expressly point out the issues his work presents and engage in a professional dialogue could be of significant value for both the participants and the community members in the audience. To his credit, Hancock enthusiastically supported – indeed, welcomed — the idea, but again he brought up his belief that there were forces at play in the academic community, and in archaeology specifically, that were intent on discrediting him, which might make finding a panel problematic.
Undaunted, I sent an email to a number of major professional archaeology associations, asking for recommendations of qualified individuals who might be interested in participating. I received about a dozen responses, all of which called Hancock a “fraud” and me a traitor for inviting him to speak. These responses that I received were both telling and disappointing and say a great deal about the lack of confidence and oddly dissonant elitism of archaeology as an academic discipline, not to mention the field’s apparent lack of confidence in the general public’s intellectual abilities to recognize the difference between truth and quackery. The most troubling response I received was from an elected chief executive of one of the largest and most influential associations of professional archaeologists in the United States, who was referred to me by another international professional association that shares overlapping memberships. Because their response was more or less identical to the others, with the exception that this one had been sent with the implied weight of “official authority” — and that exception is an important one — I thought I would let it speak for itself:
“I actually had never heard of Graham before — I had to look him up online. … He certainly is not known in my circles. Of course, anyone who makes sensational claims tends to get publicity — the more sensational the claims, the more publicity they get. … This sort of thing makes a mockery of archaeology, which is in fact a scientific endeavor. … You are free to educate your students in any way you see fit, but if you are presenting your friend as any sort of authority in archaeology, you are doing them and the discipline of archaeology a great disservice. … I have worked hard to become a professional archaeologist, and I therefore have enough respect for other disciplines to refrain from claiming expertise in them. I hope others would display similar respect for my discipline. …”**
The level of intellectual dishonesty embedded in this note is staggering. In more than 30 years as an academic and researcher I can honestly say I have never seen anything that approached the level of hubris it expresses. While it is clear that the writer is passionate in defending the discipline of archaeology, it is equally clear that what is at stake here, ultimately, is intellectual turf. However, if defending a paradigm makes treachery necessary, it may be a good time to do some soul searching.
One of the first things you learn in an undergraduate logic course is that ad hominem arguments are an obvious sign of intellectual deceit. It is simply not possible to make an informed, critical, and fair assessment of a writer’s entire body of work without ever having read a single word. Additionally, I do not allow my students to consider a perfunctory Google search to be an adequate way of critically considering any topic, let alone one that results in the kind of denigration expressed above, and it is absolutely inappropriate for an academic “scientist” to do so.
Hancock identifies himself as an investigative journalist who reports on prehistory. He has on numerous occasions tried to make clear that he is NOT an archaeologist or a scientist. He has done this in writing, in interviews, and on television. I can’t think of another writer who has gone to greater lengths to explain what it is that they are not. The actual truth of the matter is that the idea that Hancock fancies himself a scientist/archaeologist originated and continues to be perpetuated by archaeologists as a way to then discredit him and discount his work as “pseudoscience.”
The notion that archaeology is “in fact a scientific endeavor” is also not exactly “a fact.” The fact is that the most vocal opposition to the idea of archaeology as a science originates from within archaeology itself, from those who see the discipline as the clearinghouse for a number of interrelated activities, some more scientific than others, and with very little in the way of an overarching theoretical orientation. That is a HUGE problem for any discipline claiming to be a science.
I must admit, however, that I am troubled to discover that archaeology as an institution is being put at risk simply by asking a reporter to give a lecture. I had no idea that the foundations of the discipline were that tenuous. It is certainly a good thing that my discipline of sociology has a firmer grasp because I am subjected to the relentless yammering nonsense of self-proclaimed “experts” every single day of my life. The difference, of course, is that in the case of sociology what is being babbled about are living, breathing human beings; the discussion thus has a certain urgency and immediacy not present in archaeology. Unlike the archaeologists, however, we welcome the challenge and, rather than trying to silence those who may misspeak on our behalf, we provide them a forum, ask hard questions, and educate others in the process. These things, after all, are what science and public debate are for, aren’t they?
*Hancock earned an honors degree in sociology from Durham University in the UK, where he studied with Stanley Cohen, author of the classic book in the sociology of deviance Folk Devils and Moral Panics. That book, interestingly, provides a very useful way in which to understand Hancock’s relationship to mainstream archaeology. In Cohen’s framework, and for archaeology, Graham Hancock IS the devil.
** I have removed any information from the original Email that could point to its author. I have no desire to engage in personal or professional attacks on anyone, as it is my opinion that the larger issue is with archaeology as a discipline, and not archaeologists as individuals.
On November 23rd, 2015 at 7:30pm,the Greensboro College Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice Presents: Graham Hancock: Magicians of the Gods. (Lecture/Panel Discussion). You can learn more about this event HERE.
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