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Dear Mom

My mother is spunky and smart and I love her very much. But she’s got this one trait that drives me crazy: she believes everything she sees on The History Channel.

I visited her in Michigan a few weeks ago. One night at a local brewery, with my sister, Charlotte, and her boyfriend, Greg, in tow, Mom began telling us about why she believes humans came to earth from another planet. “Your evolution theories can’t explain the pyramids,” she said triumphantly.

“How does that have anything to do with aliens?” I asked triumphantly.

Charlotte, who goes out to eat with Mom much more often than I do, looked at Greg and smirked.

“How else would the Egyptians have known how to build them?” Mom said.

“And what evidence, exactly, do you have to support our alien origins?” I said.

“Geometry!” she said.

She then went on and on about latitudes and longitudes and the Maya and alien images in cave paintings. I understood little of what she said, but knew enough to proclaim, too loudly, “That’s such bullshit, Mom!”

For the sake of continuing an otherwise pleasant meal, we dropped it. But I resolved to find out what nonsense she was talking about and eventually set her straight.

So I found out. And it’s as crazy as I thought.

Mom was most likely gleaning from a History Channel series called Ancient Aliens, which is based on the works of the “father of ancient alien theory” Erich von Däniken. In 1968, von Däniken wrote a book called Chariots of the Gods?, which is described on the History Channel’s website:

Däniken put forth his controversial hypothesis that, thousands of years ago, space travelers from other planets visited Earth, where they taught humans about technology and influenced ancient religions. As evidence, he pointed to religious texts in which heavenly beings with supernatural powers descend from the sky. He also suggested that extraterrestrials with superior knowledge of engineering helped ancient civilizations build architectural marvels like Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Maoi statues of Easter Island.

Some of the examples that Däniken (and the TV show) use as “evidence” are pretty amusing. Take a look at a relief found on the walls of an ancient Egyptian temple at the Dendera complex:

Reputable Egyptologists look at these depictions and see pillars, lotus flowers and snakes. Alien theorists see this as proof that the ancient Egyptians used electricity to light up their tombs.

Another example points to Pakal, a  leader of the Maya. To historians, the beautiful and intricate carving found on the lid of Pakal’s tomb shows him falling into the underworld, past the sun, the moon, celestial birds, a snake and a Maya water god. But to Däniken, Pakal is sitting in a rocket-powered spaceship, with his hands at the controls, his foot on a pedal and his mouth open for an oxygen tube. (Take a look at an outline of the carving here and see what you think.)

Then there’s the pyramids business. According to the History Channel’s website, the Great Pyramid of Giza lies “at the intersection of the longest lines of latitude and longitude.” Well, no, it doesn’t. The longest line of latitude is the equator, and the longest line of longitude is, well, all of them.

The pyramid lies at 30 degrees north and 31 degrees east. Perhaps what the website producers meant to write was a theory I found on the illustrious website Sacred Sites, which attests that the Giza Pyramid’s latitude and longitude lines “cross more of the earth’s land surface than any other lines, thus the pyramid is located at the center of the land mass of the earth.”* What does this mean? A whole lot, says Sacred Sites. “The builders knew the exact dimensions of the planet as precisely as they have been recently determined by satellite surveys.” Of course: it’s just geometry.

These ideas are amusing until you remember that some smart people like my mom will buy into them. I’m reminded of an essay I was assigned to read in one of my first science writing classes. It was written in 1982 by physicist Jeremy Bernstein, who had an eight-page bone to pick with Carl Sagan about the way he portrayed science in the wildly popular television show Cosmos. In the essay, Bernstein lays out three laws for explaining science on TV: 1) Do not try to make things more visual than they really are; 2) Do not speak more clearly than you think; and 3) Don’t overplay your hand.

Ancient Aliens doesn’t follow any of these rules, but the third one is the real tragedy. By “don’t overplay your hand,” Bernstein meant that writers and scientists should not frame science solely in terms of breakthroughs and discoveries. The best part about science is the thinking, the analyzing, the consolidating — the mystery. I’d say the same goes for history. There are plenty of juicy truths to divulge about ancient civilizations without the assistance of goddamn extraterrestrials.

*I asked my fellow LWONers what to make of this land mass idea. Richard took out an actual globe (!) and, with the help of this website, determined that yes, 30N and 31E probably pass through more land than do any other lines of latitude and longitude. He also offered his own theory, based on reckless speculation: the Egyptians built the pyramids at 30N, 31E because that’s where they lived.

Images from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

I can’t find an online version of Bernstein’s essay, called “Can TV Really Teach Science?” It’s chapter 12 of his book Science Observed.

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

20 thoughts on “Dear Mom

  1. Amen, sister. All those UFO shows on the History Channel drive me bonkers. “It blinks like an airplane, and the video is all fuzzy. But could it be an alien spacecraft from another part of the galaxy??”

  2. We did a really great episode of my podcast MonsterTalk recently and interviewed Giorgio Tsoukalos’s nemesis: Archeologist Ken Feder. Ken did a great job of explaining why not only is the ancient astronaut theory wrong, but why it is also insulting to humans.

  3. I would be curious to hear from a paleogeologist about what effect 30N and 31E passing through the most land would have on climate stability. I can imagine the greater the land mass, the more stable the temperature. The more stable the temperature, the more likely modern humans are to develop there, as they don’t have to figure out how to shelter themselves from wide swings in temperature.

  4. The History Channel’s ancient aliens also drive me bonkers. I have little fits every time I see one of those commercials. Also the conspiracy theory shows make me crazy. Like the “experiment” using a fish tank full of sand to “prove” that sound waves shot through the Earth from satellites could be used as new type of warfare. Because of these shows, I really question the veracity of other shows on the History Channel. And don’t get me started on the ghost hunter shows….

  5. Great post. The only thing wrong with the name of the History Channel is that it has absolutely nothing to do with history. I once out of curiosity attended a public lecture by von Däniken, I had a free ticket. The man is a real snake oil salesman of the worst variety.

  6. Whenever I happen across Ancient Aliens, my eyebrow is in constant lift-mode at the bizarre leaps of “logic,” unconvincing “evidence,” and the “quality” of the “experts.” Also, Giorgio Tsoukalos’s hair!111!!!!!1!!! And is that a velvet waistcoat he’s wearing? Whatever happened to my beloved Hitler Channel? (Answer: mostly moved to History International and The Military Channel.)

  7. I once watched this History Channel show about how this ancient tsunami may or may not have struck Europe (can’t remember exactly what part). Between commercials, the narrator would present the evidence. And then there would be a commercial break. Then, when the show was back on, the narrator would go through all the previous evidence again, as if you’d just tuned in. What should have taken them 15 minutes to say took a whole hour. I couldn’t take it. I’ll never know if an ancient tsunami could have ravaged Europe (Greece maybe?). I changed the channel.

  8. remind your mother that many animals traverse the earth and know where to go. birds migrate, sharks and other animals travel thousands of miles for food sources, “sea turtles return to their birthplace” (not positive about this) From a human psychology standpoint, if humans once had this innate quality, it would be most likely that the locations mentioned would form some kind of symbol or something, i.e. raft is sinking, where do you stand? the side? do animals like to be cornered?

  9. While I know there are many, many theories about our ancient past perhaps we need to keep an open mind about those theories because we can’t prove nor disprove them.
    A lot of things happened in the past that we can’t explain away and if there is an explanation right now in a couple of years someone else will have another explanation that seems right. So who’s to say who’s right or wrong?

  10. Dear Ricki,

    Thanks for reading, but I gotta disagree. Although it may seem that science is arbitrarily flip-flopping every few years, it’s actually moving (slowly, slowly) forward.

    It works something like this: scientists take all of the data that is available, come up with the best theory based on that evidence, and continue to look for more evidence. When new evidence crops up that contradicts the theory, they adjust their theory to include the new evidence. This iterative process is what led to things like, oh, cholesterol drugs and rocketships.

    Your worldview — that we are never able to really know anything — is exactly the opposite of science, and, unfortunately, exactly what’s driving the dangerous anti-scientific movements — intelligent design, anti-vax conspiracy theories, etc. etc. — gaining momentum in the U.S.


  11. I would be curious to hear from a paleogeologist about what effect 30N and 31E passing through the most land would have on climate stability. I can imagine the greater the land mass, the more stable the temperature. The more stable the temperature, the more likely modern humans are to develop there, as they don’t have to figure out how to shelter themselves from wide swings in temperature.

    What? Just because 30N and 31E pass through the most land doesn’t automatically mean that their intersection would have to… Most of that land must be elsewhere on the globe, pretty much by definition!

  12. I think its easy to simplify something as complex as the Ancient Alien Theory into a few lines and call it crazy. The same way it is easy for a devoted Christian to read a 2 page article on evolution and debunk it as non-sense or a for an Atheist to read the first 3 verses from the Bible and deem it fantasy.

    I am a Biology Major at Indiana University and buy into a great deal of the theory of evolution and the origins of evolution, but I also have seen the entire Ancient Alien documentary from the History Channel and while I don’t agree with every piece of “evidence” they propose… as a whole the idea that Aliens exist and may have visited our planet at some point in time in history seems very plausible.

    There is a lot about human history that is unknown and while Ancient Alien theory isn’t proven… IMHO must be at least entertained when you begin to try to unravel some of histories unknowns.

    I think its easy to simply dismiss anything that “you think” counters your mainstream thought. Its taken centuries for evolution to wade its way through religion, but now its replaced religion in explaining the origins of our existence in public classrooms.

    The interesting thing about the AA theory however is that it isn’t interested in disproving evolution or intelligent design. It actually is not a competing theory (for most)as it is a supplement and a bridge between both.

    I think anything that opens the mind… whether you end up buying it or not is healthy.

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