Fringe History and Bad Scholarship



Graham Hancock is one of the most prominent writers of what we might call "Fringe History", which has a similar relation to scholarly history as the Daily Mail's Health Scares have to scientific medicine.

There are a number of themes in fringe history, which writers repeat and copy from one to another. A typical area is "Bermuda Triangle" where numerous writers cite each other's reports of incidents, none of which can be supported by real research. That is the most important feature - lack of scholarly methods.

Graham Hancock
Hancock does mention some genuine problems. Who made the huge constructions found in the Andes, how were they made and how old are they? These are genuine mysteries, which may never be solved. Humans really hate uncertainty and a state of not knowing, so they like to make up stories. But these stories should not be confused with real history. Hancock likes to make inferences from languages such as Aymara. This is a very dangerous field for the amateur.

Some of these fringe writers however have made up stories about things that can be solved with research. Thus, 50 years ago Plate Tectonics was largely unresearched. Hancock cites books by Charles Hapgood, a fairly respectable academic, who wondered whether the continents could have moved swiftly. The thing to note about Hapgood's thinking is that even according to Hancock's bibliography his first book on the subject was published in 1958 and last in 1970 - many years before the details of Plate Tectonics were worked out. People who continue to cite his work are ignoring the way science has moved on since then. Now we know exactly how fast continents move (the Atlantic has widened by the length of two football pitches since 1492), and in addition the mechanism of movement is known (convection currents deep in the crust).

Charles Hapgood - Wikipedia article

In 1958 Hapgood published his first book, The Earth's Shifting Crust. The Foreword to this was written by Albert Einstein, shortly before his death in 1955. In this book, and two successive books, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966) and The Path of the Pole (1970), Hapgood proposed the radical theory that the Earth's axis has shifted numerous times during geological history. This theory is not widely accepted by orthodox geologists.

So at that time - the 1960s - these writers could postulate that a huge sudden movement of the axis of rotation of the earth had occurred, even during the time humans had been on earth. Modern scientific research, based on the body of observations and theory that make up the scientific process, show that this couldn't happen. Hancock and other writers continue to ignore the modern research and go on repeating the long discredited suppositions of the past - the very opposite of a scholarly attitude.

Another typical theme is based on such documents as the Pir i Rais map, allegedly showing the Antarctic without ice. Real research shows the age of the ice by means of drilling ice cores. There can be no doubt that there has never been a period while humans existed when the continent was free of ice. Which should we trust for information about the ice: actual measurements of ice cores, or a document of disputed provenance? The physical data should take precedence in believability.

Under the ice

Here is some detailed criticism of the Pir i Rais stories. Debunk of Piri Rais map

It is worth noting that, although this and other maps abound with clear and perfectly readable text and captions, the authors who present them as proof of their extravagant theses quote nothing but (a) few lines. The only region of South America to look sufficiently detailed on the map is the coast of Brazil, although River of Amazones is drawn twice, in different locations. Other areas such as Caribbean islands, though already explored at that time, are roughly charted, with evident errors in both position and orientation. " Piri Reis himself states, in a note, that he consulted the charts of Cristopher Columbus. The peculiar (and wrong) configuration of the Caribbean area in his map seem to confirm that statement. That region of the American continent is indeed improperly represented: it features a large island arranged north-south, which cannot easily be identified with Cuba, not even by rotating the whole map counterclockwise by 90 degrees.

Another favourite theme is Templars. While it is certain that this organisation flourished during the time of the Crusades and shortly afterwards, the stories of "secret practices" and beliefs they held are entirely imaginary - in the sense that there is no reliable evidence about what their beliefs were, if indeed they differed from the Catholic mainstream. The excuse given for their suppression was that they were heretics, but it is clear this was only a form of words intended to justify the real reason for the French king's desire to abolish them - their riches, which he hoped to obtain as he owed them a great deal of money to pay for his wars. Thus the tales of their unorthodox beliefs show all the signs of being fabrications of the type used by Stalin's prosecutors in the Great Purge of the 1930s.

A study of the economic results of the Templars' activities would be more rewarding, as it can be argued, and has been, that the Templars contributed much to the growth of the economy in Europe simply by acting as a bank and by moving their produce under armed guard. More trade was one of the ways by which feudal anarchy came to an end. Far more interesting than their alleged religious and philosophical activity was their role as a multi-national economic organisation, covering the whole of Europe, answerable only to the Pope, and not paying taxes to the kings.

It is possible of course that their experiences in the Middle East brought them into contact with cultural forms different from those in Europe - something that is often attributed to the effects of the Crusades on European culture. It may even be that the Templars learned to be more tolerant of the other religions in the Middle East, even as far as talking to the Assassins (ancestors of the modern Ismaili community). There is some evidence for this in Usama ibn Munqidh's account of a Templar in the al Aqsa Mosque (see Anthology of Islamic Literature in Crusades). Tolerance in itself might have been seen as a heresy back home where there was an atmosphere of totalitarianism. If so, this was something they shared with the Norman rulers of Sicily who associated with Jews and Muslims. The career of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the second, king of Sicily as well as emperor, is a good example. He too was in bad odour with the Pope. He had Muslim ministers in Sicily and perhaps a Harem - and also founded educational institutions. The real cause of intellectual change was education - then as now - something religious fanatics oppose.

But absence of evidence doesn't prevent huge numbers of books being sold about their supposed beliefs, and even more unlikely descendants today. Sometimes the Freemasons are claimed to be descendants of the Templars, on rather dubious grounds. They themselves seem to know almost nothing about their origins, something that fringe writers feel able to describe in detail without the need for backing documents.

Rennes le Chateau and its numerous spinoffs
One would think that the BBC Timewatch programme has disposed forever of the "mystery" about Rennes le Chateau in which a minor clerical fraud (a priest, Berenger le Sauniere, taking money from aristocrats and therefore becoming mysteriously rich for "Masses" that he didn't perform) and a man, Pierre Plantard, with a fantasy that he was the last of the Merovingians and therefore the "true king" of France) has proliferated into a huge cult with various odd components such as the Merovingians being the descendants of Jesus.

One spinoff has been the very profitable series of books by Dan Brown who worked it up into a lucrative fiction franchise.

The real Priory of Sion

Frances Yates
A useful antidote to bad thinking is to read the work of a professional historian on the real intellectual milieu of the 16th century in Europe when an interest in science, alchemy and astrology was held by people who were influential in the later emergence of European science. (Even Isaac Newton in the 17th century was interested in topics we would now consider non-rational). An influential document of the time - the Fama Fraternitas - claimed there was a Rosicrucian Brotherhood which would change everything. Many of the best educated people of the time looked for this "brotherhood" but never found it. But this activity may have sparked off the willingness to innovate that led to the 17th century rise of science. This would seem to be an occasion when a belief in "secret conspiracies" was part of a useful development. Note, that the belief "Rosicrucianism" was there doesn't mean it actually existed. The authorship of the "Fama" remains unknown. It could easily have been written by a single eccentric fantasist.

Climate change deniers
Related to the bad scholarship of fringe history are the arguments of some of those who deny that industrial carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing climate to change. Although the general body of scientific research can allow no doubt that this is happening, the Deniers like to cite single papers, often in the past from a time when the relation between industrial emissions and climate was still in doubt. The deniers fail to note that more recent research has resolved some of the uncertainties of the past.

There seems to be a psychological type that likes to deny consensus. For example, there is a group that denies that HIV causes AIDS - or even doesn't exist. This apparently harmless lunacy (often associated with right wing politics) is estimated to have caused the deaths of 350,000 people in South Africa, as their nonsense was taken up by former president Thabo Mbeki, who based his policy on the disastrous idea that AIDS was simply a disease of poverty.

Goldacre on HIV denial

Creationism and religious stories
The same kind of arguments can be found in the various proponents of biblical creationism who like to ignore modern science, and misquote isolated papers, instead of taking into account the whole body of modern scientific knowledge. The stories of religions have very little connection with history. For example the stories of the alleged Flood seem to be based ultimately on oral transmission of the rise in sea level about 8000 BCE when the ice melted. (see Stephen Mithen linked to in Problems)

The main effect of religious interpretations and distortions of history may come in the Middle East where the Palestine problem is complicated by laughable theories of "end times". The real history of the area may well be different from the various religious mythologies.

Book of Mormon
This book, which is clearly a work of fiction, is claimed by its readers to include a history of the Americas, though every fact about the life of the native peoples as they were before the European contacts began shows the book is entirely a work of the uninformed imagination. Note: no horses, no chariots.

Once again, these beliefs can only be held by ignoring the body of knowledge made by using the scientific method.

Serious effects
Most of the above mentioned beliefs have little effect on modern politics. But some important world problems have a false picture of the past at their root. For example, the Zionist case for settling in Palestine depends on a false interpretation of the situation in Palestine 2000 years ago. The picture generally circulated is that the Roman province was inhabited by an overwhelmingly Jewish population. In reality there were many different peoples living there and several languages spoken, including Greek, Aramaic, Arabic and Edomite. Possibly, as with many multi-ethnic areas, only the power of the imperial state (Pax Romana=Roman Peace) prevented constant war, but perhaps the different groups co-existed.

Interesting reading

Graham Hancock - Fingerprints of the gods

Frances Yates - The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
A respectable academic historian looks at what people believed in the 16th century

David Aaronovitch - Voodoo Histories, the role of the Conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.
David Aaronovitch

Charles Fair - The New Nonsense

The New Nonsense: The End of the Rational Consensus
A canter through some of the nonsensical things people believe these days.
Ron Fritze on Fake History
"As an editor at a major publishing company told a friend of mine several years ago, bunk sells, debunking doesn't."
His book Ronald Fritze - False History

Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

What do professional historians know about the Templars
The Templars - Manchester Mediaeval texts

The Templars: Selected Sources (Manchester Medieval Sources)

Malcolm Barber - the New Knighthood - History of the Templars

The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple (Canto)

Der Templerprozess. Das Ende des Ritterordens

Le Procès des Templiers

Michael Shermer - Why People believe Weird things

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Marylin Hopkins - Rex Deus - the True story of Rennes le Chatateau

Rex Deus: The True Mystery of Rennes Le Chateau and the Dynasty of Jesus

Rex Deus : Le Véritable secret de la dynastie de Jésus
Fringe archaeology
Michael Shermer - Denying History

Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do they Say It?

Last revision 19/04/12

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