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“Deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped” ― Carl Sagan

I'm totally getting tenure...

I’m totally getting tenure…

One of the most damning accusations leveled at anomalists and seekers after strange phenomena is that they practice a bastardized form of scholarship, and when recognition of a disciplinary affiliation is condescended to at all, it is invariably prefixed with the derogatory appellation of “pseudo-“, leading to a proliferation of pseudo-sciences, pseudo-histories, and pseudo-archaeologies imagined to lurk about the edges of mainstream knowledge begging for validation.  Contrary to the argument made by disciplinary advocates when they deign to address a wider audience than the six or seven people that read arid journal articles about rarified minutia, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the use or abuse of scientific epistemology or sober historiography.  It is all about marking territory in its most excretory sense.  In short, a pissing contest.

The vagaries of professionalized academic inquiry mandate an often ludicrously narrow specialization.  For example, an archaeologist is rarely just an archaeologist, rather a specialist in Southwestern pre-colonial archaeology or Ptolemaic Egypt (when we’re being generous), or Sumerian potshards or Paleolithic fishing technology in Southern Africa (when you actually examine individual scholar’s bodies of work).  It’s not that such micro-specialization is impractical (from a tenure perspective it is indeed necessary) or even methodologically unreasonable.  Although, what it amounts to is a very small net, cast a very short distance.

Now, far be it from me to weigh in conclusively on whether there might be something to the speculations of the Graham Hancocks and Erich von Dänikens of the world.  Certainly, right or wrong, they are brilliant and engaging writers frequently dismissed by mainstream historians and scholars as engaging in the mortal sin of “cherry-picking” their data to support some rather odd conclusions.  This can of course be juxtaposed with the standard method of history and the sciences, both physical and social, which is to “cherry-pick” one’s object of study and hypotheses.  When accusations of “pseudo-“ scholarship are shouted, it is often because someone has made honest intellectual inquiry at a broader scale, looking for larger patterns across broader spans of time.  Do their conclusions always make sense?  Of course not.  Then again, recent meta-analyses of the published results of psychological experiments have indicated that only 36% were actually reproducible when tested, casting doubt on any conclusions drawn from them as well.

Obviously, from the perspective of professional academics, who tend to take a very grim view of the unwashed masses, public popularity is a sure sign that your research is valueless.  I’ve seen many a cultural anthropologist who wrote for popular consumption sneered at by tenured colleagues, who suggested that said anthropologist really just wanted to be a journalist.  There is no quicker way to get denied tenure than to pen a work that somebody actually reads.  The entire history of civilization is a tension between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, with orthodoxy purposefully and instrumentally delineating the bounds of human knowledge and the acceptable ways to know what we know.  True, some folks are just nuts, but when the label “pseudo” is applied to someone else’s scholarship, consider the source of the criticism.  We need specialization, but perhaps we also need holism to move human knowledge forward.  As Tim Minchin observed, “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? – Medicine.”