“Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cocksure of many things that were not so” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
Anthropologists like to use the phrase “ritual object”. The layman’s translation is, “I have no idea what that thing is and what its doing here, it must have a religious purpose”. Here’s an exercise. Take an inventory of the useless crap around your house that would remain in piles of rubble after some mass cataclysm. Not saying a mass cataclysm is inevitable, except that a mass cataclysm is indeed inevitable, and you don’t want to leave a lot of puzzling flotsam and jetsam around to confuse some poor future graduate student in archaeology, who will shrug and figure our stacks of post-its were offerings to some sort of sticky god. One thing you’ll notice about both natural and social scientists is that they really don’t like to say, “I don’t know”. Not knowing stuff is for the unwashed masses. Thus, when faced with an object or phenomena of dubious purpose and provenance, it must be categorized in palatable terms to prove one’s expertise, otherwise what’s the point in being an expert?
For example, meat doesn’t fall from the sky, therefore it must be some poor morons mistaking star jellies after a rain for meat. Even if they tasted it. Tasted like chicken, by the way. Neanderthals didn’t sail the Mediterranean. Except they did. Civilization started at Sumer. Until it didn’t. Knowledge is evolutionary, and the scientific method is a heck of a tool in its service. Unfortunately, where human ego is involved, there is an overwhelming urge to be right. Unless you’re some sort of serene Bodhisattva. Hate them Bodhisattvas. Get pissed once in a while. Life sucks sometimes. Obviously, I’ve missed the finer points of Buddhist philosophy, but the point is that when experts weigh in on the mysteries of the universe that they themselves have not defined, they tend to redefine them in vague approximations of the currently accepted body of knowledge. This is how we wind up with “ancient aliens” as a thing suitable for 13 seasons worth of television, which seems rather counter-intuitive, but when framed in the context of an unwillingness of experts to admit bafflement, leaves the door open for alternative explanations, particularly if they are compelling on some emotional level.
The problem resides in the ambiguity of interpretation, and desire not to respond with an inconclusive opinion, particularly in our social media driven world where an opinion becomes fact if enough people click it enough times. Or rather, paraphrasing veteran anomalist Greg Bishop, “the sign of an insufferable prick is the need to be right”. Personally, I’m not one of these annoying “consensus reality” guys, as I assume that the only way reality could be so god awful annoying is if it had some underlying stratum of entropy that compelled the absurdity that surrounds us.
If you want to know why people love ancient aliens, search for mountain monsters, try to triangulate the location of Atlantis, find the guy who found the undiscovered land first, unearth the buried treasure in the inaccessible pit, it’s because “expertise” wears thin when it has trouble declaring its own ignorance, when admitting that something just doesn’t make sense, and creating castles in the sky to explain how the anomaly, the strange phenomenon, or the historical inaccuracy is shoe-horned into a preferred paradigm, yet nonetheless endeavors to do so with mental cartwheels that result in inanity. This isn’t an anti-intellectual tract. Expertise exists. Some people do indeed have a good grasp of a given subject, but there are limits. Neil de Grasse Tyson may be a honking good physicist, but when he weighs in on social and political issues, I’m not sure his “expertise” translates to anything other than opinion couched as generic “smarts” and certain gift for public articulation. Expertise is not monolithic, and in today’s academic world tends to encompass a very narrow band of knowledge. Perhaps a rather mundane example would help.
During a rather dull artesian well boring in Marshall County, Illinois in 1871, at a depth of 114 feet, the diligent diggers found what appeared to be a single coin, about the size of a silver dollar and of uniform thickness. It presented a number of curious markings. A letter from W.H. Wilmot, the manager in charge of the minor engineering effort (I can say that having never bored an artesian well) described in great detail exactly where they found the coin. Beneath 3 feet of soil, 17 feet of yellow clay, 44 feet of blue clay, 4 feet of dark vegetable matter, 18 feet of hard purplish clay, 8 feet of bright green clay, 18 feet of mottled clay, and 2 feet of soil they found the coin-like object, but after another foot or so they hit water, so they couldn’t precisely place the coin beyond 80-114 feet underground. Who knew clay naturally came in so many colors? Taking the low estimate, even at 80 feet, the Lawn Ridge area of Illinois where they dug the well would pretty much have been covered by the higher waters of Lake Michigan at the time of deposit, before all that rich prairie soil got heaped up. Pretty weird. And then the experts began to offer explanations.
Its two faces bore marks as shown in the figure, but they were not stamped as with a die, nor engraved. They looked as if etched with acid. The character of the marks was partly unintelligible. On each side, however, was a rude outline of a human figure. One of these held in one hand an object resembling a child, while the other hand was raised as if in the act of striking. This figure wore a headdress, apparently made of quills. Around the border were indecipherable hieroglyphics. The figure on the opposite side extended only to the waist, and had also one hand upraised. This was furnished with long tufts, like mules’ ears. Around the border was another circle of hieroglyphics. On this side, also, was the rude outline of a quadruped. I exhibited this relic to the Geological Section of the American Association, at its meeting at Buffalo in 1876. The general impression seemed to be that its origin could not date from the epoch of the stratum in which it is reputed to have been found. One person thought he could detect a rude representation of the signs of the zodiac around the border. Another fancied he could discover numerals, and even dates. No one could even offer any explanation of the object, or the circumstances of its discovery. The figures bear a close resemblance to rude drawings executed on birch bark and rock surfaces by the American Indian. But by what means were they etched? And by what means was the uniform thickness of the copper produced? This object was sent by the owner to the Smithsonian Institution for examination, and Secretary Henry referred it to Mr. William E. Dubois, who presented the result of his investigation to the American Philosophical Society. Mr. Dubois felt sure that the object had passed through a rolling-mill, and he thought the cut edges gave further evidence of the machine-shop. “All things considered,” he said, “I cannot regard this Illinois piece as ancient, nor old (observing the usual distinction), nor yet recent; because the tooth of time is plainly visible.” He could suggest nothing to clear up the mystery. Prof. J. P. Lesley thought it might be an astrological amulet. He detected upon it the signs of Pisces and Leo. He read the date 1572. He said “the piece was placed there as a practical joke.” He thought it might be Hispano-American or French-American in origin. The suggestion of “a practical joke” is itself something which must be taken as a joke. No person in possession of this interesting object would willingly part with it; least of all would he throw so small an object into a hole where not one chance in a thousand existed that it would ever be seen again by any person (Winchell, 1881, p171-173).
So, we have a weird little object that turned up where it probably shouldn’t have been, potentially manufactured in ways that are not commonly accepted as having been typical for the culture and time period it was believed to have come from. A practical joke or a magic amulet (ritual object)? Strange, singular, and totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But once interpretations that encapsulate the out of place object in acceptable terms began to flow, it seems folks lost interest. Expertise has its way, as it cannot shrug and say, “sometimes weirdness happens” and there is no good explanation for it. Thus, the pareidolia attributed to those in the strange phenomena community turns out to in fact be perfectly acceptable when couched in the expertise of a devout skeptic or self-satisfied scientist, as long as no dearly held paradigms are violated. The Good Professor Leslie discerned upon the object “signs of Pisces and Leo”, thus it is an astrological amulet. Father of anomalistics Charles Fort commented on the discussion with his usual wry sense of humor.
With due disregard, you can ﬁnd signs of your great grandmother, or of the Crusades, or of the Mayans, upon anything that ever came from Chillicothe or from a ﬁve and ten cent store. Anything that looks like a cat and a gold ﬁsh looks like Leo and Pisces: but, by due suppressions and distortions there’s nothing that can’t be made to look like a cat and a gold ﬁsh. I fear me we’re turning a little irritable here. To be damned by slumbering giants and interesting little harlots and clowns who rank high in their profession is at least supportable to our vanity; but, we ﬁnd that the anthropologists are of the slums of the divine, or of an archaic kindergarten of intellectuality, and it is very unﬂattering to ﬁnd a mess of moldy infants sitting in judgment upon us (Fort, 1919, p144).
Scientist, skeptic, and believer alike bend phenomena and noumena to fit an interpretation, sometimes out of pure faith or pure disbelief. This is a perfectly normal human reaction in search of an orderly universe, where whimsical gods don’t just mess with us because they can. This is the tragedy of the intellectual commons – everyone else’s sheep are overgrazing each other’s ontology, so to speak. Expertise is trained to speak with confidence, and therein lays the absurdism, or as William James said, “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?”
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. The Book of the Damned: by Charles Fort. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919.
Winchell, Alexander, 1824-1891. Sparks from a Geologist’s Hammer. Chicago: S.C. Griggs and Company, 1881.
“A Coin from Illinois”. Boston Numismatic Society, and American Numismatic Society. American Journal of Numismatics v6. New York: American Numismatic and Archæological Society, 1872.