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Response to Review no. 819

It is always good to have one’s book reviewed and I thank Professor Allchin for taking the time. I must say, however, that if I were a potential reader of Invented Knowledge, after reading Professor Allchin’s review, I might not be all that interested in reading my book. The problem is that his review generally has little to do with the book I wrote and much more to do with Allchin’s own ideas about the writing of the history of science. One major source of disconnect between the book and the review is that Allchin’s previous writings show that he applies somewhat idiosyncratic definitions to the concepts of pseudoscience and pseudohistory.(1) It appears that he defines pseudoscience as science which has subsequently proven to be incorrect. Would it not be more accurate to refer to such science as obsolete or discredited rather than pseudoscience? Scientific knowledge has moved beyond Aristotle’s early researches, some of Descartes and Newton’s ideas about the universe, and some of Darwin’s ideas about evolution. Although certain of their ideas are now obsolete, that does not make them pseudoscientists. Allchin appears to define pseudohistory as a great man approach to the history of science. The more accurate term for his approach is triumphalist or teleological history. In contrast, most people who deal with the subject of pseudohistory and pseudoscience view both as ideas or hypotheses that are out of the mainstream of contemporary scholarship and lack acceptable evidence or practice flawed methodologies.(2) I wholeheartedly identify with that group.

Early in Allchin’s review he provides a list of over 40 terms that I use to describe the people and ideas discussed in my book. This conflation of quotes purports to show a narrow and biased approach to my subject. First, I stand by each and every term in Allchin’s disjointed string of quoted words. Second, at various places throughout his review, Allchin rightly endorses the necessity of providing and appreciating context in historical scholarship. I am not sure how ripping over 40 words or short phrases out of their context in a book of 304 pages shows any great respect for context. Let me given some typical examples. Allchin cites p. 100 in my book where I use the term ‘sensationalistic’. The word is used in the context of a discussion of Gavin Menzies’ 1421. I wrote, ‘The result was an engagingly written but sensationalistic book that garnered scathing reviews from scholars’. Now, what other than sensationalistic would Allchin call a book that purports to have discovered the voyages of four hitherto unknown Chinese fleets that discovered the Americas, Australia, Antarctica, circumnavigated the globe, circumnavigated Greenland, and navigated the Northeast Passage during the 1420s?! In another place on p. 188, Allchin cites my use of a phrase ‘almost unimaginably audacious’. The full sentence reads ‘Most scholars considered Velikovsky’s claims to be almost unimaginably audacious’. It refers to Velikovsky’s attempt to resynchronize ancient history by eliminating 500 years from the history of Egypt and Greece along with the Greek Dark Ages and the Hittite civilization. From the point of view of ancient historians and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern archeologists, what would Allchin call Velikovsky’s claim, if not almost unimaginably audacious? Allchin also states that I refer to someone as a communist, which seems to imply that I engaged in some Cold War style rhetoric. The actual text on p. 253 reads, ‘His [Martin Bernal’s] father was John Desmond Bernal, a respected scientist, who was also a committed communist and political activist. Early on Martin Bernal exhibited the same political engagement, which manifested itself in opposition to the Vietnam War and sympathy for the Maoist cause in the People’s Republic of China’. Allchin’s problem with my identifying someone as communist presupposes emotive political symbolism or code words that aren’t in my text. I’m a historian. A fact is a fact. Based on my reading, both Bernals were and are proud of their political stances. It forms part of the context for Martin Bernal’s work. So how can Allchin have a problem with such a matter-of-fact statement?

In another case, Allchin cites a phrase, an ‘enemy unto knowledge’ on p. 251. The words are not mine; they are Sir Thomas Browne’s and are part of an epigraph. It reads, ‘But the mortallest enemy unto Knowledge, and that which hath done the greatest execution upon truth, hath been a peremptory adhesion unto Authority, and more especially, the establishing of our belief upon the dictates of Antiquity’. Apparently Allchin couldn’t discern the context of language and all of the peculiar cadences that tie it to a historical epoch. Maybe he just has a history of difficulty with quotation?

The epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne also raises another issue. Later in his review Allchin makes the statement ‘Fritze’s view of authority may be reflected, perhaps, in his immoderate use of epigraphs, which open every section of the text (43 in all)’. The implication is that I am using the epigrams as proof texts in the manner of a medieval scholastic. Surely, Allchin recognizes that I used epigrams in a number of ways – ironic, paradoxical, empathetic, contrasting, comparative, humorous, and, yes, sometimes to prove a point. For example, on p. 40 I used an epigram ‘Indiana is not Atlantis’ which comes from Charles Portis’s novel Masters of Atlantis. Being born and raised in Indiana, I could not resist. How can that epigram be taken other than as humorous? Of course, if Allchin will forgive my overuse of epigrams, I will forgive him his overly exuberant employment of an arcane, technical vocabulary and his glossilalic prose.

Allchin has a tendency to put words in my mouth. He writes ‘Fritze renders pseudohistory as willful irrationality (an early working title of the book was Irrational Science)’. Let me set the record straight, the working and contracted title of my book was The Twilight Zone of History: Pseudohistory and Popular Culture. That remained its title until after the book was submitted and approaching the end of production. At that point concerns were raised that potential readers would think the book was about the classic television series The Twilight Zone. Various new titles were suggested and debated. Irrational Science formed a part of one such title but it was not my suggestion and I rejected it. The fact is, I consider pseudohistorians to be generally rational in their approach to their scholarship. It is the improbably and sometimes fantastical assumptions that underlay their scholarship that are problematic and tendentious.

In the third paragraph of his review, Allchin asserts, ‘Fritze epitomizes a tradition that equates the right method with the right answer’. That is a caricature of what I think. In fact, I recognize that science done in a methodologically proper way frequently yields negative results that do not bear out the hypothesis. Such negative results are, in fact, useful but they don’t go very far when it comes to impressing grant-giving agencies. Allchin is correct to assert that there are cases in the history of science where people operating outside of accepted scientific methods have made important discoveries. I am not, however, writing about those scholars. Instead, my book is about people like Madame Blavatsky, Barry Fell, Wallace Fard, and Erik von Däniken among others. I am hard-pressed to discern where any of them has made an important discovery that advanced scientific or historical knowledge. Allchin is talking about the history of scientific endeavor through the ages, whereas I wrote a book about some aspects of the phenomenon of pseudohistory that came into being during the 19th century and is a product of mass culture of the industrial and post-industrial West.

Allchin also mistakes my intended audience. He writes, ‘Merely rehearsing the evidence against pseudohistorical claims, as Fritze does, is hardly sufficient for remedying those beliefs – or for understanding why anyone holds them’. That statement presumes that I wrote to persuade Graham Hancock or Zecharia Sitchin that they are wrong. Now that would be ‘epistemological hubris!’ Many have attempted that before me and failed. My objective was more modest. I wrote my book for the undecided, for the teachers of the undecided, and for the curious. I agree with Allchin that ‘Trust is essential’ when determining who is a reputable authority and an expert. The account of the genesis of Gavin Menzies’ 1421, based on his own words and those of his publisher, will probably not inspire trust in the historical reliability of that book but that conclusion is what my research revealed. My hope is that my book provides this and other contexts for deciding which experts to trust and which not to trust.

Allchin next chides me for making a historical criticism of religious beliefs of groups such as Christian Identity and the Nation of Islam. His argument is that such religious beliefs must be approached as a ‘psychological phenomenon’. As he puts it, ‘It should surprise no one that a religious orientation will generate a history that legitimates its views, even if that history is false – or, further, that believers will seek to inscribe that account into unassailable nature or imbue it with some form of irrefutable authority’. Again, Allchin assumes that my audience includes the followers of Christian Identity and Nation of Islam, and that my goal is to persuade them to give up their erroneous beliefs, thus attempting to impose a historical solution to a psychological problem. Now that would again be ‘epistemological hubris’. In fact, my goal was to provide a critical narrative of the development of the pseudohistorical aspects of the theologies of Christian Identity and Nation of Islam. Many of my readers are interested in such phenomenon. The fact is, I am not particularly comfortable with the idea of adherents of Christian Identity reading my book. As my book shows, they have been known to shoot people who offend them.

Allchin claims that Barry Fell, Charles Hapgood, and Martin Bernal, as holders of academic positions, ‘remain a conundrum’ for me due their espousal of pseudohistorical ideas. His implication is that I cannot figure out how properly trained academics could possibly advocate dubious historical ideas. The fact is, although these men held academic positions, those professional positions had no connection to the questionable ideas discussed in Invented Knowledge. Barry Fell’s expertise was marine biology but his pseudohistory concerned evidences ancient Celtic languages and epigraphy in ancient North America. Charles Hapgood was a historian of the French Revolution but his initial pseudoscientific works concerned geological theories about pole shifts and crustal displacement. Even his more pseudohistorical work Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings presents conclusions that are still predicated on these theories. Martin Bernal is a professor of political science specializing in the history of communism in China. His Black Athena is a work of radical revision of ancient history. So when these three men wrote their pseudohistorical or pseudoscientific works they possessed no more formal academic expertise than Eric von Däniken, Madame Blavatsky, or Gavin Menzies. Of course, many people have written fine works of history without the benefit of a PhD or a university appointment. Readers can judge for themselves whether Fell, Hapgood, and Bernal belong in that group.

Allchin goes on to give a paean to the self-regulating and self-correcting nature of the academic community with all its diversity. According to him, we should have faith in this ‘social epistemology’ as a prophylactic against error. With the exception of Martin Bernal, I do not see how any of the people are discussed in Invented Knowledge can be counted as part of such a university-based community of scholars. Allchin even claims that ‘all the cases Fritze describes seem to have been resolved within the academic community through this social system – not through raw facts or brute methodology alone. In a healthy intellectual community, individuals who espouse pseudohistory become isolated and ineffectual’. I am hard pressed to fathom how this description fits any case covered in my book. Atlantis and lost continents remain popular. Myriad theories of pre-Columbian visits to the Americas continue to appear. Gavin Menzies weeps bitter tears over how the academic community has rendered him ineffectual and isolated while he struggles to decide how to spend his advances and royalties. I am unaware that Christian Identity or the Nation of Islam were ever part of the academic community or its debates. Yes, Immanuel Velikovsky’s and Martin Bernal’s ideas aroused fierce academic debates but the debates never formally settled anything. In both cases, the controversies became stuck in epistemological quagmires and eventually succumbed to academic entropy not resolution.

Further on in his review, Allchin writes ‘One can find flaws in the Nation of Islam’s historical claims, too. But as Fritze notes, members also found personal stability and purpose, adopting a healthy and abstemious diet, while refraining from alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, promiscuity, adultery, prostitution and gambling. One may ask about the scale of harm in some subsidiary details of a derived false history (which surely had little to do with promoting racist or religious behavior) compared with such benefits’. In making that statement, Allchin misses the fact that Wallace Fard was preaching a religious and historical justification for hating white people and committing acts of violence. That these teachings never produced much racial violence can be attributed to the early Black Muslims being always outnumbered and always outgunned. The overwhelming power of white society compelled Elijah Muhammad to tame that millenarian violence just as the Anabaptists of early 16th-century Europe did in the aftermath of the bloodbath at Munster.  He then follows up by asserting, ‘Fritze implies that if pseudohistory, etc., were remedied by rational (factual and methodologically correct) thinking, we would forestall racism, anti-Semitism, religious cults, capitalistic exploitation, etc. This causal connection is, of course, far from established’. Again if I harbored such belief, I would truly be guilty of ‘epistemological hubris’ of the worst sort. History saves the world. I don’t think so! Of course, it suits Allchin’s rhetorical strategy to present my book as outmoded empiricism or positivism while promoting his own philosophy of the history of science. It is fine for Allchin to have his own ideas about how to do history. They are perfectly good ideas to apply to the study of the early modern scientific revolution or the prehistory of Darwinian evolution. The applicability of his ideas to the study of pseudohistory is problematic.

At the end of the day, Professor Allchin has his ideas and opinions and I have the ideas and narrative that I presented in Invented Knowledge. Some readers will agree with him and some will agree with me. And that is exactly the sort of diversity of scholarly discourse that Allchin claims to respect. It would have been nice if he had reviewed the book I wrote rather than telling us about how he writes the history of science.

Notes

  1. Douglas Allchin, ‘Pseudohistory and pseudoscience,’ Science & Education, 13 (2004), 179–95 and Douglas Allchin, ‘Why Respect for History – and Historical Error – Matters,’ Science & Education, 15 (2006), 91–111. For some cogent criticisms of Allchin’s definitions of pseudoscience and pseudohistory see David R. Hershey, ‘Pseudohistory and pseudoscience: corrections to Allchin’s historical, conceptual and educational claims’, Science & Education 15 (2006), 121–5, and Anton E. Lawson, ‘A reply to Allchin’s “Pseudohistory and pseudoscience”’, Science & Education 13, (2004), 599–605.Back to (1)
  2. For good examples of the standard treatment of pseudohistory and pseudoscience see, the special issue on Pseudohistory in Skeptic (4, 1994); The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, ed. Michael Shermer (2 vols., Santa Barbara, CA, 2002); and Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the Past and misleads the Public, ed. Garrett G. Fagan (London, 2006).Back to (2)