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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, February 2015

TEDx, Giants, David & Goliath, & Contradictory “Facts” in Archaeology

by: Dr. Greg Little

Over the end-of-year holidays, several questions I had been pondering sort of coalesced into a meaningful whole. I listened to a TEDx talk by a writer for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell. For a few who may not be familiar with TEDx, it seeks to “spread ideas serving as a clearinghouse of free knowledge.” One goal listed by the organization is to “give a deeper understanding of the world.” Gladwell was an engaging speaker and had interesting ideas, but that isn’t the point. His talk surely does give a “deeper understanding.”

Back in 2013 TED deleted (censored) talks given by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake because they supposedly crossed the line into “pseudoscience”—meaning that a few “scientists” complained that the claims made by them aren’t based in science. In 2012 TED also removed a talk by Jim Vieira for the same basic reason. Vieira’s lecture was about stone chambers and mounds, especially referencing the many “giants” reported by excavators and the public during the 1800s.

I’m not a fan of Hancock’s drug-promoting ideas and certainly take strong issue with his assertion that the discovery of the structure of DNA was from Francis Crick’s alleged LSD-inspired hallucinations. (It’s often cited as a fact and is as if James Watson didn’t exist and wasn’t the senior researcher and senior author in all of the work done to discover the structure of DNA.) I do find Sheldrake’s ideas interesting and Vieira’s talk and ideas highly intriguing. Vieira’s ideas also had a lot of archaeological evidence mixed in with whatever speculation he made. And all three of these authors had sufficient facts to certainly make their assertions worthy of dissemination. Yet, because these talks ventured into areas where some vocal “scientists” disagreed and alleged there was no scientific support, the talks were removed. Which takes me back to Malcolm Gladwell’s talk on David and Goliath, which came from his recent best-selling book.

Goliath Never Had a Chance

Gladwell essentially claims that the biblical story of David and Goliath is misunderstood by everyone. In fact, according to Gladwell, David was essentially a warrior who was so good with his weapon (a sling) that he really couldn’t lose. Goliath, on the other hand, was a slow, nearly blind, lumbering man afflicted with acromegaly. He never had a chance. Gladwell asserts in the talk that gigantism and acromegaly are essentially the same thing, but, of course, they aren’t. Most people with acromegaly don’t live long enough to grow to giant height; rather, they develop enlarged extremities and distorted facial features. The two disorders, gigantism and acromegaly are related, but not identical. But that isn’t the point or key question either.

The question is why Gladwell’s speculations about David and Goliath are deemed scientific whereas the speculations by Hancock, Sheldrake, and Vieira are not? In the biblical account of David and Goliath (1 Samuel), Goliath is cited as the champion warrior of the Philistines. Goliath had never lost a fight. David ‘s age at the time is known to be under 20 years and by most accounts he was a teenager and a shepherd. He’d never won a fight to the death. So, what is the scientific proof that David was a warrior? There isn’t any. Not a shred of evidence. Sure, he could hurl a stone with a sling, and he was obviously good at it. He protected his sheep and could use a knife. But a warrior? Nope. Not a smidgen of evidence.

How do we know that Goliath was nearly blind? We don’t. It’s utter, complete speculation from Goliath’s taunting of David with the words, “you come after me with a stick.” To “scientists” it must mean that Goliath was blind. He “looked” at the small David and scoffed at the person the Israelites had sent out against him. Goliath was covered in heavy armor, had a shield, spear, and sword. There stood David with a sling. Goliath mocked David: “Am I a dog that you come after me with a stick?” So, to scientists, that proves Goliath was blind? Maybe the scientists are asserting that Goliath had looked in a mirror and suddenly realized he was actually a dog? Who knows? But there you have it, “proof” that Goliath was blind.

How do we know Goliath was afflicted with acromegaly and was a slow, lumbering man who apparently didn’t stand a chance? We don’t. It’s all “hopeful” speculation by scientists wanting to find a way to “explain away” an event they find disturbing and threatening to their beliefs. Goliath mocked the Israelites for 40 straight days before David stepped out to fight him. Goliath had won countless battles. He was the champion warrior. The biblical story could not have been clearer. Asserting that Goliath was blind and slow—teetering it appears on collapsing at any moment—is interesting, of course, but it’s just a speculative idea based on, well, nothing whatsoever but a desire to explain away the event. If it’s true, it’s clear that the Philistines and their king were stupid fools to have sent out a “warrior” who was incapable of winning. But that misses the point. There isn’t a smidgen of proof that any part of these speculations is true or accurate.

So, why hasn’t this talk been removed by TEDx? Why hasn’t it been attacked as being pseudoscience?

It’s About Confirmation of Beliefs

In many previous books and articles, I have discussed the usually unconscious process of confirmation bias and selective perception. In its simplest explanation, confirmation bias is a bit like “cherry picking” in science. That is, you focus on selected bits of research that confirm what you already believe and ignore the bits of research that contradict what you believe. Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice things that confirm what we already believe (stressing their importance) and to ignore (or discount) whatever things seemingly contradict our beliefs. Jim Vieira’s TEDx talk raised genuine questions that archaeology has never answered and can’t explain in their accepted belief system. It threatened cherished beliefs. Thus, the talk had to be ridiculed and belittled to the point that it would “disappear.” It’s a classic example of confirmation bias, as well as a few other psychological issues that I will explain in the future. As this pertains to David and Goliath, skeptics literally hate the idea that anything in the Bible is or can be interpreted as supernatural or miraculous. All such events have to be explained away with a “scientific” cause that demystifies such events. So, David was the real warrior and Goliath was a blind fool who could barely stand up. Nothing mysterious here, move along!

In the future, you’ll see this simple explanation in Wikipedia and skeptics’ books about David and Goliath: “It’s been proven that Goliath was afflicted with a disease that, by the time he met David, had left him blind and physically debilitated. David, on the other hand, was a young warrior who had reached his pinnacle in fighting skills. The story is often depicted as something miraculous, but in reality, it boiled down to a brief fight that Goliath could never have won.” And not a single part of it has a bit of proof. Wikipedia will link to the TEDx talk as the proof, and presto.

Of course TEDx won’t ban the talk about David and Goliath. Anything that explains away beliefs about religion, spirituality, strange events and the like is embraced by a lot of skeptics who have agendas based on feelings toward the, well, alternative explanations. I don’t have any quibble whatsoever with Gladwell, but by chance; right after listening to his talk I read two archaeology books. Almost immediately I was hit with a couple factual statement in the books that didn’t match.

The Destruction of Spiro Mounds

At Christmas I was given two recent books by a former excavation archaeologist who left the “field” because of dismal pay. The books were “Looting Spiro Mounds” (2007; publ. by Univ. of OK Press; by David La Vere, a Professor at the University of North Carolina) and “Mound Sites of the Ancient South” (2013; publ. by U. of GA Press; by Eric Bowne an Asst. Prof. of Archaeology at Arkansas Tech University).

Spiro once had 12 mounds, mostly small burial mounds with a couple platform mounds that were also used for burials. In 1934-5 six men leased the site and essentially looted it destroying more artifacts than they recovered. The men, dubbed the “Pocola Mining Company,” raised the ire of a University of Oklahoma Professor who managed to have the state pass a law making the digging illegal. The men of the Pocola Mining Co. stopped for a brief time after the law was passed but went back to the site and “finished it off” over a couple months when the Professor went to California for an extended time. At the end of their dig the men packed the main tomb in a mound with gunpowder and set it off. This was done to spite the new law and what they saw as the Professor’s meddling in their private affairs and private property rights.

In Eric Bowne’s book, he relates that the mound was leased to the Pocola Mining Company “for fifty dollars” (p. 143). He also writes that the men, “uncovered thousands of artifacts, many of which they sold to collectors at reportedly high prices” (p. 143). The $50 price of the lease was highlighted to stress the small value people placed on Native American culture at the time and the “high prices” the looters got was highlighted to show how these looters were driven by greed and highlight the riches they received from looting. Only in this case, both of these assertions are false.

In La Vere’s book he correctly relates that the mound was leased to the Pocola Mining Company for three hundred dollars ($300; each of the 6 men chipped in $50) and that they sold the artifacts at extremely low prices—essentially for next to nothing. It was the people who bought the artifacts from the Spiro looters who took these amazing relics and sold them at much higher prices to collectors and museums all over the place. It is known that the six men who looted the mounds made very little, barely covering the $300 they paid for the lease. This is in no way a defense of them, it’s just a fact that has been known and accepted for a long, long time. But the “new” (2013) book has changed history, to make it better depict what mainstream archaeology wants people to believe. Remember that the looting of Spiro took place during the Depression and these men were desperate to get back the money they paid for the lease as well as whatever else they could make for years of digging. Most of the artifacts pulled from the mound were sold on the street adjacent to the site to whoever happened to be there and for whatever they offered.

In the Depression year of 1934 there was quite a difference between $50 and $300. In today’s value, $50 (in 1934) would be worth $890; $300 (in 1934) is worth $5300. In virtually all of the other articles and books about the Spiro looting, the price paid by the mining company was $300. But it is guaranteed that now the $50 price will be used over and over by archaeologists in the future as a “fact” to “prove” some point about how people don’t value sites like Spiro.

Lest the Oklahoma archaeologist (Forrest Clements, who got the law changed so the looting of Spiro Mounds could be stopped) be seen as a total hero in this, Clements then managed to obtain a $6000 grant to re-excavate the site. (That is $106,000 today.) Clements, of course, as do virtually all academic archaeologists, hired others to do the actual dirty work. He was also paid a salary as Professor and Chair of the archaeology department at the University of Oklahoma. But that wasn’t apparently enough. The second longest serving supervisor of the excavation was Kenneth Orr who earned a Ph.D. and was eventually was hired by the University of Oklahoma to teach. Orr accused Clements of demanding and receiving a $50 kickback of his pay from the excavation grant each month, which amounted to $1500 (over $26,000 in today’s money). It’s not known if others also paid Clements a kickback. But that’s not really the point here, either. Reading La Vere’s book shows how archaeologists, museums, and universities divided the “loot” of the university excavations and how these were used to obtain even more funding. In essence, one strong point being made in La Vere’s book was that the motivations of the archaeologists and the museums were essentially about money and having artifacts for themselves. Artifacts were used to pry money from governments and individuals to keep the museums and archaeologists in business. They could assert that they were “saving” artifacts and sometimes displaying them for everyone, but ultimately it was a way for the museums to draw visitors and raise more funds. The archaeologists were then guaranteed of having salaried academic positions, obtain grants for more funds, and maintain “personal” control over prized artifacts—control that in some ways is even more powerful than the “greedy” private collectors they so disdained. If you doubt this, try to see all the artifacts from Spiro (or anywhere else for that matter) that were obtained through publically funded excavations and purchases. You’ll find that many such artifacts are locked away in collections directly controlled by a few individuals. And you won’t get permission to look at them.

Money, Money, Money

I’ve recently read a couple blogs by several people who relate how awful it is that alternative historians write books and make dvds that they “sell for money.” These writers and filmmakers apparently can’t be trusted because they are trying to make “money.” Oblivious to the simplest of psychological contradictions, I saw in one of these same blogs where one of the writers (who degraded others trying to make money by writing books and making films) related that finding a permanent academic job in archaeology was difficult and how writing a book that trashes the alternative historians’ ideas might help…ah, make him some money.

Still another “skeptical” blogger constantly attacks alternative historians for writing books for money, making high-priced dvds for money, giving talks at conferences for money, and asking for funds to produce or investigate something. The same blogger never mentions how skeptical conferences cost even more, how skeptical books are grossly overpriced, or how some skeptics have been accused of a host of sexual charges. The same blogger constantly urges his readers to buy his books because he doesn’t make much. He also asks for donations periodically and has a PayPal donation button on his website pages.

I suppose I’ll “dig” into some of the deeper psychological meanings of all this later, but for the moment, I need to finish by stating the main point in the contradictory “facts” that emerged in the two mainstream archaeology books discussed above. Archaeologists continuously declare that their field of study is a science, but their lack of consistency and lack of matching facts is pervasive and maddening. Here’s even more.

Pinson Mounds

In “Path of Souls” (2014) I mention the story of interviewing archaeologist Robert Mainfort in 1987 when he was the Tennessee State Archaeologist. Mainfort told me then that Pinson had 12 definite mounds. But a 1916 survey of the site showed 34 or 35 mounds there. The current Wikipedia reference relates that there are at least 30 mounds there with 17 identified. The official Tennessee State Park website on Pinson relates that there are at least 15 mounds there. Tennessee’s History for Kids website says there are 17. A chapter in a 1998 textbook by Mainfort says there are a “minimum of 12 mounds.” A 2002 book by Mainfort says there are “more than 12 mounds.” In his 2013 book on Pinson, Mainfort relates there are “at least 13 mounds.” OK, now that we have cleared up how many mounds are at Pinson by giving you the facts from the science of archaeology, let’s clear up the nonsense alternative historians spew about Serpent Mound.

Serpent Mound

In work conducted at Ohio’s Serpent Mound in 1883 and 1886, Frederic Putnam concluded that the mound had been built between 800 B.C. and A.D. 100. In 1991 a group of archaeologists, including Ohio’s Bradley Lepper, made trenches through the mound to find Putnam’s original trenching. They found charcoal buried in the mound and concluded through carbon dating of the charcoal that the mound was built around A.D. 1130. In 2012 archaeologists took core samples from various spots on the mound and consistently found in their carbon tests it had been constructed between 400 B.C.-80 B.C. In 2013 Lepper admitted that “we’re not really sure what we dated”—in referring to the 1991 work. It was likely that when they found the charcoal in Putnam’s trench that it had been placed into the trench when Putnam was backfilling. Who knows? The official Ohio marker at the site states that the mound was built around A.D. 1000. In his 2005 book, Lepper related that it was built between A.D. 1155-1015. The most reliable dating of the site shows it was constructed between 400 B.C.-80 B.C. That certainly clears that up. Thank God for the science of archaeology, otherwise we might not know when Serpent Mound was made.

Policing the Field

In past issues of AP I have detailed a variety of factual errors, conflicting statements of fact, and blunders by some of the more esteemed members of archaeology academia. It happens, of course, and new scientific evidence changes things. But why in the world would archaeologists spent so much time and expend so much energy claiming that “outsiders” are defrauding the public by speculating about ancient sites and events when they themselves move facts around all over the place? That’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is because archaeology is not a science in the true meaning of the word. Scientific methods like measuring and sampling are used, but there is a lot of speculation and many contradictory beliefs touted as fact. It’s about belief. Academic archaeology is driven by beliefs that are used to select what is accepted as evidence and what is not—so that their cherished beliefs are supported and maintained.

Archaeologists need to police their own and stop trying to bully others. Some of you fully understand this.


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