Saturday, May 31, 2014

Extraordinary claims

Way back in the 70s, I happened across the book "Worlds in Collision," by Immanuel Velikovsky. It was a thick, sweeping, highly detailed book in which the author, a noted scholar (psychologist) advanced a theory of celestial catastrophes designed to explain various world myths (like the flood, the plagues of Egypt, and so on). It was absolutely absorbing and fascinating. And virtually everything about it has been rejected by scientists, often savagely. As a work of comparative mythology, it was compelling. As a work of science, not so much. Even Carl Sagan took pains to refute most of its core claims (although he did chide academicians for their unwillingness to at least examine the claims first).

Well, I was taking a couple of long car trips, and checked out the 11-disc audiobook set called "The Lost Empire of Atlantis," by Gavin Menzies. Menzies, a former submarine commander, was decidedly not a member of the Atlantis-as-spacemen crowd. But he came to believe, and laid out a surprisingly wide dataset to support it, that ancient Minoans, from about 2500 BC to 1250 BC, were master navigators, the builders of Stonehenge and other "astronomical computers," and ran a trade network that linked Crete to Egypt, to India, to the Baltics, and (wait for it) to the copper mines of Lake Superior. The whole thing was pretty darn fascinating. A lot of it was about time periods I'd never read about before, and I learned a lot about the Bronze Age economy. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the deforestation of the Middle East and British isles to support industrial bronze-making (they needed the wood to make charcoal). Most scholars agree that the Minoans were indeed a remarkably advanced people, and probably were wiped out by an Atlantis-like catastrophe.

But after doing a little digging, some of the key premises of the story seem to fall apart. For instance, Menzies asserts that the so-called tobacco beetle (found in Egyptian tombs!) is ONLY found in North America. It turns out that's wrong. Much is made of the billions of tons of "missing copper" from Lake Superior, mined during precisely the period of Minoan hegemony, with the conclusion that only an advanced, European style smelting operation could have accounted for the disappearance. But archaeologists counter with three points  and scientists one.
  1. The mining had been going on for thousands of years before the rise of the Minoans.
  2. The calculations that conclude that the ore went "missing" are wildly exaggerated and inaccurate. Archaeologists don't think anything is unaccounted for.
  3. There are no remnants of Minoan garbage. All people leave garbage. It may be the defining characteristic of civilization.
Scientists refute the claims of the remarkable 99.01% purity of sunken Minoan copper, which "could only have come from the Lake Superior mines" with this: once copper is smelted, it's ALL about that pure, no matter where it came from.

There are many interesting commonalities between Velikosky and Menzies. Both were (Velikosky died in 1979) or are (Menzies is still with us) writers who don't come from the academy; they are outsiders. Both are bold and brilliant. On the other hand, both are a little on the unsystematic side, and tend to choose only the data that support the conclusions they've already reached. Like leaving trash, this too is a human trait.

I don't find it all that unlikely that the common wisdom about long ago events is mistaken. In my book, it's a miracle that we ever get anything right. I also find myself sympathetic to the idea that an iconoclastic outsider can shake things up and find the truth. But I should have realized that when a book ("Lost Empire of Atlantis") is admired by Glenn Beck (not someone whose intellectual prowess impresses me), it's worth a harder look.

As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Just because it's a good story (and both Velikovsky and Menzies tell one) doesn't mean it's true. Darn it.

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