Posted by: Johan Normark | January 22, 2012

2012: How to deal with cranks

I have read two contrasting texts this weekend. The first one is related to Semir Osmanagic’s visit to the Linnaeus University last year, after an invitation by Cornelius Holtorf. In an article called Beyond crusades: how (not) to engage with alternative archaeologies Holtorf is appalled about the way archaeologists deals with “alternative” or “fringe” archaeologists, such as various 2012ers in my case. He emphasizes “the social and cultural needs that both scientific and alternative archaeologies address and suggest that the main significance of archaeology does not lie in the specific insights gained about the past but in the very process of engaging with the material remains of the past in the present. Critical understanding and dialogue, not dismissive polemics, is the appropriate way to engage with the multiple pasts and alternative archaeologies in contemporary society” (p 544).

In short, Holtorf argues for a relativistic view of the past. He has been influenced by Paul Feyerabend who rejected all universal methodological rules. Any interpretation and method is as good as any other and archaeologists should not have the upper hand in interpretation. Holtorf exemplifies the dismissive tone some archaeologists have of “alternative archaeologists” with Garrett Fagan who dismisses views that are not in line with his scientific approach “as ‘ideologically driven pseudoscience’ usually drawing on certain mythic motifs, such as ‘The Vindicated Thinker’ who embarks on a quest ‘tackling some terrific mystery or secret of the past’ and finally emerges as the hero that brings sensationalist news that requires ‘rewriting the history books from page one’” (p 545). For Holtorf this is an opinionated and patronizing popular science writing that is damaging for archaeology because there are mythic overtones in the scientific enterprise as well and the “Vindicated Thinker” is a powerful theme in many popularized accounts of archaeology.

I do understand what Holtorfs is arguing for and I have for sure committed myself to dismissive rhetoric, patronizing, etc. in my dealings with the 2012ers, but I have never claimed that there is ONE truth or ONE appropriate method. Neither have I posed as a “Vindicated Thinker.” My “opponents”, the 2012ers, usually interpret my position as the “orthodox” view. My views of archaeology can hardly be seen as orthodox as I argue for a complete object-oriented perspective where humans are peripheral. What I argue for is a realist approach, not a social constructionist approach which is at the core of Holtorf’s view of archaeology.

Hence, it is not a problem for Holtorf to invite a pseudoscientist like Osmanagic who terraform Bosnian hills/mountains into pyramids so that it suits his belief that they were built by aliens from the Pleiades (among other things). Osmanagic must be taken seriously. This is to me a truly disastrous way of dealing with “alternative archaeologies.” It simply gives them credibility which they do not deserve. Holtorf makes no effort, in this article anyway, to study the pseudoscientists themselves since he takes their side against the patronizing scientists.

In the second text, called Cranks and physics (thanks to John Hoopes for the link), Steven Novella discusses a particular kind of pseudoscientist, quite common among 2012ers. Here we find a better understanding of how the pseudoscientist argues, how they fail to understand the way science works, etc. This kind of pseudoscientist is the crank which “is a particular variety of pseudoscientist or “true believer” – one that tries very hard to be a real scientist but is hopelessly crippled by a combination of incompetence and a tendency to interpret their own incompetence as overwhelming genius.”

This crank is someone who has created an image of what science is like from popular culture (Hollywood productions, National Geographic, Discovery, etc). Here science is often portrayed as the work of the lone genius (the Vindicated Thinker) that develops ideas on his/her own. Advances in knowledge are often described as being scorned by the “orthodox” scientists. However, this is not how science work at all. All sciences demand knowledge about a huge amount of information before one can make any contributions at all. This means that one can only make a small contribution to science and this is after the ideas have been presented at conferences and passed through peer-reviews. This process “weeds out ideas that are fatally flawed or just hopelessly nonsensical. In other words – it weeds out cranks. Of course, cranks don’t like this, so they wail against the mainstream.”

2012ers usually lack any formal education in archaeology, astronomy, Maya studies, etc. and they usually see this as something positive. Instead of trying to understand the complexities inherent in all established knowledge, they reject it all, and create something else that never is consistent and filled with logical gaps. See my posts on Calleman for a perfect example.

If we follow Holtorf’s suggestions, these self-proclaimed 2012 experts must be taken seriously since the scientific view of the Maya calendar also is based on myths (the way various epigraphers are idolized for being crackers of codes, etc.). Calleman’s personalized cosmology claims that he has discovered that the Long Count reflects the evolution of the universe, life and consciousness, Osmanagic’s discovers the “mother of all pyramids” and Jenkins finds out the truth behind the most important date in the history of mankind, etc. Holtorf would conflate these New Age myth makers with the way an academic Mayanist might appear in popular media. The main difference is, of course, that the cranks whole self-image and commercial success rely on emphasizing their self-created myths. That is not the case for the scholar. We do not attack or debunk the cranks because we feel threatened by them, as Holtorf argues; we do it because we want science to be based on a great body of information that is of relevance to the contexts under discussion. The Big Bang and alien space ships do not seem relevant for understanding the Maya Long Count. Anyone can come up with fanciful interpretations, even me.

A crank



  1. Hey great post. i have my own problems with Holtorf, in relation to contemporary archaeology, the majority of which I can see no point in unless you are coming from his particularly strange relativist perspective. I honestly do not understand how these guys find employment.
    You can find my own rantings over at my facebook group
    just don’t take the title seriously 😉

  2. I do find most of the so-called contemporary archaeology to be of little interest. There are some notable exceptions though. I like Rathje’s garbage stuff¨as it actually can be helpful in investigating formation processes in the archaeological record. Most other contemporary archaeology make use of non-archaeological methods, such as interviews, to a significant degree. The archaeological part of these studies tend to be very small.

  3. There is a Christian saying in the USA; Dont Dump The Baby Out With The Bath Water.

    • a Christian saying ?

      Is it in the New Testament

      I’m sure people who are Christian may say it but so do people of other religions

  4. “Most other contemporary archaeology make use of non-archaeological methods, such as interviews, to a significant degree. The archaeological part of these studies tend to be very small.”
    Funnily enough I’m actually working on a paper about that even as I type this!
    The Garbage project clearly did have implications for more typical archaeology, and at least initially, was not done for its own sake. When archaeologists start studying contemporary events for their own sake I fear they have taken a step to far ‘through the mirror’ and loosing all relevance to anything!

  5. I’m happy to learn that you too are a realist. But I must confess that to me, the adjective “object-oriented” only applies to certain programming languages such as C++. Are you saying that humans are material culture’s way of reproducing? A bit like Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene?

  6. No, I simply do not wish to set up an a priori hierarchy where the research begins from an ancient mind (of which we know next to nothing) or a past society (of which we can tell little more). Objects are usually treated for what they are believed to be for an ancient mind or a past society, not for what it is in itself. That is my starting point.

    • I agree with you Johan, the ancient alchemists were also object oriented, They were researching the spirit, and energies and the spiritual stuff in the elements and objects.

      • We are apparently talking about different things…

  7. Johan Normark – Amen Brother! But I confess, I think we’re losing the battle. The relativists, revisionists, and traditionalist “researchers” are winning – they write better books, and make better TV. Not to mention create better blogs. We are witnessing the submission of archaeology, and the rise of religion – belief trumps knowledge. This is what happened in the Cultural Revolution in China. It is more profound than most have any idea.

    • The real problem is when they enter academia. At least so far they are quite few and ignored by most researchers. I would still say that the best TV show around concerning archaeology in general is the British Time Team so I am a bit hopeful for the future. The problem is greater in the USA where religion is far more important.

  8. i think your buddha, krisna, confucius, jesus or even anton szandor lavey and damien would all say the same thing if asked – until you all stop being so superstitious you have not yet unpacked the message: if you were created by something that loves you then you were given the senses to know right from wrong – not told to remain ignorant from it – some of religions messages have been inserted among the good advice as ways to keep you all down in your cots. – let the ones who are ready to walk climb over the bars – let the rest stay asleep – this is fine and no problem we do not need to change anyone’s mind.

    trust me more than your bible or your book of modern law: it was not a good being who told you not to seek wisdom and understanding, and it was not an evil being who told you to go ahead and eat that fruit.

    if you continue to disgrace the gifts of creation by refusing to experience them then you have let your creator down.


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