nat geo gets gun-shy on ancient astronauts

NatGeo gave ancient astronaut theorists the time of day, but did little to rebuke their pseudoscientific arguments in a rare miss.
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When watching the last episode of NatGeo’s Known Universe, an episode focused on ancient astronomy and the discoveries made by our ancestors, I came across the last thing I’d expect from a popular science show of this caliber. Today, the ancient astronaut theory is so widespread, pretty much every recounting of astronomy in the ancient world has to at least mention our desire to connect classical folklore with our ideas about aliens and their potential intervention in our history. And that’s all well and good when put into its proper context as a critical thinking exercise. However, recounting the offered evidence for this notion without offering any rebuttals which tackle specific points and give viewers a scientifically backed evaluation of what they just heard, playing up the mysteries and the unknowns for the sake of dramatic effect is simply unsound. But that’s the approach taken by the editors at NatGeo who gave an ancient astronaut theorist a virtually uninterrupted monologue.

Now, to be as fair as possible, we have to note that the notion of ancient astronauts often gets categorized as the kind of New Age mythology we’d expect from crazed conspiracy theorists who believe that alien lizards rule our world from the shadows, and often unfairly so. There is no law of nature which would forbid an alien species to evolve intelligence, start building large and powerful spacecraft, and eventually make their way to a world orbiting around another star. Sure, it might take a very long time for all these things to happen and there is a very real chance that an intelligent alien species won’t exist long enough to do it, but it’s not completely out of the question. Just look at us. We could be less than a century away from technologies that let us slowly make our way to our nearest stars. So while creationists may misrepresent Dawkins as a believer in ancient alien visitors who helped our ancestors build civilization, then hypocritically make fun of him as they preach that an invisible, incomprehensible, omnipotent being designed the universe by magic, the ancient astronaut theorists actually do have some legitimate science on their side, even if the odds of an alien civilization with a fleet of interstellar vehciles visiting Earth at just the right time in a 100,000 light year wide galaxy with roughly a trillion planets require coincidences of, quite literally, astronomical orders of magnitude.

However, the mistake made by many of the idea’s proponents is in assuming that since alien life is possible and our ancestors have fanciful tales of gods coming from the skies in bizarre contraptions, it means that the gods in question are best explained by alien visitors from another world who inspired us to build monuments like the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. These are the claims made by the publisher of Legendary Times, an ancient astronaut theorist magazine in the tradition of Erich von Daniken, claims that went unchallenged by the experts featured in the same episode of Known Universe. Even stranger is that Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, one of von Daniken’s disciples and the publisher in question, has already been featured by a few skeptical shows on NatGeo and his arguments were often shot down by anthropologists and archeologists. So why not now? Why did the editors choose to highlight numerology done with the Great Pyramid, tales of Hindi gods cast as aliens flying around India in strange spacecraft, and the novel notion of Stonehenge being a model of a solar system as well as the legend of the dark companion of Sirius?

We’ve encountered numerology applied to ancient myths and legends before, specifically in the stories of the supposed discovery of ancient navigation systems and the so-called God equation of Stonehenge. With a big enough repository of simple math tricks, you can derive pretty much anything you want from any object you can find. There are no rules in numerology so you can turn any angle into a significant correlation, drop a few decimal points here and there until you put together some sort of pattern, and call whatever you get a from all your measuring, dividing and substituting a momentous discovery. Likewise, interpreting ancient gods of very old civilizations with our modern, space age sensibilities is just an exercise in connecting random dots until a picture you want to see starts to emerge. The Hindi gods roaming around the skies on chariots of fire should not be taken as a description of literal history. It’s not like our ancestors didn’t have imaginations and couldn’t create some very bizarre and fanciful tales, and it’s not like we can’t contaminate a retelling of their legends if we think we discovered something important as is the case with the Sirius myth of the Dogon. While it’s often cited by ancient astronaut theorists as one of the best cases of extraterrestrial contact, it’s far more likely to be a product of highly selective retellings of Dogon folklore in the 1960s instead.

And here is where we come to the main problem with the ancient astronaut theory. It relies very heavily on the personal opinions and subjective evaluations of the investigators. A set of concentric circles, or a big pyramid complex suddenly turn into models of the solar system. Statues of demons, imps and gods become accurate depictions of alien astronauts, and the highly inconsistent figures across societies are chalked up simply to a cultural bias in representations of otherworldly beings. Paintings and carvings of mythological stories, or very simple corrections in rock carvings turn into strange alien craft and modern tools forgotten by time. Just like a lot of faithful tend to see faces of religious figures in fields, clouds and on toast, ancient astronaut theorists are often victims of wishful pareidolia. Unless we can turn up a fossilized spacecraft filled with stone relics crafted by humans and clearly once occupied by an intelligent, extraterrestrial species, it’s impossible to offer any real proof that we’ve been visited by aliens in the ancient past. Of course, proponents like von Daniken, Tsoukalos, and Pye, who claims to have the skull of a human/alien hybrid in his possession, know this full well. And this is why they like to frame their claims as questions, using ambiguity and uncertainty as their shields, and why popular science shows that choose to feature them have to take issue with their claims to make sure that the audience is given accurate, realistic and scientifically sound facts at the end of the program.

# astrobiology // alien contact / ancient astronauts / popular science

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