Guest Post: Ancient Aliens
We grow our skeptics pretty hardy here in Atlanta. For example, I’ve been watching Bob Blaskiewicz on Twitter recently, talking about watching Ancient Aliens and discussing how painfully awful it is. Exposure to that much crap is dangerous work! So, as a concerned friend, I did the only logical thing: had him watch some more and write about it in a guest post. Enjoy!
The Channel Formerly Known as the History Channel is currently airing season 4 of Ancient Aliens. The thrust of the show is fairly straightforward: no matter what ancient or relatively recent civilization you examine, somehow all historians, folklorists, and archaeologists have overlooked what “ancient astronaut theorists” have identified as clear evidence of aliens meddling in human affairs. Following the historical plots outlined by such authors as Zecharia Sitchin and Erich von Däniken (the latter appears frequently on the show), Ancient Aliens is without a doubt the least coherent, most disorganized show on television.
It’s always hard for a skeptic to discern how serious any given promoter of woo is about what they are pushing. Is the Health Ranger Mike Adams really as completely off his nut as he appears? Does Psychic Kids host Chip Coffey really think that he can talk to dead people?
Do the Ghost Hunters really believe in ghosts after presenting their audience with such transparently crummy evidence for years? Who knows? You need a special type evidence of to discern whether or not any individual is sincere in their public beliefs, one that is rarely available. When examining Ancient Aliens, who is to say how serious these people are?
For a sense of perspective, I contacted physicist Michael Dennin at UC, Irvine, who appears on the show to discuss specific scientific concepts. He explained that he only sits down for an interview or two a season, and that questions are sent to him in advance for the entire season. He then selects the questions that he believes he will be able to answer with some authority. A producer then comes to Michael’s campus to conduct the interview. The most interesting part of our conversation was when Michael said that producers seem to have done their physics research ahead of time and for the most part get the physics right. Which raises the question, how then do they manage to get the archaeology, art history, literature, theology, folklore, human genetics, engineering, ancient languages, and history so completely, unthinkably wrong?
In one sense, it’s hard to even understand how Ancient Aliens an ongoing television show. Most of the major points that they make season after season were made early on in the first series. For instance: ancient cultures all over the world had (or saw and described–they are not consistent on that point) what we would now consider advanced technology that moved rocks in ways modern engineers can only dream of. Other recurring themes include:
- Mythology should be taken as historical records of actual events (it’s hard not to think of Galaxy Quest).
- You can take anything that flies in mythology and substitute it with the word “spacecraft.”
- “Gods” are always, always “aliens.”
- Ancient people were hopelessly primitive and utterly incapable of any noteworthy achievement.
- Any major engineering, cultural, or artistic feat requires at least modern, if not futuristic, technology.
After recently watching three seasons back-to-back-to-back (god help me), the only thing that I can say with any certainty that Ancient Aliens is either the product of a badly disordered mind or was designed to be a drinking game for skeptics:
- Every time an ancient astronaut theorist refers to “ancient texts,” DRINK!
- Every time the narrator (the delightfully-named actor Robert Clotworthy) begins an episode or a segment with the name of a location or a noun instead of a sentence, DRINK!
- Every time the the narrator asks a question that should be answered with an immediate, “Of course the hell not,” DRINK!
- Every time an apparently not crazy physicist, folklorist, or scholar gets cut off right before they say, “…but that doesn’t mean that ancient aliens existed,” DRINK!
- When an idea that was speculation in one sentence magically becomes the premise of the next segment, DRINK!
- Every time the narrator says, “And if so, why?” DRINK!
- Every time the narrator says, “…as ancient alien theorists believe/contend” DRINK!
I will say that the high point of the show is watching David Childress, who appears in almost every episode. He seems to believe absolutely anything (his take on the Ant People in episode 2.4, “Underground Aliens,” is priceless), and he has a wild-eyed stare and breathlessness that suggests that he is seeing pixies fucking everywhere.
A recent episode speculated about whether or not Leonardo da Vinci may have had contact with aliens who gave him unprecedented insights into the workings of the universe. “The da Vinci Conspiracy” begins by touching on one of Leonardo’s earliest works, a painting of the Medusa on a wooden shield. “Why,” asks the narrator, “when most prominent artists of his day were painting images from the Judeo-Christian Bible, would Leonardo have chosen to depict a mythical Greek monster, one that many ancient astronaut theorists believe may have been based on an extraterrestrial creature?” And then they leave the question there. Not a thought is wasted on trying to come up with an answer. A moment’s reflection offers several possibilities: 1) that “most artists” were painting religious themes does not mean that there is anything strange about someone painting a classical theme; 2) the Medusa, according to the source of the story, was commissioned by a “country person,” not the church; 3) powerful private patrons like the Medici were important to the Renaissance; 4) painting a Medusa on a shield is actually a reference to the story of how the Medusa was killed–Perseus was able to lop off her head without turning to stone by looking at her reflection in a polished shield; 5) indeed, revisiting of classical themes is an important characteristic of Renaissance art, and it is no mystery, nor even really notable, that Leonardo or any other artist depicted a Medusa. Both Cellini and Caravaggio, for instance, depicted the Medusa–ancient aliens or no big whoop?
Next the producers turn to a painting, Annunciation, which Leonardo undertook at the direction of Andrea del Verrocchio, with whom he was apprenticed. They note that the angel is painted with a different type of paint than the one Verrocchio used for the rest of the painting. Giorgio Tsoukalos (the guy with the hair in the Ancient Aliens meme) then comments:
Leonardo completed it using a non-lead based paint, which is why when looked at under certain x-ray technology Leonardo’s angel disappears. [Presumably all the other details that Verrocchio instructed Leonardo to complete do as well, like the shoreline in the background.] Now, why would Leonardo, being the apprentice, finish his mentor’s work with a different type of paint? And one possibility is he was leaving some type of message because he was notorious for hiding things inside his own paintings!
Yep. He does exactly the type of art history that you’d expect from an ex-bodybuilding promoter. The narrator wonders, “Might Leonardo da Vinci really have painted the angel knowing that he would be creating a secret message that wouldn’t be discovered for 500 years? [Answer: No. DRINK!] And if so, why?” [DRINK! Wild-assed speculation becomes premise of an entire segment–DRINK again! Most people die playing this game.]
To answer this useless question, the producers look to the next phase of da Vinci’s life through the pixie-clouded eyes of David Childress. Leonardo’s whereabouts are unaccounted for between 1476-78, they say, and when he reappears in the historical record, his begins the prodigious phase of his life. How do you explain that, David Childress?
“One possible scenario here is that during those years Leonardo da Vinci was, in a sense, ‘tutored’ by some special individuals, people who were showing him things that a normal person wouldn’t necessarily have seen, perhaps like the Biblical prophet Enoch he was even taken aboard a spaceship: the aliens showed him earth from above and gave him a concept of the cosmos and machines and inventions and earth there no one before him had ever had.”
OR Leonardo lived in the early Renaissance, and we’re lucky to only be missing two years instead of all of his years, like we are for most of his contemporaries.
Also, holy crap, David Childress is weird.
Next the show examines the Leonardo’s longstanding interest in dissection, and the producers put forward the argument that while he was dissecting cadavers at the Vatican, he wrote his notes in reverse in order to hide what he was doing from the Pope. Dissection was still taboo within the Church. They have scenes of (a still quite young) Leonardo in the catacombs standing over opened corpses, writing in a reverse script, which they claim was to keep the contents of his studies secret (despite the fact his notes accompany supremely detailed sketches of dissected cadavers, which you’d think would have been a dead giveaway). Maybe, but Leonardo was also left-handed and many sources attest to this. Even the actor on the show depicts him scrawling with his left hand. Writing from right to left allowed allowed him to keep neat notes. But even if there was a little bit of security in writing in a manner that could only be read through a mirror, the producers use this as a premise for more wild speculation about how Leonardo might have used mirrors to hide messages in his paintings.
Instead of going to an art historian for comment, they go to a graphic designer at Northeastern University, Terrence Masson. Masson says that if you line up a mirror image of, say, the Mona Lisa along an axis indicated by her hands, well, you go from this:
to this, what the narrator describes as “a helmet-shaped monster”:
UNBELIEVABLE! By which I mean, IT’S UNBELIEVABLE THAT A FULLY GROWN ADULT HUMAN WOULD EVER PUT THIS FORWARD AS EVIDENCE OF ANYTHING OTHER THAN PAREIDOLIA!
But wait, there’s more! If you get someone who knows how to use Photoshop, you can mess up any number of Leonardo’s works. The Virgin of the Rocks, for instance:
…becomes The Virgin of the Anal Probe!
Surely such artistic feats could only be the work of someone who had been taken aboard a spaceship by aliens. Using such innovative bullshittery led me to uncover an amazing truth that will revolutionize Buffy studies for generations. Buffy Sommers (who I suspect Childress believes was a real person) was not the Chosen One after all, but was (dumb-dumb-DUMB) an ANCIENT ALIEN!
Next, the ancient astronaut theorists have a go at Leonardo’s grotesques, a number of sketches of unrealistically deformed (but oddly compelling) faces. Jonathan Young, a Jungian psychologist, is for some reason given the floor at this point. “Now this is an artist known for careful, realistic depiction of what he was looking at,” he says, “which raises the question, what in the world was he looking at?” Of course, underlying this vapid, third-grade question is the assumption that Leonardo didn’t use his imagination and had to be depicting things that he actually saw. Must we also assume that Goya’s caprichos depicted scenes the artist witnessed? That Dr. Suess’ grotesque, the Grinch, really stole Christmas? Of course not.
Back to Terrence Masson at Northeastern, who has unfortunately gotten his hands on more artwork. Now the producers are going to examine other paintings by Renaissance artists for examples of “anomalies” in the sky that they can say are UFOs. The narrator says that our poor friend is examining “the strange images found in Renaissance paintings.”
“One specific example,” Masson says, “the Baptism of Christ by Gelder, is just bizarre. So many other examples can be explained by different iconography, different representations of angels and clouds and lights, but if you look at this painting, it’s just a solid, shiny disk with four laser beams shining down on the Christ child.”
If you look at the original, maybe it looks a little UFO-y:
Now, if you remember the story from before you gave up religion, when John the Baptist poured water over Jesus, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:22). So, we should expect to see a dove in there somewhere, yeah? How about this screenshot of the UFO from the Ancient Aliens segment:
A white dove in the middle of the “UFO,” which is actually an opening in the clouds. It’s an utterly conventional representation. Also, it dates from the early 18th century, so the producers aren’t even close to the right time period. Mega pathetic.
Next the show turns to Leonardo’s inventions and mechanical drawings, which are remarkable, complex, and elegant, even if some of them would never have worked. The producers focus primarily on his weapons of war. “What was the source of Leonardo da Vinci’s incredible and prophetic inventions?” asks the narrator:
“Were they the product of his immense genius, or is it possible, as ancient astronaut theorists believe [DRINK!], that Leonardo had been influenced by an otherworldly intelligence [No. DRINK!], an intelligence he encountered in the past, or one he possessed from within?”
The experience “in the past” that the narrator is referring to is one that Leonardo recorded in his notebooks as a young man, when he encountered a cave that both frightened and intrigued him. The ancient alien theorists use the cave to explain Leonardo’s missing two years: “He goes inside the cave, then he disappears,” says some guy named William Henry, “and it suggests to me time-travel portals. He’s opening portals or stargates and beaming either to the past or the future and then returning to the present time.” Does it not bother him at all that he is using terminology like “beaming” and “stargates” that has been taken straight from science fiction?
The narrator then delivers what the whole episode has been building up to, the intellectual killing blow, as it were:
“Is it really possible that Leonardo da Vinci may have obtained his incredible creative and scientific knowledge as the direct result of an extraterrestrial encounter, or might Leonardo have fallen through a time portal, one that allowed him to actually visit the future, a future where robots, helicopters, military weapons and other amazing machines actually existed?” [No. DRINK!]
So, what you are suggesting is that Leonardo went to the future, saw this:
…and that when he got back, he drew this:
This makes sense only if Leonardo wasn’t very good at drawing, a premise of the whole episode! (I also notice that they don’t go back to the physicist and ask him if time travel makes sense.)
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that good ideas seem utterly otherworldly to these people.
Bob Blaskiewicz is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He is co-editor of the website Skeptical Humanities, writes “The Conspiracy Guy” column at the CSICOP website, is a CFI speaker, and is currently working on the book, ‘Was Shakespeare an Alien?’, with Dr. Eve Siebert.