The lure of the crank

During his appearance on Question Time on Thursday, Nick Griffin revealed that he has, in fact, read some books. These books, we are to believe, support his notion of there being a 17,000-year old “indigenous English race” surviving in the modern population of the British Isles.

Actually, I shouldn’t say “we are to believe” because I can all too readily believe that books like that have been written. And I am therefore, obviously, reminded of the pyramids.

Graham Hancock is a writer, self-trained historian and archaeologist who writes hugely successful books called things like The Fingerprints of the Gods. It’s years and years since I read one or two of them (my verdict at the time: some interesting nuggets and it’s always good  to be reminded that history is all about questions, but tediously easy to pick method apart in places, and far too convinced of a Great Mysterious Overall Picture for my untidy mind). For a quick run-down of core theory I can do no better than quote Amazon’s blurb on Fingerprints:

The author has a highly controversial view of history and his theory of a mysterious, lost civilization that brought knowledge to other people around the world, has attracted a wide audience. In this new large-format edition, Hancock responds to critics and brings readers up to date with developments in the debate. He exposes the eerie network of connections between: the Great Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt; the Andean temples of Tianhuanaco; the Mexican pyramids of the Sun and Moon; the lost continent that lies beneath Antarctica; ancient knowledge of spherical geometry and astro-navigation; the myths and legends of humanity that have remained strangely consistent across geographical and social divides; and new theories concerning the causes of the ice ages. His new evidence suggests not only the “fingerprints” of an unknown civilization that flourished during the last ice age but also horrifying conclusions about the type and extent of planetary catastrophe required to obliterate almost all traces of it. Included are the BBC transcripts to the “Horizon” TV documentary.

This “Woah! Far out!” school of history is of course not new; the ancient Greeks believed explicitly in a heroic age before their own when the gods  walked the earth. Plato’s Atlantis myth has been treated as a morality tale, as a narrative history and as an object of parody in both antiquity and the  modern post-humanist era. But it’s certainly true that, while not actually new, alternative history and alternative archaeology can legitimately sell themselves as being “a breath of fresh air”, because most people’s experience of history – schoolbound history – is pretty stultifying.

It helps crank history that history in schools is taught with such poverty of imagination, but it’s not the core reason for its popularity. The real reason crank history is so terribly attractive is this: it offers people the chance to get one up on those whom they believe to be  distant, elitist, complacent snobs, to wit, academics. It holds out the tantalising possibility that, by reading just one book, you too can become an expert – and a much better one than the experts around at the moment! It trades on the same “superiority hit” as Ufology. If you doubt this, go and read the  Amazon reviews of any Graham Hancock book. Time and again we get this sort of thing [all sic, if you take my meaning]:

you do the general public a great service by questioning the mainstream of historians views on civilisations… i for one admire people like graham hancock who arnt afraid to push the bounderies

investigates the hypothesis of a Lost Civilisation, or Atlantis, an idea detested by scholars… it asks some fundamental questions about humanity’s past that orthodox scholars fail to respond to in a convincing way.

Often controvertial, particularly to the established view of prehistory laid out by academia, Graham is unapologetic about his findings,

Do your own research, come to your own conlusions, read this book.

For those of us who have pored through the works of Zecharia Sitchin and dared to ponder questions that the scientists and religious authorities regard as sacrilegious (after all, science itself is a religion), this is especially interesting material

Hancock is not a scientist or theologian, but this may in fact serve as his greatest qualification for tackling the types of lofty problems he embraces. After all, the vast majority of scientists and theologians dismiss without consideration the sorts of “wild” ideas discussed in this book; if not for the open minds of men like Mr. Hancock, many truths that have now been established would remain jokes told by the arrogant “experts” over tea

the irony is that these books are critisised by those who havent done any research and accuse the authours of taking snippets of infomation to make the events fit their notions, unfortunetly it is the orthodox establishment that has done this.

Now that I have read this book, I understand why there is such a disinformation campaign surrounding his work. The powers-that-be simply don’t want people to learn to think along these lines. It would upset the status quo.

who is the more close minded, those who follow homogenous beliefs or those who are able to do significant, unsarpassable analytical research and stand up to the discriminating old-boy views of mass orthodox perception

If all this language sounds a bit repetitious and as if it might have been learnt by rote, it’s because it has been.  The scourge of “orthodoxy” and the “arrogance” of scholars are recurring themes in the books themselves, from what I recall. They’re very much part of the sales pitch, as this publisher’s note from Amazon makes clear:

My own interpretation is that the people who hate Hancock – as I say, mostly academics – are militant materialists who have a horror of the spiritual…

The odd thing about these purportedly high-minded militant materialists is that they are prepared to resort to dishonesty in debate, so keen are they to stamp out the spiritual element. No doubt it’s all for a higher good.

No idea what the publisher is getting at in that second paragraph. But whether or not there’s a grain of truth in that insinuation in a way makes no difference. Controversy sells, conspiracy sells, an unorthodox hero battling the establishment sells and above all, a promise that you, the little man, can best the forces that “keep you down” in life and know better than “them” if you just read this book, oh, that sells like billyo.

It’s the same with the BNP. I don’t, of course, intend any direct comparison between fans of Graham Hancock in particular and BNP supporters. But the act of accepting crank history in general is characteristic of the sort of people who can believe the BNP’s message. The BNP’s beliefs are based on crank history not just because crank history enables them to rewrite the past for political motives. The sort of people  who feel the need to join the BNP are more likely to be attracted to crank history anyway. It provides the balm their wounded souls need to feel better about stuff again. If “the establishment” says something, then it must be a cover-up for the truth! And if it weren’t for “the establishment” and their cover-ups I could probably have got that promotion…

Mind you, I should also point out about cranks that just occasionally they turn out to be total geniuses (although probably only at one thing). They hang about in jealous, sneering groups rejecting the accepted academic standards of their day because it makes them feel interesting, crying conspiracy at every turn, and concocting theories about how the Sphinx is God’s doorstop and Atlantis is buried under Milton Keynes – and that 17,000 years ago there was an indigenous race of British people that has survived intact to the present day – and suddenly one of them says something like, “Hey, you know what? I bet the earth goes round the sun! I bet it does. Of course they tell us it doesn’t, but oho, there’s a lot we don’t get told about, I reckon.”

Even a stopped clock is right twice a millennium. What’s stunning is that everyone – but everyone – who believes in a particular crank believes that it’s their crank who’s going to turn out to be the Galilean exception to the Aristotelian rule.

13 Comments

  1. I think it helps to make an extra distinction, so that we can create space between the dualism of crank and academic history.

    Mythic and romanticised history enables us to escape the specific and ask questions about the general.

    I mean, academic history is a product of the viewpoint of its’ author too, and includes all their conscious or unconscious prejudices and biases, so it can never match up to the perfect vision it is held to be and when this is uncovered it allows doubt to spread.

    Unless we accept the weaknesses of academic history then the cranks will find holes to plug with their own made-up answers.

    So if we instead maintain that accuracy is a matter of degree then there is greater room for flexibility of critical interpretation.

    In other words the ‘gods’ of the heroic age can easily be interpreted as tribal patriarchs transcribed into ancestor worship and the supernatural events in the old testament can be explained with modern knowledge.

    And drawing attention to the last ice age, let’s be sceptical that there were no inhabitants in the area of Britain at that time. With the ice sheet so far south Britain must even then have been on the immigration highway to North America as fishing off small ice flows was a primary source of subsistence, and people will have followed the food.

    There was never an unconquered land, so let’s not let the Griffin get away with flawed premises – it’s not that the academics are right and the cranks are wrong, but that there is a far wider flexibility than such rigid definitions allow and disputes over ownership of the intermediate territory will only play into the hands of the cranks.

    1. Ice-floe fishermen sounds good to me. I think it’s generally accepted that there must have been contact with America before the Vikings, given the way the tides work, but I could be wrong. Likewise there’s plenty of “orthodox” history/sociology written about what the Greek myths might represent.

      What really winds me up about crank historians (and this is where the useful political parallels stop and i just start to have a rant) is that they successfully perpetuate exactly this myth, that academic historians see their practice as “perfect” or the “correct version of events”, and that they *don’t* deal in wacky ideas. Academic historians are some of the most wide-eyed people I’ve ever met, particularly the prehistorians. It’s not a sense of wonder they lack, or a willingness to entertain wacky ideas.

      Yeah, there are exceptions and I don’t doubt Hancock has had a drubbing from them, but think of Phil & Mick on Time Team, and how on the very rare occasion when they find something that they have no idea what it is and no context for it, they go bonkers with delight.

      I suspect what happens is that, while wacky ideas are fine, historians are not so keen to entertain research methodology outside the academic norm (i.e. 20 years of reading, and test the theories that are already there before you throw them all out). Which I can kind of understand – a scientist wouldn’t give an amateur science researcher the time of day, why should a historian? With a lot of prehistory, as I understand it, pretty much anything is possible – and acknowledged as such. The difficulty arises when you start with the “anything” and then rifle through the usual suspects (pyramids, stonehenge, Atlantis etc) looking for the “proof”.

      I have definitely read an explanation somewhere (I think maybe Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained) of how flood creation myths arise, for example. The gist of it was that they arise in isolation to explain events that, after all, many parts of the world would have experienced in isolation – a hurricaine here, an earthquake/tidal wave there. All the world’s known flood myths originate from areas on techtonic faultlines, or otherwise prone to natural disaster, including Atlantis, Noah and the subcontinental version whose name escape me.

      Of course, maybe the events are all linked to one cause (an asteroid or whatever), and maybe not. There’s just no way you’d be able to reliably date all the stories, much less go on to reliably identify the cause. But if you’re a crank historian, that’s too boring. These stories are *exactly* the same! They must have grown from a universal root!

      In fact, now that I come about it, they use exactly the same logic as creationists use to argue that evolution is impossible. In both cases, the weakness lies in the assumption that all detectable patterns have some explicit universal explanation on a scale humans can easily comprehend.

      Having waffled all that, I think a bit of Hancock’s stuff *is* now mainstream – he wrote a book about the current whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant which got a wide take-up. Which rather puts the kybosh on his assumed stance as a rejected outsider.

    2. By the way, I have the window open a touch, and a brass band somewhere nearby is currently rehearsing the Indiana Jones theme tune. True.

  2. What disturbs me in life is that everyone is a little bit of a ‘crank’ in their own way. For example, I’m a Liberal Democrat – I’m a politics crank; my mother won’t go on the electoral roll in case “people could find her” (what people, mum?); plenty of hard Tory voting people seriously think that man made climate change is something made up by the ‘left wing establishment’; Ukippers think that Governments actually want to hand over all their power to a superstate (not my experience of national Governments) etc etc. All these people are otherwise ‘normal’ except for that bit of orthadoxy they reject.

    1. Tory voters aren’t the only ones who believe that climate change is a socialist conspiracy. It seems to be a popular notion among our own libertarians too – I guess because there’s not much of an answer to it that doesn’t involve state action.

      1. Plenty of hard Tory voting people seriously think that man made climate change is something made up by the ‘left wing establishment’;…

        …Tory voters aren’t the only ones who believe that climate change is a socialist conspiracy. It seems to be a popular notion among our own libertarians too – I guess because there’s not much of an answer to it that doesn’t involve state action.

        You’re certainly right that there is something in the libertarian mindset that distrusts handing more power to the state, and to that extent, I would say that those of a libertarian bent are predetermined to an irrational opposition to the green movement over and above any logical arguments.

        But it’s also because so much of the green movement speaks with the language of a cult. This, in part, an inevitable result of the fact that scientists are not suited to soundbites or politics – when they don’t know things they tend to say that they don’t know, and therefore lack the certainty that proselytisers need – which means that the public face is devolved to the harishirtist knit-your-own-world wing, who seem far more bothered about, say, stopping people having nice cars than inventing one that runs on hydrogen. Cults are an anathema to indivdualists.

        The main problem is that the green movement has a historic connexion to the whale-song-reiki-and-homeopathy brigade; viz. the sort of people who wouldn’t know science if it leapt up and bit them in the aura. So when people like that tell you that unless you do everything they say, the ‘planet will die’* it’s not only hard to take them seriously, it’s also hard not to see them as the cranks, especially when their plan for saving the planet seems to depend not on technological advances (or even on existing technology like, say, nuclear power) but on everything fun being a lot more expensive or banned. Add in the sort of person who uses the term ‘climate change denier’ – of people who have never denied that the climate is changing – because it sounds a bit like ‘holocaust denier’ and they think that gifts them the moral high ground** and some desperately earnest students who are casting about for something to be indignant about in head-to-one-side-and-nod way and happened to be born in the early 90s and a peck of former Marxist-Leninists who have discovered a whole new way to feel superior to everyone and try and boss them about and evangelists like Georgo “Oh fuck, it’s George Monbiot” Monbiot and you have a potent mix of nutters, cranks, idiots, callow fools, mini-dictators, sanctimonious pricks and swivel-eyed hippies drowning out anyone who has something sensible to say.

        /rant.

        * it won’t, you know. It’s endured a lot worse.
        ** as opposed to making any interlocutor itch to kick them in the

        1. Beautiful. Couldn’t agree more.
          That’s the trouble with some issues: if you don’t take sides, you’re basically copping out of an undeniably vital debate, but if you do, whichever side it is, you’re in bed with cranks.

        2. Indeed, bravo!

          Althought:

          “it won’t, you know. It’s endured a lot worse.”

          This is true. And it highlights the fact that it’s not *really* the planet people mean when they say “it will die”. They mean humanity. Because if humanity gets destroyed in a series of mass eco-disasters, who will be around to watch the planet adapt and new life forms evolve from the smoking ruins?

          Very strange when you turn it round that way. The views that explicitly reject human-centricity are in fact based squarely on it.

        3. not much in that I would disagree with but think the analysis underplays out how much the green movement is broadly the legacy of the left/anti-capitalist movement.

          evidence: the climate camp’s focus on attacking capitalist solutions to environmental problems.

  3. Do you read Edward Rutherfurd? That’s history for you right there🙂

    I also wonder if I’m the only reader who, going through that, was reminded of climate change “sceptics” still out there manfully fighting the power.

  4. I heard an interesting angle on Hancock at a Skeptics conference, years ago. The speaker went through some of the cliches about scientists and Science – there can only be one scientifically right answer, whether you want to believe it or not; science explains everything, in a way that fits together rationally; scientific progress means proving an old set of beliefs wrong and a new set right; intelligence = rationality = belief in Science; and so on. He then pointed out that very few actual scientists subscribe to beliefs like this – but that Hancock seemingly does. (He also made some comments about Richard Dawkins, but I’ll pass over those.)

    What Hancock and his predecessors (von Daniken in my case) offer isn’t science, of course, but it does have scienciness.

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