Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Pseudohistory of the world

I have wondered for some time what starts a person down the path of inventing some crazy crackpot theory.  When I was a teenager, I went through a wishful-thinking, proto-woo-woo stage myself, during which I desperately wanted stuff like Tarot cards to work.  But after I messed around a little with them, I figured out pretty quickly that (1) the card patterns were entirely random, and (2) any meaning that emerged consisted of what I, or the person for whom the reading was being done, was imposing upon them.

I.e., Tarot cards don't work.  Another cool idea smashed to smithereens upon the shores of reality.

But for some folks, apparently that fact-checking protocol never kicks in.  So what starts out as a minor glitch in thinking grows, and grows, and eventually becomes this enormous counterfactual ball of bullshit, and all the while its inventor sits there thinking (s)he has revolutionized human knowledge.

Take, for example, Anatoly Fomenko, a Russian mathematician who for some reason left his chosen field of study and decided to become a historian.  But he didn't do what most historians do, to wit, examining primary documents and reading scholarly papers on historical research; he set out to revise history.

Because evidently, we've been doing history wrong.

Passage from a 10th century manuscript of Thucydides's The Peloponnesian War, even though it apparently never happened [Image is in the Public Domain]

He invented something that he calls the New Chronology.  And when he calls it "new," he's not just whistlin' Dixie.

Here are a few features of his "New Chronology:"
  • None of the dating methods we use are accurate.  I mean, none.  This includes archaeological stratigraphy, dendrochronology, proxy records, and radioisotope dating.
  • Pretty much nothing that occurred before the Early Middle Ages (8th century C. E.) actually occurred.  What we think we know about those times comes from Renaissance-era forgeries, hoaxes, and lies.
  • This includes the entire Roman Empire, the city-states of the Ancient Greeks, and the pharaonic period of Egypt.
  • Jesus never existed.  The biblical story of Jesus is a mythologized account of the life of Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos.
  • The 2nd century Almagest of Ptolemy, one of the most famous mathematical treatises of the ancient world, was written in the 17th century.
  • The Tatar and Mongol invasions never happened.  Russia has pretty much always been inhabited by Russians.  And lemme tell you, the Russians are awesome.  They are pretty much the awesomest people ever.
  • The Old Testament Jerusalem is the same place as Constantinople.  Why then, you might ask, do we have a city that is now called "Jerusalem" which is in a completely different location?   Stop asking questions.
  • The Anglo-Saxon King Egbert of Wessex is the same person as Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great.
  • Because the name "England" is a cognate to the Byzantine imperial dynasty, the "Angeli."
  • Yes, I know that England and Byzantium are on opposite sides of Europe.  I believe I've already told you once to stop asking questions.
And so on and so forth. Jason Colavito, writing for Skeptic magazine, did a blistering takedown of Fomenko's theory (if I can dignify it with that name), which you would think would be unnecessary, given that a better name for "New Chronology" would be "My First Big Book of Batshit Insane Ad Hoc Assumptions."

Now, the fact that some crank has written some crazy books (seven of them, in fact) isn't an indicator of anything particularly odd, except that it still doesn't answer my original question of how someone wouldn't realize pretty quickly that what they were proposing made no sense whatsoever (with luck, before (s)he'd written seven books about it).  But what I find more surprising is that there are people who believe Fomenko.  And they include Russian chess grand master Garry Kasparov.

Yes, I realize that being a chess grand master doesn't necessarily mean that you're sane in other respects.  But Kasparov seems to be a pretty reasonable guy, all things considered -- he's a political activist and has been articulate in his criticism of Vladimir Putin, and currently is on the board of directors of the Human Rights Foundation.

And yet, somehow, he thinks that Anatoly Fomenko's "New Chronology" makes sense.

All of which hammers home the point that I don't really understand human thought processes all that well.  Because however good you are at chess or mathematics, you're not going to convince me that the ancient Greeks didn't exist.


Finding a person who is both an expert in an arcane field like quantum physics, and is also able to write lucidly about it for the interested layperson, is rare indeed.  Such a person is Sean Carroll, whose books From Eternity to Here, The Particle at the End of the Universe, and The Big Picture explore such ideas as the Big Bang, the Higgs boson, and what exactly time is -- and why it seems to flow in only one direction.

In his latest book, Something Deeply Hidden, Carroll looks not only at the non-intuitive world of quantum physics, but at the problem at the heart of it -- the "collapse of the wave function," how a reality that is a field of probabilities (experimental data agrees with quantum theory to an astonishing degree on this point) somehow converts to a reality with definitive outcomes when it's observed.  None of the solutions thus proposed, Carroll claims, are really satisfying -- so physicists are left with a dilemma, a theory that has been experimentally verified to a fare-thee-well but still has a giant gaping unexplained hole at its center.

Something Deeply Hidden is an amazing read, and will fascinate you from page 1 until you close the back cover.  It will also repeatedly blow your mind in its description of a universe that doesn't behave at all like what common sense says it should.  And Sean Carroll is exactly the author to navigate these shark-infested waters.  This is a book you don't want to miss.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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