There’s been quite a bit on social media and other media about this Netflix series lately. I’m not *really* on social media, but a lot of my friends are archaeologists or archaeology-adjacent and they are up on all the latest scandal. (Who needs Lady Whistledown when you have friends in the know?)
The Society for American Archaeology even wrote a letter to Netflix asking them (among other things) to re-label the show.
I confessed to an archaeology friend that I’d watched the entire “Ancient Apocalypse” series and thought it was fluffy fun. I hadn’t thought much more about it. Next thing I knew, I was invited to join the Facebook group “Fraudulent Archaeology Wall of Shame” and they were talking aaaaallll about Graham Hancock and his latest infraction against archaeology.
Thankfully, all the conversation was pretty funny, and pretty informed.
What’s all the fuss, you ask?
North American archaeologists are in a bit of an uproar because Netflix has labelled “Ancient Apocalypse” as a ‘docuseries’, much like it would label a Planet Earth or David Attenborough special. This ‘docuseries’ label implies that “Ancient Apocalypse” is science.
“Ancient Apocalypse” is entertainment. It is not science.
Before I continue, a couple of disclaimers:
- It’s been a long time since I completed my undergrad courses in Mayan archaeology and other ancient civilizations. The areas and structures Hancock features in “Ancient Apocalypse” aren’t in my area of expertise. Dead bodies, on the other hand….
- My areas of specialization are biological anthropology and forensic archaeology; however, I know the discipline of archaeology decently well.
Why do I say that “Ancient Apocalypse” is entertainment and not science? Is it because I’m a “mainstream archaeologist”? No. It’s because I’m a scientist and I use the scientific method.
The scientific method uses both inductive and deductive reasoning to develop theories and then test them.
What is inductive reasoning?
Inductive reasoning is where you come up with a theory based on a bunch of observations; you go from the specific or details to develop a general theory.
Deductive reasoning is the opposite of inductive: you test a theory by gathering details, or from the general to the specific.
If you were to look at nature, you might may collect a bunch of observations. These observations could lead you to form a theory about how things happen (inductive reasoning). To see if this theory is correct, you would then go out and look for specific details to test it (deductive reasoning).
The key I want to point out here is that you need to test your theory.
Someone who is good at science and using the scientific method does not discard evidence just because it doesn’t fit their theory. If new evidence doesn’t fit the current theory, the current theory is then assessed and adjustments may be made to account for the new evidence. Or, the entire theory could be thrown out and a new one presented and tested.
The theory of gradual evolution — Gradualism — was replaced by Punctuated Equilibrium in 1972 because more and more evidence was being gathered that did not support the theory of Gradualism. A new theory was needed to explain the evidence.
We hear stories all the time of criminal cases where investigators focus on one suspect or one story, and turn a blind eye to all evidence that suggests anything other than this one suspect or story. In these cases, they have a theory and aren’t testing it. We know this is wrong.
However, this is exactly what Hancock is doing in “Ancient Apocalypse”.
If you’ve already watched “Ancient Apocalypse” or haven’t, I urge you to watch it with this in mind.
- Is Hancock presenting up all evidence?
- Are you confident Hancock is presenting all the evidence, or is he cherry-picking that which supports his theory?
- Does all available evidence fit into his theory? (Not just presented evidence, but available evidence.)
I realize the restrictions of media productions may have precluded the presentation of ALL evidence in the series (because there is a LOT); however, does Hancock bring up any evidence that doesn’t support his theory, and, if so, what does he do with that contradictory evidence?
Hancock states in “Ancient Apocalypse” that “mainstream archaeologists” don’t like him and won’t listen to him. I suggest that “mainstream archaeologists” don’t like him and won’t talk to him because he doesn’t use science or the scientific method. Hancock, himself, is focused on one story and excludes all evidence to the contrary.
A theory sticks around because it can withstand being tested against all (or at least most) available evidence.
One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with anthropology and archaeology is that it isn’t prescribed. If I could think of a story to fit the evidence — all the evidence — and the story held water, then the story was fair game.
Archaeology is open to creativity. It isn’t open to poor science.
Further Reading / Watching
Andre Costopoulos – ArcheoThoughts (Andre has written a 7-part article critiquing “Ancient Apocalypse”, starting here)
Andrew Kinkella – Graham Hancock is RIGHT! An Archaeologist Responds to Netflix’s Ancient Apocalypse (Andrew also has a podcast about debunking pseudoarchaeology).
Stephen Jay Gould – Punctuated Equilibrium
2-min Classroom – Process of Evolution | Gradualism vs Punctuated Equilibrium vs Catastrophism
Innocence Project – Human Factors in Wrongful Convictions: Tunnel Vision
Live Science by Alina Bradford, Mindy Weisberger – Deductive reasoning vs. Inductive reasoning
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