Gavin Menzies

A couple of years ago, I read a book by Gavin Menzies which I had picked up in a second-hand bookshop. It was called 1421: The year the Chinese discovered America and purports to show that the Chinese went to various places long before Europeans, including places like South America and Australia. I read the first few chapters with interest but it didn’t take long for me to realise that this book and the theories contained in it are nonsense and that Menzies belongs in the same category as Graham Hancock or Ancient Aliens, or indeed, Daniel Cassidy.

The other day, I decided to read the reviews of this book on Amazon. There are a number of parallels or similarities between the profile of reviews given to Cassidy’s book and those for other works of pseudoscholarship, including Menzies’ recent work on Atlantis, which describes a Minoan Empire mining copper in Bronze Age America (there is an interesting discussion of this on Jason Colavito’s blog: http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/reviewing-gavin-menzies-atlantis-pt-6)

The first similarity is the overall pattern of the reviews. I’m no statistician, but let’s use a genuine work of archaeology as a control. Genuine works of archaeology like The End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews tend to get lots of fours or fives. Occasionally they will get one or two begrudging ones or twos. However, if we look at the pseudoscience books, we find lots of rave and raving reviews. However, they also attract a minority of intelligent and well-reasoned attacks at the bottom end of the rating system. There is very little around three. For example, Cassidy’s book currently has forty reviews, the vast majority of them by idiots who think that Cassidy is genuinely an Irish scholar, little in the middle, but eight very hostile and negative reviews. This is almost exactly the pattern we find with Gavin Menzies’ books. Sensible reviews are in the minority but the quality and intelligence of the negative reviews is much greater.

We also find other common features between Menzies’ pseudo-archaeology and Cassidy’s pseudo-linguistics. For example, both Cassidy’s supporters and Menzies’ supporters regard any criticism of their idol as proof of a conspiracy among academics to protect their own bailiwick from amateurs or to distort the truth for other, unspecified motives. For example, here’s one review on Amazon.com:

There’s been an extreme amount of organized criticism toward Menzies and the subject of 15th century Chinese exploration to the New World. Perhaps, some of it is warranted. But, it is also clear that a lot of this criticism is motivated by something other than pure scholarly interests. To me, these guys should feel the least threatened and I don’t understand the animus. They already have the overwhelming influence of 500 years of Euro-centric recorded history on their side. Why not at least allow a minimal amount of latitude for alternative views. They act like this is akin to Holocaust denial. I know from my own study of both American and Asian history that we are always discovering new things.

Frequently, the conspiracy involves racism. In the Cassidist version, people are refusing to believe in the Irish origin of English words because they are Anglophiles, or anti-Irish. In the case of Menzies’ claims about the Chinese expeditions to places like Australia, some of Menzies’ supporters think that the denial of Menzies’ claims are because of anti-Chinese racism.

It also results in the conviction that there has been an centuries long conspiracy to ensure that, despite evidence to the contrary, we continued to believe the myths surrounding these “explorers” thus claiming the achievements of discovery for “the West” to the exclusion of China which was the real discoverer of so much of the world. Once the evidence has been presented (extremely eloquently and convincingly by Gavin Menzies) it is obvious that a people such as the Chinese whose inventiveness gave the world gunpowder, paper, silk, porcelain (hundreds of years before the West could produce it)and much else would have sought to sail (in huge and advanced ships) and discover the world outside their own country. I look forward to the author turning his attention to exploding further myths we hold to.

The fact is, of course, that this is a worthless red herring. Nobody is saying the Chinese were a bunch of dullards who wouldn’t have been capable of amazing discoveries. As all Irish people know, the Chinese are a great bunch of lads. But did they make these particular discoveries? If there were valid evidence available, I would accept it quite willingly. I would also like Irish to have given lots of words to English but it didn’t. Which brings me to the next point.

Most of the people who post in support of books like this have absolutely no bullshit sensors. They are incapable of spotting stupid or crazy claims. Time and again, they assert that the evidence is so strong that there can be no further argument. Thus we have people on Amazon congratulating Menzies on doing DNA analysis on people in South America and finding Chinese DNA in them! Of course, Menzies himself did hardly any first-hand research, let alone conducting DNA analysis. And it is quite obvious that his claims about Chinese DNA in the Americas are nonsense. Go looking for corroboration and you will find none. The DNA of the indigenous peoples of North and South America largely comes from East Asia. We always knew that. Therefore it is no surprise that their DNA resembles that of their ancestors from Asia. What the evidence doesn’t show is that a Chinese fleet turned up six hundred years ago and left their DNA in populations in North and South America. If this were the case, it would be demonstrable (because DNA changes and DNA separated from China for 20,000 years is different from DNA separated from China for 600 years), and it would be a smoking gun, absolute proof. So this is obviously a false claim, as is the claim that there are villages in South America where the local Indians speak Chinese. Any linguist who proved that could retire on it.

Unfortunately, what this shows is that there are a lot of stupid people around, and that’s why the Cassidys and the Menzies of this world manage to sell so many books.

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