Tag Archives: Jason Colavito

It has been said …

We’ve all heard of Uncanny Valley, that virtual realm where the animation is nearly convincing but just slightly off and that slight unreality is enough to unsettle and perturb. However, there is another virtual realm located in a misty valley in cyberspace. Let’s call it the Kingdom of Quotatia. You can get to it by uttering the magic words It has been said.

You see, there is an awful lot of misinformation out there in cyberspace. And it’s not hard to spot bullshit. But with the help of the magic words, you don’t have to bother proving anything or disproving it. All that’s necessary is for someone, somewhere to have said it and bingo, you can quote it. It doesn’t matter if the person who said it was a complete nut-job and fantasist. It doesn’t matter if there is absolutely no evidence for it. If somebody has said it, it automatically becomes A THING. And when it’s A THING you can use it. However dumbass and absurd and ludicrous it is, you can claim it because someone else said it.

Jason Colavito has written a great deal about the way that errors are created and then spread by pseudoscience writers. They quote each other’s mistakes, building vast edifices of trash on misunderstandings and misquotations and downright lies. That’s why so many people spread nonsense like Cassidy’s claims or the rubbish about Dracula being Irish. With the magic power of the words It has been said, you can spread any kind of lying trash you want and you don’t have to worry about the fact that it’s bullshit. Because somebody else said it and you can put the blame – and the responsibility – on them.

Is Pseudo-Scholarship Good For Anything?

This is a subject I have been mulling over for a while. It was sparked by a casual comment on the excellent podcast Life, The Universe and Everything Else by the Winnepeg Skeptics. One of the panel said that they were addicted to pseudoscience and supernatural books when they were young. Then I read that Jason Colavito, an excellent debunker of Ancient Aliens, began his interest as a believer and gradually realised it was all bollocks. I must say, I was an omnivorous reader when I was young and I used to buy all kind of nonsense at jumble sales – Dennis Wheatley, T. Lobsang Rampa, Erich von Däniken, Carlos Castañeda, John M. Allegro.

I grew out of it by the time I was in my early twenties and it certainly never did me any harm. But could you make a case that exposure to this kind of dim-witted rubbish is actually a good thing for young minds?

The thing is, teenagers don’t think like adults. Teenagers are alive to a thousand possibilities. They are still looking for who they are and what they think about the world. The behaviour of teenagers is frequently a challenge for older people because it is often irrational and contradictory but in a sense, that’s because it needs to be. In many ways, it’s like the process of brainstorming. The first stage is to generate ideas uncritically, without rejecting anything. And one thing you can say about pseudoscientists is that they are also open to all kinds of irrational nonsense. No idea is too stupid to be rejected out of hand by a follower of pseudoscience. As a kid, I can remember reading Erich von Däniken’s books and the sense of wonder and of infinite possibility that his absurd theories gave me.

Another thing is that pseudoscientific books frequently cherry-pick exciting facts. They home in on things which are surprising, anomalous and interesting in mainstream research, as well as generous dollops of made-up nonsense. If you can work out which is which, pseudoscience can sometimes lead to some genuinely interesting material. (Of course, one common complaint is that these people make money by riding on the back of good research and distorting its conclusions, a criticism which is entirely justified.)

And last but not least, if I only read respectable and accurate works of scholarship as a child, would I have such an acute ability to detect bullshit now? Somehow I doubt it. I think that exposure to the illogical arguments and non sequiturs and random prejudices of pseudoscience actually works like an inoculation (for some people, at least). It makes them think about the nature of truth and dishonesty and it makes them develop the antibodies of skepticism and doubt.

However, if people still believe in this nonsense when they’re fully grown up, that’s a problem. But let’s face it, while it’s a problem for the wider society, it’s far more of a problem for these individuals themselves. They are the ones who are really missing out by preferring woo to true. As adults, they should be looking for that buzz of awe and wonder in the amazing amount we now know about the universe around us instead of watching Ancient Aliens. They should be impressed at the incredible amount that medical science has achieved rather than putting their faith in expensive water.

At the very least, I think that this kind of dross should be read and discussed in schools, because people need to be taught to recognise bad thinking and to develop good thinking and the easiest way to do that is to look at the worst examples of bad thinking around.

Bob Curran

I have been reading Jason Colavito’s book Faking History recently. I have enjoyed it greatly, though I do have some criticisms. The book is full of minor errors (fare spelled as fair, words missing, indefinite articles used with plurals, Otto of Freising written as Otto of Friesling, Pantagruel written as Pantagreul etc.) and could have done with a good proofreader. There is also a lot of repetition.

Having said that, the content itself is erudite, clever and well worth reading. In a series of short essays, Colavito tackles a variety of absurd claims made in pseudo-archaeology and fringe history books. The overall theme of the essays seems to be the way that error is created and replicated in the world of junk scholarship. In many cases, claims which have no basis in fact are copied from book to book, and nobody ever checks the original source. There are some truly amazing pieces of pseudo-history. For example, the famous medieval story of the Green Children from Suffolk was transposed to Catalonia in the 19th century. The story about how the Christian world hated forks because of their pagan and demonic associations was also fascinating. However, I was also very interested to see that he criticises Bob Curran, author of a number of lurid and badly-written tomes on folklore, who has also been criticised on this blog. He describes how Curran helped to spread a claim as genuine information when in reality it is derived from the fictional writings of H.P. Lovecraft!

This is interesting, because Curran does exactly the same thing with a couple of Irish terms, supposedly ancient Irish names for vampires, the neamh-mhairbh and the dearg-diúlaí [sic].

In an incredibly sloppy article called Was Dracula An Irishman? published in History Ireland magazine in the year 2000, Curran claims that Stoker was influenced by Irish vampire lore and especially by the story of a character called Abhartach. Curran writes: “But it was the historian and folklorist Patrick Weston Joyce who actually made connections between Abhartach and the Irish vampire tradition. Joyce enthusiastically recounted the legend in his own book A History of Ireland (Dublin 1880).” I have looked through an online copy of this book and can find no reference to Abhartach, vampires or anything else related to this story. In another book by Joyce (The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places) it says that a dwarf (abhartach, or abhac in modern Irish) returned from the dead but doesn’t mention blood-drinking:

There is a place in the parish of Errigal in Derry, called Slaghtaverty, but it ought to have been called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of the abhartach [avartagh] or dwarf (see p. 61, supra). This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.

Curran also writes in his History Ireland article:

… and the tradition of the blood-drinking dead was also recorded in Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The History of Ireland) written between 1629 and 1631. In chapter ten Keating made much of the neamh-mhairbh.

As I have said before, there is no reference to vampirism in the Foras Feasa and the reanimated dead are not referred to as neamh-mhairbh (neamh-mharbh is the nominative singular, neamh-mhairbh the nominative plural; neamh-marbh and neamh-mairbh are misspellings) or anything resembling that word.

In recounting his version of the story of the abhartach, Curran has a chieftain called Cathán speak to a druid, who tells him: ‘Abhartach is not really alive’, he told the astonished Cathán. ‘Through his devilish arts he has become one of the neamh-mhairbh [the undead]. Moreover, he is a dearg-diúlaí, a drinker of human blood. He cannot actually be slain—but he can be restrained.’

Again, the trail for this conversation leads back to Curran, and as far as I can see, it goes no further, though some sources mention Peter Haining, Peter Tremayne and Cathal Ó Sándair as the originators of some of this nonsense. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any independent evidence for Curran’s version. There is no evidence that the term neamh-mhairbh existed in the Irish language before it was used as the Irish version of ‘undead’ in the Irish translation of Dracula which was published by An Gúm in 1933.

Curran claims that the term derrick-dally was used of apparitions in folk-tales but the assumption that this comes from dearg-diúlaí is hard to accept. There’s no evidence for this term existing. The noun dearg is not used as a term for blood. Diúlaí doesn’t sound like dally, and we can’t rule out terms like diabhal (devil) or deargadaol (a beetle associated with bad luck) as the source of derrick-dally. (I think we can safely assume that Derrick Dalley, Newfoundland politician, is not a revenant and has no connection with 19th century vampires.)

In other words, as in the case cited by Jason Colavito, Curran has taken fake information and treated it as real. Does it matter? Well, it matters to me. People all over the world are repeating the amazing fact that Bram Stoker was influenced by a sizeable body of vampire lore from Ireland, and moreover, that he took the term undead from the Irish neamh-mharbh, when in reality, it is the other way round. Of course, if this were really true, nobody would be doing more to spread it than me. But it isn’t true, and I want people to get to know the real Irish language and the culture associated with it, not some fake version manufactured by dilettantes like Cassidy and Curran.

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.