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Personal Science Week - 01 Dec 2022
Ancient Apocalypse, pseudocritics, and some favorite links
A core problem faced by Personal Scientists is the question of what sorts of information can be trusted. This week we’ll examine one item of recent popularity and discuss how to think about its truth or falsity.
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We enjoyed watching the first couple of episodes of the Netflix special Ancient Apocalypse, by a documentary producer who claims an advanced civilization was wiped out in an asteroid disaster 12,000 years ago. Much of the series’ appeal comes from implying that you are being given special hidden knowledge that “experts” don’t want you to hear. A key claim is that archeologists – who have devoted their lives to the meticulous study of these ancient remains – would risk losing credibility and possibly worse if the rest of us learned the truth.
Gnosticism is a very old idea, embedded deep into Western culture, that explains the world and its troubles through a secret set of propositions which have been revealed only to a select few individuals. Part of its appeal is the flattery that you, dear friend, are among the special people who can be trusted to bear the full truth. Gnostic ideas, banned as a heresy by early Christian leaders, should make us wary too. Ideas cloaked as secret knowledge tend to resist the sort of open inquiry that good science requires.
I have no idea whether an ancient civilization is responsible for the various oddities described in this documentary. Can Personal Science offer some insights for how to think about it?
First, of course, is to be skeptical. Nullius in verba: take no one’s word for it, whether it’s the documentary maker or the many practicing archeologists who refute the ideas. In Personal Science there is no alternative to making up your own mind.
But who has time for that? I can’t possibly visit the sites in question, much less excavate them with the level of attention it would take for me to develop a strong opinion one way or another. I have other problems to solve closer to home, and I just don’t care enough to undertake the considerable effort required to become better informed.
One shortcut is to look at the counter-arguments. Try to “steelman” the case for and against: rather than present a “straw man” argument where you refute a caricatured version, try to come up with the most plausible defense, in terms that its most ardent backer would find acceptable. Fortunately this film has received enough publicity that there are many well-written counter-arguments if you search for them. (See ahotcupofjoe.net for starters. Tldr; the film provides no new insights than haven’t already been extensively debated.)
You’re smart enough to decide for yourself what to think about the documentary, so I won’t spoil the fun by telling you my own conclusion. That said, I think it’s safe to confirm that everyone — “expert” and “non-expert” alike — agrees that much remains to be discovered in archeology, including finds that will greatly transform what little we currently think we know. Meanwhile, be careful to know the difference between science-based pursuit of the truth and gnosticism.
Stuart Richie offers the term pseudocritic to describe somebody who snipes at a new research result with picky and often irrelevant criticisms. It’s easy to find fault with scientific results – there are entire websites now and research agendas focused on the “replicability crisis”. But sometimes criticism is too easy, such as dismissals based on too little data — after all, who doesn’t want more data? Pseudocritics, in their zeal for some imagined perfection, can cause more harm than good when they push the sense that research must always have dramatic conclusions for it to be useful. Much dramatic – and non-replicable – research might never have been published if scientists were more eager to embrace small but meaningful effects rather than headline-grabbing but often incorrect ones.
Read more of Ritchie’s thoughts about replicability, as well as other great discussions in the new online journal Asterisk
Some Favorite Links
Stop using ulcers as an example of how mainstream medicine resisted the truth until a lone heretic drank some H. Pylori to prove they were wrong.
Genomicist Razib Kahn tells what DNA tests are worth it for you and why.
Julia Belluz spent a day in an airtight metabolic chamber (2018) and (surprise!) learned that (1) most of her metabolism is steady, day and night, regardless of what she does or eats, (2) she seriously under-estimates how much food she eats.
Reminder: Just ignore health studies based on letting people report what they ate.
A 2019 study from the Netherlands compared real flu shots to placebo among a thousand people. After twenty-five years they counted all the deaths and discovered that the shots made no difference.
Why Personal Science
If you’re looking for productivity or health tips, there are better sites than this one. We are a short weekly summary for people who like to study the in-depth consequences of what it means to live a life oriented around science.
Much of this follows the spirit of our mentor, Seth Roberts, who was never afraid to try new ideas.