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Scientific American

Gods of the Gaps

published July 2013 | comments (12)
Arguments of divine intervention—alien or otherwise—start with ignorance
magazine cover

According to the popular series Ancient Aliens, on H2 (a spinoff of the History channel), extraterrestrial intelligences visited Earth in the distant past, as evidenced by numerous archaeological artifacts whose scientific explanations prove unsatisfactory for alien enthusiasts. The series is the latest in a genre launched in 1968 by Erich von Däniken, whose book Chariots of the Gods? became an international best seller. It spawned several sequels, including Gods from Outer Space, The Gods Were Astronauts and, just in time for the December 21, 2012, doomsday palooza, Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials (the ones who failed to materialize).

Ancient aliens theory is grounded in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “argument from ignorance.” The illogical reasoning goes like this: if there is no satisfactory terrestrial explanation for, say, the Nazca lines of Peru, the Easter Island statues or the Egyptian pyramids, then the theory that they were built by aliens from outer space must be true.

Whereas the talking heads of Ancient Aliens conjecture that ETs used “acoustic stone levitation” to build the pyramids, for example, archaeologists have discovered images demonstrating how tens of thousands of Egyptian workers employed wood sleds to move the stones along roads from the quarry to the site and then hauled them up gently sloping dirt ramps of an ever growing pyramid. Copper drills, chisels, saws and awls have been found in the rubble around the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the quarries are filled with half-finished blocks and broken tools that show how the Egyptians worked the stone. Conspicuously absent from the archaeological record are any artifacts more advanced than those known to be used in the third millennium B.C.

Another alleged aliens artifact is a symbol found in the Egyptian Dendera Temple complex that vaguely resembles a modern lightbulb, with a squiggly filament inside and a plug at the bottom. Instead of featuring archaeologists who would explain that the symbol depicts a creation myth of the time (the “plug” is a lotus flower that represents life arising from the primordial waters, and the “filament” signifies a snake), ancient aliens fantasists speculate that the Egyptians were given the power of electricity by the gods. In this “if this were true, what else would be true?” line of inquiry, it is telling that no electrical wires, glass bulbs, metal filaments or electric power stations have ever been excavated.

On the lid of the sarcophagus of the Mayan king Pakal in Mexico is a “rocketlike” image that Ancient Aliens consulting producer Giorgio Tsoukalos claims depicts the ruler in a spaceship: “He is at an angle like modern-day astronauts upon liftoff. He is manipulating some controls. He has some type of breathing apparatus or some type of a telescope in front of his face. His feet are on some type of a pedal. And you have something that looks like an exhaust—with flames.” According to Mayan archaeologists, however, this depiction shows King Pakal sitting atop the sun monster and descending into the underworld (where the sun goes at night) within a “world tree”—a classic mythological symbol, with branches stretched into the heavens and roots dug into the underworld.

Ancient aliens arguments from ignorance resemble intelligent design “God of the gaps” arguments: wherever a gap in scientific knowledge exists, there is evidence of divine design. In this way, ancient aliens serve as small “g” gods of the archaeological gaps, with the same shortcoming as the gods of the evolutionary gaps—the holes are already filled or soon will be, and then whence goes your theory? In science, for a new theory to be accepted, it is not enough to identify only the gaps in the prevailing theory (negative evidence). Proponents must provide positive evidence in favor of their new theory. And as skeptics like to say, before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world.

Tellingly, in subsequent printings of Chariots of the Gods? the question mark was quietly dropped, and this disqualifier was added on the copyright page: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” Gap closed.

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12 Comments to “Gods of the Gaps”

  1. Luis Rosa Says:

    While I agree that the ‘Ancient Aliens’ hypotheses that were mentioned are flawed, I would like to point out that there is a form of reasoning on the vicinity to the classic *argumentum ad ignorantium*. If you have a partition of hypotheses h1, h2,…, hn, and it turns out that the evidence available is not explained by h2,…,hn, then we have a probabilistic (non-deductive, non-conclusive) argument giving support to hypothesis h1. In fact, many classical (logical) fallacies have counterparts in inductive reasoning that are cogent. But as you pointed out, further archaeological and historical evidence (including the paintings and information about the meaning of symbols, etc) makes it the case that it is the ‘Ancient Aliens’ hypotheses don’t explain better the evidence than the alternatives (in fact it commits us with claims that we have no way to confirm or disconfirm!).

    Great post.

  2. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Yes. Many of these are textbook examples of argumentum as ignoratium. A fascinating aspect is why does our ignorance guide us to certain types of outlandish explanation over others? I’ve read that it’s a cultural bias.

    Before we had airplanes or rockets the explanation of alien space craft was very rare. People were more likely to invoke demons, djins, gods, witches or other super-natural explanations.

    Also, when Europeans were ‘exploring’ and encountering peoples with less technology, they found many of their speculations were less technology-flavored.

    When my students ask me about UFOs and space aliens, I try to (gently) bring the cultural bias in our speculative explanations. The act of ‘coming up with an explanation for an observation’ is a creative process and based on one’s experience. This is as true for serious science as it is for children poking around on a tide pool.

    But the difference between ‘science’ and ‘poking around’ is how rigorous (and honest) we are in evaluating whether the explanation fits the observations … the full set of observations. [If it agrees with 99% but fails on the 1% it still fails. There's no curve when grading hypothesis. ]

  3. King Dave @ Newsvine Says:

    Yeah, how about those fools who believed in the giant squid?

    Or the dummies who searched for the Bigfoot like mythical mountain gorilla?

    Just saying.

  4. William Dietrich Says:

    Yes, I can agree with Shermer on his Gods of the Gaps. Makes logical sense to me. But I find it strange that Michael and other Big Name Skeptics don’t believe there are any government conspiracies and cover-ups. I once asked Michael if he would name for me two government conspiracies that he believes were true. His reply was that he could not think of one. Yet, I can think of 15 without trying very hard like:

    MK-Ultra
    Operation Mockingbird
    Watergate
    The Tuskegee Syphilis Study
    Operation Northwoods
    COINTELPRO Program
    The Iran-Contra Affair
    The BCCI Scandal
    CIA Drug Running
    Gulf of Tonkin Incident
    Operation Ajax
    Operation Snow White
    Operation Gladio
    Church Committee Documentation of CIA Assassinations
    Operation Paperclip

    Apparently, Michael has never heard of any of these government conspiracies.

  5. Gary Schumacher Says:

    It’s a shame that you’re only “preaching to the choir” The TV programs about aliens, ghosts and other supernatural things are overflowing. I wish that programs countering these absurdities could have as much exposure to scientific truths.

  6. Hypatia Says:

    It makes me very uncomfortable to read a supposed Skeptic using Christian time terminology (e.g. BC, AD) when there are perfectly good secular terms available (e.g. CE, BCE). These neutral terms have seeped out of Academe into general scientific and scholarly writing. I do wish that the Skeptic Society and those who speak for it would stop throwing Christian terminology in the faces of those who do not adhere to that particular belief system.

  7. Ray Sutera Says:

    There’s an aspect of the God of the gaps fallacy that never gets mentioned. Implicit is the notion that something becomes explained by virtue of the fact that it’s unexplained. Talk about a logical whopper! The whole idea is anti-science in the extreme since in science nothing becomes explained by merely noting a problem with, or even refuting, another hypothesis. As Thomas Kuhn famously said, “To refute one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself.” The God of the gaps fallacy is guilty of exactly this. For those who may snicker at this, no, merely claiming that your pet theory is justifiably substituted when no other explanation fits does NOT work since there is no positive argument in support of the substitution.

    Also worth noting is the fallacious idea that there can be a default hypothesis when others fail. In science there are no default hypotheses.

  8. Socrates Says:

    Erik von Daniken’s hypothesis proposed in his book “Chariots of the Gods” was very effectively demolished in a documentary program by the British TV science series QED called “The Case for the Ancient Astronaut” in the 1980s. The same producers also totally debunked the Bermuda Triangle myth as well, in another program.

  9. Will Says:

    I still find it amazing that anyone sites “Chariots of the Gods?” or Von Daniken considering that it is a matter of public record that he was an embezzler and a fraud. Many of the artifacts where forged and many of the photographs were manipulated. The books and TV specials on these facts are numerous. I can understand using unverified sources to support weak arguments but the gall to use a known fraud shows either the hubris of a knowing liar or the desperate need for material to fill out the final episodes of the season……..or both?

    I think there is a clear message to take away from the Ancient Aliens episode on Von Daniken. The producers of this show are not true believers; they are simply exploiting a subject on a filler show for ratings and income. Even the most adamant true believers I know hang their head in shame when Von Daniken’s name is mentioned.

    Great article.

  10. Dana A. Says:

    I remember back in the early 90’s, The History Channel was one of my favorite cable channels because it chronicled world history. I loved learning about Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan,the spread of Islam and the Spanish Inquisition–just to name a few things. Now, I turn on the The History Channel and get this unverifiable rubbish about “ancient aliens.” What the hell happened? If THC is doing this stuff for ratings then my question is who is interested in this type of crap?! It must be a whole lot of people because I bearly turn it on anymore. Good post!

  11. John Nab Says:

    Most of the “Ancient Aliens” believers I speak to believe that the Bible is the word of GOD, and ergo, life cannot even exist outside planet Earth. Go figure. As far as the History Channel airing this crap; it will soon be history itself!

  12. Stig Helmer Says:

    I wonder if Scientific American would be brave enough to ever do an article “Organized Religion – start with ignorance.” It really baffles me that some skeptics are so eager to dismiss the plausible when concerning extra terrestrial life, yet completely silent on irrefutably impossible creeds that have actually led to war and death.
    The graphic with this article in Sci Am was the epitome of ignorance coming from a narrow mind.

    I thought your article was terrible and poorly written. I hope to never come across your so-called writing ever again.