May 11, 2012
Until now, I have assiduously avoided Ancient Aliens. I had a feeling that if I watched the show—which popularizes far-fetched, evidence-free idiocy about how human history has been molded by extra-terrestrial visitors—my brain would jostle its way out of my skull and stalk the earth in search of a kinder host. Or, at the very least, watching the show would kill about as many brain cells as a weekend bender in Las Vegas. But then I heard the History Channel’s slurry of pseudoscience had taken on dinosaurs. I steeled myself for the pain and watched the mind-melting madness unfold.
I’m actually glad that my editors don’t allow me to cuss a blue streak on this blog. If they did, my entire review would be little more than a string of expletives. Given my restrictions, I have little choice but to try to encapsulate the shiny, documentary-format rubbish in a more coherent and reader-sensitive way.
The episode is what you would get if you dropped some creationist propaganda, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and stock footage from Jurassic Fight Club into a blender. What results is a slimy and incomprehensible mixture of idle speculation and outright fabrications which pit the enthusiastic “ancient alien theorists,” as the narrator generously calls them, against “mainstream science.” I would say “You can’t make this stuff up,” but I have a feeling that that is exactly what most of the show’s personalities were doing.
There was so much wrong with the Ancient Aliens episode that I could spend all week trying to counteract every incorrect assertion. This is a common technique among cranks and self-appointed challengers of science; it is called Gish Gallop after young earth creationist Duane Gish. When giving public presentations about evolution and creationism, Gish rapidly spouted off a series of misinterpretations and falsehoods to bury his opponent under an avalanche of fictions and distortions. If Gish’s opponent tried to dig themselves out, they would never be able to make enough progress to free themselves to take on Gish directly. Ancient Aliens uses the same tactic—the fictions come fast and furious.
While the main point of the episode is that aliens exterminated dinosaurs to make way for our species—a sci-fi scenario accompanied by some hilarious, mashed-together footage of dinosaurs fleeing from strafing alien craft, perhaps a preview of Dinosaurs vs. Aliens the movie—the various ancient alien experts do little more than assert that such an event must have happened. Surprise, surprise, they provide no actual evidence for their claims. Instead, they borrow evidence for fundamentalist Christians, who are never actually identified as such. Creationist Michael Cremo is identified only as the author of Forbidden Archeology, and Willie E. Dye is credited as a biblical archaeologist without any mention of his young earth creationist views. Ancient Aliens producers clearly did not care about the credentials or expertise of the talking heads they employed—just so long as someone said the right things in front of the camera.
And the creationists didn’t disappoint. About halfway through the program, Cremo says, “Some researchers found human footprints alongside the footprints of dinosaurs.” The quote is a line out of context from Cremo’s interview, but is played in a section claiming that American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Roland T. Bird found human footprints associated with dinosaur trackways in the vicinity of Glen Rose, Texas.
Bird didn’t find any such thing. He found many dinosaur footprints and trackways—one of which he and his crew partially excavated and anachronistically placed behind the AMNH’s “Brontosaurus“—but no human tracks. Strangely, though, hoaxed human tracks did have a role to play in Bird’s decision to initially visit the tracksites.
Bird wasn’t the first person to notice the dinosaur tracks, and selling the sauropod and theropod tracks was a cottage industry in the vicinity of Glen Rose. And a few local people carved fake human tracks in the same stone. Bird actually saw a pair of such forgeries at a trading post in Gallup, New Mexico, along with dinosaur tracks removed from the Glen Rose area, shortly before he left to investigate the site himself.
Bird wasn’t fooled by the fakes. He saw them for what they were, and was much more interested in the real dinosaur tracks imprinted in the same stone. But some creationists, blinded by dogma, have put their faith behind fakes and even dinosaur tracks that they have misinterpreted as being human footprints. When theropod dinosaurs squatted down, for example, the backs of their lower legs, the metatarsals, left slightly curved depressions in the Cretaceous sediment, and creationists have misconstrued these markings to be the footsteps of ancient people.
Dye takes up the standard creationist line that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and reappears a little later in the episode to throw his support to a different icon of creationist nonsense—the Ica stones from Peru. These famous fakes are stones engraved with images of dinosaurs and humans interacting. They were created by farmer Basilio Uschuya and his wife, using pop culture depictions of dinosaurs in books as their guides. Despite this, both Dye and the Ancient Aliens program present the stones as if they were authentic ancient artifacts that record the survival of dinosaurs such as Triceratops to almost the present day. Dye says that ancient people must have known a lot about dinosaurs because the stones are engraved so precisely, even though we know that precision came from Uschuya copying mid-20th century dinosaur art so carefully. Our narrator says that scientists are skeptical about the origin of the stones, but nothing more.
The show offers a few other awful gems. Our narrator goes on at length about how carbon-14 dating is unreliable for telling the age of dinosaurs, but paleontologists do not use carbon-14 to estimate the age of non-avian dinosaurs. Radiocarbon dating only works for carbon-bearing materials up to about 60,000 years old. Instead, paleontologists use different radiometric dating techniques to constrain the history of non-avian dinosaurs. In uranium-lead dating, for example, geologists investigate the relative abundance of uranium and lead, the element uranium decays into, to determine the age of the rock the materials were sampled from.
Different dating systems are used for rocks of different ages, and these techniques have put time estimates on when dinosaurs lived. The key is finding layers such as ash beds that contain radioactive materials and are above or below layers containing dinosaurs. Since dinosaur bones themselves can’t be reliably dated, geochronologists determine the age of the under- or overlying rock to constrain the timeframe for when the dinosaur lived. Ancient Aliens, reliant on tired creationist talking points, casts aspersions over a process that the show’s creators clearly don’t understand.
But my favorite bit of babble involves the ultimate fate of the dinosaurs. The show can’t even keep its own story straight. Fringe television personality Franklin Ruehl makes a case for the modern or recent existence of non-avian dinosaurs by way of the coelacanth. These archaic lobe-finned fish, which Ruehl rightly points out were around long before the first dinosaurs evolved, were thought to be extinct before a live one was hauled up off South Africa in 1938. Since then, a handful of fossil coelacanth finds has bridged the gap between their modern representatives and those that lived at the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago. Their unexpected reappearance has often been used by cryptozoologists and true-believers of various stripes to claim that some other prehistoric lineage may really still be out there, even if there’s no actual evidence to suggest this is so.
As paleontologist Darren Naish has pointed out multiple times, though, the coelacanth is a red herring. In strata from the past 66 million years or so, at least, coelacanth fossils are rare and hard to identify. It’s not really surprising that their fossil record appears to have petered out. Non-avian dinosaurs, however, had bones that were far more diagnostic. In fact, the resolution of prehistoric eras gets better as we investigate slices of time approaching the present. If creatures as large and distinctive as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus really did thrive for millions of years after the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact, they would have turned up in the fossil record by now. The evidence is clear—with the exception of avian dinosaurs, all other dinosaur lineages went extinct about 66 million years ago.
Shortly after Ruehl makes his proclamation, however, the program entirely forgets what he said. Near the show’s conclusion, the narrator speculates that aliens manipulated dinosaur DNA to turn the imposing creatures into smaller, less-dangerous animals like the coelacanth. Never mind that coelacanths were already present in the world’s oceans more than 360 million years ago—more than 130 million years before the very first dinosaurs evolved. The suggestion is unadulterated bunk (as is they whole show, really). And then crazy-haired alien fanatic Giorgio Tsoukalos throws out another idea. The coelacanth really did go extinct, he suggests, but was revived by a “direct guarantee from extraterrestrials” millions of years later. Why? Tsoukalos doesn’t seem to care. And his talking head peers generally mutter about aliens clearing the way for our species somehow.
The show can’t seem to decide whether aliens exterminated dinosaurs 66 million years ago or whether dinosaurs somehow survived to the modern era. Which is it? Did aliens clear away dinosaurs so that we might live? Or did some dinosaurs escape extinction somehow? Competing ideas bounce around like ping-pong balls during the whole episode. Grandpa Simpson tells more coherent stories.
There were a few real scientists on the program. Paleontologists Luis Chiappe and Mark Wilson, for example, make appearances throughout the show. I can’t help but feel bad for them, and wonder whether scientists should simply boycott appearing on such programs. While I think it’s worthwhile and essential to call out false claims made in the name of science—such as intelligent design and myths of living dinosaurs—programs like Ancient Aliens only abuse scientists. Responsible researchers are typically taken out of context to help set up unsupported fictions spewed by the alien fan club. Shows like Ancient Aliens, MonsterQuest and Finding Bigfoot apparently have little or no interest in actually talking about science. The most sensationalist speculation will always triumph. On these shows, scientists just can’t win.
Ancient Aliens is some of the most noxious sludge in television’s bottomless chum bucket. Actual experts are brought in to deliver sound bites that are twisted and taken out of context while fanatics are given free reign. Fiction is presented as fact, and real scientific research is so grossly misrepresented that I can only conclude that the program is actively lying to viewers. To present the show as a documentary, on a non-fiction network, is a loathsome move by the History Channel spinoff. (Technically, Ancient Aliens airs on an offshoot of the History Channel called H2.) If the network and the show’s creators want to present Ancient Aliens as a light survey of fringe ideas and make it clear that the ideas aren’t meant to be taken seriously, I can’t quarrel with that. But Ancient Aliens and shows like it winnow away at actual scientific understanding by promoting absolute dreck. Ancient Aliens is worse than bad television. The program shows a sheer contempt for science and what we really know about nature.