MEGAN Fox is a stunning supermodel and credible actress.
Add her to a wealth of ancient fables, conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific technobabble. Then add funding from the Travel Channel.
Sounds like a perfect fit?
For ratings-hungry TV producers — yes.
For those who know what they’re talking about — no.
Archaeologists are worried that an incessant barrage of fantasy being presented as fact on our television screens and books is distorting reality.
Mysteries and Myths with Megan Fox is just the latest in a slew of similar shows.
Fox bills herself as co-creator, host and executive producer.
So she’s not just a talking head.
What she isn’t, though, is a historian. Or an archaeologist.
But this supermodel feels qualified enough to take them on at their own game.
“Now she is embarking on an epic and personal journey across the globe, where archaeologists and experts will re-examine history, asking tough questions and challenging the conventional wisdom that has existed for centuries,” the press release reads. “The series will delve into some of the greatest mysteries of time, including whether Amazon women really existed or if the Trojan War was real.”
They’re fascinating subjects.
They’re buried by centuries of myth and storytelling.
They’re also the focus of real research.
“The irony is that these sorts of shows are peddling exactly the ‘conventional wisdom that has existed for centuries’ — and archaeologists and historians are the ones challenging it!” says Flinders University archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman.
But it’s a challenge not unique to archaeologists.
ANU Research School of Psychology’s Dr Eryn Newman points out scientists the world over are worried about similar attacks on expertise: “Things that are very well understood are being upset by people who may not have all the background knowledge, or an agenda or spin, they want to get across,” she says.
And the ease with which this is being done is disturbing.
IGNORANCE OVER EXPERTISE
“I haven’t spent my entire life building a career in academia so I don’t have to worry about my reputation or being rebuked by my colleagues, which allows me to push back on the status quo,” Fox states. “So much of our history needs to be re-examined.”
Here, Fox argues that a lack of qualification is an advantage. And a lifetime of experience and accumulated knowledge merely a burden.
Ancient America’s archaeologist and anti-pseudoarchaeology campaigner Dr David Anderson says needs to be “taken on, front and centre”.
“Fox is clearly engaging in an anti-academic or anti-authority stance in that her lack of training, lack of the bonds of the academy, is what makes her qualified for this position. There are plenty of people with whom that argument will resonate,” he says.
“We should never be so closed minded as to think that experts are infallible, but if we don’t even give the barest spread of trust to experts, we are literally doomed as a society.”
Academics have been attempting to put this into context: Would you want an unqualified airline pilot? An unlicensed driver as your chauffeur? A dentist as a brain surgeon?
And yet, Fox wants to use the facade of science to give credibility to her arguments.
But the truth is often inconvenient.
And ignoring it won’t make it go away.
To accuse archaeologists of being narrow-minded and unwilling to reassess the past is not to know archaeology at all.
It’s what they do. All the time.
But with an emphasis on evidence — not speculation.
And what evidence has been found — and what it implies — is constantly being challenged and debated.
Dr Anderson gives an example: For decades it was believed the Maya had a ballgame reserved for the elite as a form of political theatre, where they could prove their prowess to the masses. But a project Dr Anderson was working with found 20 new ball courts at sites including the smallest of villages. Clearly, the mock-combat game had a much broader community role. “New data, new interpretation — it happens all the time,” he says.
Dr Gorman agrees.
“Just think, in recent decades, we have learnt that the first stone tools were made by an unknown species 3.2 million years ago, that Neanderthals not only weren’t driven extinct by Homo sapiens but are our ancestors, that we coexisted with other species such as the Denisovans and Homo floresiensis, and that Australia was likely colonised around 65,000BC. We’re continually learning new things.”
In fact, it may be a natural tendency to reject change that archaeology is battling.
“We know from cognitive psychology research that people often take familiarity as a queue for truth,” Dr Newmann says. “They’re more likely to believe a message that sounds familiar just because the message has been repeated over and over. But familiarity has no bearing on the truth.”
IT’S JUST A STORY
“History only gives us a one-sided view of the truth,” Fox states in her sales pitch. “That’s something I know from personal experience. My own history has been rewritten by other people who had a vested interest in changing the narrative.”
The past is full of vested interests.
“History is written by the victors as we know — and heritage is inherently political: whoever controls the narrative of the past controls the directions the future can take,” Dr Gorman says.
From inception to broadcast, something is usually being sold.
It may be singing the praises of one’s boss, or king. It may be promoting one world-view over another. It may be telling an enticing tale to guarantee a good lunch.
Take Fox’s chosen subjects, for example.
The wealth of detail offered by Homer’s ancient epic poems The Illiad and The Odyssey have long inspired real research into the cities, places and peoples they speak of.
“At the end of the day they are works of literature,” Dr Gorman says. “It’d be a bit like expecting to find Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station in London — the context and setting of the station are real enough, but if you’re looking for evidence that a train once left there for Hogwart’s you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”
And then there are the Amazons.
Just as the superhero Wonder Woman surged to success as the Western world came to grips with the arrival of feminism, the legends she was based on may have had a similar cause.
Ancient Greece was a misogynistic society. Women and daughters were kept at home, only allowed to leave in the company of male relatives.
“Women in ancient Athens were not citizens and weren’t allowed to vote either! Amazons invert the accepted social order, and were the ideal exotic ‘other’,” Dr Gorman says.
And yet, beneath it all, archaeology has found evidence in the burials of Eurasian nomads, and among the Dahomey in Africa, that there were women warriors.
Were these the Amazons of the Greeks?
Archaeologists are working on it.
Only careful archaeology has any hope of answering these questions. And even then only if enough reliable clues are uncovered.
“We don’t know what the reality of ancient lives was, we can only use the evidence we have to make well-grounded hypotheses,” Dr Gorman says.
HISTORY OF HARM?
Megan Fox isn’t the first famous face to embrace pseudo archaeology.
In the 70s, it was Leonard Nimoy — of Star Trek Spock fame with his show In Search Of. More recently, it’s been Robert Clotworthy’s Ancient Aliens.
“I was obsessed with Chariots of the Gods as a teenager,” says Dr Gorman. “It probably was part of the impetus that led me to archaeology to begin with. The mysteries of the past — especially if aliens are involved — make the world seem so much more exciting than mundane everyday life.”
It’s inspiring. It’s challenging.
“It’s enticing to think that you can understand this by yourself, that the secrets of the world can be coaxed out if you can just make the right connections. Later, you realise that the real thrill is in the science,” Dr Gorman says.
Fox seems to have been similarly inspired.
“Fox has been obsessed since an early age with the history of ancient cultures, people and places — always questioning their ‘documented’ story,” the Travel Channel sales pitch reads.
Fox goes on to add: “I would describe myself as a seeker. A seeker is someone who is never content to have obtained enough knowledge.”
Just like an archaeologist.
In fact, it reads like an ideal resume.
The significant difference is archaeologists and historians have gone on to get qualified. To accumulate facts and build up knowledge around their passion.
“Fox and those of her ilk think that archaeologists are narrow-minded because they will take one object out of its context and offer interpretations that make no sense if we simply return that object to its context,” Dr Anderson says.
Ultimately, the substance of these shows comes down to the quality of the experts they interview, and how much attention producers pay to them.
Fox herself doesn’t inspire confidence.
“I just hated school, period. I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t getting anything from it. I’ve never been a big believer in formal education,” she told CosmoGirl. “To get caught up in something that you don’t feel totally right about or that doesn’t make sense to you is a really, really bad idea.”
But even the most knowledgeable archaeologist cannot deny the pulling power of a familiar face. And Fox’ experience in Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and New Girl certainly give her that.
ANU Research School of Psychology’s Dr Eryn Newman says that when it comes to communicating science, style can triumph over substance.
“When people are assessing the credibility of information, most of the time people are making a judgment based on how something feels,” Dr Newman says.
“Our results showed that when (something as simple as) the sound quality was poor, the participants thought the researcher wasn’t as intelligent, they didn’t like them as much and found their research less important.”
It didn’t matter what their qualifications were. The instant the sound quality faded, their credibility was diminished.
Dr Newman says that to combat the ever-increasing popularity of fake news, alternate facts and pseudoscience, researchers must consider the delivery — and not just the content — of their message.
“Our results show that it’s not just about who you are and what you are saying, it’s about how your work is presented.”
Making matters worse, people are naturally poor fact checkers.
We often simply fail to notice what we already know to be wrong.
According to Assistant Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University Lisa Fazio, critical thinking alone won’t save us.
“Our psychological quirks put us at risk of falling for misinformation, disinformation and propaganda,” she says.
“First, people have a general bias to believe that things are true. (After all, most things that we read or hear are true.) In fact, there’s some evidence that we initially process all statements as true and that it then takes cognitive effort to mentally mark them as false.”
Then there’s the issue of things sounding ‘about right’ …
“Second, people tend to accept information as long as it’s close enough to the correct information,” she says. “Natural speech often includes errors, pauses and repeats. (“She was wearing a blue — um, I mean, a black, a black dress.”) One idea is that to maintain conversations we need to go with the flow — accept information that is “good enough” and just move on.”
Identifying false facts takes effort.
And for someone in a hurry — which amounts to most of the world’s population — decision-making processes often come down to who sold their message the best.
“People tend to nod along,” Dr Newmann says. “ So when they’re learning information, when they’re watching a movie or documentary, people tend to accept what they hear. It’s only when something causes them to stumble, something doesn’t feel right, something sounds completely off — then people will be spurred to engage in more critical analysis.”