I have recently developed a bit of an obsession with conspiracy theories. They’ve always fascinated me to a fairly high degree, but for some reason I’ve recently started really digging into them. I blame The Bullshit Channel’s Ancient Aliens for this. The fascinating thing about that show and the various other bits of conspiracy-laced bullshit The Bullshit Channel is currently putting out is that they give us a chance to see the conspiracy theorist in their natural environment.
I’m not particularly interested in debunking conspiracies as most are self-evidently impossible to believe for anyone who’s still tethered to reality. I also learned that trying to attempt a scholarly response to conspiracies is a fool’s errand with my attempts at responding to After the Flood, 1421, and 1434. There are only so many ways you can scream, “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard!” after all. Eventually you lose your voice and start to lose your will to live. Sometimes that takes, like, 9 pages of utter insanity at the start of a five hundred page book.
I have come to the conclusion that television shows are probably the best place to meet conspiracy theorists. For one thing, television is just easier. You get to see the craziness an hour at a time, minus commercial breaks, and everything is streamlined for the television audience. More than that, though, you also get to see the people behind the theories and listen to them in their own words. It’s fascinating.
There is, of course, a flip side to this advantage. You’re seeing the conspiracies as presented by true believers. Evidence to the contrary is selectively edited or even completely omitted. Experts in the field are brought in and then edited to make it seem like they believe in whatever the issue of the week is.
This is where it helps to be someone like me. I know a lot of stuff about a few subjects. I know a little bit about many different subjects. I’m not afraid to fire up the Google machine at a moment’s notice. This plus my natural skepticism makes watching Ancient Aliens awesome.
One night I found myself accidentally watching a real show about ancient Egypt. I knew that there was supposed to be an Ancient Aliens marathon on H2 and this was in the middle of Ludwig the Laptop being partially bricked, so I wanted to do computer stuff. This meant I had to hang out up in my office and just wanted the TV on as background noise. The thing is that my office TV isn’t hooked up to a DVR. It’s just got an old-school cable box hookup and I had the TV set to the main History Channel and didn’t realize it.
So Peter Weller showed up on a boat on the Nile and I thought, “Holy shit, how did they get Peter Weller to appear on Ancient Aliens? He’s got actual credibility as a narrator of real ancient history shows.” I kept watching and kept wondering when the insanity would start, as the ancient aliens people love them some ancient Egypt. Eventually I realized I was on the wrong channel, but not before I picked up one incredibly useful bit of information.
Ancient Egyptians cut incredibly smooth surfaces onto their stones in spite of the fact that they had pretty crappy bronze equipment. The way they did this was to get these huge, two-man saws and go to town on big-ass blocks while filling the groove with sand. Sand is an extremely abrasive material that drastically increases the effectiveness of a cutting blade. It’s also a low-tech and abundant solution to a problem that would have vexed the planners of monumental construction projects all over the ancient world.
I was immediately reminded of an episode of Ancient Aliens where they took a stone from Puma Punku, which is supposedly the smoking gun for the whole damn ancient aliens theory, and claimed that it was too smooth for ancient construction and had to have been cut with lasers. So they took a sample of the stone to some guy with a machine shop and had the guy cut it with a modern stone cutting tool and a modern laser cutting tool. They then showed the various surfaces and claimed that it was proof ancient builders had to have modern tools in spite of the fact that even on TV it was blatantly obvious that the original cut surface looked very different from the modern surfaces. My thought was, “Hey, I’ll bet they figured out that sand trick!”
It didn’t take me long to figure out that it’s way easier to believe in the ancient aliens theory if you refuse to burden yourself with actual knowledge. There are so many times when I just find myself laughing at their theories or yelling at the TV because they’re so goddamn wrong and it’s completely inexcusable. We have Google. We have experts. Ignorance, however, seems to pay the bills and give these guys a chance to jet-set all over the world doing TV shows, so why learn anything?
One of the little bits of information that I picked up over my time studying history as an actual historian was that after the fall of Rome people attributed the construction of the Colosseum to giants because they were so gobsmacked by the scale and sheer impossibility of such a building that they couldn’t imagine it being made by human hands. Every episode of Ancient Aliens includes some bit where they bring up a local legend of some amazing structure being built overnight by gods or giants or what have you and claim, “ZOMG, aliens!” What that actually says is that people don’t always know everything about what came before them and if the current culture is completely disconnected from the previous one they’ll probably make up all kinds of shit.
In another episode they brought up how there are UFOs all over Renaissance art. This takes zero effort to debunk if you know anything about Renaissance art and are aware of two things. First, there were hefty amounts of symbolism that made it into all Renaissance art which were always depicted with similar conventions. Second, most Renaissance subjects were painted and re-painted to a level that would make the people behind the Fast and Furious franchise say, “Y’know, you might just be overdoing this,” and those supposed UFOs appeared in most or all of the versions in more-or-less the same way. The reason for this goes back to that symbolism and convention thing. The short explanation is that what the guy on the TV is calling a UFO shooting a laser was what the actual people who painted that image called the angel of god appearing and bestowing the spirit of god.
In that same episode they made a big deal about some depiction of god and Jesus hanging out next to something that looked kinda like Sputnik and claimed that it was a depiction of an alien spaceship. Because aliens would totally show up during the Renaissance flying something that looked almost exactly like a Russian satellite from some five centuries later. It looked to me like either a T&O map of the world with a stylized border or a medieval depiction of the cosmos. So I popped up the Google and, sure enough, it turns out that there was an artistic convention to depict god an Jesus holding up the cosmos with three rods that represented the Holy Trinity.
The thing is that the more you watch of Ancient Aliens the more it becomes obvious that in order to believe the theory you have to believe that aliens are positively everywhere and have been everywhen in history. There were aliens in pre-Columbian South America. There were aliens in Babylon and the Indus Valley. There were aliens all the hell over Egypt and the Levant. The theory eventually expands, however, and somehow ends up encompassing the extinction of the dinosaurs, the reptilians who live underground, and Bigfoot sightings. Oh, also Nikola Tesla is involved.
There was, if the ancient aliens people are to be believed, an alien-facilitated global culture that included electric plants built into the Great Pyramids that sent electricity wirelessly all across the planet using ancient obelisks. Because there’s no other possible explanation for why so many cultures would ever want to build obelisks, as they’re totally useless as defensive positions or watch towers. They were, instead, designed to harness the piezoelectricity of quartz crystals as part of a global power grid that we know was totally possible because Nikolai Tesla invented a system to transmit electricity through the air without using wires.
I am, quite frankly, saddened at the fact that I wrote that last paragraph as an accurate distillation of a theory held by at least one of my fellow human beings. I mean, just look at the utter, fractal insanity in the preceding paragraph. Still, I’m going to try to unpack some of it.
First of all, the notion of ancients building obelisks to harness the power of quartz is just mind-numbing stupidity. Most ancients used sandstone because there’s a lot of it and it’s relatively easy to work with the tools available at the time. There should be absolutely no mystery there.
Second, I imagine that the ancient aliens people just heard the “electricity” part of “piezoelectricity” and imagined that meant that quartz crystals are just tiny little power plants. That’s…that’s not how It works. Now, I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer so I’m prepared to find out I’m completely wrong about this, but the thing about piezoelectricity is that it only works if there’s an external, mechanical pressure exerted on the crystal itself that deforms the crystal in some way. This has vast implications in modern manufacturing and is used in everything from watch-making to radios to sonar. None of those things, you’ll notice, are power plants. Furthermore, getting the piezoelectric effect requires removing quartz crystals from stone and attaching them to the apparatus in question. Leaving them in the original sandstone wouldn’t do a damn thing. This is good, since if a large chunk of the surface of the planet was a goddamn electric power plant we couldn’t turn off we’d all be fucking dead.
Third, Nikola Tesla. Oh, man, don’t even get me started on Nikola Tesla. He did some unquestionably brilliant stuff but he also went equally, unquestionably, insane. As such it’s important to take a lot of his unfinished work with a heaping spoon of salt. In this case the technology in question come from the Tesla Coil. The story goes that Tesla went out to Colorado and built a big-ass electricity generator that allowed him to power lightbulbs up to 4 miles away without wires. He intended to build a giant network of those power generators in New York to give everyone free electricity until JP Morgan stopped him because fuck free electricity, amirite? Either way, Tesla was just rediscovering something that aliens showed our ancestors thousands of years ago how to achieve with sandstone pillars. The main problem here is two-fold. First, air is one of – if not the best – insulators we know of. It requires tens of thousands of watts of power for electricity to cross even a distance of an inch or two. As such it would require immense amounts of power to get electricity to cross an air gap of four miles. Absolutely nothing man-made can do that. The only thing I know of that can is lightning. Second, I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live in a town with a 24/7 omnidirectional lightning storm radiating out from the center. There’s a lightning mortality rate of between 10 and 30 percent (apparently the numbers have a lot of wiggle room). The reason why most people survive lightning strikes isn’t because lightning is weak, but because lightning is fast. This is completely negated if you have a constant power tap going that’s strong enough to push through air resistance. The closer you’d get to the center the more likely you’d be to just die. The entire idea is just laughably unfeasible and just because Tesla said he’d figured it out doesn’t mean it’s even remotely possible.
Fourth, and I think this is the biggest problem for the theory, the civilizations that were supposedly all involved in this global alien network existed at vastly different times. The Great Pyramid at Giza, supposedly the center of this electrical system, was built somewhere in the neighborhood of 2600 BCE. Puma Punku and Tiwanaku were occupied from about 700 through 1000 CE. That’s a three thousand year gap and we know that the Great Pyramid wasn’t being used as a power plant at the time of the First Crusade.
So how do they solve this problem? By claiming that Puma Punku and Tiwanaku are actually way older than we think to the tune of, like, 10,000 years. This, of course, flies in the face of actual archaeology and shifts the time problem in re: lining up with the Great Pyramid twice as far in the opposite direction. But who cares? Aliens!
They keep talking about how if this theory or that were true it would change history as we know it. That’s true, but it’s actually far more catastrophic. If the ancient aliens people turn out to be correct it will destroy history as we know it and take down science with it. They can’t see that, though, because they’re looking for something very different. What they want is a single, simple story that takes away all of the complications and, to be blunt, work from reality.
If our history is filled with benevolent aliens who apparently had nothing better to do than build shit for us then we can be assured they’ll come back and fix the problems. Hell, they’re probably here right now working on fixing the problems for us. And they know way more than we do so they’ve surely solved the problem before. So let’s all just sit back and stop doing anything. The aliens are surely on it.
One of my favorite games when watching Ancient Aliens is “Spot the person who had to write a long blog post about how they were selectively edited into oblivion the day after original air date.” At first I wondered why actual experts ever bothered to answer the phone. It turns out that there’s a pretty insidious game that goes on when the producers of these shows call up experts and tell them that they’re needed for a TV show but then lie through their teeth about the show. I still couldn’t figure out why they’d even put themselves out for that, but then I saw one of the Ancient Aliens experts show up on a real show about the space program and realized, “Oh, he’d probably been on TV before and didn’t think he’d be catfished like that.”
Sadly, though, I only remember this as anecdote and can’t source it as a real story because, well, there are a shitton of Google results for Roman, Colosseum, and giants and I can’t figure out how to truly apply Google-fu to this problem.
 It’s also interesting to me that I have not once seen an entire episode dedicated to Rome. Rome built the most amazing structures and had the most developed anything of anywhere in the ancient world and I’m aware of stories that could easily be turned into ancient aliens fodder but they never seem to touch on Rome at all. I’m sure the fact that we can actually document the shit out of ancient Rome has nothing to do with that, though.
Although that one gets weird, as sometimes Bigfoot is an alien being who comes on a spaceship and mutilates cattle while I also once saw a not-Ancient-Aliens special in which Giorgio Tsoukalos, the guy with the crazy hair, go searching for Bigfoot and claimed that he believed Bigfoot is actually what humans would look like if aliens hadn’t come down and modified human genes to create homo sapiens. It’s almost like intellectual integrity and consistency of theory is of a secondary concern here.
Most of us have seen or even used a Tesla Coil. It’s a big, mushroom shaped bit of metal that makes your hair do crazy stuff when you touch it.