Trials of a Teenage Skeptic (part 2: a case in point)

Back in the ‘70s, there was a movie called Chariots of the Gods? that generated a certain amount of noise. Based on a book by Erich Von Däniken, it was ostensibly a “documentary” that looked at how the ancient world was directly influenced (and, in many cases, actively shaped) by extraterrestrials: guiding early civilizations in the building of pyramids and other monumental works, appearing in prehistoric art, instructing our forebears in the workings of alien technology, etc. No claim was too outlandish, no piece of evidence too flimsy. If evidence was missing, the filmmakers would simply make it up.


The film’s pedigree was dubious from the start, but that didn’t seem to bother audiences. Despite the fact that the book’s author was accused of plagiarism and for manufacturing evidence, or that he had a lengthy arrest record for theft, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement, or that the book was co-written by a well-known Nazi propagandist, or that Von Däniken himself had no background whatsoever in either history, archaeology, or science and that his claims were choked with baseless assumptions and factual errors, or that he casually dismissed centuries worth of research by countless dedicated historians and scientists from around the world, or that his entire premise that people of ancient Egypt, the Americas, Mesopotamia, South and East Asia, Oceania, and the South Pacific (he gives Europeans and Christianity a pass, somehow) were intellectually incapable of achieving great works of architecture and engineering (or even non-representational art) was inherently racist and eurocentric, the book and the movie were colossal international hits. Von Däniken’s books collectively have sold over 70 million copies, while the movie grossed just under $26 million in the US alone and even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. (*Sigh*)

In 1976, Carl Sagan wrote:

That writing as careless as von Däniken’s, whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times. I also hope for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods? in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking. I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors as the works of von Däniken.

The film was hugely popular in classrooms, but not for the reasons Prof. Sagan had hoped for, unfortunately. I can personally attest to that. Even as a teenager I knew how full of shit it was, and I remember despairing that this contemptible piece of celluloid birdcage liner should be taken for a legitimate documentary.

Any hopes that the teacher would show some degree of critical analysis, the kind of thing I’d grown to
expect from adults, were instantly quashed.
In fact, he held a show of hands to determine
the likely veracity of the film

My teachers and classmates, on the other hand, gobbled it up; it was all they could talk about for weeks. Worse yet was the reaction I received when I timidly expressed my reservations about the film (a feat in itself, given how shy I was as a kid). “You’re boring!” “You’re closed-minded!” “You have no imagination!” “You don’t know everything!” or my personal favourite “You just choose not to believe!” Of course, I was a kid and I didn’t have all the answers, nor was I so sophisticated that I could systematically take down every argument that was thrown at me (including that belief was completely irrelevant to the issue), but it didn’t help that I got no support from anyone, let alone the one adult in the room. Any hopes that the teacher would show some degree of critical analysis, the kind of thing I’d grown to expect from adults, were instantly quashed. In fact, he held a show of hands to determine the likely veracity of the film, and felt completely vindicated when everyone but me declared themselves to be in full agreement with it. It was a refrain I’d heard before and would hear over and over again: “X number of people can’t be wrong, you know.” Put another way, “The truth of an idea is determined its popularity.” This from a high school history teacher. (*Another sigh*)


[Next in Part 3: The struggle continues]

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