Ronald H. Fritze Reaktion Books (London) 2009 (pp 304)
This article first appeared in Skeptical Adversaria 3 (2009), 4-5 (2009)
Reproduced with permission
Ronald Fritze, who has already published on such matters to acclaim, has now produced in this book a classic work in the field of skeptical critique of pseudo-history. Although it will naturally not replace existing treatises altogether, it will become an indispensable general source and one of the first ‘ports of call’ for researchers and students in this area.
As has become the trend, Fritze surveys not only current fringe ideas and skeptical commentary on them but the entire post-Enlightenment period. He deals with almost all the major fringe trends of the last two centuries (and with ideas which once were mainstream but have now been debunked or forgotten) and with the critiques offered by predecessors of contemporary sceptics. But he is also very much up to date; for instance, he rehearses the entire vexed and complex story of ‘Kennewick Man’ (mysterious ancient human remains found in Washington State in 1996), including the latest available legal decisions and provisional academic conclusions. (To summarise: with support from postmodernist/anti-scientific thinkers and at times from the relevant governments and legal systems, Native American activists such as Vine Deloria – like their equivalents in Australia – have persuaded many ‘indigenous’ people a) that their ancestors were indeed ‘created’ where they now live, as their traditional myths relate, rather than forming part of any general diaspora from East Africa such as has been revealed by scientific archaeology; and b) that all ancient human remains found in their lands, even anomalous and hence potentially very important remains such as those of KM, must be those of their own forebears and therefore need to be protected from study as sacred, and indeed ceremonially re-buried. Opponents of these irrational ideas, including leading critics of postmodernist excesses such as Alan Sokal as well as mainstream scientific archaeologists, have won the latest round of legal exchanges over KM; but given the current political climate it is unlikely that this matter is finally settled.)
A large proportion of the non-standard material surveyed by Fritze is in fact nonsense (whether or not that was apparent when it was produced), and he critiques the fringe without compunction. On the other hand, he is conspicuously fair-minded. Indeed, in some cases, e.g. in commenting on mainstream critics of the Velikovskyan major-planet-catastrophist and chronological-revisionist movement, he arguably goes beyond this (though some of these critics, notably Carl Sagan, clearly were themselves unfair at times). He examines the socio-cultural and quasi-academic background tendencies involved in the development of each tradition of non-standard work, and acknowledges such strengths as may be found in non-standard amateur material. Fritze does not mock gratuitously, recognising that most fringe writers are sincere (if not adequately informed or trained). But he is far from humourless, and his writing is engaging and perspicuous as well as scholarly.
Fritze’s chapters deal with: Atlantis and other ‘lost continents’; the diffusionist pseudo-history of the Americas; ‘racist cosmogonies and pseudo-history’ (two chapters); catastrophism (and chronological revisionism); and Afrocentrist pseudo-history. There is, almost inevitably, a stronger focus on American issues than on those arising elsewhere in the world; for instance, little is said about fringe views of European (pre-)history. But, allowing for this, there are few outright omissions, and these largely involve individual thinkers rather than entire strains of non-standard historical thought. Obvious examples include William McGlone and his colleagues (perhaps the most rational members of the ‘American epigraphist’ tradition offering diffusionist accounts of the history of the Americas) and Anatoly Fomenko (the best-known proponent of major chronological revisions involving the last two millennia). Some of these authors are very important; but, as noted below, only so much ground can be covered in any one book of reasonable size as determined by the publishers.
As a skeptical historical linguist, this reviewer might have liked to find in this book a somewhat greater focus on linguistic matters. I include here non-standard amateur philologising or etymologising (ideas on the origins of languages and individual words), speculative epigraphics (the identification and decipherment of texts or alleged texts, e.g. the specifically linguistic work of the diffusionist pseudo-historian Barry Fell), ‘out-of-place’ spoken or written languages, theories concerning the conspiratorial concoction of languages or language data, etc. Linguistic ‘evidence’ is often adduced by pseudo-historians in support of their wider theses, and more generally the details of language data often furnish key evidence in the discussion of historical and archaeological theories, fringe or mainstream. Fritze does refer in places to such matters (Helena Blavatsky’s concocted language ‘Senzar’, speculations on linguistic relationships in early North America, the purported use of Welsh in the Americas as a result of Prince Madoc’s supposed voyage, the allegedly Phoenician Paraiba Inscription, Zecharia Sitchin on Sumerian, the outrageous philological-cum-etymological proposals of the British Israelites, etc); but perhaps not as much as might be hoped, and with very few actual linguistic details.
On the other hand, specialists in other disciplines might make similar points about gaps in the treatment of their own favoured subjects; and one cannot expect one scholar’s grasp to extend equally to all relevant disciplines. And, in an admittedly general book such as this, only so much detail can be given and only so much ground covered. (Sheer errors of fact and cases of awkward wording are very few indeed.)
Overall, the work cannot be recommended too highly to all with an interest in these matters: active researchers/writers, skeptics generally, or those who might otherwise be tempted to accept fringe ideas. It is, as Thucydides famously said, a possession for ever.