University of Iowa Anthropology
Anthropology 113:147 Seminar, Fall 1998
Larry Zimmerman

Lost Tribes, Sunken Continents and Ancient Astronauts:
'Cult' Archaeology & Creationism
Debunking Tools 

Debunking Tools 1: What Science Does

Key Terms and Concepts

Intuitive Science

Sometimes received knowledge, or ethnoscience, that offers what seems a logical explanation for some phenomenon, but is often in error in some detail or entirety.

An example: we have seasons because the earth's orbit gets farther from the soon in winter. The intuitive part, in one sense right, says that the farther from a heat source you are, the colder it is. The real science relates to the tilt of the earth on its axis.

Most are reluctant to give up their intuitive approaches even when confronted with evidence and may even try to weave the real science into their intuitive science.

The purposes of science:


The process of developing relationships between the known and the unknown.

John Hospers in his Journal of Philosophy (1947) article "On Explanation" discusses several classes of explantion. One can explain by reference to what some thinking being had in mind (e.g. God's will), by noting it as an occurrence of a general class of phenomena (because everybody does it, or taxonomy in science), general laws (gravity), or looking at connecting links between co-occurring phenomena. The type of explanation used often results from the type of explantion that will satisfy whoever asks the question "why?" He also discusses the idea of "an ultimate brute question Why?"

Once relationships are clear, then hypotheses can be developed. They are If:Then statements of conditions yielding certain results.

Once predictions can be made, then control is possible. In magic and religion this is ritual. In science it is experiment and hypothesis testing.

Science process includes another step, the falsification of hypotheses. This means that science tries to prove itself false. Contrary to popular belief, it does not try to prove ideas true. This notion is often misunderstood or misrepresented.


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Debunking Tools

Sometimes You Can Read a Book by its Cover!

The old saying goes: "You can't read a book by its cover!" However, in the realm of pseudoscience and cult archaeology there are usually clues to the content of the book right on the cover. At the same time, you do owe it to yourself and the author to stay open minded until you have ample evidence to label a book as "off base."

Let's take a look at some clues!

Look at the front cover.

Be careful! These traits don't always mean a book is bad. Two good books, Robert Silverberg's Mound Builders and Robert Wauchope's Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents actually use these techniques for parody and sales. Wauchope's book was actually published by the U. of Chicago Press.

Look at the back cover.

Now look just inside.

All these traits are indicators of the level of scholarship present in the book. True, mass market or popular books rarely have use for scholarly indicators, but good ones at least provide some point of reference for the reader. Be cautious, though, in that some pseudoscience has learned to mimic good science and scholarship.

Now go deeper inside.

You owe most books a look at the inside, that is, the author's writing. So,

If you look for these characteristics, just by a quick glance and a skim, you can get a pretty good idea of the nature of the book.

A last bit of advice: Be open, but be skeptical!

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Debunking Tools

Where in the World did that come from?
Culture Change, Diffusion, Independent Invention

How does change happen in a culture? There are many ways. A person investigating claims of culture traits being found in one place that appear another place need to be very cautious. Not all such appearances are due to transoceanic contacts or extraterrestrials! It helps to know something about how cultures change.

Culture change: Where do new things come from in a culture?

Five major types of culture change


Key concepts:


Types of Diffusion

Key questions to ask:

If there are major problems in answering these questions, then caution would suggest not claiming diffusion!

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