Why I think archaeologists should fight the pseudo-science of the Atlantis myth

November 5, 1999

Ken Feder Professor of anthropology Central Connecticut State University United States

There are advantages and disadvantages to teaching in a discipline such as archaeology, which enjoys popular interest. On the one hand, students have expectations and preconceptions about what the past was like. That is a good thing - they are interested in human antiquity and they have read something about it. But there is also a negative side, which is that so much of what they have read or been exposed to is rubbish.

In surveying students' preconceptions - and I have been doing that for years - one thing I have found is that while the vast majority will say they have heard that there was a lost civilisation of Atlantis, the origin of all early civilisations that existed 10,000 years ago out in the mid-Atlantic, they do not know if that is a plausible theory or not.

The fact that there are books and articles out there about Atlantis makes them believe there must be something to such stories. They lean towards belief.

But that is where the big challenge is: you have kids who have been exposed to this stuff who are interested in the past. It is a fertile field for the Atlantis popularisers, but equally it is a fertile field for those of us in academic archaeology. We must respond to the interest of these youngsters, we must deal with it directly - not just say "Oh, that is a bunch of nonsense, let's move on to the real thing." We should use this pseudo-science to teach how science really works.

Any scientist should be concerned when a substantial portion of the population harbours misconceptions about science. It is worrying when discoveries are misrepresented.

In essence, the basis of the Atlantis myth is that just one master race has invented everything. Yet archaeology has shown again and again the inherent genius of people all over the world at evolving remarkable societies and remarkable adaptations to very different environments. The notion that most people in the world are pretty stupid and need to have been introduced to civilisation by some outside force - whether it is extraterrestrials or people from Atlantis - is troubling.

It would be nice if the popular media were more responsible, but that provides those of us in archaeology with a challenge and an opportunity - to use people's interest in some of these extreme claims as an entry into showing them how to think about what archaeology has really discovered. Interview by John Davies

Can pseudo-science such as the Atlantis myth be used to teach how real science works? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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