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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

When does a delusion turn into a hoax?

I learned the other day that a certain well-known archaeologist was upset by my use of the words "hoax", "fantasist" and "conspirators."  Well, I found that very upsetting because I am a delicate flower and because I only ever use a word if it is exactly right, as befits somebody with a scientific background.

Let's just concentrate on the word "hoax" for the moment.  Yes, I have used the word quite often with regard to the attempts by Prof MPP and his colleagues (shall we call them fellow-conspirators?) to convince the world that they have found two Neolithic bluestone quarries and a "proto-Stonehenge" stone setting in West Wales.  As readers of this blog will know, we have examined the evidence presented in support of these contentions, and have found it wanting in every important respect.  It does not withstand scrutiny, and when this has been pointed out to the MPP team in journal articles  its response -- consistently -- is simply to ignore the points raised and to reiterate the story in ever more elaborate form, with or without the help of assorted journal editors and media journalists.

The radiocarbon dates, flagged up as supporting the quarrying hypothesis, actually falsify it.

So the research team members simply refuse to engage with others who question their evidence, their working methods and their conclusions.  Whatever you may think about bluestone quarries, you might agree with me that this is not a happy scenario, since both scientific practice and academic convention are consistently flouted.  It is not a good idea to simply ignore other senior scientists who have good reputations, simply because they do not agree with you.  Even if you are a firm believer in bluestone quarries and dismantled stone circles you might agree with me that it is never a good idea to refuse to accept scrutiny.  It simply does not look good.  If this happened in geomorphology, reputations would be terminally damaged.  But in archaeology, it appears that other rules apply.

So -- are the members of this research team just deluded, and swept along on a great wave of enthusiasm which makes it difficult for them to accept alternative interpretations of the things they are looking at?  They may indeed be deluded, but most deluded academics tend to be rather diffident and tend not to shout their delusions from the rooftops.  

This is different.  MPP and his team have built their story quite inexorably over the past eight years, never once engaging with the concerns that have been raised, never admitting to a dispute in the literature, and feeding quite assiduously more and more outrageous material to the media -- and obtaining acres of media coverage from gullible journalists.

You might agree with me that this goes far beyond delusion and humorous deception.  It is actually rather malicious.  In short, it is a typical academic hoax,  meeting all of the criteria itemised by
psychologist Peter Hancock.  He has has identified six steps which characterise a truly successful hoax:

Identify a constituency—a person or group of people who, for reasons such as piety or patriotism, or greed, will truly care about your creation.

Identify a particular dream which will make your hoax appeal to your constituency.

Create an appealing but "under-specified" hoax, with ambiguities

Have your creation discovered.

Find at least one champion who will actively support your hoax.

Make people care, either positively or negatively—the ambiguities encourage interest and debate

In another post, I have made very similar points:

For a scientific hoax to be successful, it requires four preconditions:

1. A gullible public predisposed to believe in “new discoveries” — in this case, stories about the great skills of our prehistoric ancestors and the meaning of Stonehenge. In these days of alternative facts and false news, almost anything will grab the attention of the public. The mere use of the word "Stonehenge" in a press release guarantees wide media coverage.

2. A colourful and swashbuckling lead character who has a respectable past and a strong media presence. MPP is a popular figure who has been called the “Indiana Jones” of British archaeology, with a reputation for an endless stream of controversial theories.

3. A body of “evidence” cited in support of the hoax which cannot be checked or replicated by anybody else. As far as I am aware, there was no independent scrutiny or peer review of the dig sites at Rhosyfelin, Carn Goedog and Waun Mawn while MPP and his team were at work between 2011 and 2018. And the excavations have now been filled in, so that nobody can go back to them to check the cited “evidence”. Wonderful! That's a perfect scenario for a successful hoax……….

4. The ability to suppress or "drown out" anything inconvenient that might show up the hoax for what it is. This can be achieved by doing deals with big business or grant-giving bodies which see that there would be large negative impacts for them should the hoax be exposed. They will help you to promote the hoax and to suppress independent scientific research and conclusions. You can also "drown out" inconvenient expressions of concern by using your contacts to repeat the hoax in print as often as possible and to develop it bit by bit in a way that can be represented as "hypothesis confirmation." And of course you can vilify your opponents behind the scenes and use your establishment contacts to ensure that anything they write has little chance of being published. This is all very jolly as long as you are not concerned about scientific ethics.

As I pointed out, all four preconditions are amply fulfilled in this case. My own feeling is that the archaeologists were given a false sense of security and certainty by some seriously defective advice from the geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer back in 2011, and that having initially celebrated the "quarry discovery" at Rhosyfelin with some rather unwise hyperbole,  they have found themselves dug in so deeply that they cannot get out without losing face.  So they plough on -- at very grave risk to their reputations -- in the hope that they will not get rumbled.  Too late, boys and girls........

For all good hoax hunters, this from Wikipedia might be entertaining:

A hoax is a falsehood deliberately fabricated to masquerade as the truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment,[1] rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences, and April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.

Elsewhere, a hoax is defined as "a humorous or malicious deception."


Robert Nares defined the word hoax as meaning "to cheat," dating from Thomas Ady's 1656 book A candle in the dark, or a treatise on the nature of witches and witchcraft.[8]

The term hoax is occasionally used in reference to urban legends and rumors, but the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvandargues that most of them lack evidence of deliberate creations of falsehood and are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes, so the term should be used for only those with a probable conscious attempt to deceive.[2] As for the closely related terms practical joke and prank, Brunvand states that although there are instances where they overlap, hoax tends to indicate "relatively complex and large-scale fabrications" and includes deceptions that go beyond the merely playful and "cause material loss or harm to the victim."[9]

According to Professor Lynda Walsh of the University of Nevada, Reno, some hoaxes—such as the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814, labeled as a hoax by contemporary commentators—are financial in nature, and successful hoaxers—such as P. T. Barnum, whose Fiji mermaid contributed to his wealth—often acquire monetary gain or fame through their fabrications, so the distinction between hoax and fraud is not necessarily clear.[10] Alex Boese, the creator of the Museum of Hoaxes, states that the only distinction between them is the reaction of the public, because a fraud can be classified as a hoax when its method of acquiring financial gain creates a broad public impact or captures the imagination of the masses.[11]

One of the earliest recorded media hoaxes is a fake almanac published by Jonathan Swift under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff in 1708.[12] Swift predicted the death of John Partridge, one of the leading astrologers in England at that time, in the almanac and later issued an elegy on the day Partridge was supposed to have died. Partridge's reputation was damaged as a result and his astrological almanac was not published for the next six years.[12]

It is possible to perpetrate a hoax by making only true statements using unfamiliar wording or context, such as in the Dihydrogen monoxide hoax. Political hoaxes are sometimes motivated by the desire to ridicule or besmirch opposing politicians or political institutions, often before elections.

A hoax differs from a magic trick or from fiction (books, movies, theatre, radio, television, etc.) in that the audience is unaware of being deceived, whereas in watching a magician perform an illusion the audience expects to be tricked.

A hoax is often intended as a practical joke or to cause embarrassment, or to provoke social or political change by raising people's awareness of something. It can also emerge from a marketing or advertising purpose. For example, to market a romantic comedy movie, a director staged a phony "incident" during a supposed wedding, which showed a bride and preacher getting knocked into a pool by a clumsy fall from a best man.[13] A resulting video clip of Chloe and Keith's Wedding was uploaded to YouTube and was viewed by over 30 million people and the couple was interviewed by numerous talk shows.[13] Viewers were deluded into thinking that it was an authentic clip of a real accident at a real wedding; but a story in USA Today in 2009 revealed it was a hoax.[13]

Governments sometimes spread false information to facilitate their objectives, such as going to war. These often come under the heading of black propaganda. There is often a mixture of outright hoax and suppression and management of information to give the desired impression.  In wartime and times of international tension rumors abound, some of which may be deliberate hoaxes. 

For example, this is a hoax:
A memorable and crowded meeting of the Geological Society was held in Burlington House, London, on December 18, to hear a paper read "On the Discovery of a Paleolithic Human Skull and Mandible in a Flint-bearing Gravel overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex),)" by Charles Dawson, F.S.A., F.G.S., and Arthur Smith Woodward, LL.D... Professor G. Elliot Smith was called on to give an account of his investigation on the cast of the cranial cavity, and he pointed out that, while the general shape and size of the brain was human, the arrangement of the meningeal arteries was typically simian, as was a deep notch in the occipital region; he regarded it as the most ape-like human brain of which we have any knowledge... There can be no doubt that this is a discovery of the greatest importance and will give rise to much discussion. It is the nearest approach we have yet reached to a "missing link," for whatever may be the final verdict as to the systemic position of Pithecanthropus erectus, probably few will deny that Eoanthropus Dawsoni is almost if not quite as much human as simian. The recent discoveries of human remains... are demonstrating that several races of man lived in paleolithic times, and we may confidently look forward to new finds which will throw fresh light upon the evolution of man. [3]

While this is the start of an article about a hoax:
The Piltdown Man was a paleoanthropological hoax in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. These fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man", after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen. The significance of the specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan deliberately combined with the cranium of a fully developed modern human. The Piltdown hoax is perhaps the most famous paleoanthropological hoax ever to have been perpetrated. It is prominent for two reasons: the attention paid to the issue of human evolution, and the length of time (more than 40 years) that elapsed from its discovery to its full exposure as a forgery.[4]


Finally, the UCL press release from 7 December 2015.
Read it carefully.  It ticks all the boxes.

New research by the team published today in Antiquity presents detailed evidence of prehistoric quarrying in the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, helping to answer long-standing questions about why, when and how Stonehenge was built.

The team of scientists includes researchers from UCL, University of Manchester, Bournemouth University, University of Southampton, University of Leicester, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

The very large standing stones at Stonehenge are of 'sarsen', a local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as 'bluestones', come from the Preseli hills in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Geologists have known since the 1920s that the bluestones were brought to Stonehenge from somewhere in the Preseli Hills, but only now has there been collaboration with archaeologists to locate and excavate the actual quarries from which they came.

Director of the project, Professor Mike Parker Pearson (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: "This has been a wonderful opportunity for geologists and archaeologists to work together. The geologists have been able to lead us to the actual outcrops where Stonehenge's stones were extracted."

The Stonehenge bluestones are of volcanic and igneous rocks, the most common of which are called dolerite and rhyolite. Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales) and Dr Rob Ixer (UCL and University of Leicester) have identified the outcrop of Carn Goedog as the main source of Stonehenge's 'spotted dolerite' bluestones and the outcrop of Craig Rhos-y-felin as a source for one of the 'rhyolite' bluestones. The research published today details excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felin specifically.

The special formation of the rock, which forms natural pillars at these outcrops, allowed the prehistoric quarry-workers to detach each megalith (standing stone) with a minimum of effort. "They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face" said Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton). "The quarry-workers then lowered the thin pillars onto platforms of earth and stone, a sort of 'loading bay' from where the huge stones could be dragged away along trackways leading out of each quarry."

Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester), an expert in Neolithic quarries, said: "The two outcrops are really impressive - they may well have had special significance for prehistoric people. When we saw them for the first time, we knew immediately that we had found the source."

Radiocarbon-dating of burnt hazelnuts and charcoal from the quarry-workers' camp fires reveals that there were several occurrences of megalith-quarrying at these outcrops. Stonehenge was built during the Neolithic period, between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Both of the quarries in Preseli were exploited in the Neolithic, and Craig Rhos-y-felin was also quarried in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago.

"We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn't get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC" said Professor Parker Pearson. "It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that's pretty improbable in my view. It's more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire."

Professor Kate Welham (Bournemouth University) thinks that the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries. She said: "We've been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising - we may find something big in 2016."

The megalith quarries are on the north side of the Preseli hills, and this location undermines previous theories about how the bluestones were transported from Wales to Stonehenge. Previous writers have often suggested that bluestones were taken southwards from the hills to Milford Haven and then floated on boats or rafts, but this now seems unlikely.

"The only logical direction for the bluestones to go was to the north then either by sea around St David's Head or eastwards overland through the valleys along the route that is now the A40" said Professor Parker Pearson. "Personally I think that the overland route is more likely. Each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than 2 tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed this. We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 - they didn't even have to drag them if they didn't want to."

Phil Bennett, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority's Culture and Heritage Manager, said: "This project is making a wonderful contribution to our knowledge of the National Park's importance in prehistory."

The new discoveries may also help to understand why Stonehenge was built. Parker Pearson and his team believe that the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around 2900 BC, long before the giant sarsens were put up around 2500 BC.

"Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far", said Professor Parker Pearson.



Gordon said...

Quartz magazine has an article on why smart people believe hoaxes.The article is on the web and concerns the Cottingley Fairies, an hoax of 1917.

tonyH said...

My mother always told me "there are fairies at the bottom of the garden". She was a very bright lady, well educated and an excellent, highly qualified Nurse who should have become a Doctor. Mind you, she stopped repeating that old adage by the time I was 29. Its origin was in all probability the Cottingley Fairies story. I think some eminent personages were hoodwinked by the hoax - not sure how many archaeologists.

tonyH said...

Arthur Conan Doyle, following the death of his brother and son in WW1, got more and more into spiritualism, and ended up believing in fairies, poor chap. The period around the end of that war was undoubtedly a painful time for many people. It was also around then that Herbert Thomas gave his famous lecture and Paper, and this was when numerous archaeologists and enthusiasts latched onto the belief that human transport brought the bluestones from one small area in the Preselis. He dismissed outright Judd's statements that the bluestones were of glacial origin. This was how the unchallenged "conventional wisdom" seeped into the public and academic consciousness.

"Conventional wisdom", i.e. widely - held belief, is not always how the truth is established, as Brian is often telling us. I think the "hoaxes" about the "quarries" are a result of people being all too swift to jump to conclusions which follow on from faulty thinking that has preceded that. The issue of the bluestones in Preseli is riven with faulty thinking over the last century.

People should, for example, bear in mind that eminent Stonehenge archaeologist Richard Atkinson said, towards the end of his life, that glaciation probably moved the stones most of the way to Stonehenge. This is rarely admitted nowadays - conventional wisdom [perhaps best explained as lazy thinking!] tends to overrule common sense and logical thinking. People like there to be long- established explanations more often than not. Glaciers aren't sexy.

tonyH said...

'And another one bites the dust.....' New Zealand researchers say Loch Ness Monster may be a giant eel or eels, based on DNA.

So, another mystery is solved. One by one, they are solved....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Glaciers are not sexy? I can assure you that they are, and while they may look frigid at first, once you get to know them they are full of happy surprises......

tonyH said...

"The Loch Ness Monster has evolved into a worldwide icon", the person in Scotland who looks after the Register on Sightings has said this week.

In much the same way, Michael Parker Pearson has evolved into a worldwide icon for Fox News, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institute, and various other media outlets.

No doubt Sir Tony Robinson wishes he, too, was a worldwide icon, rather than the National Treasure that he is recognised as, from The Queen downwards. Pity for him that Time Team was discontinued.