Monday, May 5, 2008

What Happened to the History Channel?

I am back home from college, finally completing my degrees at MSU, and so I am watching TV again (I didn't have one in my room on purpose). Often the stuff on television I find dreadful, especially the omnipresent commercials for things I could care less about. But, I figure there are channels that are worth while when it comes to things that are entertaining and educating, at least if I am interested in nonfiction. I really enjoy Mythbusters, and the science channels can have something enjoyable to me that is informative to an astronomer (with a BS). One of my favorite channels was the History Channel, which for a long time could have simply been called the World War II channel because most every show was either about the war or tried in incorporate stock footage of the war. I am sure that you could see the explosions of ships at Pearl Harbor at least once a day on that station. The channel had a lot of interesting series, such as Great Blunders in History, or more recently The Universe.

Unfortunately, the channel has been broadcasting nonsense as well. There have been numerous shows, old and new, about the prophecies of Nostradamus, who is referred to by Penn & Teller on Bullshit as a "French Fuck". Indeed, his "prophecies" were vague and were probably not created for readers in the 21st century but to make himself useful/popular in his own time. I think Michael Shermer has said that he may have used these quatrains for political purposes, containing hidden messages no different than John Swift with Guliver's Travels. Anyhow, the History Channel has brought this figure up too often, speaking as if there was something real in them, that Nostradamus produced genuine and accurate prophecies of the future. Sure, there is the token skeptic at the end, but there is still an hour of your brain on vacation. Things become all the worse with shows about the Bible Code, UFOs and abductions, and more pseudoscience nonsense.

But I became particularly outraged by a recent episode of Ancient Discoveries. The original three episodes talked about the ancient Mediterranean world, with inventors like Heron, or the great doctor Galen, and the amazing Antikythera mechanism--this was a planetary calculator before the Common Era. I was blown away by this data of the ancient world and loved the production. Recently, these series has expanded. What I saw at 10:00 PM on Cinco de Mayo what about Chinese shipbuilding, all from the Common Era I think. They talked about some rather interesting boats, including the Junk-style boat which is still used today. I found this all interesting and I probably would have been just as floored by this show in the first half hour if I was more awake at the time.

The second half of the show decided to take a different turn, buying a ticket to crazy town. Perhaps some have heard of the book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Produced by Gavin Menzies, a former submarine sailor (not a historian), this book proposes that China has reached the Americas in the 15th century with boats on a voyage of discovery before the time of Columbus. Menzies "evidence" consists of some maps he found in shops which he claims go back to 15th century China. Experts know better. Along with some bogus claims about DNA evidence backing up the claim for recent infusion of Chinese DNA, that is pretty much the evidence. This "theory" is dismissed by experts on China. After all, we have very good records from China because of the advanced and sophisticated bureaucracy of the government which make no mention of such a discovery of the Americas. One would think that would make the papers, especially in well-educated China (compared to Europe at the same time). There are also no ship finds on the Americas of 15th century Chinese ships, such as Junks, at all. The proposed ships for the travel are not even considered seaworthy for the Pacific Ocean.

And yet, this History Channel episode spent about half the time talking about this "theory", including an interview with Menzies and other supporters of this work. Spending this much time of this hypothesis of Menzies with little skepticism casts the light that this "theory" is on par with the consensus of scholars and historians that such a notion is bogus. Never mind that there is plenty online and in journals to debunk this book, making the presentation on TV without greater criticism intellectually dishonest, but how there is an attempt to prove the theory is even more disgusting.

In Oregon, some amateurs attempt to look for one of these Junk ships on the shore, going by Menzies work. Now, to find such a ship on the Western shores of the Americas is quite the trick; the coastline is so long how can you make a choice of where to look? Well, apparently they know how to find the ship and know its approximate size before digging it up. How?

Dowsing rods.


I kid you not. Taking a couples of metal sticks, which people have claimed for generations can find water, now can find 15th century Chinese treasure ships.

Maybe this isn't hitting you hard enough. These folks, with apparently no archaeological training, are trying to prove a pseudo-historical claim by using pseudoscience? Apparently astrology is part of the equation as well since apparently the Sun affects how the rods work.

There are even more problems with this "dig" as well. After figuring out where the "stern" of this "boat" is in the ground, they drill down into the sand of the beach using a plastic pipe and forcing a running hose into it to push sand away and get down deeper until they reach wood. Then they take a drill and bring up some wood for sampling and C14 dating. Um, how do they know that wood is from a Chinese ship and not, say, a canoe? Worse is that this method of getting the wood of the "ship" does not allow for any stratigraphy, the archaeological method of examining layers in the ground to get relative dating. If you cannot do this, you are wasting everyone's time when the matter is finding the correct date of the burial of this object. After all, even if this was a Chinese Junk ship, it could be from the 19th century instead of the 15th. Also, if you want to do C14 dating, you have to get samples from multiple parts of the "ship" to get reliable dates and recognize outliers in any statistics produced. One core sample is not enough, especially with such a crude method of extraction and preservation of the materials in question.

The entire second half of this episode was junk after talking about Junk ships. How could this have passed by any thinking executive at the History Channel. And this was no accident. Going to see the author of this book, to spend days with the diggers of this "ship" in Oregon, and to have the most minimal level of skepticism displayed by the expert on Chinese history, can only be deliberate. Either the creators of this episode were ignorant of the quality of Menzies' thesis, or were actively trying to save it from criticism. If they were ignorant about the history, they how can they have any right to do anything for the History Channel?

I am simply appalled that such utter crap scholarship has reached a mass audience, and now through the vehicle of Fox News. I already have a negative view on the contents of American television; do these networks have to go out of their way to make it worse? Sure I can make fun of this station talking about the modern marvel that is corn, but at least that has good history behind it. I don't want any woo with my shows, thank you very much. Not only do they waste my time, they harm the intellectual level of the people of the US. It is a well-informed public that allows for a democracy to work. Filling the heads of voters with utter garbage and no way to differentiate between crap and history/science/reality is a great way for things to go awry.

So please History Channel: Call back Roger Mudd and do more Hitler shows. How about a Modern Marvels episode about Hitler and Stalin's mustaches? It's at least more intellectual and honest that this Kuhschei├če I saw this evening.