I came across an interesting opinion piece yesterday, about Meghan Fox's upcoming show. Travel Channel is, apparently, funding a show which she presents, produces, and co-creates. "Mysteries and Myths" will research some of the most tantalizing myths from human history. The press release for the show reads:

“Now she is embarking on an epic and personal journey across the globe, where archaeologists and experts will re-examine history, asking tough questions and challenging the conventional wisdom that has existed for centuries. The series will delve into some of the greatest mysteries of time, including whether Amazon women really existed or if the Trojan War was real.”

They’re fascinating subjects, buried by centuries of myth and storytelling. They’re also the focus of real research. Flinders University archaeologist Dr. Alice Gorman is not amused by the pitch.

"The irony is that these sorts of shows are peddling exactly the ‘conventional wisdom that has existed for centuries’ — and archaeologists and historians are the ones challenging it!” 

But it’s a challenge not unique to archaeologists. ANU Research School of Psychology’s Dr Eryn Newman points out scientists the world over are worried about similar attacks on expertise:

"Things that are very well understood are being upset by people who may not have all the background knowledge, or an agenda or spin, they want to get across."

As the op-ed states, Fox argues that a lack of qualification is an advantage. And a lifetime of experience and accumulated knowledge merely a burden: 

"I haven’t spent my entire life building a career in academia so I don’t have to worry about my reputation or being rebuked by my colleagues, which allows me to push back on the status quo. So much of our history needs to be re-examined. History only gives us a one-sided view of the truth. That’s something I know from personal experience. My own history has been rewritten by other people who had a vested interest in changing the narrative.

Ancient America’s archaeologist and anti-pseudoarchaeology campaigner Dr. David Anderson says:

"Fox is clearly engaging in an anti-academic or anti-authority stance in that her lack of training, lack of the bonds of the academy, is what makes her qualified for this position. There are plenty of people with whom that argument will resonate. We should never be so closed minded as to think that experts are infallible, but if we don’t even give the barest spread of trust to experts, we are literally doomed as a society."

Academics have been attempting to put Fox's words into context: Would you want an unqualified airline pilot? An unlicensed driver as your chauffeur? A dentist as a brain surgeon? Doing this leads to a spread of disinformation — especially where it concerns Fox's claim that academia isn't doing everything it can to reevaluate assumptions.

Dr. Anderson gives an example: For decades it was believed the Maya had a ballgame reserved for the elite as a form of political theatre, where they could prove their prowess to the masses. But a project Dr. Anderson was working with found 20 new ball courts at sites including the smallest of villages. Clearly, the mock-combat game had a much broader community role. “New data, new interpretation — it happens all the time,” he says.

Dr. Newmann agrees.

"We know from cognitive psychology research that people often take familiarity as a queue for truth. They’re more likely to believe a message that sounds familiar just because the message has been repeated over and over. But familiarity has no bearing on the truth."

Megan Fox isn’t the first famous face to embrace pseudo archaeology. In the 70s, it was Leonard Nimoy — of Star Trek Spock fame with his show "In Search Of." More recently, it’s been Robert Clotworthy’s "Ancient Aliens."

Dr. Gorman doesn't oppose these shows on principle; they have great uses.

"I was obsessed with Chariots of the Gods as a teenager. It probably was part of the impetus that led me to archaeology to begin with. The mysteries of the past — especially if aliens are involved — make the world seem so much more exciting than mundane everyday life. It’s enticing to think that you can understand this by yourself, that the secrets of the world can be coaxed out if you can just make the right connections. Later, you realize that the real thrill is in the science."

The devil is, as always, in the details. Dr. Anderson explains:

"Fox and those of her ilk think that archaeologists are narrow-minded because they will take one object out of its context and offer interpretations that make no sense if we simply return that object to its context. Ultimately, the substance of these shows comes down to the quality of the experts they interview, and how much attention producers pay to them."
ANU Research School of Psychology’s Dr Eryn Newman says that when it comes to communicating science, style can triumph over substance.

“When people are assessing the credibility of information, most of the time people are making a judgment based on how something feels. Our results showed that when (something as simple as) the sound quality was poor, the participants thought the researcher wasn’t as intelligent, they didn’t like them as much and found their research less important. To combat the ever-increasing popularity of fake news, alternate facts and pseudoscience, researchers must consider the delivery — and not just the content — of their message. Our results show that it’s not just about who you are and what you are saying, it’s about how your work is presented."

There is much more in the piece, and I'd like to direct you to it. How does this sound to you? Will you tune in for "Mysteries and Myths?" Why yes? Why no?