Friday, November 06, 2015

Dr. Ben and militant ignorance

I don't know if I've used it here, but I've long thought that "militant ignorance" was a good phrase to describe the dogmatic attitudes of a lot of rightwing Republicans.

Josh Marshall today (Ignorance and Arrogance TPM 11/06/2015) uses that concept to describe the combination of blithe confidence in which Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson declares the kookiest beliefs:

When you watch Carson navigating the public square you see someone who is remarkably ignorant about huge swathes of human knowledge and particularly information about US government and public policy. But you also see someone who's quite confident he's very knowledgable. So he's both remarkably ignorant and either stunningly unaware of his ignorance or totally indifferent to it. You might even say he is militantly ignorant. In all aspects of life, that is a dangerous combination. And the combination is almost always rooted in arrogance. None of us know everything. And in a complex world, we don't need to. The key is having some realistic grasp of what you do know and what you don't know. [italics in original]
Josh's use of "the public square" is a nice touch. About the only place I ever see that used in a contemporary context is Christian Rightists whining about how the Mean Libruls don't want them to "participate in the public square."

The conservative Christian Post is running this column which defends Carson's crackpot theory, though in a mealy-mouthed way: Leonardo Blair, Ben Carson's Theory That Egyptian Pyramids Were Built by Joseph Is 600 Years Old 11/05/2015. I should stress that this article should not be taken as a serious analysis. It's not. The most obvious sign is this portion, which for a reasonably careful reader would immediately trigger caution:

Veteran alternative archaeology reporter Scott Creighton as well as a 2011 report in the Smithsonian magazine note that there is no consensus as to why the pyramids were built.

"The idea that these structures were conceived and built as tombs is all pervasive to our modern mindset, so much so that many have come to accept the idea as being not so much a theory but as actual fact," wrote Creighton in an essay published online.

"So why then should it be deemed necessary to question what many regard as fact? The first thing to say is that the evidence in support of the tomb theory is only circumstantial; there is no direct primary evidence to support the pyramid tomb theory. Neither are there any ancient Egyptian texts that state why the ancient Egyptians conceived and built their pyramids. Indeed, there are a number of ancient texts that state the pyramids were not used as tombs," he said.
There is a Smithsonian article at the link included. Normally the reader would expect the immediately following quote to come from that piece. It says after the first part of the quote that it comes from "an essay published online."

But digging into this a bit, I found what you so often find with middle-brow attempts to argue for a crackpot position. The article referenced is highly misleading, though not technically false. When I read it, I thought, well, this Creighton guy must have something on the ball if he's getting published in Smithsonian. Because that's a serious publication a reputation to protect. In fact, I read the whole article before realizing that the author is Mike Dash.

This is typical of the work of hacks, fakes and propagandists to try to associate highly dubious claims with respectable or respectable-seeming sources. Also, in this case, there is also a fairly obvious fact that the pyramids had, you know, people buried in them. That's a pretty good reason to think they were built as tombs, since they very obviously functioned as tombs. Arguing for an alternative claim would require some pretty strong arguments for an alternative or pointing out a basic problem in the assumption. I'm not an archaeologist or an "alternative archaeology reporter." (I wonder if some news organization has a position with that job description!) But I don't find the arguments he makes there to call the theory in question very persuasive. For instance, he claims that some earlier graves are rectangular, but the base of a pyramid is square? That might be a question of some importance as to why that change took place. But is that a reason to question whether structures that functioned as tombs and have no known major alternative usage were intended to be tombs? You don't need to be an Egyptologist to see the answer is no.

The Smithsonian article by Mike Dash, not the "alternative archaeology reporter"- the one that would have to pass through editing to be posted - is titled Inside the Great Pyramid 11/01/2011. As the title suggests, it deals mainly with "the question of who first entered the Great Pyramid after it was sealed in about 2566 B.C. and what they found inside it." (Dash) It does not deal with the broader question of the purpose of the pyramids.

But there's worse. Repeating part of the quote above from the Christian Post article: "Veteran alternative archaeology reporter Scott Creighton as well as a 2011 report in the Smithsonian magazine note that there is no consensus as to why the pyramids were built."

Mike Dash's article does not claim that "there is no consensus as to why the pyramids were built"!

Dash's references to mysteries and purpose are the kind of thing you expect to see in a well-edited publication:

Few would be so bold as to suggest that, even today, we know why Khufu ordered the construction of what is by far the most elaborate system of passages and chambers concealed within any pyramid. His is the only one of the 35 such tombs constructed between 2630 and 1750 B.C. to contain tunnels and vaults well above ground level. (Its immediate predecessors, the Bent Pyramid and the North Pyramid at Dahshur, have vaults built at ground level; all the others are solid structures whose burial chambers lie well underground.) For years, the commonly accepted theory was that the Great Pyramid's elaborate features were the product of a succession of changes in plan, perhaps to accommodate Pharaoh's increasingly divine stature as his reign went on, but the American Egyptologist Mark Lehner has marshaled evidence suggesting that the design was fixed before construction began. If so, the pyramid's internal layout becomes even more mysterious, and that's before we bear in mind the findings of the Quarterly Review, which reported in 1818, after careful computation, that the structure's known passages and vaults occupy a mere 1/7,400th of its volume, so that "after leaving the contents of every second chamber solid by way of separation, there might be three thousand seven hundred chambers, each equal in size to the sarcophagus chamber, [hidden] within."
Dash's takes the obvious assumption that the pyramids are tombs for granted, as we see in that quote. The rest of Dash's article is an interesting and entertaining historical detective story about when the Great Pyramid was first breached and some discussion of the actual historical sources relevant to that question.

But this is one example of the conservative Christian world of thought and reporting in which Dr. Ben is popular and from which he apparently derives a great deal of his more controversial beliefs about historical fact. This particular one isn't directly defending Carson's kooky pyramid claim. It's instead leaving the false impression that serious secular archaeology isn't generally agreed that this structures in which Pharoahs and various members of their entourage were buried were actually intended to be tombs. In other words, it stakes out the position that it wasn't kooky and exceptionally ill-informed for Dr. Ben to dismiss the idea that the pyramids were intended to be tombs.

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