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Debating Science and Lost Civilizations
My Experience on the Joe Rogan Experience

After his appearance on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast with Graham Hancock and Randall Carlson, Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer decided to devote a special issue of the magazine to Hancock’s theory that an ancient lost civilization predates by tens of thousands of years all other known ancient civilizations. The follow article, published in Skeptic Vol. 22, No. 3, is Dr. Shermer’s account of the show and a refinement of his notes for why he is skeptical of Hancock’s theory. Since this issue was published he and Graham have enjoyed a cordial correspondence and friendship, so everything within this article should be read in the context of debating just the facts.

On May 16, 2017, I appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) podcast (and YouTube videocast) along with Graham Hancock and Randall Carlson, plus our hand-selected “phone-a-friend” Skyped in guests (geologist Marc Defant for me, planetary scientist Malcolm LeCompte for Hancock and Carlson). It was a three-and-a-half hour marathon that at the time of this writing, several million people have heard or viewed on various platforms.

It was, in fact, my third appearance on the JRE, one of the most popular podcasts in the world. According to Joe, as of that week he was averaging over 120 million downloads a month, putting him on a par with the biggest talk show hosts on television, either cable or broadcast. He has a huge and diverse following, and for good reason—he’s a remarkable conversationalist. My previous two appearances lasted for three hours each, without any sense of time passing. Unlike most talkshow hosts I have engaged with over the decades, a dialogue with Joe Rogan is like talking to an old friend. He is warm, receptive to all ideas, and allows the conversation to advance organically without an agenda. For my solo appearances he was as sympathetic to my ideas as he was to those of Hancock and Carlson in their prior appearances on his show.

It was, therefore, surprising to find myself under something of a grilling from Rogan the moment I was given the opportunity to reply to a few opening comments by Hancock. It soon went from 2-on-1 to 3-on-1, which a great many people noted in comments on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets during and after the show. Here are just a few among hundreds:

xmikex902x: Ya I don’t think Joe did a good job as a moderator at all. He should’ve remained neutral, but he almost instantly turned this into a 3 on 1, and idc which side “did better“ or w/e. It just wasn’t a very fair way to handle this.

Alex Bones Jones: Joe was massively biased and it was 3-vs-1 for the bulk of the podcast. He is the worst moderator I’ve ever seen.

Tadas Galinauskis: That was not good moderating, that was 3vs1 most of the time with lots of interuptions on Shummer and then complaining that he doesn’t understand his points.

Llama4 hours ago: Honestly embarrasing how joe and the other two acted. I have never seen him like this, acting so unreasonable and being so obnoxious to michael shermer.

Zack Duncan: Neither Graham nor Joe gave Michael the opportunity to finish a complete thought. They just ping ponged back and forth random citations and incredulity. If you don’t understand why he’s arguing against something LET HIM EXPLAIN IT.

Randall Carlson on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast # 961

Randall Carlson on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast # 961

I wasn’t bothered by Joe’s siding with Hancock as I’m used to being outnumbered. There was no agreement ahead of time that Joe would act as a neutral moderator; it is his show and he can do whatever he wants. I saw it as more bandwidth for me to explain how science works on the margins of knowledge. In any case, there were far fewer comments critical of Joe than of me and Hancock (everyone seemed to love Carlson), which I estimate to be split roughly 50/50. Here are a few comments in support of Hancock and critical of me (out of thousands):

Rusty Shackleford: Jr Graham sources all of his work. Michael and Mark had to retract slanders…the skeptics got roasted.

Marty Marino: you’re a really smart man but you’ve lost your magic as a human.

Kris Rai: Oh dear Michael, oh dear.

City Strut: Respect to you Graham. I commend you greatly for trying to seek answers and debate your findings. You’re rad!

Tom Bunzel: I cannot believe how closed @Michaelshermer’s mind is. Could not listen despite the amazing insights of Graham and Randell

Joe: Fantastic as always mr hancock!

And here are a few comments in support of me and critical of Hancock (out of thousands):

Clayton Reese Christian: Hi Michael, I’m a big Graham fan. I just wanted to come over and say hi and thanks for doing the debate/podcast. I really enjoyed it and you gave their ideas really tough resistance. It takes a really special mind to go up against three people with contradictory world views in front of millions of people. I will be following your work :).

Andreas Ciecielski: What the hell was that Joe? Graham is a sanctimonious ass and here you are constantly interrupting Michael. Graham’s theories shrivel under the hot lights of pear review for a reason; if you funnel data to suite your theories, the stuff you leave out will get noticed. Nice to see Michael keep an even keel while being constantly interrupted.

George Koush: Michael you did a great job joe and graham were acting like children. I love how everyone was expecting you to give them answers to their fantasy, lol. ;)

Sven Bondessono: Painful to listen to. Shermer was too polite in his fight for the scientific method. Joe was waaay to biased and makes for a horrible mediator. Hancock is just making shit up and asking people to disprove his theories, hack. Should have been another scientist in the podcast for some balance.

LE0NSKA: I agree with shermer. 3D paintings on a 2D space is more impressive than a 3D carving on a 3D space in terms of cognitive function. you just have look at some old regular paintings, their perspective is all fucked up.

From my notes for the show, here are the reasons why alternative archaeologists in general, and Hancock in particular, have failed to convince most scientists and archaeologists to abandon the theory about the timeline of civilization over the past 13,000 years in favor of an alternative theory of a lost advanced civilization.

1. There isn’t just one “alternative” to mainstream archaeology, there are hundreds of alternative theories.

To name a few:

  • Lost tribes of Israel who colonized the Americas (and other places).
  • Mormon archaeology that the Native Americans are descended from this lost tribe.
  • Kensington Runestones of Minnesota claimed to prove Nordic Viking peopling of the Americas.
  • Black Egyptian Hypothesis: Ancient Egyptians were predominantly Black.
  • Piltdown Man.
  • South American archaeology claiming Olmec statues look African in origin.
  • Erich von Däniken, Secharia Sitchin, and ancient alien archaeology.

To take a line from skeptics of alternative medicine, do you know what you call alternative archaeology with evidence? Archaeology.

2. Cherry picking data, confirmation bias, and starting with a conclusion and working backward through the evidence to make it fit.
  • Christian Fundamentalists start with the assumption of the Flood and go in search of Noah’s Ark and evidence of floods.
  • Creationists begin with a belief in a young Earth and instant creation in seven days, so they reject the theory of evolution and look for any anomaly in science that seems to go against the findings that support a 4.6 billion year old Earth.
  • Hindu creationists believe in an exceptionally ancient human lineage that dates back tens of millions of years, and therefore accuse the scientific establishment of suppressing the fossil evidence of extreme human antiquity. The self-identified “Vedic archaeologist” Michael Cremo, in his book Forbidden Archaeology, believes his findings support the story of humanity described in the Hindu Vedas.

I can assure readers that these writers believe as strongly in the truth and validity of their ideas as Graham Hancock does in his.

3. Patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.
  • Matching the alignment of buildings on the ground with stars in the sky.
  • The comparison between disparate cultures of artifacts and monuments from one society and highlighting similarities with those of another to conclude a common source, when in fact they are more likely explained by independent invention.
  • Immanuel Velikovsky compared myths of migrations and war gods in Mesoamerican Aztec civilization, but was off by a millennium.
  • John Taylor, in his 1859 book The Great Pyramid, computed that if you divide the height of the pyramid into twice the side of its base, you get a number close to pi; he also thought he had discovered the length of the ancient cubit as the division of the Earth’s axis by 400,000—both of which Taylor found to be too incredible to be coincidental. Other alternative archaeologists “discovered” that the base of the Great Pyramid divided by the width of a casing stone equals the number of days in the year, and that the height of the Great Pyramid multiplied by 109 approximately equals the distance from the Earth to the Sun. And so on.
Graham Hancock on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast # 961

Graham Hancock on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast # 961

In his classic 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, the science writer Martin Gardner revealed the poignant problem with patternicity when “just for fun” he analyzed the Washington Monument and “discovered” the property of fiveness to it: “Its height is 555 feet and 5 inches. The base is 55 feet square, and the windows are set at 500 feet from the base. If the base is multiplied by 60 (or 5 times the number of months in a year) it gives 3,300, which is the exact weight of the capstone in pounds. Also, the word “Washington” has exactly 10 letters (2 times 5). And if the weight of the capstone is multiplied by the base, the result is 181,500—a fairly close approximation of the speed of light in miles per second. After musing that “it should take an average mathematician about 55 minutes to discover the above ‘truths,’” Gardner concludes “how easy it is to work over an undigested mass of data and emerge with a pattern, which at first glance, is so intricately put together that it is difficult to believe it is nothing more than the product of a man’s brain.”

4. Alternative archaeologists disparage mainstream archaeologists and accuse them of being closed-minded dogmatists in a conspiracy to silence the truth.

This calumny is gainsaid by a paper published just weeks before our debate in the prestigious journal Nature, in which scientists put forth evidence that they believe indicates humans (or possibly Neanderthals) inhabited the San Diego area of Southern California some 130,000 years ago, which is an order of magnitude earlier than mainstream archaeologists’ timeline for the peopling of America. The evidence for this conjecture, however, is not as strong as the popular media made it out to be in the considerable press coverage this paper received. The “butchered” mammoth bones may, in fact, have been broken in the excavation of a road recently constructed at the site, and the “stone tools” were nothing at all like the finely crafted Clovis points found all over North America, and instead might be just broken rocks. When I queried the renowned scholar of human history and prehistory, Jared Diamond, who has for half a century followed the claims of pre-Clovis peoples populating the Americas, he replied with this one-liner: “The latest semi-annual new-paradigm pre-Clovis claim with a credibility half-life of two days.”

5. Falsifiability, conjectures and refutations, and the burden of proof.

During our debate I asked Hancock several times, “What would it take to refute your hypothesis?” I never received a reply. In his 1959 book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the philosopher of science Karl Popper proposed a solution to “the demarcation problem” of distinguishing science from pseudoscience: “The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” In his 1963 book Conjectures and Refutations, Popper outlined how scientists operate by conjecturing ideas to their colleagues and considering the refutations in response. There’s nothing wrong with making conjectures—it is the life blood of science in fact—but since most ideas that scientists propose are wrong, the constant dialogue with one’s fellow experts in a field through letters (and today emails), phone calls, papers, books, conferences, and the like, is crucial for determining if one has run off the rails. That is why it is dangerous to work in isolation, which is an inherent limitation of being an outsider to a field. It’s not that outsiders can’t or don’t make contributions— occasionally they do. But usually they don’t because most of us most of the time are wrong about our conjectures, so refutations from colleagues is vital. I wrote to Hancock a few days after our debate, in part to respond to his annoyance over the publication of my column on his work in Scientific American (that by chance was posted online the same day of the debate):

Dear Graham,

I get that you’re upset, and why, and I no doubt owe a great deal to that fact by how and what I said and wrote. To that end I am truly sorry that you feel I “rubbished” your life’s work. That was certainly not my intention, and it goes against my philosophy of giving people a fair hearing. Clearly I failed in that regard. But there is nothing factual in my column that I would change, even after our long dialogue.

To wit: you still have no evidence whatsoever for the lost civilization. Not a single tool. No writing. Not even any pottery. Even after nearly four hours in Joe’s studio I still have no idea what you mean by “advanced”, despite my asking you repeatedly. Your comments were filled with many modifiers like “perhaps” “maybe” “possibly,” etc. It’s fine to speculate, and you may even be right. But to overturn the mainstream theory in any field you need to do more than that.

If mainstream archaeologists are all wrong about how they define “advanced” (writing, metallurgy, pottery, etc.) then it is incumbent on you to redefine it in a way to convince them that the evidence points to your claims. That they don’t accept your theory is simply how most science in most fields works, a point I tried (and mostly failed) to make in bringing up other examples. I realize these other theories have nothing to do with you, but my point is that in the Popperian sense of falsification science you need to explain how your theory could be falsified. Maybe I missed it but I don’t think I know how you would answer that question.

It’s the reason I brought up Lawrence Krauss. Neil deGrasse Tyson is another example. They both get weekly letters, articles, books, and the like from people advancing alternative theories of physics. They simply cannot address them all, but the burden of proof is on the alternative physics people to show why mainstream physics (Newton, Einstein, etc.) are wrong and their theory is right. It’s possible that is the case, but not likely given the failure rate of so many who have already tried to do so over the centuries. So Lawrence and Neil end up defending the mainstream, not because they are hidebound dogmatists, but because the preponderance of evidence supports it.

I then recommended to Hancock that he read Jared Diamond’s short essay in the January Edge.org issue about this matter:

The first well-attested settlement of the Americas south of the Canada/U.S. border occurred around 13,000 years ago, as the ice sheets were melting. That settlement is attested by the sudden appearance of stone tools of the radiocarbon-dated Clovis culture, named after the town of Clovis, New Mexico, where the tools and their significance were first recognized. Clovis tools have now been found over all of the lower 48 U.S. states, south into Mexico. That sudden appearance of a culture abundantly filling up the entire landscape is what one expects and observes whenever humans first colonize fertile empty lands.

But any claim by an archaeologist to have discovered “the first X” is taken as a challenge by other archaeologists to discover an earlier X. In this case, archaeologists feel challenged to discover pre-Clovis sites, i.e., sites with different stone tools and dating to before 13,000 years ago. Every year nowadays, new claims of pre-Clovis sites in the U.S. and South America are advanced, and subjected to detailed scrutiny. Eventually, it turns out that most of those claims are invalidated by the equivalent of technical errors at step 37: e.g., the radiocarbon sample was contaminated with older carbon, or the radiocarbon-dated material really wasn’t associated with the stone tools. But, even after complicated analyses and objections and rebuttals, a few pre-Clovis claims have not yet been invalidated. At present, the most widely discussed such claims are for Chile’s Monte Verde site, Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft site, and one site each in Texas and in Oregon. As a result, the majority of American archaeologists currently believe in the validity of pre-Clovis settlement.

To me, it seems instead that pre-Clovis believers have fallen into the archaeological equivalent of Mr. Bridgess’s fallacy. It’s absurd to suppose that the first human settlers south of the Canada/U.S. border could have been airlifted by non-stop flights to Chile, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Texas, leaving no unequivocal signs of their presence at intermediate sites. If there really had been pre-Clovis settlement, we would already know it and would no longer be arguing about it. That’s because there would now be hundreds of undisputed pre-Clovis sites distributed everywhere from the Canada/U.S. border south to Chile.

6. The dangers of reading the past from the present.

Before the JRE show I consulted the professional archaeologist and skeptic of alternative archaeology, Ken Feder, about the symbolism found on the monumental stone structures at Göbekli Tepe. Hancock thinks they represent the constellations or carry some deeper meaning about nature at that time. Feder replied:

There appears to be a conceit on the part of modern people that all ancient art must in some way be representational, depicting things the artists actually saw and experienced. But we don’t insist on that for modern artists. Their art requires no concrete explanation. We allow them to be creative, imaginative, and to just make shit up because it’s cool or represents stuff they hallucinated in trance and then interpreted through the prism of religion.

Feder added that the paintings of Magritte, if we took them literally, would represent the “period when gravity was abolished, at least for men in suits, and apples.” And “My favorite; there’s a version of a Kokopelli that I’ve seen in Utah. Only instead of being a hump-backed, flute-playing man, it’s a bipedal bighorn sheep playing a flute. This reflects a time when Ovis canadensis was far more musically inclined. Probably because of the comet.”

Michael Shermer on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast # 961

Michael Shermer on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast # 961

Satire aside, the point is that we must be extremely cautious about reading into the past our own ideas, and the further back in time we go the more dangerous it is to do so. The astronomer Ed Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, expert on archaic astronomy, and the author of several books on when it is appropriate (or not) to interpret archaeological sites as astronomical in nature, offered these insights, including the problem of employing astronomical computer programs that allow one to see what the night sky would have looked like to people thousands of years ago. Here again we see the problem of patternicity, or finding patterns that exist only in the mind’s eye.

The broad account of the interpretation makes me very skeptical. We have no dictionary for the symbolic vocabulary of Göbekli Tepe imagery. This appears to start with the assumption [that] the figures are recognized constellations (several problems right there) and then goes back in time with planetarium software in search of a fit. Starry Night and Stellarium have a lot to answer for. They are dangerous weapons in the hands of amateurs.

Regarding the carving of a scorpion on one of the T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe, Krupp noted of Hancock’s interpretation:

It all seems to rest on the Scorpion, which he argues must be Scorpio [sic. He means “Scorpius”]. Then he turns the other images, which have no known relationship to any known constellation imagery, into constellations in the same territory. This gives him the Milky Way in Sagittarius, although it is not depicted. Then he takes the disk, calls it a sun symbol, and says it is in the center of the Milky Way in Sagittarius, à la the 2012 Maya Calendar End Times Follies. Because the Maya calendar allegedly marked the start of a New Age, he implies the Göbekli Tepe carving also marks the start of a New Age (and the end of the earlier era). That, in turn, is linked to the alleged Dryas impact. It all appears to be contrived data of high order.


Of the many thousands of comments in response to the JRE debate I have become painfully aware that to roughly half I seemed hidebound and dogmatically closed minded to the possibility of a lost advanced civilization. As I told Hancock on the show and in writing after, I’m not. Honestly. I don’t have a dog in the fight. I haven’t written anything on the subject save the Scientific American column. I would happily change my mind, which I have on many other subjects (evolution, climate change, gun control, the death penalty, etc.). But the further back in time we push the origins of civilization the more problematic the dates become, and having followed this area since the 1970s when I read the alternative archaeology of that time with wide eyed naiveté, I’ve seen earlier date after earlier date not stand up to scrutiny. An uncontested conjecture does not a new civilization make.

Finally, as I said at the end of the debate, I truly believe that science needs outsiders and mavericks who poke and prod and push accepted theories until they either collapse or are reinforced even more strongly. Of all the alternative archaeology theories I’ve read I found Hancock’s to be the most intriguing, in the romantic sense of Golden Age myths and what they may mean for us. But I don’t think he has convinced the professionals in the field of the factual nature of this particular story, and that’s how it usually goes in science. Most ideas turn out to be wrong. The standard timeline of how civilizations unfolded over the past 13,000 years may be one of them, but so far it has held up well. END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the Science Salon Podcast, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

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6 Comments

  1. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    First, thank you, Dr Shermer for spending time debating people like Hancock. It is a thankless task – yet I thank you!

    I Hancock’s efforts into the category of cargo-cult science, rather than pseudo-science. I don’t need to explain Feynman’s concept of cargo cult science here. It largely stems from a LACK of honesty & bravery in subjecting one’s thoughts, results, and ‘theories’ to the scrutiny of other experts and _accepting all valid criticism_.

    As Feynman points out cargo-cult science plagues many fields of academia. This is a real problem and why peer review is so central to scientific progress.

    I wish the concept of cargo-cult science were as common understood as the concept of a logical fallacy. Shermer’s job would be so much easier if he could simply say: Sir, your work is not accepted by the scientific community because it is not science – it just looks like science to the casual observer. It’s cargo-cult science!

  2. sittingbytheriver says:

    Very interesting article regarding the podcast discussion. Kudos to you, Mike, for remaining calm and polite in an adversarial environment. It’s best to take the high road.

  3. Egon callery says:

    Keep on debating, Michael.
    It’s such a pity that Joe Rogan has brought Hancock back to his show to give him a further platform for his unsubstantiated theories.Joe clearly believes they are true.
    Instead of a sceptical view by an opponent other than you, he just confirms his bias.Too bad his audience is now so sceptical (read doubtful) about scepticism in general it’s just more fuel for the ‘i dont trust authority therefor the outsider is really the insider’ crowd.C’est le ton qui fait la musique and Michael’s doesnt seem to resonate.His points did not get a fair hearing, especially when Joe sided with the others, impressed by the size of the turkish find.
    He was tge fly in the ointment, the party pooper.
    Anyway , Sisyphus must work away regardless.

    Big fan of your Skeptic..

  4. Sebastian Ferreyra says:

    Perhaps this will be deleted, I would not be surprised given the obviously defensive posture taken in this article and in the podcast.

    I’m not here to defend Hancock’s and Carlson’s posture, but I will defend Rogan’s posture, as I did not find it biased in Shermer’s favor.

    He started the conversation in a neutral posture, and was only disappointed with Shermer’s almost dogmatic attitude dismissing evidence confounding it with the rigors demanded of proof, and favoring what he believed where mainstream views, in some cases even without actually knowing what the mainstream view is, as was evident when he dismissed statements from the Smithsonian after finding he had refuted them out of ignorance. (~1:27:00 in the podcast)

    I came here looking for evidence that his attitude had evolved, and instead I find that he maintains his defensive posture, again dismissing Hanckock and Carlson, with the very same weak arguments he used in the podcast, Comparing their arguments and evidence to other alternative claims made by others, which generally offer no substantial evidence, is even more disappointing now than when I first heard them in the podcast.

    I guess you have a business to run and must defend your product, at the expense of a true skeptic attitude.

    I’ll post this message elsewhere in the eventual case it is deleted.

    Sincerely,

    Sebastian Ferreyra

  5. Pat says:

    Just finished watching this infamous episode on Joe Rogan. Boy, you come off as a pathological debunker, Michael Shermer, which is really sad. A true skeptic is there to seek truth, and you were there to disagree for the sake of disagreeing. And you were woefully unprepared and appeared so ignorant on the subjects in which you were trying to ridicule the other side. And your geologist friend Mark was even worse – close-minded, bombastic, condescending, talking over other guests and hosts. If you were are the representatives of the “skeptics,” it’s sad commentary on the state of skepticism.

  6. Pat says:

    Bully is the word I was looking for. By this I mean Michael Shermer’s geologist supporter Mark Defant behaved like a rigid, dogmatic bully on the show; zero debating skills, but constantly resorting to shouting down the other side and ad hominem attack to try to get his point across, but the effect is just the opposite. I have to give Shermer credit for admitting that Mark Defant made multiple misstatements about Graham Hancock’s views in his article, but Shermer nonetheless succeeded in appearing nothing more than a zealot worshipping the religion of mindless and pointless “skepticism.”

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