Thursday, 10 May 2012

a close shave

Ancient Egyptian sailors visited Central America. Although this statement is both widely believed and impossible to disprove categorically, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. It is an excellent example of how easily ‘evidence’ can be misinterpreted.

The principal reason for this belief is that the ancient Egyptians built pyramids, and so did the Maya and other Mexican civilizations, in places like Teotihuacán and Chichén Itzá. Obviously, either Egypt and Mexico developed their architecture independently, or the earlier civilization influenced the later. No other explanation is possible.

Apart from the purported similarity in architecture, what other evidence might support the second of these possibilities? Well, Thor Heyerdahl did cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1970 in a papyrus boat built to an ancient Egyptian design, but this proves no more than that such a voyage is possible. Set against this fatuous exercise is the observation that the pyramids of Mexico were built as temples. Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs.

In fact, the pyramid was the only option for any ancient civilization wanting to build high that had not invented the arch. Despite the many fanciful illustrations that have been produced by well-known artists over the centuries, the legend of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 3–5) would have been based on the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, which were also a type of pyramid. And the top of the tower, if it was ever built, would have fallen well short of being ‘in the heavens’.

In addition, we are asked to believe that Egyptian seafarers stayed long enough to pass on the secrets of pyramid building but failed to notice that their hosts had not invented the wheel, which would have been a screamingly obvious piece of technology to pass on. Finally, the Egyptian hypothesis is anachronistic: Egyptian civilization had collapsed by the time the first cities were being built in Central America. In other words, the Egyptian hypothesis violates the mediaeval scholastic principle known as Occam’s razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’), which in simple terms means that when faced with competing explanations for a given phenomenon, the simplest one is the most likely to be correct.

Thor Heyerdahl himself was notable for ignoring the strictures of Occam’s razor. His Kon-tiki expedition of 1947 is a classic example. Despite the overwhelming linguistic and ethnographic evidence that Polynesia was populated from the west, that is from Asia, he was influenced by oral histories in South America to attempt to ‘prove’ that at least some Polynesian populations, notably that on Easter Island, originated from this continent. He failed to take into account that pre-literate societies (no pre-Hispanic society in South America developed a system of writing) invariably have wild, fantastic notions of their own history. As with his ‘Egyptian voyage’, all he succeeded in proving was that such a journey is possible.

Unfortunately, thanks in part to a documentary about Kon-tiki that won an Academy Award in 1951, Heyerdahl succeeded in capturing the public imagination, which no doubt inspired and encouraged his later boating holidays. In the process, he has done almost as much damage to the practice of legitimate scholarship as Erich von Daniken, that other well-known popularizer of implausible hypotheses.

So, if you are tempted to put forward an idea without thinking it through, be forewarned that William of Ockham, the demon barber of woolly thinking and inventor of the razor that bears his name, stands ready to give your proposition an extremely close shave: his razor will carve it into little pieces, pinpoint the non sequiturs and logical fallacies, and spread them out for everyone to see the weaknesses in your reasoning. Occam’s razor: don’t leave home without it.

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