Academic journal

When bible-inspired pseudoscience and clickbait lead to looting

For a myriad of reasons, and like many other researchers working in Southwest Asia, we were deeply disappointed when Scientific reports, a peer-reviewed journal operating under one of the world’s leading scientific journals, Nature, published pseudoscientific research on a supposed ancient cosmic explosion destroying the site of Tall el-Hammam in what is now Jordan. The authors speculate that this putative event may have been the basis of the biblical story of Sodom, in which a city was destroyed by stones and fire sent from heaven.

Atoday s, the original Scientific reports the story was viewed 348,000 times and generated nearly 20,000 tweets (including one retweet by astronaut Chris hadfield, which has over 2 million followers). It has been covered by 176 media outlets (including major scientific bodies, such as Smithsonian magazine) and was ranked 55th out of over 300,000 articles followed by a similar age in all academic journals.

MMuch of the media attention seemed to us to be driven by clickbait (sensationalist text designed to draw readers to the often questionable claims of an article). For example, The conversation The article written by some of the study’s authors had the beguiling headline “Giant Space Boulder Demolishes Ancient Middle Eastern City and Everyone Is There – Perhaps Inspiring the Biblical Story of Sodom ”. The play has been republished widely, including in SAPIENS under the title “Did an Asteroid Shape This Famous Biblical Story?” – a clear tease.

WWhat is at stake when pseudoscience becomes a click trap? Lots of things, but we have the time and space here to deal with just two repercussions: the erosion of scientific integrity and the destruction of archaeological sites.

FFirst of all, this case illustrates a low production of archaeological knowledge. After the Scientific reports article was published, the Twitter world caught fire. The researchers dissected the shoddy science, poor analyzes of biological remains, modified images, manifesto religious agenda, and erroneous interpretations of stratigraphic contexts, especially those with signs of burns. This has left many wondering about the verification process and how such a flawed document ever passed peer review.

A A leading scientist on asteroid collisions and air bursts, physicist Mark Boslough took to Twitter to deconstruct line by line the scientific errors contained in the article. After reviewing the images used in the publication, Elisabeth Bik, microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant, concluded: “Several photos of the excavation sites appear to contain cloned parts, small areas that appear to be visible multiple times in the same photo. She wonders about the reasons for the photographic alterations.

Biological anthropologists Megan Perry and Chris Stantis analyzed the interpretations of human remains, noting that the examination was carried out by a doctor, and not by a qualified bioarchaeologist. According to Perry, “Physicians may know the basics of anatomy, but they are generally NOT experts at interpreting bone taphonomy or distinguishing between ante-mortem, perimortem, and post-mortem trauma.”

AAnthropologist Matthew Boulanger has identified a serious fault with radiocarbon dates: “The reported date (s) reflects the a priori assumption that all 14C dates MUST represent a single event, and not (as presented) a test of whether the dates represent a single event.” This is the definition of the affirmation of the consequent, and it is #bad science. “

VSThe condemnation of this article’s findings shares a common thread: Critics say the data was designed to match a single hypothesis that Tall el-Hammam is Biblical Sodom, even though the authors simply suspend that connection in their minds. articles and be careful not to make a direct claim.

For Steven Collins, the project manager at Tall el-Hammam, and his team, the exercise of proving Tall el-Hammam to be Sodom is the crux of the effort. The purpose of the work is resolutely focused on identifying Sodom, so it appears that all interpretation, communication, and fundraising of their work is geared towards achieving this goal.

TThe team produces a high-profile and lucrative click-bait storyline that they can deploy in a wide range of academic and public venues. In the 2007 the Wall Street newspaper “Digging for Sin City, Christians Toil in Jordan Desert” article, Collins claims that Tall el-Hammam is “the zero point of wickedness” and that the site would one day be a “great tourist destination with a large sign saying:” Welcome In Sodom, perhaps in neon pink.

An aerial map shows more than 3,200 holes dug by looters in Fifa, a Bronze Age cemetery in Jordan. Austin “Chad” Hill

Ther WSJ article describes volunteers paying thousands of dollars to participate in the dig and notes that the fundraising efforts have sparked fears of a post-Christian world. Collins says he has sought to verify Bible stories to challenge the “insidious little vermin to eat into doubt about the credibility of the Bible.” Christianity is lost in Europe because it has lost faith in the biblical text. Post-Christian America is very, very close.

AAnyone who cares about archeology, including scientists and the science media and the public that depend on it, should question the results of the excavations that accompany claims like Collins’.

TThe age of archaeologists carrying a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other should be a thing of the past, buried in the colonizing archaeological practices of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, many rigorous scientific archaeological companies study Biblical periods, but none claim to conduct their research to prove that Biblical stories are fact.

Ta large majority of archaeologists working in the region do not believe that Tall el-Hammam – or the sites of Bâb adh-Dhrâʿ and Numayra, both traditionally associated with Sodom and Gomorrah – can be (or even should be) equated with these myths. biblical. cities.

IInstead, the ancient peoples of the region likely developed oral histories and histories to explain these “ghost towns” located by the Dead Sea. These stories then formed the basis for oral traditions that were eventually written down, over a millennium later, in the Bible.

WWe have spent decades investigating and publishing the urban communities of the Early Bronze Age (3600-2000 BC).

AFor anthropological archaeologists and critical thinkers, especially on heritage resources, we are not interested in equating real sites with mythical biblical cities.

WWe must reject works which reverse established methods of archeology and science. In science, researchers attempt to engage in objective investigation, following the evidence to where it leads. Collins and members of his team reverse this method, attempting to confirm an earlier belief. Their approach feeds pseudoscience.

TThe result of this pseudoscience is a viral clickbait that resonates dramatically and rapidly outside academia, regardless of any slow, measured, and evidence-based setbacks that would occur in mainstream academic discourse.

Fthe fight against clickbait is not an abstract battle. Archaeological accounts highlighting links to Sodom and Gomorrah point to real and actual physical damage to heritage resources and the Jordanian people through illegal excavations of sites associated with these mythical settlements.

Was the authors of the Scientific reports The article claims that the question of whether Tall el-Hammam is the biblical city of Sodom “is beyond the scope of this inquiry,” repeatedly mentioning Sodom and speculating on the connection produces insidious results.

Illegally manufactured items are explicitly marketed to people seeking a tangible connection to the Bible.

Sthe nationalized stories produced as a result of the original report accentuate the biblical connections to archaeological sites, generating considerable hype. This increases the desire for antiques from these places, and the increasing demand leads to looting.

ohOur Follow the Pots project is working with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan to track how ancient Bronze Age ceramic vases buried with the dead are unearthed from Dead Sea cemeteries, smuggled across an international border, laundered and made available to consumers at legally sanctioned antique stores and auction houses. We use drones to document the extensive damage caused by the looting and conduct ethnographic interviews (with protocols approved by the Institutional Review Board) with buyers in the Israeli licensed antiques market.

BCustomers explained their motives for acquiring these items by saying, I want “something from Jesus’ time”, “something related to the Bible” or “a pot from the city of sin” (ie the biblical city of Sodom).

The laudable efforts of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities to protect their past are often overwhelmed and thwarted by entrenched networks that launder illegally purchased artifacts to enter the legal market, where they are marketed explicitly to people seeking a tangible connection with it. the Bible.

Yesand when Boslough noted on Twitter that “pottery shards from Sodom and Gomorrah would have a much higher market value than shards from an unidentified random site,” Collins dismissed this major concern, against all evidence. He has answered, “Nonsense.”

Four brown and white containers with handles sit on black metal brackets behind glass with an explanatory panel next to them.

A legal market in Israel features ancient Bronze Age jars for sale, along with a sign that connects them to the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. Morag M. Kersel

SThe looting of these ancient Bronze Age cemeteries has serious repercussions in sustaining the demand for biblical touchstones. Grave items honoring the dead are turned into merchandise available for purchase. Skeletal remains of once revered ancestors are strewn across the pockmarked surfaces of these cemeteries, a fate these ancestors and their mourners never anticipated.

DThe construction of these cemeteries erases the possibilities of studying ancient Bronze Age burial customs and human remains to better understand one of the world’s earliest urbanizing cultures.

Llooting doesn’t just remove artifacts; it also destroys other less salable materials and erases contextual evidence crucial for archaeological interpretation. Finally, the demand for these objects literally steals the cultural heritage of Jordanians, especially those who live in the communities near these cemeteries by the Dead Sea.

Ddemand-driven looting, and archaeologists, scientific journals, media and the public should never blindly and blithely support or promote these activities through clickbait claims based on pseudoscience.