Independent Thinking in the Academic World

Reflecting on the Professional Perils of Challenging Conventional Wisdom

As regular readers of Atlantis Rising know, I have found myself butting heads with mainstream academics more than once. Perhaps most famously, or infamously, for two decades I have advocated the position that the Great Sphinx of Egypt traces its origins back thousands of years earlier than the standard Egyptological date of circa 2500 BC(as re­counted in various issues of Atlantis Rising, including most recently AR #s 76 and 78). An older Sphinx overturns the classical view of when and where civilization and high culture arose. Not only is the Great Sphinx older than conven­tional wisdoms holds, but so too is the oldest portion of the Great Pyramid (see my 2005 book Pyramid Quest).

Further enraging my traditional colleagues, I contend that climatic changes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and bombardments by comets may have destroyed some ancient civilizations catastrophically (Voices of the Rocks, 1999). Still further countering establishment views, I believe ancient peoples were not totally isolated from one another but were in contact across the continents and across the oceans, with the concomitant exchange of ideas and even mate­rial goods, thousands of years before Columbus (Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, 2003). In my opinion, the evidence points to a primordial civilization, which arose toward the end of the last ice age (with earlier precursors) and subse­quently spread around the globe.

My unconventional thinking on ancient history is bad enough, but much to the chagrin of some of my academic colleagues, I have delved into various “esoteric” and “occult” studies, seriously researching such taboo subjects as parapsychology and psychical research (The Parapsychology Revolution, 2008, as well as my articles in AR #s 66, 67, 68, 71, 73).

Schooled to be a mainstream academic scientist (Ph.D. in geology and geophysics, 1983), I am now a full-time tenured faculty member at Boston University. I started out with a conventional career, studying fossils and rocks from the period of about 65 to 40 million years ago, so how did I become sidetracked? Where did I “go wrong”? Why challenge orthodoxy? Why make life difficult for myself?

I never set out to question traditional notions. Trained as a natural historian, my desire is to make sense of the world as a whole. I am not satisfied with simply understanding a little piece in detail (many scientists are extreme specialists, and even I have my specialties). Between my theosophist grandmother (she taught me to question every­thing, including the things she taught me) and a graduate education that encouraged true inquiry, open-minded con­sideration of the unconventional comes naturally to me. I remember well the private advice I was given by a senior Yale professor while still a fledgling graduate student: If you want a satisfying intellectual career with the potential to discover something significant, then study important, cutting-edge, possibly unconventional, subjects, even if such a path is difficult and controversial. Of course, he warned, such a strategy is a genuine gamble, potentially risking one’s career and with it one’s mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being!

As science historians Juan Miguel Campanario and Brian Martin (in the 2008 book edited by M. L. Corredoira and C. C. Perelman, Against the Tide) have pointed out, there are different strategies one can pursue as a scientist (or aca­demic scholar more generally). Most scientists build their career by accepting, and working within, the existing para­digm of the time, adding to the overall picture with carefully sifted bits of data and perhaps elaborating and tweaking slightly existing theories. The work they do is neither highly original nor spectacular, but in terms of peer acceptance and likelihood of success (whether measured in terms of contributions to the paradigm, or more honestly, promotion and upward mobility in terms of jobs and salaries), it is a good, conservative, approach. Such a path, herding with the scientific pack, generally results in a stable career, moderate prestige, and the material benefits that go with being a well-paid industrial or academic scientist.

On the other hand, we can consider the “scientific risk-takers,” those who pursue speculative or unusual ideas, do not dismiss anomalous data, and end up questioning the reigning paradigm. The stakes are high. If the dissident suc­ceeds in having a new idea or theory accepted by the mainstream, the rewards in terms of prestige (which may result in funding, jobs, or other material benefits) can be enormous. However, the odds are stacked against the true innova­tor, and such a path is difficult, to say the least. Not only, one can argue, is there a high probability that the theory or ideas espoused by the innovator are false in an absolute sense, but even if there is something to them, there is an in­credible prejudice against new ideas among status quo scientists. As the Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck (1858-1947), one of the founders of quantum mechanics, famously asserted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Among my academic colleagues, at informal university gatherings for instance, I often find that I must be ex­tremely careful as to how much I reveal concerning my interest in either paranormal phenomena or anomalies of an­cient history. A scientist or scholar who seriously studies the idea of a primordial civilization in the deep recesses of the past (before civilization is supposed to have originated) or researches paranormal phenomena like telepathy may be branded as a crank, quack, charlatan, or pseudoscientist. To be labeled a pseudoscientist is probably the most dis­paraging epithet one can receive (and, for good measure, there are numerous variations on the “pseudo-” theme,

such as pseudoarchaeologist, pseudobiologist, pseudophysicist, pseudohistorian, and so on). This may be simple name calling, but in the academic world it can hurt (a person labeled as a pseudoscientist may be turned down for funding requests and denied promotions and raises), at least in the short-term. Regarding the long-term, I am a firm believer that the data and truth will prevail, and this is what keeps me going. Concerning the bitterness of in-fighting among academics, I learned my lesson well many years ago, at a Boston University faculty-staff Christmastime gath­ering.

It was back in the early 1990s. During the holiday party a faculty member with the Archaeology Department ac­costed me concerning my work on the Great Sphinx. I had never met her before, though she had attacked me in the local press. Suddenly she appeared before me, face-to-face, as I was attempting to enjoy the hors d’oeuvres. She loud­ly spouted out a diatribe, virtually spitting in my face, accusing me of falsifying data and results, and called me a pseudoscientist. Then quickly, before I could respond, she disappeared back into the crowd. It was all quite discon­certing, and I even felt a bit threatened. Clearly, she had prepared her statement, ready to be delivered in a staccato voice, if she happened to run into me. She did not want to open a dialogue on the subject. She did not care to learn about my evidence or analyses. I was the enemy as far as she was concerned, and that was that! I later learned that she and her colleagues in Archaeology were doing everything they could to make trouble for me behind the scenes, attempting to prevent me from any salary raises and spreading rumors in the Egyptian press (which I believe they thought I would never get wind of) that I was not a member of the Boston University faculty, though I had already re­ceived tenure, as they knew. These are classic tactics attempting to marginalize someone who dares to challenge the dominant paradigm. The goal is to generally make life miserable for the dissenter with the hope that the challenge to the status quo will quietly disappear.

I have found that my ideas and theories, whether concerning the Great Sphinx and the origin of high culture or topics related to the paranormal, generally receive a fairer and more considered hearing at academic conferences overseas than in my home turf. Certainly I do not intend to compare myself to the great visionaries of the past, but more than once the Biblical words have come to my mind, “a prophet has no honor in his own country” (from John 4:44). In my moments of melancholy and academic loneliness, I reflect on Isaiah, the prophet crying in the wilder­ness. (For the record, I do not consider myself aligned with any particular religion, but I certainly am familiar with Judeo-Christian traditions.) It is difficult to pursue one’s research with little financial support (big grants are not gen­erally awarded to pursue alternative thinking) and few, if any, sympathetic academic colleagues. Always being on the defensive, always feeling under attack, is draining.

People who consider it their duty to maintain the status quo often attempt to dismiss ideas and data that counter their limited worldview with overly simplistic, patronizing remarks. One of their favorite mantras is along the lines that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is an assertion that may sound superficially profound but does not hold up under careful and logical scrutiny as, when typically applied by the debunkers, it presupposes what is extraordinary in terms of claims and then sets an evidential standard that precludes the possibility of the claim being validated, no matter what the evidence. To give an extreme example, the nineteenth century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz declared that no amount of evidence, not even the evidence of his own senses, could ever convince him that telepathy is real since he knew that it was impossible. Talk about close-minded!

Certain topics are, it seems, simply taboo in “respectable” scientific and scholarly circles. One such subject is ex­traterrestrial intelligent alien contact with Earth. To even raise such a notion in anything other than a humorous or downright mocking context is seen as a reason to question one’s scientific competence, if not one’s sanity. It is a call to arms. When the late psychiatrist and tenured Harvard University professor John E. Mack, M.D., had the temerity to seriously investigate possible alien encounters and abduction phenomena in the early 1990s, he was not only openly ridiculed but also investigated by a special committee reporting to the Dean of the Harvard Medical School. Ultimate­ly it was determined that Mack had the right to study whatever subjects he pleased, but certainly such an investiga­tion was extremely unsettling, if not blatant harassment.

Yet when it comes to a subject like alien contact, is it necessarily downright ridiculous on the face of it? The late astronomer Tom Van Flandern did not think so. I first met Dr. Van Flandern at a conference where he and I were in­vited presenters. We both received our Ph.D.s from Yale, his in astronomy, and for many years he worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C. He and I had some extremely interesting discussions. He was a scientist who truly believed in following the evidence, as he interpreted it, and he propounded some very unorthodox ideas when it came to cosmology and the origin of the solar system. He also felt that there was evidence supporting the notion of a former civilization on Mars (such as the so-called “Face on Mars”).

Concerning the topic of possible extraterrestrial contact with humans, Van Flandern did not dismiss the idea. In fact, he applied the scientific principle known as Occam’s Razor to the issue; that is, the simplest hypothesis is to be preferred. In this vein he wrote (Van Flandern, in Against the Tide, p. 99), “Occam’s Razor argues that the single hy­pothesis of earlier contact with extraterrestrials to explain the wonders of the ancient world and the remarkable agreement among ancient texts in speaking of visitations by ‘the gods’ should be preferred to the multitude of separ­ate and ad hoc explanations others have offered. If mainstream science were not so preoccupied with avoiding ex­traordinary hypotheses, it would surely be agreed by most parties that the evidence, severely lacking though it is, mildly favors the extraterrestrial visitation hypothesis over most others. However, it cannot be argued that the evi­dence is anything approaching compelling, especially since it is all indirect (i.e., no definite extraterrestrial artifacts have been found).”

Let me be clear that I am not here advocating the reality of extraterrestrials or alien intervention in human af­fairs, either in the present or distant past. However, there is nothing unscientific per se about discussing such possi­bilities, and indeed simple contact with extraterrestrials need not break any generally accepted laws of nature, such as the law of gravitational attraction between objects with mass. Aliens, for all we know, might play by the same laws of physics as we do. There are other subjects that, arguably, go beyond the known laws of nature, at least as generally understood today. Such subjects are therefore variously referred to as para- this or para- that (paranormal, parasci­ence, paraphysics, parapsychology) or relegated to the preternatural or supernatural (I consider them all “natural” in the sense that we may not yet understand all the truths of nature). Just like possible alien contact, these para-subjects are generally taboo among orthodox scientists. A good case in point of such a taboo subject, as already mentioned above, is the possibility of telepathic communication between individuals.

There is plenty of solid evidence for telepathy (direct mind-to-mind communication), both experimental and anec­dotal, and related paranormal and parapsychological phenomena; yet when it comes to serious discussion of these subjects, most academics dismiss them out of hand. Worse still, many academics (most of whom have no firsthand knowledge of the field and are not aware of the serious research in parapsychology) have a strong emotional aversion to the topic. These feelings are all too often transferred to the paranormal researcher, and anyone showing an interest in the subject may find himself or herself ostracized and marginalized, looked down upon and made fun of, and dis­missed without a fair hearing. As philosopher and parapsychologist Dr. Stephen E. Braude (professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) has written, “. . . it still amazes me that when I so much as raise the subject of parapsychology to my academic colleagues, I often find nothing but stiff body language, sarcasm, and (per­haps most surprising of all) sometimes even outrage [italics in the original]. Not exactly the way you’d expect truth-seekers to respond to serious and thoughtful empirical and philosophical investigation” (p. xvi of Braude’s book The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, 2007). I have had the same types of experiences.

Long ago I decided to join the genuine truth-seekers. I do my best to follow this sometimes-lonely path, no matter how difficult the journey and despite the personal consequences. It is now too late to turn back. I am at peace with my decision.

Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D., has been a fulltime faculty member at Boston University’s College of General Studies since 1984. He began his studies of the Great Sphinx in 1989/1990 and ever since then has found himself challeng­ing conventional academic wisdom. Website: www.robertschoch.com

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.

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