The Author does a great job of convincing the reader that they are better of reading the reference material instead of the book itself.
The best thing about this book is the cover art – which leads me to an unrelated complaint that it is surprisingly difficult to determine the artist of a book cover. It should be stated somewhere in each publication, but isn’t. Aren’t artists annoyed by this? Not even the library record indicates cover artist, and they’re usually so thorough…
Indeed, I borrowed this book from the library, and if you are curious about the book I recommend you do the same, because I would definitely not recommend spending money on it, because it is not good. As professional as it looks, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book that felt more ghetto — but not ghetto in a gritty authentic way; ghetto in a cheap, low quality, minimal effort, haphazard way.
To begin, I was hoping for a concise book outlining clear arguments challenging/refuting current or previous myths. This wasn’t exactly the case – the tone fell short of objective or professional, and failed to be humorous, entertaining, or candid. It really just came off as sloppy, petty, and emotional – as if the author was throwing a tantrum because lots of people believe things that he thinks are stupid. I can relate to that frustration, but when flippancy seeps into a written document, credibility suffers.
While Prothero will bring in some solid facts and analysis into some of his arguments (especially when geology is involved) the book lacked a consistent academic feel. He referenced the same Mythbusters episode seven times in one chapter. A university student probably couldn’t get away with doing that in a paper, what made him think it was okay in his book? Should you ever find yourself giving your reader the distinct impression that they will be better-informed by watching a shitty tv show, then your book just might be a waste of time.
And while I’m not willing to dedicate the time or energy to precisely quantify it (although it is tempting), it seemed that over half of the content in this book are quoted passages from other sources – much of it online content. He even includes a passage that exceeds a full page from his own blog, setting it up with the phrase “As I wrote elsewhere,” (pg 237). Did he not care enough to paraphrase his point?
There is little in this volume that would change someone’s mind about a pre-existing view, and the amount of space that is dedicated to a given phenomenon seems entirely dependent on how much he has to say on the topic rather than how interesting or relevant the issue is. We didn’t need 10 pages on the age of the earth, 20 pages on the great flood, or two chapters on earth quake myths. Really, each topic could have been summed up with a table of data and a short explanation. “Look, earthquakes are just as likely to occur in day vs night” or “There is no correlation between ambient temperature and earthquake frequency.” That’s all. There is value in brevity.
Despite a lot of good science-y feeling content, the book overall seemed to lack credibility. It didn’t help that the author dismissed any views that were not mainstream (I was given the distinct impression that he would have been a stark opponent of any of the views which he champions when they were first being promoted). Because his starting point is a sneering contempt for any ideas that challenge the existing state of understanding, the writing lacks any air of objectivity, and it is not apparent that he would welcome evidence that challenges an existing view.
The book often seemed like a field of straw men – there was a tendency to cherry pick and gleefully ridicule the most ridiculous online content (more long quoted passages!) and the majority of space was dedicated to refutations that were obvious and/or uninteresting. The book feels more like a college student’s sarcastic blog than the work of a serious academic.
While he thankfully spends some time in the concluding chapter examining belief systems, he fails to convince the reader that the content of the book wasn’t derived from the very same failures that resulted in the myths he so greatly despises.
Specifically, his flippant dismissal of aliens and UFOs is never really justified (interestingly, he doesn’t dedicate a chapter to this topic). Basic math and biology (a good treatment of the requirements and restrictions for the formation of life can be found in The Vital Question by Nick Lane) certainly makes life on other planets seem likely. Based on the age of the Earth and the Universe, it is entirely possible that there exist alien civilizations that are millions of years older than our own. Considering that we easily acknowledge that 100 years of technological development creates comparatively god-like powers, one wonders what is so ridiculous about interstellar travel or escaping human detection for such a civilization. It is entirely reasonable to believe that Earth has never had visitors, but the stance that the possibility is ridiculous is not (in this book, at least) supported by any compelling arguments. I wonder how Prothero reacted when various UFO data was declassified in 2020. What was his explanation for these phenomenon (because as far as I know, the US government didn’t seem to have a compelling working theory).
Regrettably, Prothero often relies on unconvincing arguments based on the ‘difficulty of keeping secrets’. He must realize that such arguments rest on a sampling bias: we don’t know about the secrets that are successfully kept. Since we only learn about secret keeping fails, of course it seems like it is not possible to keep one. Another common argument usually assures us that Occam’s Razor renders conspiratorial explanations stupid and always wrong… except, of course, for when they’re not. There is not shortage of ‘conspiracies’ confirmed and documented in a court of law – far too many occurring in living memory.
In the case of the declassified UFO sightings, he would be left in the awkward position of either admitting that evidence was indeed being kept from the public, or else invent a reason for why the government would create fake content that they are now lying about having hidden. I would love to hear his explanation for why Snowden’s disclosures are legitimate, but far less dramatic conspiracies should not be taken seriously.
And that’s why a book like this could have had value. Explain why something is not possible or likely; while acknowledging when you can’t discount a possibility. Other than the cover, the real value of this book were in many of the references brought forth. Before reading this book, I didn’t know that helicopter backpacks have been available and on the market for decades (or that someone was planning to descend into the (hollow) earth with one (pg 66). I didn’t know that some dude moved his whole family to Alaska to seek out a sacred entrance, but gave up after driving for an hour because he saw a sign that said “This is a Private Road: Don’t Go Any Further” (pg 64). I didn’t know that ancient Greeks and Roman tourists could float above the sunken city of Helike, and see the submerged statue of Poseidon from their boats (pg 188), or that temperature increases 30°C per km beneath the Earth’s surface (pg 67) (which makes the plot of Snowpiercer even more ridiculous), or about aquitards, Project Mohole, Chikyu Maru, or the Integrated Ocean Drilling Project.
There was a lot of great material here, and Prothero certainly demonstrated the ability to treat it properly – but for whatever reason, he did not. Prothero failed to maintain an objective and academic tone, while also failing to be interesting or entertaining. Which is a shame.