Friday, May 1, 2020

#2332: Robert Temple

Billionaire and former Exxon executive Paul N. Temple, associated both with the fundamentalist Christian organization The Family and The Institute of Noetic Sciences, seems to have passed away. Author Robert K. G. Temple may not be quite as scary, but he is at least as crazy. Robert Temple is best known for his book The Sirius Mystery, which is a central work in the pseudoarchaeology canon, in which he argues that the Dogon people were contacted by fish-like aliens around 5000 years ago, who imparted much astronomical knowledge to them. Now, the data for Temple’s idea is admittedly (tenuously) rooted in some aspects of Dogon mythology, though largely filtered through the mistaken claims about the general lore of the Dogon people made by some French anthropologists, but Temple doesn’t seem to be deeply concerned with accuracy when presenting the data on Dogon lore to be explained, and might have qualified as a loon even if he hadn’t come up with the silliest conceivable explanation for those data.

Yes, it is ancient aliens nonsense, and though ancient aliens loons like Erich von Däniken and Barbara Weber Ray seem to take Temple as an authority, Temple actually has no expertise in any field relevant to his claims – his website lists him as “Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society” and the “British School of Archaeology at Rome”, both of which might sound impressive to people who can’t be bother to check but are in reality societies open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee. 

Moreover, his book’s advertising blurb quotes Isaac Asimov as saying “I couldn’t find any mistakes in this book. That in itself is extraordinary,” which might immediateliy sound like it might lend it some degree of authority. Of course, as Asimov himself has pointed out, Robert Temple had repeatedly asked him to comment on his work and eventually “sent me the manuscript which I found unreadable. Finally, he asked me point-blank if I could point out any errors in it and partly out of politeness, partly to get rid of him, and partly because I had been able to read very little of the book so that the answer was true, I said I could not point out any errors. He certainly did not have permission to use that statement as part of the promotion, I’ll just have to be even more careful hereafter.”

The core of Temple’s claims is that the Dogon people were aware of Sirius-B, which is not visible to the naked eye, as well as Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings, and the only explanation he thinks is consistent is that they got this information from aliens. In reality, even if these ideas were part of Dogon lore (which is not clear), the Dogon people were hardly an isolated group, and anthropologists have long been aware of how easily tribes and groups pick up and incorporate stories they hear into their mythology when the stories concern phenomena or objects that are significant to that mythology. Temple, on his side, responds by claiming that he can trace the Sirius-B information to the Sumerians, which would contradict the modern influence explanation. An apparent obstacle to that claim is of course that the ancient records, so painstakingly detailed on other issues, make no mention of Sirius-B, but Temple can explain that, too: ancient people (conveniently) hid the information – “their purpose in disguising their secrets was to see that the secrets could survive” (yes: he evidence is ultimately that no evidence can be found but the Sumerians were known to keep secrets) – but Temple is still able to locate the information he needs through creative interpretations of ancient puns, hidden meanings, and “garbled versions” that must be creatively amended to fit his narrative – the same techniques used by other pseudoarchaeologists to “discover” numerous “ancient secrets” about Atlantis or Jesus or hollow Earth record or what have you. For more details on Temple’s claims, this one is helpful.

Of course, no pseudoscience is complete without a conspiracy theory, and Temple has claimed that various government agencies from around the world are trying to suppress his works for somewhat unclear reasons. His books, for instance, are readily available from his website, Amazon and general bookstores. No serious scientist or agency is taking him seriously, of course, and among the options for explaining why that is the case, Temple predictably opts for “conspiracy”.

Diagnosis: Something of a grand old man of pseudoarchaeology, Temple’s contributions certainly appears to be superficially more detailed, coherent and legitimate than most, but you don’t have to scratch the surface much to recognize the fallacies, bullshit, selection bias, pseudoscientific nonsense and utter lack of understanding of how to actually carry out an investigation with a modicum of scientific integrity. His work has enjoyed a bit of success among audiences generally receptive to pseudodocumentaries on History Channel, however.

Hat-tip: James Oberg

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