5X5 Episode 52

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5X5 Episode 52
6th January 2009

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5X5 51 5X5 53
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU five by five, and tonight we're talking about the mythical continent, or island, of Atlantis. Belief in Atlantis as an actual place, a historical location, is actually fairly recent. But the story was originated by Plato, who discussed it in his Timaeus and Critias, two of his dialogues. Atlantis, for Plato, was simply a literary device, an evil empire far away and long ago that fought a hypothetical battle against the virtuous and perfect Athenians. And it was simply a device to discuss the nature of the perfect society and virtuous society. It was never intended as a claim that it really existed in history.

R: But that didn't stop crazy people from thinking otherwise.

E: To this day. You have to liken it to, effectively, the story of Star Wars, which we're all familiar with. Like you said, a small band of rebels going up against the big, galactic empire for the sake of goodness versus evil. It's effectively the same story, and Kenny Feder makes that analogy very well in his presentations and he's written a book on the subject as well. It's actually quite a perfect analogy. If you're putting stock in Atlantis, then you have to put also about as much stock in the fact that Star Wars actually happened a long time ago, far away.

B: On that note, Evan, the book by Ken Feder, a very good book, is called 'Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology' by Ken Feder, as you said, and another very good skeptical treatment of this topic is called 'Imagining Atlantis' by Richard Ellis.

S: And Feder makes an excellent point in his book about Atlantis. He said that if Plato were making an historical claim, then there would have been some discussion of that amongst his peers. But none of the scholars of the time took any note of Plato talking about a mythical island and civilization that existed around 8,000 years prior to his time, or 9,000 BCE. You think there would have been some discussion about that, because that was quite a claim for somebody as prominent as Plato to have made. But none of his contemporaries took it that way, they understood it to be what it was.

J: Well actually Steve, there is no other account of Atlantis that predates Plato.

S: That's correct

J: So every account of Atlantis can only go back to Plato, and nothing was ever found before that. So I think it's safe to assume, not only did he create it, but other people at the time knew that it was a device that he was using, like you said, they didn't even bother getting into it. It was like us talking about an alien planet.

S: Right

E: The other thing that Plato did in order to tell his stories more effectively, he would borrow people or characters from different points in history and bring them together in an imaginary setting and have them discuss certain principles and certain ideas. There used to be a show on PBS called 'Meeting of minds' in which, for example, they would have Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill to discuss a single concept. Well, you know, for goodness sake, these people never really got together.

S: Right, they're obviously hypothetical

R: What I find really interesting about Atlantis is that just about any other odd pseudoscience or weird theory usually is able to be connected back to it. A while back we talked about the Bosnian pyramids, which this archeologist in Bosnia claimed to have found these pyramids buried under these gigantic hills. When, in fact, by all accounts it's really just a couple of hills, and this was reported all over the place in major news sources, but few of those sources actually bothered to mention that this archeologist's theory was that the pyramids were built by the people of Atlantis.


B: Kind of like a six degrees of Atlantis

R: Yeah, and it's also, you know, a lot of people talking about UFOs suggest "well, maybe they have something to do with Atlantis", or Atlantis can somehow be worked in to just about any theory.

S: Right, J.Z Night claims to channel the spirit of Ramtha, which she says is a spirit from Atlantis. Edgar Cayce claimed to have psychic knowledge of Atlantian texts and books. The theosophists believed that they had knowledge of Atlantis etc. So, it is a mythology unto itself now, that has been elaborated over the years, including now ancient civilization, alien civilization, they had nuclear and advanced technology, etc.

J: Steve, would you like to talk to someone from Atlantis right now?

S: Do I have a choice?

J: It's up to you, I do happen to have-

R: (in bubbling gibberish) "No, you don't have a choice, helloo Steeeve"


S: The first serious investigator to actually take Plato's mythology of Atlantis as if it were history, was Ignatius Donnelly, who wrote the book 'Atlantis, The Antediluvian World' in 1882. He was not someone who was into every wacky paranormal idea, he likened it to the discovery of Troy, and the mentions of the city of Troy by Homer. It's a false analogy, of course, because it's different types of literature. But he said, thinking that Atlantis were real, that we're going to go out there and find it, and 50 years from now or 100 years from now you're going to walk into an archeological or historical museum and there will be artifacts from Atlantis on display for everyone to see. Of course, that never came to fruition.

J: You'd think, Steve, that before they went on an expedition like that they would do just a tiny bit of research.

S: The research was reading Plato. That was basically it, and taking it as historical fact But it led to nothing, so here we are, 120-something years later, and there's no museums filled with artifacts from Atlantis. But of course true-believers have their excuses: "Well that's because it's moved, it's no longer in the middle of the Atlantic where it was described". In fact, it keeps getting more and more remote, and recently, in fact, some Atlantis believers say that it is now underneath Antarctica. It's frozen under the ice. That's why no-one has found it.

E: That makes perfect sense.

S: And of course there was the recent 2005 Disney movie about Atlantis, where they added the extra little bit that the survivors of Atlantis peopled the new worlds. And they desperately tried to find an archeologist to give any kind of credence to their fairy-tale that they were telling. But for a pseudo-documentary, that was really just a thinly veiled promotional piece for the movie. They even asked Kenny Feder if he would do it, and he said "No, I'm not going to pretend like we don't know what the score is, there's no serious archeologist that will tell you that there is anything to Atlantis". But they found someone Kenny Feder nor any-one else had ever heard of, some obscure guy to say the 'canned' likes they wanted him to say. The mythology of Atlantis has taken on a life of it's own, I think it's going to be with us now in popular culture indefinitely. But there is simply zero, nothing, to the notion that it is based, in any way, in reality.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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