Wheelchairs of the Gods or . . . Eric the Red(faced)
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine was featured on the TED Talks series where he gave a guest presentation on his 1997 book Why People Believe in Weird Things. The publication and the book focus on debunking bad, sloppy or just bullshit science.
After watching Shermer’s presentation the rusty vaults of my memory creaked open and this crept out. It’s a true incident involving one of the biggest clowns of science, Erik von Däniken and one of the greatest men of science, who inspired me to study science, Dr. Carl Sagan a mentor of mine.
“That writing as careless as von Däniken’s, whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times. I also hope for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods? in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking. I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors as the works of von Däniken.”
— Dr. Carl Sagan, from the foreword to The Space Gods Revealed
The auditorium was packed past standing room only and the overflow made a mockery of the fire codes. The spilling over into the adjoining hallways rivaled anything that happened in the New Orleans floods, not counting the apathy of George W. as he continued his golf game while dozens died, thousands scrambled for their lives and yet more millions of taxpayer’s cash was flushed down the toilet because the head of FEMA, a George W. appointee, whose primary qualification for the position of helping tens of thousands in dire need of food, water and shelter was as a horse show organizer.
Every chair of all the science departments, A&P, Chemistry, Zoology, and especially Astronomy, grad students, the local Press and the few members of the general public who could squeeze in or hang from the chandeliers or rafters was in attendance.
The self-styled, self-appointed pop-cult figure, Eric von Däniken had come to speak.
Eric von Däniken was a writer who back in the late-Sixties, 1968 to be exact, wrote a best seller Chariots of the Gods? He was able to follow it up with several successful sequels, nineteen in fact, with all but a few featuring the word ‘god’. I guess if you’re on to a money maker no sense in monkeying with the recipe.
After being exposed and completely disgraced in the public media in 1982 he embarked on a revival tour. One of his stops was Youngstown State University in Ohio where I was on layover pursuing a degree in Zoology until I could get my ass back in the military and qualify for a slot in Special Operations.
The books, each one based on the previous edition, claimed absolute proof that technology had been given to man by visitors from other planets. In other words we’re a pretty stupid bunch, and if not by the grace of some benevolent aliens from Planet Ten, who as far as I can figure from Däniken’s writings were lost and looking for a nuclear gas station, just dropped in for directions and decided they’d teach mankind about tools. No proof of which has ever been forthcoming. But if not for these reps from the Intergalactic Red Cross we’d still be living in caves, with cloths wrapped around our heads for warmth, praying to Iron Aged war gods, killing anyone who opposes our god and . . . Oh wait . . .
On the other hand, after seeing how many people lined up to buy his ‘books’, I was nearly convinced he was right about Man being too stupid to build the pyramids.
Curious no one ever made this correlation but worse yet was the rapidity with which his lunacy spread across the land.
Between claims of us being too stupid to have engineered the great architectural works of the world ourselves, having to depend on seemingly altruistic aliens and the mind muddled masses lining up to buy his books, which only reinforced his theory, I was confused.
Oh sweet irony of youth.
But then again, as his net worth is posted on line, ($30 million), I know for a fact he laughed all the way to the bank.
This event and E.V.D.’s initial success it must be noted, was on the tail of the latest slew of reported UFO sightings following those of the Fifties and Sixties a time in which the U.S. Air Force was prompted to commission Project Bluebook, an 18 year detailed investigation by Capt. Donald E. Kehoe and others of all the reported U.F.O.’s which had come across the U.S.A.F.’s desks. Twelve and a half thousand in all. More than a few by some very reputable people.
Carl Sagan was just coming to prominence then, the Mercury and Gemini programs had been completed, and the Apollo missions were on schedule to continue their moon missions. Finally, it seemed, America was on the road to becoming a scientifically literate people.
(The metric system? Let’s not open up that old wound!)
However, America is a big place and no matter how much intelligent scientific proof you have, there’s always going to be a minority who labor under the delusion that science is a belief system.
Largely on the weak and worn counter argument that no one could prove that technology wasn’t given to mankind by aliens, the word of Eric V. D. had spread. Echoes of the ages old ‘god argument’ known in educated circles as the God-of-the-gaps argument, lingered. If science can’t prove it then it must mean that God did it, had now resurfaced in the writings of a failed Swiss Restaurant Service Industry student.
Being completely bankrupt of the capacity for original thought and having virtually no traces of a scientific education, Eric failed high school, and so thought it prudent to steal an idea from a real scientist, Dr. Carl Sagan himself. After all, if you’re going to steal might as well steal from the best. Just ask John Lennon, Ray Parker Jr. and Quentin Tarantino.
(See my essay on originality, entitled; On Originality. How’s that for being original?)
My scientific view of the universe set in before puberty and so was well known by anyone who knew me. Consequently gags like registering my name to sign up for Scientology meetings was a great thrill for my so-called friends. As a joke, with prompting by these ‘friends’, my girlfriend bought me a copy of Chariots for my birthday.
Unaware of the initial press, (no Facebook, Twitter or You Tube in those days, just the Boob Tube and the Six O’clock News), I was under the impression that it was a serious work. Until I got through the first two pages. I really couldn’t get angry at her for the joke. It was a good one. Besides, the sex was too good.
This was the time I also became aware of the fact that the public, the American public anyway, will pretty much buy anything you want to sell them providing the promo is there. Hence reality T.V., Dr. Phil, Judge Judy and late night info-mercials which is the kind of shit that happens when people in a financially successful society have everything they need.
The days of the traveling snake oil salesmen are far from over.
To be fair, Eric quoted some pretty impressive sources in his book. A NASA astronaut, (John Glenn no less), the eminent anthropologist, Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame and a shopping list of others with legitimate credentials.
He detailed several arguments that the general public, having little or no science education, would easily buy into. Things were improving on the education front in The States, but let’s face facts, it was still The States. 24th in literacy as I type according to UNESCO.
I shelved the ‘book’, something wouldn’t let me toss it, and I went on with life.
A few years later in 1978 my all-time fav science show, the only full time regular show devoted to science in America, NOVA, featured a program, The Case of the Ancient Astronauts. A TV Guide synopsis told me it would be focused on E.V.D.
It was a Sunday night, I had had a good day at the gym followed by a good meal and was getting good grades at uni. That month. In short life was good. Then the show started. Life was about to get better.
The intro track they ran announced that the entire one hour show would be dedicated to the book Chariots of the Gods?!
I nearly fell off the couch!
Chariots of the Gods?
CHARIOTS OF THE FUCKING GODS?!
ERIC VON FUCKING DÄNIKEN?!
I hadn’t been so shocked since Mary Jo Bingham told me she might be pregnant. Her mom later explained that you can’t get pregnant from kissing but for the rest of third grade I steered clear of Mary Jo!
After picking myself up off the living room floor, slapping myself in the face and checking that I hadn’t accidentally ingested any hallucinogenics, I honed in on the show.
The good folks at PBS systematically, chronologically and articulately presented all of the major theories, backed up by the ‘evidence’ contained in his, cough, cough, ‘book’. Approximately fifty minutes of the Plains of Nazca, the Pyramids at Giza and the Sarcophagus of Palenque and how they all showed definitive proof of alien intelligent intervention and design. All here on good old Terra firma. Hypnotic and slack-jawed I sat.
Now, when I die I will likely have to spend some time in NOVA purgatory, and rightfully so, because I didn’t give the boys in the studio’s writing room enough credit. Then came the last eight or ten minutes of the program.
In New York vernacular, they essentially tore him a new asshole.
In a live interview conducted by NOVA Thor Heyerdahl denied ever hearing of E.V.D., much less meeting him and descending into the caves of South American with E.V.D. at his side as detailed in the ‘cough, cough’ book.
The local native South American sculptor they interviewed next described in detail how von Däniken paid said Peruvian native more than the going rate to carve a space man sitting at the controls of a ship which he then rubbed with donkey dung to simulate aging. Similar carved stones were found in a nearby museum, just a stone’s throw away. (Sorry, had to do it.) NOVA bought one for later analysis.
Finally redemption came. They confronted von Däniken in person about the inconsistencies, (as the P.C. epidemic had just begun to infect society they avoided the word ‘lies’), of what he had published and what they had discovered.
He was blatantly ambushed by NOVA and rightfully so. He hemmed and hawed for the time he was given finally putting it down to ‘artistic license’.
I like to argue against ridiculous shit and, as the book, cough, cough, C.O.G.? was still the talk of the town and a full transcript of the NOVA programme was available by mail, I had to have me one of them puppies!
Next day my miserly $5.00 postal money order practically walked itself to the postbox and a week later I had me a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool NOVA transcript.
I went down to the local library, (remember those?), and found that E.V.D.’s biography was even more revealing. He had never finished secondary school, went on to fail hotel school in Switzerland, (how do you fail hotel school?), and had been asked to leave a school, due to misconduct.
Okay, back to the overcrowded, noisy university auditorium.
Flash forward a few years to 1982 and I was in my junior year at Youngstown State. YSU was renowned for its Guest Speakers program. Big names, good money. Who should be speaking that night? E.V.D. himself in the flesh.
Twenty minutes late, (an old theater trick – keep the crowd waiting), the lights dimmed the curtain rose and E.V.D. waddled out to the podium. All five foot two, 210 pounds of him. Murmuring was prompted by the two brown shirted Nazi-like, steroid injected thugs who took up positions flanking the podium, arms crossed in an overt signal of a challenge to anyone who might want to upgrade the lecture by throwing rotten tomatoes or starting a fight. Flashbacks of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch came to mind.
I was in the second row center, about three meters from the podium, (9.75 feet), the NOVA transcript safely tucked in my breast pocket warming my little heart.
The festivities started with the Chair of the College of Science greeting everyone, maintaining the sense of academic decorum by glancing up to the students in the rafters, and talking briefly about E.V.D.
Finally he introduced the man and, like a slowly spreading, contagious rash, a feigned semi-enthusiastic applause broke out.
He kicked it off with a quote from that most factual source of all sources. That edifice of scientific learning and authority which had given mankind and civilization so many progressive, factual lessons in the past – The Holy Bible.
Referencing The Book of Ezekiel to reinforce his point, he retreated to the overhead projector where he showed some slides of how the burning bush was actually a space craft.
The highly anticipated floor show began to deteriorate about twenty minutes into it as soon as it slipped his fragile mind he was speaking to a room full of actual scientifically literate experts.
For the crowd maintaining an air of professionalism was difficult as he presented further ‘proof’ that, by the laws of physics, it would have been impossible for the ancient Egyptians to have moved those 6 to 10 ton stones on their own.
A graduate student from Dr. Feinmann’s physics department quickly interjected from the back of the room, that some of the slabs at Stonehenge were five times the weight of the blocks of Giza and besides the modern Egyptians figured out how the Giza tones were manipulated.
This opened the flood gates and accusations and challenges flew.
Now, it is widely accepted that lies and fabrications in law, business, politics and religion are part and parcel of doing business. There’s a whole, extremely lucrative profession based on these practices. The practitioners are called ‘lawyers’.
In science however, as Charles Dawson, alias the Piltdown Man fraudster and others found out the hard way, there’s no room for that shit in the sciences.
After ten to fifteen minutes more of escalating chaos, which Jerry Springer, Oprah and Dr. Phil would have been envious of, Eric had had enough of the audience’s rowdiness. With a quick mumble to the effect he would return in twenty minutes to answer questions, he boogied off the stage.
I moved to the aisle and as E.V.D. sped past me, the Arnold Schwarzenegger wanna-be body guards in tow, I yelled at him in German.
“Mr. von Däniken! Mr. von Däniken! Have you any comments on NOVA ‘s exposé about you?”
Talk about how not to win friends and influence people!
The Russians halt of the Nazi advance on Moscow was probably less dramatic then von Däniken stopping in his tracks causing his Gestapo bodyguard to crash into him. He turned and yelled back in German.
“Who said that?!”
My last karate lesson flashed through my mind as the Three Horsemen turned and approached me. Several observers later reported they actually saw his left eyeball leaking blood as they cleared a circle around E.V.D. and myself.
They stopped a few feet short of where I stood but he inched forward as he demanded to know who I was and what my problem was.
Continuing in German to force a response, I pointed out that 100% of all of his ‘proof’ was falsified and asked him what his motivation was for such an elaborate charade.
As I saw his head about to detonate like Fat Man over Nagasaki, I had to step back a bit. He fumbled for an answer which never came, so I asked him for an autograph. He pulled a pen from his pocket and I thrust the transcript out. As it was face down and the blue paper jacket was devoid of any print he likely never knew what it was as he begrudgingly parted with his miserly little scribble which I assumed was his name.
He and his entourage-ette stormed out of the auditorium and I was immediately flooded with bystanders wanting to know what was said.
I was later told that he was threatened with non-payment for the gig if he didn’t return to the podium, which he did nearly an hour later where upon he danced around two questions and then left the place as if it were on fire. Which, in a sense it was.
I read in the papers a couple of days later that the rest of his Midwest tour had been canceled. I was very happy to have put a dent in his dishonestly earned but legitimately acquired fortune. Its legitimacy of course acquired on the gullibility of some people.
To this day whenever I’m struggling to get a novel published and more importantly promoted, I remind myself of Eric von D’s sleazy, ridiculously shameful but financially successful efforts at reaching No. One and maintaining his best-selling status. Not that I’m ever tempted to give into the Dark Side, but I can’t help but wonder how many others in the publishing industry have.
But I also learned that no matter how bad something is, with enough promotion, people will buy it. Witness von Däniken’s net worth.
This is not surprising, after all some people are still putting pineapple on pizza.
Which reminds me of the time I was working late one night out in Hollyweed in a script editing house and ordered a pizza form Chico’s Pizza and was delivered a box of white bread slices with melted, yellow American Cheese Food topped with tomato ketchup.
To Chico’s credit they had the common decency to cut the crust off the bread.
But that’s another story.