It’s still crank science if a teenager does it

You generally want to encourage young people to engage with science, but sometimes that means telling them that their ideas are bad. Take this Canadian boy who was in all the news, for instance: he was claiming to have discovered a method for finding Mayan ruins by basically using Google maps, aligning a star map with the terrestrial map and claiming to find that the Mayans built everything according to the layout of the constellations.

I was suspicious for a couple of reasons.

  • It made no sense. Yes, religion/astrology can persuade people to do foolish things, but you can’t claim that all the cities in the Yucatan peninsula were mapped out by lining them up with constellations. People also do things, like the massive resource investment involved in putting up a city made of stone, for pragmatic reasons.

  • The stars represent a random pattern of dots — and a pretty dense one, at that. Settlements in Mexico were also densely sprinkled about. This sounds like classic pareidolia, fitting noise to an expected pattern.

  • I have a little more respect for anthropology/archaeology than to think you can do it effectively in your armchair in Quebec without ever putting your butt on the ground at the study site.

Then the news reported that using his star hypothesis and satellite imagery, he had found a new ‘lost city’. That sounds like good science — hypothesis testing and all that.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t found a city. He’d found an abandoned cornfield, which, in a densely populated part of the world like that, isn’t at all unusual. His search criteria were so loose and poorly informed that he’s pretty much guaranteed to find a match somewhere near any random spot on the map, which means he’s ‘testing’ a hypothesis with a procedure guaranteed to generate false positives everywhere.

The sad part is that science has some standards for rigor, and everyone is going to tell this teenager that his method doesn’t work. Meanwhile, pseudoscientists have no standards at all, and will be telling this teenager that he’s brilliant and clever and is making a true contribution to their pseudohistory. He’s going to be denied by one and tempted by the other. Which one will he follow?

I’ll be curious to see if he gets mentioned at the Paradigm Symposium this weekend. This is exactly the kind of baloney they love…but then, the kid was smart enough to not say anything about alien astronauts, so maybe it won’t be on their radar.


  1. wcorvi says

    Actually, most buildings in North America are aligned to stars. One in particular, Polaris.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    sounds like he might have been inspired by the “legend” that the 3 pyramids of Giza are placed to mimic the belt in the Orion constellation.
    And how a form of Stonehenge in Nova Scotia built long before the Vikings arrived, somehow points directly at the Stonehenge of Salisbury.
    Even if people don;t spend the time to calculate, map, triangulate the alignment, Forces we aren’t yet aware of, direct people to place their structures in particular locations that align where the forces dictate.
    or some other mumbo-jumbo

  3. congenital cynic says

    I wondered how the Mayan’s would have had any kind of map over which they could have placed a star chart. I don’t think cartography was at that stage back then. It all sounded suspect to me. People located cities based on water, food, and other practical considerations. But he got his 15 minutes of fame on national news.

  4. jacksprocket says

    It’s much the same with the ley lines popular in UK- the density of sites (old churches, burial mounds, stone circles etc) is such that any line joining a pair is likely to cross or extrapolate to a third- and all the better if the map scale is smaller, and the tolerances allowed are relaxed a bit and you don’t worry too much about the timeline. I found a very good alignment myself, between a bronze age stone circle, a standing stone, and the end of an abandoned 18th century canal (almost) exactly 60 Roman miles (100 Roman kilometres!) away.

  5. richardh says

    slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) @3:

    sounds like he might have been inspired by the “legend” that the 3 pyramids of Giza are placed to mimic the belt in the Orion constellation.

    Sounds like Graham Hancock. Quoting Wikipedia, “To achieve this concordance the pyramids have been rotated and scaled to suit. The validity of this match has been called into question […]”
    All neatly debunked by a BBC “Horizon” TV programme around the turn of the millennium. It started out with apparent credulity describing Hancock’s theory about the alignment of temples in the Angkor complex with constellations as they would have been seen N thousand years ago. It then went on to apply the same methods to “prove” that major buildings in another great city were similarly aligned.
    The city?
    New York.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    …according to the layout of the constellations.

    The odds seem overwhelming that the ancient Mayans did not cherry-pick stars to create the same imagery that the Babylonians passed down to Ptolemy and us.

    Long ago I saw a chart of constellations according to the lore of I-can’t-remember-which nation of western Native Americans. Major chunks of what we call Taurus and adjoining constellations were deemed “Coyote”; the Pleiades played the estimable role of “Coyote’s Dung”.

    wcorvi @ # 1, LMFTFY: … most buildings in North America are aligned to stars. One in particular, Sol.

  7. says

    mclarenm23 @2, you’re right. Overzealous cops haven’t slapped handcuffs on him and atheist wingnuts haven’t devoted energy yet to make him part of a grand conspiracy.

  8. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 7:
    apparently, the constellations he used were ones the Mayans depicted on their star-maps. He overlayed [sic] the maps onto GoogleEarth images, scaling and aligning it to get as many stars of the Mayan star map to overlay archaeological sites of the Maya.
    Under one of the stars was blank. Looking closer, he spotted the mysterious squarish outline that he mistook for a pyramid, but turns out to be an abandoned cornfield. Or so I understood the source article.
    ummm, the kind of thing I liked to play around with in High School. Hopefully indicative of his interest in Science, over Woo.

  9. jeffreylewis says

    I was a tourist at Chichén Itzá last summer, and the thing our guide told us was the main reason for locating cities / villages was water. The Yucatán doesn’t have much surface water, so the only reliable water sources were cenotes, and so that’s where cities / villages were located. That seems a lot more reasonable than going by the stars.

  10. Rich Woods says

    @jacksprocket #5:

    I found a very good alignment myself, between a bronze age stone circle, a standing stone, and the end of an abandoned 18th century canal (almost) exactly 60 Roman miles (100 Roman kilometres!) away.

    The comedian Matt Parker once presented an item on ley lines. To everyone’s great amazement, he was able to link up many, many locations of significance across the UK: the branches of Woolworth’s.

    Of course since Woolies went into receivership several years ago, the lines of mystical energy have sadly evaporated and now no-one knows where to get a decent bag of pick’n’mix. We can only hope that future archaeologists will be able to uncover from the ruins such cultural treasures as Easter egg fragments for 20p a quarter, and restore them for the nation.

  11. NYC atheist says

    @12 Rich Woods
    Sounds like Woolworths was a Parker Square of a business.

  12. MassMomentumEnergy says

    The kid found a pot farm:

    We’ve now heard from an anthropologist from the University of California San Diego’s Mesoamerican Archaeology Laboratory who’s actually seen this area with his own eyes. “We’ve visited them, and my grad students know them quite well,” explained Geoffrey E. Braswell to Gizmodo. “They’re not Maya pyramids.”

    Braswell and his colleagues are familiar with this remote part of Mexico because they’re collaborators on a German-Mexican archaeological project near the area, one led by Nikolai Grube from the University of Bonn and Antonio Benavides from Insitituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

    One of the images (above in the banner) shows two rectangular features on the southeast edge of a dried seasonal lagoon. Braswell says it’s the Laguna El Civalón in southeast Campeche, Mexico (located at 17o 56’ 42” N by 90o 10’ 0” N). He says the pair of features are not Maya pyramids, but rather small fields filled with weeds.

    “They’re either abandoned cornfields, or active marijuana fields,” he told Gizmodo. Intriguingly, marijuana operations are common in the area.

  13. says

    When I was a kid back around 1960 there was a competition in the newspapers called ‘Spot the Ball’ wherein they took a photo from a football match which had had the ball airbrushed out. There were prizes for marking where the ball would have been if it hadn’t been airbrushed out and sending the marked-up photo in to the the paper.
    There was a theory that the way to invariably win at this was to take a pin and go over the photo pricking it at regular intervals until you heard a ‘pfizzz’ sound.
    I don’t know what suddenly reminded me of this while reading this post?? strange…???

  14. Carol Lynn says

    My friend the archeology professor says:

    No, this is not crank science. Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution because in a fever-dream he saw animals transmogrify from one form to another. Where hypotheses come from is irrelevant, and all hypotheses should be tested.

    What would make this crank science is the young man/others not accepting empircal evidence that this feature is not, in fact, a city. Even if this isn’t a city, that doesn’t disprove the hypothesis that the Maya attempted to map their cosmos onto their landscape. Lots of cultures do that to some extent; none of them do it perfectly. Disproving things in archaeology is extremely difficult, because our data is so patchy. There are Smithsonian researchers who still insist that Paleolithic Europeans got themselves across the Atlantic and colonized the eastern seaboard of North American before the folks coming from Northeast Asia did. We need to keep open minds, because sometimes the guy who can’t be right gets justified when new data is gathered later.

    Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
    –Richard Feynman

    The jump-the-gun nature of the media is tiresome. I wish they would ground-truth more, but they live and die by click-bait, not truth.

  15. analog2000 says

    I remember hearing years ago (can’t find it now) about an actual archaeologist who used google maps to find previously unidentified Mayan ruins. It was something about the types of stones the builders used leech some sort of mineral into the surrounding soil. And certain plants grow well in that environment and certain other plants don’t. So this person spent tons of time looking through google maps for these particular clusters of vegetation. It was super interesting – the idea that you could find some ancient treasure from thousands of miles away via a computer screen. Of course, these results were real, and verified by actually going to these places and finding ruins.

  16. says

    analog2000 @18, that reminds me of a NOVA episode about Vikings I just watched where archaeologist Sarah Parcak used near-infrared satellite images to find evidence of Viking settlements. It was exactly the same as your example where they verified the results by going to identified locations and digging.

  17. numerobis says

    Cool thing about cenotes; there’s a ring of them around the Chicxulub impact region. So if you build your civilization around cenotes, you build your civilization in a circular region centered on where an alien body landed and brought on disaster.